Divided Attention – Chapter 18

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 18 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

Rafi’s world was divided in two. The first part was in Kiryat Yovel, at home with Ima, and in class with Mrs. Davidi and the other children. There, he was Rafi who did what he wanted; the boy of whom everyone was afraid. No one dared say a word of rebuke to him. He was Rafi who was buddies with Ronny, and to whom Rina, the guidance counselor, tried to speak. But despite all these people in his life, he was really alone, so very alone, and he knew that no one was particularly pleased that he was there in the first place. Now, they were probably happy that he was gone, but soon enough, after they removed his cast and bandages, he would go back there and show them all.

The other half of Rafi’s world was here, with Mr. and Mrs. Cohen and Nava. In their home, he was suddenly the youngest and everyone was worried about him and asking how he felt. They seemed to have his best interests at heart, or at least that’s what they said. He tried to be good, like they wanted him to be, and it wasn’t very hard. Only sometimes, they had to remind him that it was better to speak nicely, but except for that, they didn’t say anything. Even when he occasionally got up at night and made noise, they didn’t get angry or tell him that it was nighttime and that he had to sleep. Mr. Cohen would sit next to him and tell him a story, and sometimes, Mrs. Cohen would peel an orange or tangerine for him, or prepare for him some grapefruit segments sprinkled with sugar. The only problem was that he couldn’t always find his ball and that annoyed him, because sometimes, kicking the ball helped him sleep better afterwards.

He thought that he liked the Cohen family, and maybe—he wasn’t sure—they liked him. It was really worth wearing the kippah for that; he was sure that they liked him even more because of it. They hadn’t bought him strings for his pants, nor had they taken him to the barber, even though he’d told them that he wanted this. Mr. Cohen had said they would “wait and see.” Rafi didn’t understand what exactly they were waiting for. Did they want to see how long his hair could grow?

Meanwhile, Shabbos had passed, and it was a really pleasant day in a religious house.  He went with Mr. Cohen to shul at night, and sat next to him the whole time, except when he went outside to see what the other kids were doing. He had stood and watched them play for a few minutes. A few of the kids had given him a glance, but none of them said a word to him, except for one kid who asked, “Hey, you, there, what’s your name? Why are you staring at us?”

Rafi had wanted to go over to that kid and show him who he was starting up with, but his hands suddenly felt very heavy, reminding him that they were more or less useless right now. That worked out pretty well, because he was sure that Mr. Cohen would not have liked the idea of him starting up with other kids, even if they had really started up with him.

On the way home, Mr. Cohen spoke to him about all sorts of interesting things, like the shul and praying and Hashem.

Afterwards there was Kiddush in a silver cup with grape juice. He kept asking for more grape juice, and finished almost half the bottle. And there were nice songs, and Mr. Cohen spoke about people who went to Egypt and had to work really hard there to build buildings that kept falling apart. Mrs. Davidi had once told them something like that; or perhaps it was last year, with Mrs. Simon; he couldn’t remember anymore. But Mr. Cohen sure told it over much better than his teachers. Everything at the Cohens was nicer than it was over in Kiryat Yovel. He was happy he was here now, and that he didn’t have to meet any of the people from there.

And so when Mrs. Cohen told him on Sunday morning that Sarah wanted to come and visit and see how he was feeling, he really didn’t know how he felt. Sarah belonged to the old neighborhood, to the place where he was very different. If she came here, everything would be all mixed up. He didn’t know how to define his sensations, and perhaps didn’t even know what exactly he was feeling, but one thing was clear: He did not want Sarah to come here under any circumstances!

“I don’t want her to come!” he shouted rebelliously. “I hate her, and I don’t ever want to see her again!”

Manny was quiet; so was Yael. They looked at each other in silence.

“Tell her she shouldn’t dare come here!” he said, and his back arched, as though he was preparing for battle. “If she comes here I’ll run away and won’t ever come back anywhere, you hear?” And he ran to his room and slammed the door. Two minutes later, Manny followed him.

“We barely recognize you like this, Rafi,” he said softly and sat down on the bed. “You know how to scream like that?”

“It’s because of Sarah!” Rafi replied, sitting on the edge of the bed and kicking the pillow he had hurled to the floor. “She’s coming to ruin everything! If she’s here, I won’t be able to be—” Rafi suddenly fell silent.

“Be what?”

Rafi didn’t respond. His breathing was shallow and rapid.

“You’re very angry at Sarah,” Manny said quietly.

Rafi kicked the pillow again, so roughly that it flew to the other side of the room and landed with a soft thump.

“I actually think she’s very worried about you and wants it to be good for you, but we’ll talk about that another time,” Mr. Cohen said. “Now we have another important thing to discuss. Very important.” He took a deep breath and forged on. “Sarah has to come today, whether you want her to or not, Rafi. Those are the Welfare Ministry’s rules and we can’t change them. The question is, what will be with you?”

“I’ll scream at her!” Rafi said, his anger blazing once again. “I’ll scream until she runs away from here!”

“And then,” Manny said, “she’ll go to the social affairs bureau and say, ‘Rafi Zimmer is behaving awfully. He can’t stay at the Cohens.’ Is that what you want, my boy?”

“I always act awfully to her,” Rafi said, gritting his teeth. He went over to the pillow and picked it up with his elbows. “And she knows that very well. I don’t care what she says.”

“Really?” Manny raised his eyebrows. “You always behave awfully? Then how is it that we, the people who live here, don’t think so?”

“Because it’s good here,” the boy said, sitting down again. “Only here. Don’t you know that?”

“And Sarah will come here,” said Yael, who suddenly entered the room. “She’ll be here, Rafi.”

“And we want that when she’s here, you should behave nicely and politely, and use only nice words. You know how,” Manny added, suddenly feeling very drained. Rafi turned to Mrs. Cohen, wanting to say something, but stopped at the last minute. He clumsily placed the pillow between his knees and bounced it rhythmically, stubbornly refusing to say a word. His green eyes were unreadable.

Nu, Rafi?” Yael sat down next to him. “I think it’s a good idea for you to try and pretend that you don’t know her from anywhere else except from here. Not from your old house or from school. Imagine that she’s just someone who comes here to talk to you, and you answer nicely and politely and that’s it. Do you know that we’ll be very sad if you leave us? Do you know that we like it that you’re here? That’s why we want her to be pleased with you and your behavior.”

Manny looked at them both and remained silent.

“So we’re asking you to try and behave very nicely,” Yael said again, her voice very soft. “We know that you can behave beautifully when you want to do so. We don’t want Sarah to say that it’s not good for you to be here. That would be very sad.”

Rafi maintained his silence for less than a minute. He looked at the floor with an indignant expression, and without understanding why, he suddenly caved in. “Fine,” he grumbled in a small voice as he dug his fingertips into the pillow. “I won’t scream at her, but when—”

“Do you promise, Rafi?” Manny asked, looking into Rafi’s eyes. Some of the childish innocence that had disappeared in recent minutes began to slowly return.

***

“How was it at the Leibowitzes’ house, Sari?”

“Fine, baruch Hashem.”

“Anything special going on?”

“No, nothing.” Sari tossed her hair over her shoulder.

“How’s Ditza?”

“She was sleeping. I didn’t see her.”

Ayala nodded, suppressing a sigh.

“Ima.”

“Yes, Sari?”

“I’m going over to Gila now, okay?”

“You have a test or something?”

Sari chuckled. “No. We have a quiz the day after tomorrow, but we just want to talk. I won’t be home late, okay?”

“Fine.”

“Did you want me to do something here first?”

“No, it’s fine, you can go.”

Ayala looked at the closed door, and the sigh she had suppressed before emerged full force. Everything was nice and polite and respectful. Sari wasn’t chutzpadik, and didn’t neglect her responsibilities at home, and pitched in her fair share despite being so busy.

But… And there was a big “but.”

Could she explain the problem to Sari? She wouldn’t understand at all. Could she explain to her daughter that her terse, impatient, sparse answers were sometimes offensive? Or should she instead focus on Sari’s close bond with Gila, which included constant visits and phone calls and long, deep conversations? Sari would never understand what was wrong with it. True, Gila was a good girl, and Ayala did not have any objections to this specific friendship. But why the enthusiasm for just one girl? Why did Sari see Gila as the sole listening ear in her life, excluding her mother, father, and all her old friends from that role?

Teenage syndrome, Ayala thought to herself with another sigh as she locked the door. Was there any way to avoid it?

***

When Nava was eight years old, she had flown to London to visit her grandparents on her father’s side. She had made the obligatory visit to Madame Tussauds wax museum, which was the only time in her life that she had seen statues that so closely resembled humans. The next day, Savta had taken her to see the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace, and that was the only time she had seen people who so closely resembled statues.

“They undergo special training,” Savta Cohen had explained. “They spend a long time working on being able to be like that; otherwise, it would be impossible for them.”

Impossible? Savta obviously didn’t know Rafi, and that’s why she’d said what she’d said. For seven minutes, Nava observed Rafi standing near the window and looking angrily at the floor. He didn’t move a muscle during those seven minutes, and didn’t look at Sarah or at anyone else. He was not part of the conversation at that point, and Nava, also sitting quietly, wondered if her role was over and if she could escape to her room. She had always hated official, stilted introductions where there was nothing to say, but now she had no choice. It was enough that she had remained in her room when Sarah had brought Rafi over for the first time. Abba and Ima hadn’t objected then, because they agreed that it would be easier for the boy to get to know them alone first, and then she, Nava, would join. In the end she hadn’t had time to come out to Rafi, because he had come in to her.

Had he stood like this the first half an hour as he was doing now? Apparently, yes, according to her mother’s descriptions. Nava shifted her gaze to her parents. Abba didn’t look particularly concerned by Rafi’s behavior. He stood near the sofa with his arms folded and looked at the little statue-boy with a half-smile on his face, listening to Sarah. Ima, on the other hand, looked very worried, but she didn’t try to coax Rafi to speak either. Sarah, except for her exclamation of “Rafi!” when she had first entered the room, didn’t pay the boy any attention, except for the occasional glance that she stole in his direction.

And now they had all fallen silent. They must have run out of things to talk about. Sarah looked at the window, the curtains, the vase, and then at Rafi.

“So, Rafi, how do you feel here?”

“Fine,” the statue replied, and blinked.

“Are you being good?”

“Yes.”

“Going to sleep when they tell you?”

“Yes.”

“Are you happy here?”

“Yes.”

Manny took his hat off a nearby hook. “I’ll be going now,” he said. “Take care. Bye, Rafi.” The boy didn’t return the wave. Sarah didn’t know if it was because of his cast or because she was there, but she definitely noticed the sweet smile that spread across his face.

“I’d like to see your room, Rafi.”

The freeze frame was over. Rafi moved. “It’s there,” he said and walked languidly towards his room.

“I want to speak to him myself a little,” Sarah said, following him. “Is that okay, Yael?”

“Sure,” Yael replied expansively. “We’ll be in the kitchen. Come, Nava.”

Sarah entered Rafi’s room. He sat cross-legged on the floor and scratched at the hard, white plaster that encased his hand. She sat down on the bed.

“Mrs. Cohen told me you’re a good boy.”

Scratch, scratch.

“I was happy to hear it. I see you have a nice kippah. Who bought it for you?”

“Me.” He stood up and sat down on the bed, albeit on the other side, and glared at the social worker with a hostile expression.

“You mean, you asked for the kippah?”

“Yes.”

“You know, Rafi,” she said, “that if there are things you want to tell me that you don’t want the Cohens to know, you can trust me. I won’t tell them anything.”

Silence.

Sarah coughed. “Are you sure that you asked for the kippah? Maybe they offered to take you for a walk and then bought it for you on the way, or they said that it would be a good idea for you to buy it because it’s so nice, or…”

“No.”

“And how was Shabbat here?”

“Nice.”

“You weren’t confused? You didn’t turn on lights, or do other things that religious people don’t do on Shabbat?”

“I did, sometimes.” He looked at the light switch at the entrance to the room as though noticing it for the first time.

“When, for example?”

“When I was looking for something in my room.”

“And they didn’t scream at you?”

“No.” He seemed to be counting not only words, but also syllables.

“Did they say anything to you about it?”

“Don’t remember.” His feet kicked the wooden base of the bed in a rapid staccato rhythm.

Sarah fell silent for a moment. “Are there other things, besides the kippah, that you asked them for?”

“Yes,” he replied and, for a change, volunteered the information without her having to extract it from him. “I wanted a haircut.”

“You?” Sarah laughed. “Wonderful. You know I’m all for it. So why is your hair still so wild?”

Rafi stiffened. “If you say that word again,” he said, suddenly very generous with his words, “I won’t talk to you, you hear?” His gaze fell on the partially open door.

“I didn’t mean to insult you, sweetie. So why haven’t you taken a haircut yet?”

“Because Mr. Cohen wants to think about it.”

“Why do you call him ‘Mr. Cohen’?”

“Because that’s his name,” Rafi said, kicking the base of the bed even harder.

“He didn’t ask you to call him and Mrs. Cohen, ‘Abba’ and ‘Ima’?”

“No.”

“And if he would ask you such a thing?”

“You’re asking lots of questions,” he replied. “I’m sick of sitting here and talking to you. Wait! Don’t tell them that I said that, okay?”

“Tell who? The Cohens?”

“No, your boss.” He sat up and then slid down to the floor.

“Why?” she asked, realizing that the little, surprising patience he had displayed until now was quickly ebbing.

“Because then they’ll take me away from here.”

***

Tikva picked up the paper and began reading dramatically. “‘It was a steamy summer night in Mecca. In the palace, covered with gorgeous engraved designs’—what are engraved designs, Yaeli? Everything was full of engravings? The floor, the walls, the beds, and the windows?”

“Okay, we’ll fix it,” Yaeli said, as she peered at the notes she had taken at Mrs. Cohen’s house.

“ ‘—Fatima, the housemaid in Mohammed the merchant’s’—couldn’t you find a less common name than Fatima, Yaeli? Every Arab lady in every story is called Fatima!”

“Change it to whatever you want,” Yaeli said and went back to her notes.

“Fine. ‘Jane Doe, the housemaid in Mohammed the merchant’s home, suddenly heard horrifying screams from his room, and retreated in fear. She had never liked her master’s idiosyncrasies. He would travel far and wide for business, and hear stories from Jews, Christians, and Persians about their religions. Over time, he came to the realization that his idol-worshipping ancestors were full of lies’—Yaeli, this is too much! You copied this sentence word for word from Rav Auerbach’s Toldos Am Yisrael!”

“Tikva, my dear, perhaps you’d like to write it yourself?” Yaeli asked sweetly. “I see you have lots of comments on my material. Maybe you write it instead of me, and I’ll check it for you?”

“No, thanks,” Tikva said mercilessly. “You’ll just have to absorb my criticism and console yourself with the fact that I still prefer that you write it. Now, where were we? Ah, ‘Fatima—er, Jane Doe’—Yaeli, find her a name quickly. Saying ‘Jane Doe’ all the time is ridiculous—‘saw her mistress, Hajija, standing in a panic over her prostrate husband. He was twitching spasmodically on the woven Persian rug’—Yaeli, can’t you find something a bit more refined than ‘twitching spasmodically’? It’s disgusting!”

“Find it yourself,” Yaeli soothed her.

“Fine, later—‘and murmuring unintelligibly. A few minutes of tension passed until the man rose, his black eyes flashing, as though nothing had happened. He raised his voice and said’—Yaeli, where’s the rest?”

“There isn’t a rest right now.”

“When are you going to continue?”

“Soon, if you don’t bother me every two minutes.”

“I’m going,” Tikva said with feigned offense. “I thought you’d be happy if I came up to visit!”

“And criticize what I wrote,” Yaeli replied with a smile. “By the way, what do we do about Mrs. Cohen? Do we go back to her?”

“I think we should try and manage without her,” Tikva said, folding the page. “I don’t have any desire to go there and meet Nava Cohen at the kitchen door or anywhere else in the house, for that matter.”

“But it’s not nice to suddenly disappear, after we said we’d be in touch!”

“So worse comes to worst we’ll put the report in her mailbox and talk to her on the phone,” Yaeli said. “If you really want, you can go to her again. But I’m not going alone.”

***

It was almost a week since Rafi’s cast had been removed, and every so often he reminded himself that the time had come to go back to Kiryat Yovel. But he hadn’t yet found the right moment. One day Mrs. Cohen said she’d take him to the supermarket and he didn’t want to miss out on that; another day he planned to leave in the evening, but he was so tired that he decided to wait until the morning. The next morning his hands felt sort of heavy, and Mrs. Cohen said it would take some time until he could do things normally. So he decided to wait until the next day. But the next day came and Mrs. Cohen prepared lunch that smelled so good, and he didn’t want to miss out on it, and Nava promised to go with him in the afternoon to choose a picture for his room.

So in short, he just hadn’t found the right moment, but it wasn’t really so bad. He had no more cast, so nothing was urgent anymore. As soon as it became unpleasant at the Cohens’ home, he would leave. But what could he do if, in the meantime, it was very pleasant at the Cohens’ home?

And if Ima would suddenly look for him, Sarah would be able to tell her where to find him.

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