Divided Attention – Chapter 13

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 13 of a new online serial novel, Divided Attention, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every Thursday or Friday. Click here for previous chapters.

Copyright © 2010 by Israel Bookshop Publications

How many horses fit into the stable? The question rammed though his feverish brain over and over again. Actually, it was the title of a story they had read yesterday in class, but Rafi did not remember that at all. How many horses were here, with him now? One for Shira, and another if a nice guest would come. Perhaps Rina.

No. He wouldn’t let Rina into his private stable either. Only he and Shira would live there with the beautiful horses. He wouldn’t let Ronny in either. Ronny tried to act nice, but the minute you didn’t listen to him, he started to threaten.

Dirty wooden walls flecked with cement hung above him, and the gray, unplastered walls surrounding the place seemed to be closing in on him. He tried to roll over, but he couldn’t. Those horses must be standing so close to him, they were even stepping on his hands. He felt their hard strong hoofs; they were really painful.

Where was Shira? Had she ridden away from here on her horse? Perhaps she didn’t like him either. She went to a nice family with a mother and father and food. She left him here by himself, together with the horses. But who cared? Horses could be good friends, too, Mrs. Davidi had told them.

But he didn’t want to think about Mrs. Davidi right now; she hated him, too. So did Ima. And the kids in his class. And the neighbors. And Sarah. And all those families to whom he had gone . All they did was tell him to take a haircut and a shower and to wear clean clothes and come on time. They liked pretty, clean, obedient children; not him.

Only the horses liked him.

So how many horses were in this stable?

Rafi rolled over onto his back and sighed as pain sliced through his left hand. Which horse was stepping on him? Didn’t the horse realize it hurt him? Maybe the horses didn’t like him either. Maybe they only liked Shira, and now that she had gone, they didn’t want him to be here.

Yes, he was sure of it. No one, but absolutely no one, wanted him.

“Here he is!”

The voice penetrated Rafi’s muddled awareness. Someone was in his stable! Figures bent over him, but he didn’t even try to look at them. They were all long and tall, and looked like they were suspended from the ceiling.

“Rafi? Are you okay?” Someone bent down on his knees near him and the other figures receded. So did the horses. “Where were you all night? Tell me what—”

The sound of brisk, firm footsteps grew louder, and the voice fell silent. Someone else spoke. “Who found him?”

“The boys,” Ronny said. “He prob’ly tried to get home through here. My brother says that he takes this shortcut lots o’ times.” He stood up and turned towards the opening in the cement block wall. He had no choice but to leave; now was not the time to try to extract any information from Rafi.

Rina bent over and placed her hand on Rafi’s flushed forehead. Rafi shuddered. “He’s burning up,” Rina said worriedly. “Did he say anything?”

“Nothing,” two boys replied in unison, as Ronny stood outside listening.

“His hands!” She noticed them for the first time. “What happened to him?”

“Maybe he fell from here,” one boy said, pointing to the cement ramp with wooden slats nailed to it that served as a staircase. “Maybe his hands are broken.”

Rina looked around at the children huddling near the opening, under the scaffolding. “Children, I want to know the truth. Did any of you do anything to him?”

A babble of voices replied, “No,” but she wasn’t sure she could trust them.

***

The pages of Ayala’s journal steadily filled up. She liked recapping and reminiscing, and had always enjoyed writing. What hampered her progress was trying to figure out how to censor certain events so as not to record lashon hara or rechilus. Every so often she let Leah or Sari read what she had written, and occasionally she read certain entries to her husband late in the evening. Ita and the teachers would probably read the entries as well, and the fact that she knew that so many people would lay their eyes on what she wrote meant that she had to stop frequently to sift out whatever was unsuitable for more public consumption. She didn’t usually write names, except in a positive context, and after she finished writing, she would review, censor, and erase anything that had unintentionally escaped from her pen to the page.

This passage had undergone a lot of editing before she decided that it could stay in the journal as it was:

I met one of my students in the street today, together with her mother. The mother made a very positive impression on me. She thanked me, and I told her how pleased I am with her daughter. (Ayala had deleted the sentence: In contrast to the way I had imagined the mother, she was wearing a sheitel; it might help some of the teachers, who knew her students, to figure out who the girl was.)

The girl’s mother and I exchanged a few more polite sentences, and then she told me that she wanted to discuss the girls’ workload with me. It’s a common problem; I know as well as anyone else that just when you need some urgent help around the house, the high school girls have their noses deep in their notebooks. (She would leave this sentence for Sari’s discretion. If Sari felt it was offensive to her, it would be deleted.)

But the girl’s mother was referring to something else—the exact opposite problem! She claimed that the girls had too much free time in their day. Her daughter listened, standing off to the side, with a faint smile on her face. (Here Ayala had started to write something about the brown ponytail, but had erased it right away.)

The mother then began praising her daughter, who helps a lot at home, volunteers for our school’s chessed program, does well in school, meets friends and talks on the phone with them, and yet still has free time on her hands. “Listen,” she said to me, a bit hesitantly, “the truth is that I don’t really need my daughter’s help in the house. We’re not such a big family—” (Ayala had changed what the mother had actually said, the fact that she was a stay-at-home mom, and that her daughter was an only girl and, in fact, the only child at home, to “we’re not a large family,” because how many other girls were there in the class who had such a situation? Very few—if any.) “—and I imagine that in other homes, the girls don’t have much free time. But perhaps you can give my daughter some extra credit work, or something like that, to keep her busy?”

The mother sounded very sincere, but I know that the daughter is not the type who would enjoy doing challenging extra work. She has to invest a lot into her schoolwork in order to get good marks, and I don’t think she’s looking to take on more. (Ayala thought she could keep this sentence in, as it applied to more than half the class!)

I told the mother that extra credit assignments and enrichment work are important and can be assigned occasionally, but they are not a permanent solution. “And nothing will happen if the girls relax a little here and there,” I said. “Don’t worry; the years will come, b’ezras Hashem, when your daughter won’t know what to do first, she’ll be so busy. Right?” I turned to the daughter, who smiled.

“Meanwhile,” I continued, “there are books, clubs, lecture tapes, and crafts out there, which your daughter can take advantage of. And, of course, she can help out a little more at home and study a bit harder for her tests.” Again I addressed my student.

The mother smiled and said that I was absolutely right. Then we parted ways.

That evening, the phone rang. It was the father of that same student on the line.

“I just wanted to correct something that you told my wife,” he said to me cordially. “I think that resting and relaxing at this age are not such good things, Mrs. Dinner. Boredom and idleness are a source of lots of problems.”

I told him that of course I agreed with him, and that what I was referring to when I spoke to his wife was only the occasional relaxing—not relaxing on a regular basis.

He listened to me politely and then said, “Perhaps you should explain this to the girls who complain about the workload being too much. Explain to them that the workload is for their benefit, and don’t apologize and say that there is no choice and that’s why they have to take tests.”

I agreed with him again. Of course he was right; but I don’t know how many grumbling fifteen-year-old girls would accept this kind of response…

The words were left hanging, without a concluding sentence. The most suitable sentence to end the entry would have been something like, “And finally, I understood why this student is always so anxious and tense.” But Ayala wouldn’t write that.

***

Rafi’s hands didn’t hurt anymore, but he couldn’t move them. One second he was hot; the next, he was freezing cold. He didn’t know that his high fever had finally begun to go down, thanks to the medication he had received.

He was covered with a blanket that tickled the soles of his bare feet, but he didn’t have the energy to laugh, or even to move his legs. His eyes were open and he could see the large light hanging above his head. Was he at the dentist? Sarah had once taken him to a dentist, but he had fled from the clinic. He wasn’t afraid of doctors, but that dentist had started to talk in a loud, nasal voice about neglected holes and yellow teeth. He had told Rafi sternly to lie still without moving, because otherwise it would hurt a lot. So the minute the dentist had turned around to his little work tray, the one with the hanging pipes that made lots of noise, Rafi had simply gotten up and walked away from the chair, before Sarah managed to utter a word. How she had searched for him afterwards!

Had Sarah taken him to the dentist again now? Couldn’t be. He remembered that annoying dentist’s voice very well, and it wasn’t the voice he was hearing now.

“Not pneumonia,” the voice said. “But it’s a very bad case of strep and he’ll need massive doses of antibiotics, and perhaps some other intervention. That’s first of all.”

“And he can get that here?” Sarah’s voice asked. “I spoke to Paula, the hospital social worker, and she said that she would arrange for him to stay here for a few days. Please understand, Dr. Meyers, that there’s no one to care for this child at home.”

Rafi stopped listening. So he was in the hospital. That was good. He could also die, and that wouldn’t be a bad idea at all. Sarah would certainly be happy; so would his mother, Mrs. Davidi, and all the kids in his class.

“Regarding his hands,” he heard the doctor say, “the situation is like this: The x-rays show a fracture in the right hand, and he’ll need a cast. The left hand is a different story. I don’t want to confuse you with all the medical jargon, so we’re going to call it severe joint pain. It could take at least three weeks for this hand to resume normal function. We’re going to bandage it.”

“Another cast?” Sarah asked, her eyes flitting all over the room.

“No, an ace bandage,” the doctor replied.

Rafi tuned out again. A cast! And a bandage! Casts were nice. He had once had a cast on his right hand, and another time, a really long time ago, he’d had a cast on the left hand. It was so much fun. Some of the kids had even become a little friendlier to him and had asked him if they could draw on his cast. But he hadn’t let them and instead, he’d colored the whole cast himself.

But now, how would he scribble himself if he’d have bandages on both hands?

“The third thing,” the doctor continued, “and I think this is the most serious of all, is that this child is suffering from severe malnourishment and he is significantly underweight. We’ll be taking some extensive tests, but these are the results at this point. Even if the hospital’s social worker had not intervened, as you mentioned, to ensure that he remains here for a few days, this diagnosis itself would have forced us to admit him for several days to provide him with nutrition intravenously, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

“How many days are we talking about?” Sarah asked, and Rafi shifted his eyes in her direction, noticing for the first time that Rina was there as well. What a shame that she was quiet and Sarah was doing the talking. He thought that Rina might actually be upset if he would die.

Dr. Meyers, the emergency room resident, noticed Rafi’s shifting eyes. “Rafi? Do you want to tell us something?”

“No,” the child responded hoarsely. “I want everyone to go away.” Maybe if he would close his eyes, he’d be able to go back to the horses.

“Ah!” Dr. Meyers chuckled amiably. “You like being by yourself? Well, that’s not really possible here in the emergency room. In a little while, after we put your cast on, we’ll send you to a regular ward, and there, if you want, we can close the curtain next to your bed and you can be alone. Okay?”

“Now,” Rafi said, his eyes glowing greener than usual. “Everybody go away now.”

***

The classroom smelled heavily of oranges.

“It’s stifling in here!” some of the girls said, and so saying, they went to take a walk outside in the wet yard.

“It’s cold out there!” the girls who stayed behind argued, huddling even closer to listen to Devoiry. Devoiry’s tone captivated her listeners, as her eyes traveled among the members of her audience.

“Those tenth graders think they’re so big,” she was saying. “No other school would let them behave like this!”

“What do you want?” someone interjected. “Here they are the big girls!”

“So what!” Devoiry declared, fingering the piece of paper that, until twenty minutes ago, had been taped to the old tiles above the water fountain. “Tell me, why did they have to hang this there if they didn’t want to start up with us? If this was a contest just for their classes, they could have found other ways to announce it, instead of posting it over a water fountain that’s used mostly by us ninth graders. They obviously did it on purpose!”

Suri grabbed the note from Devoiry’s hand. “For tenth graders only!” she announced dramatically, sarcasm oozing from her voice. “I mean, really!”

“And why did Morah Ayala agree to be their judge? She’s our teacher!”

“She also teaches history in 10B,” one small voice ventured.

“So what!” Devoiry fumed, using her favorite rejoinder again. “Of course she’s allowed to be their judge, but why did they have to write it in such big letters on top of our water fountain?”

“Fine, so they wanted to provoke us,” Nava, seated next to Devoiry, conceded as she munched on the last segment of her orange. “Why do we really care, anyway?”

A babble of angry voices answered her. “The whole fun of a small school is that the grades are supposed to get along so well with each other. That’s what everyone says! And the tenth graders’ snobbishness is ruining everything!”

“I heard,” someone piped up, “that because of them, we’re not having a joint Chanukah program, something major, like the other schools have. They didn’t want to work with us, so we were split up into silly groups, like in—”

“Don’t say ‘silly’!” Batya, sitting on the back of a nearby chair, exclaimed. “Maybe your group is preparing something silly, but ours isn’t!”

“Ah, you’re worried about the achdus in the whole school?” Nava chuckled, wiping her hands on a tissue. Except for leaving little white pieces stuck to her hands, the tissue didn’t do a thing to rid her of the orange’s stickiness. “First let’s see us get through this Chanukah party in peace.” She rose and headed to the sink to wash her hands.

“Are you going to the sink? I’m coming with you, Nava,” Batya volunteered. She jumped off her chair, which swayed for a few seconds, as though deliberating what to do, and then toppled over.

In the hall, they met Yocheved and Shevi strolling along. “Come, let’s go,” Batya said, tugging at Nava’s sleeve. “They don’t even see us.”

“Why shouldn’t we say hello to them?” Nava asked, and waved to the girls. Batya was mistaken; Yocheved and Shevi had seen them perfectly.

Nu, have you finished solving the world’s problems yet?” Yocheved asked as Shevi giggled. “You guys take up a different serious issue every day!”

“We couldn’t solve any problems, because you weren’t there,” Nava said with a cheerful smile. “I guess we needed your help.”

“Really,” Shevi replied. “Us? Submit a request in triplicate, please.”

“That’s a good idea; we’ll think about it,” Nava said gaily and continued down the hall with Batya.

“Maybe stop trying to impress the peacocks all the time?” Batya grumbled, pulling the zipper of her sweater up towards her neck.

“Peacocks?”

“Come on, don’t pretend you don’t understand!” Batya was clearly irritated. “Wait, let me turn on the faucet for you. Otherwise the girl who comes after you is going to get stuck on it!”

Nava laughed as she rubbed her hands together under the running water. “Thanks, Batya. May I close the faucet now?”

“You have my permission,” Batya replied, playing along with Nava’s formality game. “But you haven’t answered my question.”

“You didn’t ask me anything!”

“About the peacocks.”

Nava became serious. “I can’t stand labeling people like that, and if you don’t mind, Batya, I think that it’s really assur.

“You’re right,” Batya said, clasping her hands behind her. “But why are you always trying to get on other girls’ good sides?”

“I don’t think I was ‘getting on anyone’s good side’. Am I not allowed to say hello nicely to my friends?”

Batya gave an exaggerated sigh. “Either you don’t understand, or you’re pretending not to understand, or you understand and you think you don’t understand. Now choose.”

“I choose to go back to class,” Nava said, vigorously shaking her wet hands. “I’m cold.”


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