Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 31 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
As expected, Manny was excited at the idea; Rafi, less so.
“Okay,” Rafi said blandly, “so if he calls again, what should I tell him?”
“Ask him what their organization does. What do they want from you and what are the rules of the program. See if it sounds good for you. Nobody’s forcing you to go, and there’s no point in joining if you won’t enjoy it.”
The phone rang at eight o’clock sharp, as Rafi and his organ were emitting loud attempts at making music—although there was undisputable improvement. Manny picked up the phone and spoke with the caller for several minutes. “Rafi,” he finally said, “come, he wants to talk to you.”
Aharon, waiting patiently on the other end, quickly scrawled the name “Rafi” in large letters on the back of his masmidim booklet. He had received the go-ahead from the office to expand the organization’s activities. The idea wasn’t a bad one at all, and there was no reason why he couldn’t sign up kids from other neighborhoods without affecting the existing programs in their areas, if there were any.
Rafi. Did his name indicate anything?
The boy came to the phone. “Hello?”
After returning the greeting, Aharon got down to business. “You know, Rafi,” he began pleasantly, “our organization distributes prizes to children who do well.”
“What kind of prizes?” Rafi asked.
Aharon wracked his brain, trying to remember one of the prizes. “An electric train, for example,” he said with a cough. He had been in charge of distributing the prizes the previous month and had obtained battery-operated, miniature trains for a very cheap price. If he remembered correctly, he still had a few left in a box on his porch.
“A big one?”
“So-so,” Aharon said. “But maybe before we talk about prizes, I should get to know you. We like to know the new kids who join our organization.”
“Okay,” the child said tonelessly.
“So, can we meet this evening?”
“No, I’m going to sleep soon.”
“Tomorrow, then?” Aharon was pressed for time, because in two days, the apartment had to be clean and ready for his wife and baby coming from the convalescent home. He wouldn’t have time for adventures after that.
“In the morning?”
“At what time?”
“Wait, I’ll ask, um…my…mother.” Rafi put Aharon on hold and then returned half a minute later. “At eleven.”
“Great. Where do you want to meet? In your house?”
“Okay, so how about in the courtyard of your shul? You know, the one on the corner of your street?”
“You know my street?”
“Yes,” Aharon said. “A bit.”
The house was so busy—as it was every Erev Pesach, and Batya didn’t stand a chance of being able to speak on the phone without being overheard. She spent the entire afternoon trying to find a quiet minute around the phone. She hovered around it so much that her mother asked if she was waiting for an important call.
“No,” Batya replied and blushed as she meekly went back to the vacuum cleaner and the couch.
But later on, when she went to the grocery store to buy another bottle of bleach and some more rags, she took a few coins from her pocket money. There was a coin-operated phone right near the grocery. No one was using it when Batya arrived; it seemed to be waiting for her.
She dialed the number, which she had learned by heart.
Rina Cohen recognized her voice almost immediately. “Oh, right,” she said brightly. “I totally forgot about the birthday party you’re planning for Nava. So, what’s going on?”
“Well, that’s it; it looks like it’s going to have to be cancelled,” Batya said as she gazed at the many feet shuffling around the small grocery store. “I…don’t see when I’ll be able to do it. I forgot that Nava was born on a day that’s slightly inconvenient for having parties.”
“I understand,” Rina said. “I would invite you to have it here, but I already told you that I don’t think Nava would like the idea.”
“Too bad,” Batya found herself saying.
“Could be, but I respect each person for what he or she is,” Rina said, and to Batya, that statement sounded a bit pretentious, despite Rina’s friendly tone.
“That’s nice,” she said, trying to fill the silence.
“Yes,” Nava’s sister-in-law replied, and Batya knew that the conversation was coming to a close. But she wanted it to continue; she wanted to talk to Rina a bit. Rina had listened so attentively to the difficulties that she had faced at the beginning of the year. “You…I told you, when I popped in with Nava that time, what happened to me with the high school. Remember?”
“Sure,” Rina said. “You gave me the impression that you are very sensitive.”
“Is that a compliment?” Batya asked, a dim smile spreading on her face. The dull yellow street light distorted her face—and the smile—somewhat.
“It’s also a compliment.”
“So what else is it?” A green light on the phone began to blink. Batya slipped another coin into the slot. The light stopped blinking.
Rina was patient. “It’s a character trait that sometimes messes things up in life, isn’t it?” she said.
“Yes,” Batya said in a tone laced with despair, “very much so.”
“Well, Batya,” Rina said softly, and Batya wasn’t sure if it was her imagination that was painting compassionate tones in Rina’s voice or if the compassion was genuine, “I told you then that it’s a shame that you didn’t consult with an adult. I think that you should find someone suitable whom you can trust.”
“I don’t have anyone,” Batya said bitterly. “I don’t know anyone suitable for that.”
“I would be happy to help you,” Rina said, with the same polite tone, “but I don’t think that I’m suited for the role. You should find someone who is closer to your way of life.”
“Oh,” Bayta said, and just then, she noticed Mrs. Maaravi, her neighbor, walking towards the grocery. She mumbled a quick goodbye and hung up. Not a moment too soon, she slipped into the crowded grocery and out of Mrs. Maaravi’s penetrating field of vision.
“Start again, Sari, please. How exactly did it happen?”
Ayala’s daughter groped for the right words. “She asked me not to tell you who she is, Ima. She’s probably going to contact you, and I really hope she does. I got the impression that she’s in trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“I don’t know,” Sari said, gazing at the journal her mother was holding. “But I really feel bad for her.”
Ayala was quiet for a moment. “I don’t like this whole story,” she finally said in a low tone. “And not because I want to know who broke into the school and took the journals. This girl’s problem concerns me deeply. Is there any way you can be in touch with her?”
“Tell her that I am asking, demanding actually, that she speak to me.”
“Or to one of her parents.” Ayala toyed with her newly recovered pen. “Explain to her that there is no replacement for the desire of parents to help their children. She has to talk to her parents, and if she insists that she won’t, then she should talk to me instead. But she cannot continue keeping everything to herself.” She sighed. “It’s one of my students, isn’t it?”
Sari nodded slowly. Ayala knew that she could exercise her authority to force Sari to tell her who the anonymous person was, but she wasn’t sure what the halachah was in such a case.
Besides, she was pretty sure that she had more than a faint idea of who the girl was. She was just afraid to hear it clearly.
“Nava!” Rafi called, looking up from the booklet he was reading aloud. “There are only kamatzes and pasachs in this book, not a single tzeirei!”
“When you finish this book, there’s another one with tzeirei and segol,” Nava said, looking over her brother’s shoulder into the little booklet. “And you should hurry up, Rafi; it’s already a quarter to eleven.” They were sitting together and practicing his reading as though everything was just fine. As though nothing had happened two nights ago.
“Oh, right!” he said disinterestedly, his voice dropping. “Maybe you should come with me.”
“Because I don’t really want to go by myself to meet someone I don’t know,” he said quietly and shrugged. “Maybe he doesn’t really have an organization? Maybe it’s someone from the group who comes for me at night?”
Nava wrinkled her forehead. “I think I will come with you, just to be sure. But I can’t really go into the shul’s yard. I’ll watch from outside to see who it is, okay?”
“Yeah,” Rafi said dejectedly, and opened the booklet again.
Ten minutes later, Nava and Rafi walked downstairs, staring apprehensively at the tree near the house. To their mutual relief, the branches were bare. They didn’t exchange a word, and except for a polite “hello” that Rafi offered to Mr. Tzibelnick, the neighbor, they both remained silent.
“There’s someone sitting on the bench there, I think,” Nava said when they were right near the shul. “Do you know him?”
Rafi squinted. “No,” he said quietly. “He’s really frum, right?”
“Looks like it. Should I wait for you here?”
“Just for a few minutes. If you see that he’s really just sitting and talking to me, like he said he would, then you can go.”
It was clear that the child was tormented by his fears, which was understandable. But what could she do? What should she do? From minute to minute she was coming to the realization that it had been a mistake to promise Rafi to keep his secret. Sooner or later she would have to tell her parents, and it looked like the sooner it was, the better it would be.
Nava sighed like an old lady carrying the burden of the world on her shoulders. How would Abba and Ima react when they heard? Would they be angry? She didn’t think so. It was obvious that Rafi was only acting under coercion, wasn’t it? Still, something inside her, compounded by the promise she had made to Rafi, compelled her to keep her lips sealed on the subject. And all the while she wondered what she could do for Rafi herself, if there were any options in the first place.
The young man sitting in the courtyard rose to greet Rafi, who approached him hesitantly. He said something, and Rafi smiled one of his charming smiles. They both sat down on the bench and the man began to speak, punctuating his words with hand motions. Rafi listened silently, and wasn’t very focused. Every so often, his eyes shifted to the fence, where he sought Nava out.
At one point, Nava saw, the man tried to rest his hand on Rafi’s shoulder, but he quickly retracted when he saw how Rafi recoiled. He said something and Rafi laughed a bit. He continued talking, and Rafi laughed more. It didn’t seem like the man was saying anything frightening, or that Rafi was afraid of him. Did that mean that she had completed her role of the big sister hiding behind the reeds to observe her little brother?
Nava walked away from the fence, waving to Rafi in a way that wouldn’t attract attention. His eyes rested on her and he smiled, continuing to listen to the man beside him. He looked more focused now.
Nava walked in the door, clutching a large manila envelope that she had found in the mailbox, just in time to hear the ringing phone. “Can you get it, Nava?” her mother called from where she was doing laundry on the porch.
Nava picked up the phone, distractedly placing the envelope on the table.
“Nava? It’s Devoiry. Katzenelenbogen.”
“Did you think I didn’t recognize your voice?” Nava chuckled.
“I was afraid you wouldn’t recognize my voice when I’m angry, so I introduced myself.”
“Angry? I hope not at me.”
“At you. Tell me, did you submit a report for the competition?”
“Oh, come on, Nava!” Devoiry was really angry. “If you don’t even remember it, that means that you never took it seriously!”
Nava had to concede that Devoiry was right. The competition had sounded interesting the first minute, but so many other things had happened in the meantime that she had simply forgotten about it. She had tried to start writing—if she recalled correctly—but after that initial attempt, the existence of the contest had totally slipped her mind.
“Well, the tenth grade gave out their booklet, a few nice pages, stapled at the side. Looks like they put in a lot of effort,” Devoiry admitted grudgingly. “You might still get it in the mail.”
“As if you don’t know!” Devoiry fumed. “Really, Nava, don’t you know that your mother helped those two girls, you know, the tall ones, Brook and Druk, from tenth grade? They won first place!”
Nava’s eyes fell on the brown envelope that she had just placed on the table. She turned it over and checked the return address. Sure enough, it said “Druk Family” on it.
But Devoiry wasn’t finished. “When you get the envelope, open it and look at the warm thank you they gave your mother on the first page. But the daughter of the big historian herself couldn’t write something normal! Don’t you think that you’re embarrassing our class and our grade?”
Nava was still quiet. She put the envelope back down on the table, running her fingers around the edges, which had become a bit crumpled from being folded into the mailbox.
“So you can continue being quiet for as long as you want,” Devoiry railed. “And I know that I’ve spoken a bit out of line, but it’s only because you got me so angry. Tell me, don’t you talk to your mother? Couldn’t you have just asked her to help you? Anyway, maybe I’ll call you back in the evening, after I calm down, to apologize for this conversation. Bye!” And Devoiry hung up.
Nava didn’t even feel angry. She knew all about Devoiry’s overflowing spontaneity, and remembered that Devoiry sometimes reacted without thinking about what she was saying or what would be the outcome of her words. Still, Nava couldn’t muster up even a drop of anger against her friend.
After all, she was right—at least on some points.
No, she wasn’t sorry that she hadn’t won the competition. It didn’t really interest her much—it hadn’t two months ago, and it didn’t today. But she was sorry about one thing, and her failure to submit a report was just a symptom of that issue. Why hadn’t she been able to simply ask her mother for help? The idea had come to her, but she had quashed the thought as soon as it rose in her mind. Apparently, there were girls who were smarter than her, who sought her mother’s thoroughness, her exact analysis into each angle of every single event. Why was she the only one who saw her mother’s attention to detail as a shortcoming? Why did she prefer to find other, more circuitous ways of doing things, when these ways just distanced her from her objective?
Like now. Had she woken Abba and Ima up that very night when she discovered Rafi missing, she wouldn’t be entangled in a web of promises of secrecy and fears that those boys would call for Rafi again before she could come up with a solution. If that would happen, what would she do?
The phone rang again. Had Devoiry calmed down so quickly? Was this an apology call from her?
It was her sister-in-law, Rina. “I’m so glad you picked up, Nava, because you’re the one I wanted to talk to. Listen, I’m doing something that’s not completely ethical or professional, but I have no other way to help.” She spoke quickly and didn’t give Nava a chance to get a word in edgewise. “Tell me, do you know what’s going on with that friend of yours?”
“Batya Schindler?” As far as Nava could remember, that was her only friend whom Rina had ever met.
“Yes. What’s with her?”
“Don’t know. I spoke to her three days ago, I think. Nothing special. Why?” Something about this conversation was very weird.
“Listen, Nava. I think your friend needs help. She spoke to me by phone, and it sounds like she was looking for someone to turn to for advice. I don’t know if she wanted me to be that person, but it did sound like she needs someone like me, urgently.”
“What…what do you want me to do with this information?” Nava twirled the cord around her finger. Batya had called Rina? That was very strange; unacceptable, really, and pitiful. What was up with her? Did she have no one else to contact except for Rina? Odd. What was she going through?
“You think about it. I don’t really know what’s accepted in your circles. Maybe speak to someone in school, or to her parents. Of course, she mustn’t know that I sent you. It’s just the only way I can help her.”
“Great, another secret for me to keep,” Nava said bitterly. “That’s all I need, to go and tattle on her… I’m beyond that, Rina. I’m not a little kid anymore. Do you know what would happen to our friendship if my friends would hear about this?” The image of Devoiry rose up vividly in her mind.
Eddie Newman placed a large box of cornflakes onto the pile in his shopping cart. He turned the cart towards the registers and almost crashed into a youth coming towards him.
“Hey, Ronny!” he said jovially. “What’s up? Haven’t seen you in ages!”
“Yeah,” Ronny muttered, and glanced into his classmate’s shopping cart. Yes, his classmate and nothing more. “Shopping, eh? What are you, the family slave?”
“Not exactly, but it is acceptable in our house that if my mother is sick, I, as her son, can help out a little. Is it not the same in your house?”
Ronny uttered a silent curse and took a step back.
“How’s your group? Still dragging Zimmer along?” Eddie asked with a bright smile, rummaging around in the freezer on his right. “Any idea where the ready-to-fry French fries are here?”
“No,” Ronny said, his facial muscles stiffening—if it was possible for them to become more rigid than they had been already. “And the time has come, Newman, for you to take your nose out of our business, including Rafi’s business. Got it?”
“Sure,” Eddie replied. “Oh, thanks for the help. I found the fries I wanted. Send my best regards to Rafi, will you?”
Ronny had had enough, and he opted to turn towards the next aisle as though he hadn’t heard a thing. It didn’t look like he had any reason to be afraid of Eddie. As far as Ronny could tell, Eddie didn’t seem to be planning to do anything with the information he had about their group. How had Ofer put it? When all was said and done, Eddie wasn’t looking to incriminate himself.
His eyes darkened as he observed Eddie’s receding back.
Eddie hummed to himself as he turned towards the registers. In truth, he was more concerned about Rafi than he had let on to Ronny. He had never considered himself a particularly warm or caring person, and didn’t think that he would ever find himself serving as a nine-year-old kid’s bodyguard. But there was something about Rafi’s behavior that made him, Eddie, want to protect him as much as possible. And apparently, it was that same something that got Ronny so angry.
That power, that strength of a nine-year-old boy—it had been there from the first minute that he had met Rafi, and Shai claimed (well, not claimed; Shai didn’t claim anything—he uttered things in a hesitant whisper out of Ronny’s earshot) that it had been there before also, when he had been the Rafi from Ronny’s neighborhood, the Rafi who was Ronny’s little brother’s classmate.
“But I don’t think he fought with little kids,” Shai said. “Only those who were his age. And with big kids. You had to see how he once attacked Ronny. That’s when they got to know each other.”
Ronny had liked Rafi and admired him for his daring at the time. But, Shai also claimed, Rafi had changed since then, and Ronny no longer liked him. “Rafi’s not the same person anymore,” Shai had told Eddie during that same conversation, when they were waiting together for Ronny several weeks earlier. “I dunno exactly what it is, but he’s different. And Ronny hates him since then.”
“Sure; Rafi became religious,” Eddie had snickered. “Ronny doesn’t like religious people—and that’s an understatement. And we know that—it’s nothing new.”
“Right, but it’s not only that,” Shai had said with a shrug. “Rafi’s different now. His personality. And it’s not only the kippah, Eddie.”
Ronny had appeared at that moment, causing the conversation to end and Shai’s face to pale. Eddie found himself thinking a lot about the whole thing over the next few days, although he did not know why. After all, although he had left Ronny and his group, he was plenty busy and had other friends.
And even though Shai had made light of the idea, Eddie was certain that the change in Rafi was connected to his religious transformation. Religion didn’t only mean a kippah on Rafi’s head, and it was the religion that was making Ronny hate him.
And if so, then religion was also what caused him—Eddie—to want to protect Rafi. But why? Eddie had never felt any warmth towards religious people. In fact, they didn’t interest him much, positively or negatively. His entire reason for joining Ronny’s group was simply for the excitement and the fun involved. But what was it about Rafi that attracted him so strongly? And what could he do now to protect him from Ronny?
Nava raised her eyes towards the front door as it slammed shut. Rafi looked calm and satisfied. “He’s very nice, this guy,” he said and stuck his hand into his pocket. “He gave me a membership card and told me that each kid learns with someone, and he will learn with me. His name is Aharon Yaakovi and he lives in Sanhedria. They also have tons of prizes and he said that he’s sure I’m gonna win some.”
“Of course you will,” Yael interjected with a smile. “We know that you can do very well when you put your mind to it, sweetie.”
Nava lowered her eyes to the brown envelope on the table. “Ima,” she said tentatively, “Devoiry just called and told me that the tenth grade in our school gave out a booklet, something about history reports, and it says there that you really helped the winners.”
“Oh, they won, those two?” A smile lit up Yael’s face. She took the envelope and slit it open. “I’m happy for them. They really invested a lot of time in their report. How did Devoiry know about it? Does she have a sister in that class? They told me that this competition was only for their grade!”
“Yes.” Nava stared at the circles on Rafi’s sweater. He plugged in the organ and his right hand began to play the keys he loved so much. “I mean, no, she doesn’t have a sister in tenth grade, but she’s been into it the whole time. She wanted us to have the same competition, but it didn’t really work.”
“I think you girls have enough work,” Yael remarked, and leafed through the thin booklet. It wasn’t particularly impressive, but it was obvious that efforts had been invested to make it attractive. “This is a competition suited for older grades. Between you and me, Nava, how much does history really interest you?”
Nava smiled weakly and nodded; Yael detected a message in that smile, but she could not decipher it. She didn’t know that her daughter felt a certain need to apologize to her yet did not know exactly what had to be apologized for. For what should I ask forgiveness—for the fact that I decided not to ask for help in history? That I didn’t tell Ima about the contest? That even now, I’m not admitting that we also had such a contest but it died before it ever took off? Ima herself says we’re not mature enough for such things!
And perhaps…perhaps it’s because I didn’t trust Ima and her good will enough; the fact that I didn’t trust her to give me the best that she could?
But Nava knew that this point was not something she could apologize for now. No way. The circles on Rafi’s sweater moving restlessly along with him didn’t let her forget that.
Trust? Where are you and your trust, Nava? Are you still congratulating yourself for preserving the trust Rafi placed in you? And what about the trust that Ima and Abba have in you as their responsible, mature daughter? You don’t even begin to live up to that!
Maybe she needed to ask a rav what to do. Someone. It didn’t matter who, as long as it was someone who could help her get out of this mess. Who?
A dismal smile crossed her lips. Her mother had turned around already and did not notice it. Batya had chosen Rina to unload her teen woes, but she, Nava, couldn’t choose a person who knew Rafi and his story too well. She needed someone objective, someone whom she could also trust.
Trust, trust, trust. Batya had placed her trust in Rina, and Rina had gone and spoken to her, Nava, in order to help Batya. Did Nava have to deal with this as well? How much could she handle? And Rafi? Would he let her speak to a stranger about him, or would she have to do it behind his back?
Nava clutched her temples; the pressure of her thoughts was almost tangible.
The stammered, apologetic phone call from Sari came just at the right moment.