Divided Attention – Chapter 24

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 24 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 usually opened his eyes as soon as he heard Yael’s voice in his room each morning. Today, however, Rafi’s eyes remained closed. Yael called his name repeatedly until the lump under the covers began to rustle.

“What? Ah…Mrs. Cohen…” A huge yawn contorted his face. “Yeah, I’m getting up…”

But when she came back five minutes later, he was still under the covers, deeply asleep.

“Rafi, are you feeling okay?” Yael asked worriedly.

Rafi sat up at once, and immediately felt dizzy. “I think so. I’m just a little…tired.”

“That happens sometimes,” Mrs. Cohen said warmly, “but after you get up and get dressed, it usually passes.”

Rafi closed his eyes again tiredly, and then opened them; Mrs. Cohen’s worried face came into focus. “That’s it; I’m getting up,” he said and threw the blanket down to the floor. “I’m not tired at all anymore. It passed.”

“I’m going out to the kitchen, okay?” said Mrs. Cohen. “Try and hurry. I want you to have time to eat something before Mr. Cohen comes back to take you to school.”

As soon as she closed the door, Rafi unclenched his fist. A large part of the crumpled tissue in his hand was red, but the blood on the cut had already congealed. Puti had said that he doubted any glass had gotten into the cut, but that next time they broke a window, they would first take out the glass that remained stuck in the frame before Rafi would climb through.

I wish there wouldn’t be a next time! I wish Ronny would forget about me, once and for all! Or that they would decide that they don’t want me in their club! Rafi thought.

He had hardly done anything; he had just climbed into the stairwell window and opened the building door from the inside for them. It was a huge wooden door that could only be opened with a key or through the intercom system.

They had begun spraying paint on the walls until there was an awful smell. Ofer had offered him his spray-paint can, but Rafi had declined. Eddie spilled tons of sand and water on the steps and asked him if he wanted to draw pictures in the sand. He didn’t. He just sat and made sure that Ronny wasn’t drawing people sticking their tongues out, like he had promised. He didn’t want Rabbi Paksher to hear about what they had done and piece together that he was connected to the incident.

Rafi leaned over the bowl that Mr. Cohen had placed near his bed before going to shul, and poured water over his hands with the cup. The cut stung, and he examined it closely. It was not a good idea to show it to Mrs. Cohen now. She would surely ask where he could have possibly gotten such a cut between going to sleep and waking up. If she would notice it at lunchtime, he could tell her that something had happened in school.

Apparently, no one had woken up during the night and seen that his door was locked. Puti said that the whole thing had taken less than two hours. At four o’clock, Ronny had dropped him off at the corner of his block (he didn’t want anyone to hear the roar of the motorbike), and Rafi had run home, tiptoeing stealthily into the house.

***

As she did every week on Thursday, her day off, Ayala went to visit her sister-in-law. “How are you, Ditza?” she asked cheerfully, pulling up the shades. “I brought you some whole grain rice; you remember that side dish that I made for Yosef and Elisheva’s sheva brachos?”

“I remember that everyone thought it was delicious,” her pale sister-in-law replied and tried to raise herself up from the pillow a bit. “I didn’t taste it, though. I was at the beginning of the mono, even before I knew I had it, and I didn’t have much of an appetite for anything.”

“But now do you?” Ayala queried, folding the blankets. “You have to eat to regain your strength. Brown rice is full of vitamins, you know.”

“I think that I can manage a few bites,” Ditza said. She still spoke in a whisper, perhaps out of habit of speaking that way for the past few months, or perhaps because she really did not have the strength to speak louder. But Baruch Hashem, they were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. The mono was in its final stages.

“Thanks, Ayala. It’s really delicious.” Ditza leaned back again on her pillow, putting the spoon down tiredly. “I’ve had enough, thanks.”

“Stop saying ‘thank you’ so many times,” Ayala said as she came back into the room, wielding a broom. “Nu, how do you feel now?”

“Definitely stronger,” Ditza said with a smile. Then her expression became serious. “But you should know that a lot of the credit for the fact that I feel stronger goes to your Sari and the girls from your school. They’ve literally been saving us.”

“Oh, it’s not my rice?” her sister-in-law asked in an injured tone.

Ditza wiped away some beads of sweat that had broken out on her forehead. “That, too, Ayala, for sure. But your volunteers are really something special. They’ve been coming month after month so regularly, and it hasn’t happened yet that one of them couldn’t come and didn’t send a replacement. And my kids love them! I’m not even talking about the special suppers they prepare. I really don’t know how my kids will react when I get well and they’ll have to get used to bread, eggs, and salad again.”

“I promise you they’ll be over the moon.”

“I hope so, too, but I’m really talking about the warmth and devotion of these girls. According to what my children tell me, the girls have been treating them like nieces and nephews!”

Ayala gathered the dust she had swept into the dustpan. When she looked up, she noticed her sister-in-law’s red face. “You’re overexerting yourself, Ditza. You’re not supposed to talk so much. Save your strength.”

“Could be,” Ditza agreed and lay her head back on the puffy pillow. “But you have to hear just one example, from yesterday. Listen to how this volunteer was so attuned to what my Elazar needs! It’s amazing! Elazar’s been having a hard time with reading lately. He was doing fine last year, but I guess they still have to continue practicing at home, and with me sick so much of this year, no one’s really been practicing regularly with him. Anyway, this girl picked up on it. Ariella told me that she started sitting and reading with him, and yesterday she brought him cookie cutters from her house shaped like letters and prepared dough with the kids. They made cookies, and added nekudos from paper and—as best as I could understand from Elazar’s excited story—they read the sounds out loud. Even Moishy came to sing to me about kamatz aleph. Afterwards they baked the cookies and cleaned up the kitchen together. They even brought me a few—here they are, on the night table.”

Ayala looked at the small tray, noticing it for the first time. Beside it, almost unnoticeable against the light color of the table surface, was a small sheet of white notepaper. It read: “Your adorable children prepared these themselves. Refuah sheleimah. Nava.”

***

Manny noticed the pink paper as he passed the refrigerator. The black magnet strip was obviously not doing its job and the evening breeze blowing in through the open window made the page—held down only by the upper corner—flap wildly.

“Can you please close the window, Nava?” he asked, taking down the paper. “Thank you. What’s this?”

“Rafi brought it home today,” Yael replied and raised her eyes from her needlepoint. “His friend Meir goes to these clubs at school, and he suggested that Rafi join one of them, too. Rafi wants to go and I think that’s a good sign of progress.”

“It’s progress; the question is…” Manny fell silent as he read the page.

Nava sat quietly, drawing colorful squares with a ruler. Morah Ayala had caught her yesterday in the middle of history class drawing lameds and gimmels with a pasach and kamatz, and asked her if it was for Elazar. Nava had blushed and said, “Maybe,” and then had quickly put the paper away. Morah Ayala had just smiled and said that if so, it was hard for her to scold her, but she shouldn’t be doing it in the middle of class. It really wasn’t right. What had happened to all those promises from the beginning of the year?

Perhaps she really should prepare such sheets for Elazar Leibowitz, but the ones she was working on now were not for him. He needed something on a more advanced level, with sequences of letters. How could she do it in an interesting format?

“Why do boys have to study carpentry and make model airplanes? I don’t get it.” Nava’s father sighed. “Well, my understanding or lack of it won’t change things. I’ll talk to Reb Shlomo about it, and I’m pretty sure he’ll tell me to register Rafi. I imagine you think the same way, don’t you, Yael?”

“Well, yes,” she agreed with a laugh and put her embroidery down. “How’s the salad, Manny?”

“I haven’t tasted it yet, but it looks delicious. Which club does Rafi want to go to?”

“Keyboard lessons.”

“Keyboard lessons?” Manny fell silent, and then washed his hands and began to eat. After two minutes of quiet chewing, he said, “I really don’t understand it.”

“Understand what?”

“Why they teach this to the kids. Are they raising talmidei chachamim or musicians? This principal, Paksher, gives the impression of being a very smart man.”

“How many kids do you know who learned to play an instrument and then later became concert musicians?” Yael asked, never stopping her stitching. “Besides, I think that at this point, we have to focus on the present. If that’s what’s good for the boy now, then we have to do it, no?”

“If that’s what Reb Shlomo will say,” her husband replied, his voice sounding a bit dejected.

Baruch Hashem Rafi has made some friends and he wants to go with them to a club. I don’t know how much his objective is the actual learning to play the keyboard, as much as he wants to get closer to this Cooperman boy.”

“Meir Cooperman’s a good boy,” Manny said, somewhat encouraged. “The principal told me it’s a good family, one of his best.”

“And the keyboard lessons could be very good for Rafi. He should have somewhere to channel his high-strung temperament. What’s the problem? As long as the music doesn’t become his main focus in life, and is just a side thing, it could be wonderful, in my opinion. Especially since lately, he seems a bit tense to me.”

“And who’s going to guarantee that the music only remains a side thing?” Manny asked as he peeled off the cover of his yogurt.

“I think that depends a lot on us,” Yael said with a slight smile, tightening the knot of thread with her teeth.

***

Rafi was the first one in the empty classroom, as he often was. Manny left early for work each day, and dropped Rafi off on the way.

Meir was second to arrive at school.

“Rafi, are you coming to the office to sign up for clubs?” Meir asked Rafi.

“Maybe tomorrow. My father…er, Nava’s father, wanted to think about it another day and he asked me to think also if this is what I want.”

“And what will you tell him?”

“I’ll think about it again, like he said, and then I’ll tell him what I think.”

“Too much thinking!” Meir Cooperman declared and began to take down the chairs, first his own and then Rafi’s. “What do you want to think about so much?”

“If it’s not too late to join in the middle of the year after you guys learned so much already.”

“We didn’t even learn a lot! First of all, we only started clubs after Yom Tov.”

“After what?”

“Yom Tov. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkos!”

Rafi squinted. “Ah, when you build a sukkah and then live there?”

“Yes. Besides, we learn so slowly, we barely did anything. I can teach you everything we did already. Wanna come over today?”

“Yes,” Rafi said unhesitatingly. “Do you have a keyboard at home?”

“Yeah, a big one. Do you?”

“Nava has one. She took lessons when she was little. But she didn’t like practicing.”

Meir wanted to say something, but just then, Oded’s brother from first grade stuck his head into the room. “Where’s Oded?” he squeaked.

“He didn’t get here yet. Maybe he’s playing downstairs,” Meir replied. “You want to go down to him?”

“No, give him this bread and tell him he f’got it at home.” The kid handed Meir a plastic-encased sandwich then disappeared.

Meir was just placing the sandwich on the last desk in the room when the kid backtracked into the classroom. “Oy, I almost forgot! Another thing. Who’s Rafi from third grade? Is he in this class?”

“Yes,” Rafi said and stood up. “That’s me. Why?”

“A big boy downstairs gave me this and said t’give it to you,” the boy said and put a crumpled, slightly sticky note into Rafi’s outstretched palm. “He gave me a taffy cuz I’m bringing you the note, but I threw it away. It didn’t have a hechsher.”

“I don’t know any big boy from downstairs,” Rafi said and turned his gaze away from Meir. “Maybe he got mixed up. Who is it?”

“Dunno his name. But he had funny yellow and orange hair, and lots of freckles on his face.”

“Dunno,” Rafi echoed, sitting down on the chair that Meir had taken down for him. Meir always took his chair down for him, a holdover from his early days in school when his hands were still a bit numb from being in the casts for so long. He had gotten so used to it that he forgot that he could take his chair down himself. “Open the note,” Meir said. “Maybe you’ll realize who the boy is from what it says.”

“Okay,” Rafi said, not knowing whether to be happy or not. Meir would read what it said so Rafi could know what Ronny had written. But what if it said that it was for Rafi Zimmer? What would Meir say then? How could Rafi deny anything?

But the note contained just five words: “Tonight, just like last week.”

“Interesting,” Meir said, handing the note back to Rafi.

“Why are you giving this to me? Put it in the garbage!”

“Okay,” Meir said quietly. “Maybe they got mixed up and it’s some Rafi from second or fourth grade. Should we look for him? How’s he gonna know what they want from him?”

“Maybe it’s better he doesn’t know,” Rafi said as he stood up and walked over to the window. “Maybe it’s not a good thing for him.”

“Shouldn’t know what?” Benny, who sat behind them, piped up. When had he come in, anyway?

“Nothing!” Rafi said and pursed his lips. “Just silly stuff. And don’t stick your nose in where it’s not wanted.”

Benny laughed, and Rafi tensed angrily. He turned away from the window with clenched fists. There was no teenager with freckles in the street, anyway. “Laugh your stupid laugh again!” he said menacingly. “Nu, let me see you laugh!”

Benny laughed aloud.

***

During recess, Ita asked the teachers what was with their journals, receiving lots of apologies and promises in response. Only six teachers had handed the notebooks in already, Ayala among them, and Ita had asked her to come down to the office during her free period to do something connected to the journal.

A student was asking for Morah Ayala at the teachers’ room door, and Ita told her that if it wasn’t an emergency, then now was not the time. The student left.

A short while later, as Ayala left the teacher’s room, just minutes before the bell, she found Nava.

“You were looking for me, Nava?” Ayala said.

The girl nodded and then shrugged shyly. She really hoped she wasn’t bothering Morah Dinner too much. The last thing she wanted was to make herself loathsome to her favorite teacher.

“Come into the office; I think it’s pretty empty now,” Ayala said. “We have just a few seconds left till the bell; we’ll try to make it enough.”

“It has to do with Rafi,” Nava said breathlessly. “The boy…my new brother.”

Ayala nodded, looking attentive.

“He always behaves very well, not at all the way they described him to us. They told us that his behavior was really something awful, but we haven’t seen that at all. He’s a cute kid, a bit mischievous, and you can see the type of place he grew up in, no rules, whatever. But besides for that, he’s really terrific. He tries to fit into his new school and new lifestyle and tries to do whatever my parents want. He gives the impression of always trying to please us.”

“Sounds good,” Ayala said. The bell rang.

“Right. My parents are really happy that baruch Hashem, they got such a wonderful kid. But I’m not calm at all. I feel like…” She couldn’t put her finger on the right words to describe the way she felt. “…like it’s all external, and inside he’s really something else. A totally different Rafi.”

“I see that you’re the perfectionist in your family,” Ayala said with a smile. “What do you think, Nava? That it’s easy to just erase six years of life?”

“Nine,” Nava said, remembering the gifts Rafi had received yesterday for his birthday. He’d been so thrilled!

“So then it’s even less simple. He wants to be a good boy, and that’s wonderful, but do you think he can forget so fast everything he’s been through until now? Give him time, and don’t delve so deeply into what is hiding behind each mitzvah that he’s doing. I’m sure it’s not only external.” She took her large black bag and smiled at her student again. “Do you want to continue talking at the next break? Should I wait for you here?”

“Thank you. I think I should first think about what you said. Maybe I’ll be convinced.”

“I hope so,” Ayala said. “By the way, Nava, why don’t you tell this to your parents?”

“I’m afraid that if I do that, they won’t want him anymore,” she answered in a whisper.

***

During her free period, Ayala went down to the first floor and entered the door-less cubicle that served as Ita’s office.

“Oh, Ayala,” Ita said, picking up a familiar green-covered notebook. All the journals were green, but one of Ayala’s children had adorned hers with red marker, making it recognizable from afar. “I read almost your entire journal quickly, and it makes a very good impression. I want to choose seven or eight passages to give Rikki to type up. Can you mark off the pieces you think are best?”

“Best in what sense?” Ayala asked, rummaging in her bag for the pen her children had given her.

“Those that are written well, have a strong message, are interesting. Decide yourself.”

Ayala opened the journal, scanning what she had written two weeks, a month and two months earlier. Hesitantly she circled the first teachers’ meeting, and then moved on to a description of one of the first days, and then to the formation of the volunteer program. She had garnered some experience recently in vetting written works, and it wasn’t easy at all. Sari had started reading several of the contest stories yesterday and said they were very nice. She hoped that within a few days she’d be able to finally decide who the winners would be.

Ayala went over again what she had marked. She had purposely chosen passages where her role was marginal, more as an observer. There were no secrets in the journal; she had censored those out while writing, but she didn’t like too much exposure for herself.

“I asked Miriam and Adina to save me some work and choose their own passages, as well. With others, I chose the passages myself,” Ita said suddenly.

Ayala finished her markings and closed the journal. “Should I put this back in the cabinet?” she asked.

“No, I want to photocopy what you marked off and give them to Rikki to type.”

“Do you want me to photocopy them for you?” Ayala offered. She had loads to do during this free period, but Ita always seemed far busier.

“No, thanks, Ayala. Rikki will do it when she has a few minutes. You can go back to whatever you have to do.”

Only at home, when she sat down to mark the Chumash tests, did Ayala discover that her new pen had remained in her journal, with Ita.

***

“It’s a shame, a real shame,” Rabbi Perlmutter said regretfully as he looked at Benny’s scratched-up face. Rafi Zimmer, by contrast, looked hale and hearty. He stood with his legs spread slightly apart, and besides for a bit of a flush on his cheeks, his expression was blank.

“He started, Rebbi!” Benny shouted tearfully. Rafi was silent.

Meir Cooperman raised his hands. “That’s right, Rebbi, but…” He turned to Benny. “Benny got on his nerves on purpose, right, Benny?”

“Not true!” Benny shouted. “I just asked him what he was talking about and he answered back so angrily. I’m not allowed to laugh?”

“Why did you laugh on purpose to get him angry?” Meir persisted and looked at Rafi, who was toying with his belt.

“Okay, Meir, thank you,” the teacher said quietly. “Sit down. Rafi and Benny, come here please.”

Benny walked with an exaggerated limp to the teacher’s desk. Rafi remained standing where he had been when the teacher had entered the room, between the second and third rows, right next to Meir.

“Don’t be silly, Rafi,” Meir whispered. “Go to him. He won’t do anything major.”

Rafi began to move slowly towards Benny, who retreated, sensing that if Rafi suddenly decided that he wanted to continue the fight—which had been cut off in the middle—he wouldn’t hesitate to do so even in front of the teacher.

“Now, both of you are going out of the room. Rafi, you will go with Benny to the sink and help him wash his face, and then you will go with him to the principal’s office so they can put some iodine on the scratches and so that Rabbi Paksher can decide if it needs more than that. On condition,” he raised Benny’s chin, “on condition that the principal does not know who did it to you. You’ll both say that it was a boy in the class. After that, you will both daven outside. Rafi will say he’s sorry to Benny, and you will come back. Clear?”

Benny immediately nodded his agreement and then changed his mind and shook his head from side to side.

“No?” The teacher sat down. “Why not?”

“I’m afraid that he’ll hit me again outside,” Benny whispered.

“Nonsense!” Meir Cooperman shouted. “He hit you cuz you got him angry! Don’t get him nervous and he won’t hit you anymore!”

“Meir…” the teacher said quietly. “Meir, sit down, please.”

Rafi raised his eyes to his desk-mate. Rabbi Perlmutter’s method amused him, but Meir’s exclamation reminded him that things were different now. He wasn’t in Kiryat Yovel, but in this school. And at lunchtime he would return to the Cohens. No, he couldn’t hit Benny, even though he really deserved it. Iodine for those cuts! What would the teacher say if he saw what Rafi had on his own palm!

“Perhaps you should apologize to Benny now, Rafi,” Rabbi Perlmutter suggested, “so that he’ll be calmer and see that Meir’s right.” He didn’t want to add, “So that I’ll be calmer, too,” even though that’s exactly what he was thinking.

“I’m sorry, Benny,” the soft, gentle, polite Rafi said, and opened the door. “Come, let’s go wash off those silly scratches of yours.”

***

Reb Nechemia’s conversation was interrupted by a knock at the door. “Come in!” he said loudly, and noticed the knob being turned. Two small figures from Baruch Perlmutter’s class entered the office: Benny Ziv and Rafi Zimmer. Benny’s face was scratched and he was dragging one foot.

“Sit, Benny,” the principal said and hung up the phone, swallowing a sigh. Was Zimmer in trouble again?

“I see that you got into a fight with someone, Benny,” he said with a small smile. “And by the look of your scratches, you got him really angry. And you, Rafi? I see that the teacher sent you to take care of Benny, which shows you can really be trusted! Good; I’m happy. Remember that I told you that I only want you to visit my office for good things? So here, the first time is now. If your teacher sent you with Benny, that’s already a sign that you’re doing very well.”

Rafi murmured something.

“So, let’s take a look at what happened to you, Benny Ziv,” Reb Nechmia said and got up to take a closer look at the boy. “Oh, it’s nothing serious. Rafi, here’s the iodine and a q-tip. Can you take care of your friend? I have a phone call to make.”

“Okay,” Rafi said stiffly, and took the little flask.

“Does iodine hurt?” Benny asked tremulously. “At home, my mother has a special cream. I never had this kind of iodine.”

“It doesn’t hurt at all,” Rafi said impatiently and struggled with the childproof cap. “Rabbi Paksher, can you open this for me?”

“Sure,” Reb Nechemia said as he waited for someone to pick up on the other end of the line. “Here, now tip it carefully over the q-tip, and put it like this so it shouldn’t drip.”

Rafi followed the instructions, and when he was done, Benny looked very amused.

“You’re a great medic, Rafi,” Reb Nechemia said, hanging up the phone. (The electrician promised to come in an hour to fix the switch that broke down every week in the seventh grade.) “And now, please tell me, Benny, what happened to you and why you deserved such decorations on your face.”

“I fought with a kid in the class,” Benny said tensely and cast a nervous glance over his shoulder. Rafi stood just a step away from him, leaning silently on the wall.

“What was the fight about?”

“I asked him something very annoying and…then I laughed, and …”

The principal listened patiently but for some reason, Benny could not continue.

“Rafi, were you in the classroom when this happened?”

The boy nodded.

“So perhaps you can help Benny tell me what happened there, if you saw.”

“I don’t remember anymore,” Rafi said shortly.

“Ah…I understand. Well, Benny, you can tell this boy that I’m very disappointed that a boy in our school behaves like that, but I’m sure that he is already sorry, okay?”

“Okay,” Benny managed, sounding like he had swallowed a cupful of sand.

“Will you tell him?”

“I…” He tried to keep his head as straight as he could. “I’m afraid of him. You…you tell him.”

“Me?” Rabbi Paksher asked in surprise. “Why do I have to know who it is? I’m sure that he’s already very sorry and he’ll be your friend from now on, right?”

“I…I don’t know.”

“Then we have a real problem,” the principal said. “I don’t want to know, Benny doesn’t want to tell him, so what will we do? Just a minute! Rafi, you know who hit Benny, right?”

A nod.

“And are you afraid of him?”

Rafi’s fingers clicked his belt buckle closed again. “No.”

“Then that’s the solution!” Reb Nechemia snapped his fingers cheerfully. “Rafi will tell him, and everything will be fine. You know what to tell him, Rafi?” The boy was silent. “Remember: I’m disappointed to hear it, but I’m very positive that it won’t happen again and I’m asking him to be Benny’s friend and not to use his hands and legs for bad things.”

“Oh,” Rafi said. “Can we go now?”

The principal smiled into his beard. “Of course. And you’ll tell him, Rafi, right?”

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