Divided Attention – Chapter 22

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 22 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

A note landed smack in the middle of Nava’s desk. She shoved it over to the corner and continued to gaze at Morah Dinner, who was explaining the calculations of the days of the Mabul. Miss out on Morah Dinner’s riveting explanations? Not her.

“Open it already, Nava!” Batya whispered. “Devoiry’s getting upset at you!”

Nava didn’t bat an eyelash.

“Nava!”

“Not now!” Nava whispered back and turned her concentration back to the board, trying to focus on the subject at hand. Rafi had started learning Chumash Bereishis with Abba, in addition to Chumash Shemos that he was learning in class. She was supposed to study with him. The good thing was that Rafi loved learning with Abba, something she herself had never liked. What was the difference? Was it Rafi’s constant need for attention? Was it the special way Abba treated him?

Perhaps you should be a bit honest with yourself and admit that Rafi simply likes to learn. He sits and gazes at Abba with huge eyes as he listens to the lively explanations.

Sarah had visited yesterday just when they were learning and had observed them from the kitchen doorway.

“I can’t believe it! It’s just not the same child!” she kept exclaiming. “Yael, this must be an act, right?”

Nava had been offended by the question. Did she really think that they treated Rafi like a circus animal that performed on command?

“An act?” Ima had asked with her soft, calm smile. “You’re invited to come every evening to watch them. He always listens like this, and sometimes even better.”

“Yes, I know that he feels better when I’m not here,” Sarah said and retreated into the kitchen. “Are they supposed to finish in the next few minutes? I want to speak to him a bit. By the way, what’s that bruise on his face?”

Nava bit her lip. What did it matter? Didn’t normal kids fall sometimes? What was the social worker so worried about? Did she think they abused him in their home?

“That bruise? We were also wondering about it,” Ima had answered with her unflappable composure. “He said that he was running and had bumped into the wall. What do you think? Can we believe that?”

“No one called to complain that Rafi had attacked their child?”

“Not at all.”

“So you can be calm,” Sarah said wryly. “It must really be a bang from the wall. I don’t remember this child ever being hit and taking it sitting down. If you haven’t heard any complaints, then it’s likely that no one hit him. I can’t believe how much he’s changed in a month and a half! Since when did he ever obey anything?”

“I think that before he came, it was simply harder for him to obey,” Yael said cautiously. “What can you expect from a child whose life was such a complicated mess? How could he possibly have had a head for school and studies?”

“So I’m happy that life has become simpler for him,” Sarah said gaily. “And to be honest, it’s been the same for me. It’s much easier for me to deal with the situation there when he’s not around.”

“How’s his mother?” Yael asked as she sliced the yeast cake.

“So-so.” Sarah took a seat, but not before she peeked into the dining from again. “Nothing’s improved much lately, and in some ways things have gotten worse. Does he ever mention her?”

“Not a word.” Yael cast Nava a questioning glance, and Nava affirmed what her mother had said. “Nava spends a lot of time with him,” Yael explained as she arranged some cookies on a platter.

“And you say he doesn’t talk about her,” Sarah murmured. “What do you say, Yael, about a visit to his mother? Do you think he’ll want to go?”

“I really don’t know what to tell you.” Mrs. Cohen waved away a nonexistent fly. “I don’t know whether he’d be willing or not, but do you think it’s advisable?”

“She’s his mother, Mrs. Cohen!”

“I agree with you one hundred percent,” Yael said. Nava was amazed at her calm demeanor. “She’s his mother and I do believe that he has to meet her on occasion. But perhaps not at the house? Maybe they could meet in a more neutral location that won’t remind Rafi so much of that period in his life? I don’t want to interfere in your decisions, but…”

“But you do have a point,” Sarah said with a nod and took a slice of cake, closing the subject.

***

Ayala sliced the carrot thinly, preferring her experienced hands over the food processor. She lifted the cover of the pot on the stove, in which slices of zuchinni and wedges of potato floated around in the boiling liquid, and she carefully slid the carrot slices off the cutting board and into the pot. The original recipe had called for sautéed onions, but Sari would not touch her vegetable soup if she’d find even a trace of onion there, so Ayala had adjusted the recipe to suit her finicky oldest child.

Ayala closed the pot and allowed her thoughts to swirl around along with the bubbling soup under the cover of the pot. Now that the journal project was over and her green notebook rested securely in Ita’s cupboard in the school office—the only notebook there so far—her evenings had become more available to grade the history reports that the tenth graders had handed in. They’d invested a lot of effort into the reports, of that there was no doubt. Which one would she choose? Well, it wasn’t that serious a competition that it required numbers instead of names to prevent identification of the authors, in case it would affect the judges’ decision, but she hoped that her clear preference towards some of the reports was not the result of her affinity to the girls who had written it. It was natural that good students who displayed a true interest in the material would submit reports of a higher caliber.

Until now this rule had been infallible. But what was in store?

She had done her initial sorting according to a few basic guidelines that she had set for herself, which made the process rather simple. If the material was written very dryly and in a boring fashion, like notes in a notebook, it was disqualified. If the story was too long without providing relevant details, it, too, was removed from the pile. If it was too short or very long—above or below the word count she had stipulated—it was also out. But there were few reports that were disqualified because of these criteria! She still had eighteen reports left in the pile and she had no idea on what basis she would choose a winner.

She needed help from someone objective. Someone who didn’t know, for example, Nechama Bruchian, a top student whose report was written in the same small, close writing that filled her notebooks, or Tikva and Yael, an inseparable pair whose last names—Brook and Druk—Ayala was constantly confusing, or Shifra Cohen, who captivated every teacher’s heart with her refinement.

She needed an outsider. That much was clear. The question was: who fit the bill?

Ayala lifted the pot lid again and stirred the mixture. The aroma of the bubbling vegetable soup spread through the kitchen. She opened the drawer and took out her schnitzel hammer, hoping the chicken had defrosted already.

Pound, pound, whack, and pound. She flipped the pinkish mound of raw chicken over to the other side and dealt it another blow. Perhaps Dina Schorr, a colleague from her old school, who had agreed amiably at the beginning of the year to share some professional tips with her on being a history teacher? The nickname “historian” that Dina had been tagged with was not for naught. It was literal.

Ayala placed one piece of chicken onto a plate and turned to the next one in the pile. She felt a bit uncomfortable asking Dina; she was so busy. Even if she would agree, it certainly wouldn’t be easy for her.

Perhaps Sari?

Sari? Why Sari?

First of all, her Sari liked history. Furthermore, Ayala knew that history was one of her daughter’s strong subjects. And besides, most of the girls’ reports were based on the material they had learned in school, which was what Sari had learned last year. She was still sufficiently familiar with it to decide which story could really be helpful in teaching the material and which made the subject matter more complicated.

But lately, Sari had been so busy with her own life. She had school, her friends, extracurricular activities…

Perhaps that was why this idea was such a good one. Maybe working together would strengthen the close mother-daughter bond that had recently become somewhat frayed in certain areas. The difference in their relationship wasn’t all that pronounced, and most of the time it wasn’t even noticeable, but there was no doubt that the weakness was there.

Ayala beat two eggs with a fork and focused on her thoughts. From the ninth graders, she had received only one report so far, and it was mediocre—and that was being nice. Apparently, the girls’ initial enthusiasm had waned—especially since it had been fueled by a lot of hot air and nothing more. When the air cooled down, their hot air balloons had come crashing to the ground.

***

“Zimmer!”

Rafi bit his lips hard and stared at the sidewalk. Where was Mrs. Cohen already?

“Zimmer!” The whisper was clear, squeaky, and grated on his nerves. There was no point in trying to pretend he hadn’t heard it. Rafi and Ronny both knew it—their eyes had met. Ronny stood a few feet away, observing the boy leaning on the stone wall that was familiar to them both. Rafi didn’t move. Ronny began walking slowly, whistling to himself. His eyes scanned the trees that lined the road. He passed the gate of the school, glanced at the guard deeply engrossed in his newspaper, and reached the short kid who had his hands shoved into his pockets. He stopped for a long moment, uttered a few words, and returned to where he had come from. He didn’t pay another shred of attention to Rafi, who stood with his head lowered, grinding a clump of earth into dust with his shoes. But after three feet, Ronny turned around and looked back. The boy was following him.

Ronny walked down the narrow asphalt path that led to the underground parking lot of a nearby building. He smiled at his three friends who were waiting there and stopped. Rafi stopped about a yard away from him.

“Come here already,” Ronny snapped. “Your games are starting to disgust me! You know that the minute I decide to, I can just send a letter to that family you’re living with and tell them exactly who Rafi Zimmer is and what he’s done!”

“She’ll be here any second to get me,” Rafi said, with great effort. He ignored the other three boys who stared at him curiously, focusing his gaze on Ronny—who had become much more threatening and scary than he had been in Kiryat Yovel. Rafi was afraid of him, and worst of all, he felt trapped. He could not come up with a single viable solution to this mess.

“Who?”

“The lady whose house I live in. She’ll be worried about me.”

“Let her worry,” Ronny said. “If we finish here quickly and you don’t make any problems, she won’t have time to worry too much.”

“And what should I tell her?”

This was the first time that Ronny heard a slight tremor in Rafi’s voice. In his mind, he chalked himself a victory.

“Tell her whatever you want,” he said with a shrug. “Except for the truth, of course. Because the day you tell someone about me…” His eyes narrowed.

“We’re wasting time, Ronny,” Eddie piped up. “Just give him the details and let him go. For our own good, it’s better that the lady doesn’t start worrying about him.”

“Fine,” Ronny said. “Which floor do you live on, Rafi?”

“First,” Rafi said quickly. Maybe he could answer them quickly and get back to the street before Mrs. Cohen arrived. Before she started looking for him. Before she’d start worrying, and checking into why he wasn’t waiting in their regular spot. Before she’d grasp what was going on here. Before she’d tell Mr. Cohen that Rafi was the boy who destroyed schools. Before Mr. Cohen decided that it was better if he didn’t live with them.

One of Ronny’s friends was writing feverishly into a pad; perhaps he was recording the questions and answers.

“When do you go to sleep?” Ronny asked.

“Sometimes seven, sometimes eight, or nine. Whenever I want,” he answered breathlessly.

“When does everyone else there go to sleep?”

“I don’t know.”

“How many people live there besides you?”

“The mother, father, and their daughter.”

“Do you sleep in your own room?”

A quick nod; Rafi swallowed.

“Do they sometimes come to your room at night?”

“I don’t know!” Rafi said and stood straighter, grasping the straps of his briefcase. “Can I go already?”

“You’ll go when I tell you to,” Ronny said. “Listen, you’re going to have to run away from there in the middle of the night. How’re you gonna do it without them seeing?” He fixed his eyes on Rafi’s. “Because if they do notice, then you realize you’re gonna have a bi-i-g problem on your hands.”

“Maybe they get up at night…” Rafi said without thinking.

“You’ll have to find a time when they don’t get up,” one of the others, a boy with black hair, said. “You have any way to find that out?”

Rafi looked at him. “Uh…” he said quietly. “I’ll… try. Now can I go?”

“Let him go already, Ronny,” a freckled boy said. “His foster mother’ll land up here in a minute. Is that what’chou want?”

Ronny threw him a quick glance and turned back to Rafi. “Go, Rafi. I want an answer from you tomorrow. Do you finish school at the same time?”

Rafi stood in his place. “Yeah.”

“And no more games like today. My patience is wearing thin, kid!”

He nodded and looked behind him.

“Alright, go already!”

Rafi ran out into the street and quickly passed Ronny’s high school. How stupid he’d been to decide to talk to Ronny! What had he been thinking? That Ronny would smile and say that if Rabbi Paksher didn’t like his school being vandalized, he’d agree to stop?

But Rafi hadn’t had a choice! If he wouldn’t have spoken to Ronny, then Ronny and his friends would have continued, and then the principal would have spoken to Mr. Cohen and they would have thrown him out of school. And he would have had to go back to Kiryat Yovel, to that cold, empty apartment, to the horrible classmates, and to Sarah’s visits. Far from Nava, Mr. Cohen, Mrs. Cohen, and their nice, warm house.

As he reached their regular meeting point, Yael arrived. “I’m so sorry I’m late, sweetie,” she said with a smile. “Have you been waiting long?”

“No, not at all,” he said and smiled back. “I think I can start going home by bus or on the van like my whole class.” What would be tomorrow?

“We’ll ask our Abba, okay?” They had decided at first not to rely on the school transportation because Sarah had insisted that he needed constant supervision. But if he would have wanted to run away, hadn’t he had enough opportunities to do so already? Perhaps they really could start trusting him. If he would go on the organized school transportation, he would still be closely supervised.

“I’m very tired,” Rafi said with a yawn half an hour later, when they entered the house. “I woke up last night and couldn’t fall back asleep for a long time. Did you hear me water the plant in the living room?”

“No,” Yael replied, smiling. “But now I understand where that puddle came from. You don’t need to use more than one cup, Rafi.”

“Oh!” he said, taken aback. “I think I used at least five, maybe six. I don’t remember.”

“Nothing happened,” she said, looking at the gleaming floor that had already dried. “It’s not a delicate plant and I hope it will recover. But why did you wake up like that?”

“I don’t know. It happens to me sometimes.” He threw his briefcase down at the kitchen doorway.

After two minutes of lifting pot lids off pots on the stove and fidgeting at the table, he spoke again. “Do you also sometimes wake up at night?” he asked.

“Almost never.”

“And Mr. Cohen?”

“I think he also sleeps deeply.”

“What does ‘sleeping deeply’ mean?”

“That he sleeps well and doesn’t wake up easily.” Yael placed two fish patties, a slice of carrot quiche, and a big mound of orzo on his plate.

“Oh. And Nava?”

“What happened, Rafi?” Yael chuckled. “Are you doing a family survey on sleep habits?”

He didn’t laugh. “Does Nava also sleep without waking up?”

“I hope so.” Yael handed him a fork. “You can ask her when she comes home.”

“Oh,” he said, playing with the fork.

“Why aren’t you eating, sweetie?” He coughed and started to eat. And although he had commented before lunch that he was so tired, all her attempts to persuade him to go rest were to no avail. His tiredness had apparently dissipated.

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