Israel Book Shop presents the epilogue 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
If not for the rag that wiped the dust off each Thursday, the cover of the keyboard that Abba and Ima Cohen had bought Rafi for his eleventh birthday would have been completely gray with dust. No one had touched it for the past year.
A light evening breeze blew through the open window as Rafi entered the empty room, placing his suit and hat on the bed. This was the same bed that had warmly accepted him at age nine, and although more than seven years had passed, there was nothing that could compare to its comfort. Ima had been saying for years that they had to replace the bed, but Rafi thought it was needless. In the dorm rooms where he sometimes rested in the afternoon, there were much newer beds, but there was something about sleeping at home each night. He did not know how he would give it up next year, when he would be dorming in a different city.
Perhaps it was strange that a sixteen-year-old boy still needed the security and protection that only a home could provide, but that’s the way he was. Nava said that it was very normal, and that everyone finds it hard to get used to full-fledged dorm life at first. Ima said that it might be more pronounced with him because of what he had lacked in the past, and Abba said they would ask Reb Shlomo if he thought they should apply to a local yeshivah gedolah in Yerushalayim, or if he should go to a different city. Abba claimed that a dormitory was very good for the maturing process.
Did he still need to become more mature? Apparently. If he was able to miss the feeling of the keyboard keys under his dancing fingers, then he probably was still quite babyish.
True, it had been a whole year already—or a year and a day to be exact—since the last night that he had played. But it had been the year of mourning for his mother, not a voluntary abstention.
Hesitantly, he lifted the brown cover and sat down on the small swivel chair. On the lower shelf, near his feet, were a few songbooks. He picked up the top one from the pile and opened it to a random page. It didn’t matter what song it was right now, as long as he could play a few notes, which he had missed so much over the past year. It wasn’t that he had played so much the year before, because his music had been a rather neglected hobby for several years now. But it was still his hobby, by all accounts. And knowing that he was forbidden from playing the notes he loved so much was hard for him.
Someone appeared in the door as he played, entering when the song was over. “That was beautiful, Rafi,” Yael said. “What did you have for supper tonight?”
“It wasn’t bad at all, actually,” Rafi said and swiveled one hundred and eighty degrees on the chair. “But if Abba hasn’t eaten yet, I’d love to have coffee with him when he comes home. By the time I got to the dining room, the milk was finished.”
Yael laughed. “Sure, no problem. How about I prepare your coffee now? You don’t have to wait for Abba, you know.”
“Well, I can’t refuse a mother’s coffee,” he smiled as he rose. “But I’ll prepare the first one myself.”
“Why?” She was puzzled. “You keep playing. You know I like to listen to you.”
“But I don’t want to continue playing now,” he said in a low voice. “No…not all at once.” He went out to the kitchen with her.
Nava was sitting at the table, in the exact same position as he had found her earlier, when he had first arrived home. But then, Ima had been sitting next to her.
“Am I disturbing a conversation here, or something?” he asked, taking a step back. “My coffee can wait; it’s not so urgent.”
“You know you never bother us, Rafi,” Nava said, and looked at him in mock rebuke. “And I’ve already finished speaking to Ima. By the way, you played really nicely. You can’t tell that it’s been so long since you practiced.”
Rafi walked over to the counter quietly and took the coffee out of the cabinet. Ima handed him a mug and left the kitchen. The silence hung in the air.
“Good, I’m happy to hear,” he said heavily.
It seemed that since his real mother had passed away, he had begun to think about her more seriously. Until then, she was just a blurry image of the past, and he preferred not to think or recall the past. He had stubbornly refused to meet her and was pleased when he wasn’t pressured to do so. “She won’t recognize him anyway,” Sarah would say, agreeing wholeheartedly with Yael that such a visit could just confuse the child and have a negative impact on his development.
But since that evening one year ago, something inside him had changed direction. He tried every so often to sit and concentrate on the unidentified feelings that he sometimes had, attempting to translate them into coherent thoughts. It wasn’t pain, longing, or a feeling of having missed out. It was just pity and a sense of constant guilt, perhaps because of the fact that he didn’t feel like a normal son who had lost his mother.
Every so often he recalled memories of dry slices of bread, a sheet-less bed, and dozens of pudding cups piled onto the shelves in the refrigerator. The feeling of misery rose in him again, and with it the tremendous rage. At first, the anger was directed at her, and then towards himself. What do I want from this poor woman? Then I was a truly wretched child, but now there is no reason for me to be angry, especially since today I understand that no one was to blame for anything. Why am I angry? Why don’t I feel regretful enough?
Somewhere in the world, perhaps even in this country, he had another sister, besides Nava. She was around seven or eight years old and he had no idea where she was and what her life was like. Was it okay that he had grown up here without ever thinking about his real family? Was it acceptable that he was so happy here even though he was not the Cohens’ biological son?
Perhaps he really wasn’t so normal.
Fuchsbrummer had once come over to him, when he had been in shiur aleph, and asked him if it was true that he was adopted. Rafi had affirmed that he was.
“Wow, you can’t even tell!” Fuchsbrummer had said in surprise. “I can’t believe it!”
Meir Cooperman had laughed and asked if there were any signs that he was looking for, and if Rafi needed two horns or a tail, or if one horn was enough. Fuchsbrummer swallowed the rebuke for his tactlessness and just said that all the books he had read as a kid had described adopted children as being very pitiable.
“And they stutter!” Meir Cooperman had added. “Don’t forget!”
Fuchsbrummer had laughed and said that they could say what they wanted, but Rafi was always very cheerful and smiling. And then he had apologized.
“You’re very thoughtful today, Rafi,” Nava said, sipping the last of her water. She only drank hot water with sugar, like her mother. He needed his coffee, like Abba. Perhaps he would be able to kick the habit one day, because Abba said it was a very bad addiction.
“I’m just wondering if I’m normal.”
“That’s a question that needs to be discussed in a public family forum,” she said, laughing. “What happened?”
“Don’t you think I should have been…sadder this year? True, I hardly knew my mother. But I feel like I went back to playing my keyboard today with too much enthusiasm.”
“No, I don’t think so. And perhaps I should have been sadder this year, for example, or the year before that?”
“Because I’m already twenty three and a half, and almost all of my friends are married, some of them even with children, and I haven’t found my zivug yet. So, yes, baruch Hashem, I have a good job, but I could still lament the fact that without my own home, it’s not worth anything, right?”
“I never thought about it, to be honest.”
“Me, neither,” Nava said with another laugh. “Baruch Hashem. I firmly believe that my shidduch will come at the right moment, and not a second after that. But I can’t say that there aren’t frustrating moments. What keeps me going are my conversations with Abba and Ima.”
“Since I’ve come here, I’ve always liked talking to Abba,” Rafi said, turning his coffee cup between his palms. “You, though, were never so into it.”
“You’re right. Maybe I learned to talk to my parents more from you.” The laughter in her voice had disappeared. “You were only nine when you came, but you were much smarter than me.”
“I don’t think I was smarter. I think you just didn’t know how to appreciate what you had. And I did.”
“Yes. You never knew what it was like to walk down the street knowing that if something happened to you now, no one would care. Or to lie in bed in the morning and know that if you didn’t go eat, no one would come and make sure that you did. You have no idea how a child feels when he is afraid of something, but he knows that nevertheless he has to be very big and think of the solution to the problem by himself, because no one will do it for him. You grew up in a sheltered environment, and perhaps because of that, you didn’t know what it was like for someone who grew up outside, unprotected.”
“And therefore?” She was listening closely, as her eyes focused on her fingers.
“And suddenly, when I came here, everything got so much better. People worried about me, asked me how I was, and wanted things to be good for me. They protected me. And they did it all because they cared about me. So why should it make a difference if they checked my every test and explained where my mistakes were? And who cared if they learned with me and didn’t finish until it was clear that I knew everything inside out? But they were learning with me! Checking my tests! Someone cared about me! You understand?”
“Yes,” she answered tiredly.
“Maybe someone who was born into all this could take it for granted, and when you take things for granted, there can be complaints. But when you know that it’s all a gift, that nothing is a given, and you are aware of how bad it is when you don’t have it, you learn to be happy with every minute that you do.”
“That’s very true, for lots of other things, as well,” Nava added quietly.
Rafi respected her wishes to change the subject. He silently mixed the sugar and coffee, added the water and milk, made a brachah, and drank. The coffee was tasteless.
“I need to remember that when I’ll be married b’ezras Hashem. They say that beginnings aren’t always easy. Maybe it helps to remember the times when you were wishing desperately for it…”
“You said that it’s not so bad,” Rafi reminded her, “and I really hope that your beginnings won’t be so difficult that you’ll have to compare them to the days when the situation wasn’t as good for you.”
“I daven,” Nava said, and once again, looked at the wall opposite her with the distant look that he had seen on her face when he had come into the kitchen. “Besides, like lots of kallahs, I am sure that everything will be as wonderful as possible, without any ‘difficult beginnings’ and all that.”
“Like lots of kallahs?” He put his half-full cup into the sink. He would wait for the coffee Ima would prepare for him later.
The aroma of cake permeated the air and tickled Rafi’s nose. He set down the bench he had been carrying and stretched his arms. It was a good thing he had been able to tell the rosh yeshivah that his sister was getting engaged that night and had received permission to come home at lunchtime. This way he was able to help and be a part of the excitement with everyone else.
Dear Nava. He hoped that she had gotten a really special chassan. She deserved it. She said that the boy had become a baal teshuvah about six years ago, and Abba was afraid that perhaps it hadn’t been long enough. But they had heard such wonderful things that even Abba had been convinced that it wouldn’t hurt to look into it further.
Ima ran the vacuum cleaner over the sofa one more time and straightened the edge of the tablecloth, which, for some reason, had slipped down to one side.
“I hope there’s enough food,” she fretted. “Rafi, run into the kitchen and tell me you think there’s enough there.”
He obeyed like a docile child, entering the kitchen that had cake platters on every available surface. On the table, the counters, the chairs, and on the stovetop. “I don’t think there’ll be enough,” he said seriously. “There won’t be enough people to eat all this. When did you go to sleep last night, Ima?”
“That’s a secret,” she said. She had stayed up late, channeling her brimming emotions into slicing the cakes and arranging them on platters. “Check if there are enough napkins in the drawer, Rafi.”
“Maybe you should go rest a little, Yael,” Manny said, coming into the kitchen. “Excitement is very exhausting you know.”
“What about the drinks?”
“They’re in the car downstairs. We’ll bring them up right away,” Rafi said. “Don’t worry, Ima. B’ezras Hashem, everything will be beautiful and plentiful. I really think you have time to rest a bit before it all starts.”
She chuckled, accepting their will, and cast a final glance at her husband and son before leaving the room. Rafi was growing taller every day, like many teens his age. Sometimes she tried to find the little boy who had come to them seven years ago, but couldn’t.
Something about the chassan who entered and accepted all the “mazel tovs” with a warm smile parted an old curtain that had been stubbornly hanging in Rafi’s brain. Something about the scenes and the sounds that he had tried so hard to forget, as each year passed, suddenly returned. Perhaps it was the chassan’s older brother who entered with a large smile and a white kippah pinned to his red hair. It was obvious that that was not its natural perch. Perhaps it was the parents who entered with a huge bouquet of flowers and bashful smiles, not knowing how and to whom to offer their handshakes and what exactly to say. The dynamics of the whole family were very different from that of the Cohens, and they raised fragments of memories from the past that Rafi didn’t want to remember, yet didn’t want to let slip away.
And perhaps it was the chassan himself. His red hair was more or less concealed beneath his black hat, but a stray lock peeked out from beneath, a shade lighter than his brother’s, blending perfectly with his freckles. He shook hands like a pro with the guests, and introduced his family with a gentle, warm smile. Rafi retreated to the kitchen doorway, observing the freckled chassan from the distance, knowing that in a moment, he would be summoned for the handshaking ceremony. Ugh, how he hated such moments.
“Shmuel, meet Rafi,” Manny said naturally, and Rafi walked forward and hesitatingly proffered his hand. “Rafi, this is Shmuel Newman, your future brother-in-law.”
“Mazel tov,” Rafi said, raising his eyes to the chassan. As tall as he had become— “almost to the ceiling,” as his mother said—the chassan was even taller than him.
“Mazel tov on your sister’s engagement,” Shmuel said sincerely, gazing at Rafi right in the eye. “I’ve heard lots of good things about you.”
“And I’ve heard good things about you, as well,” Rafi said politely, knowing that he had met this chassan somewhere in the past. When? When? When? The name “Shmuel Newman” had meant nothing to him yesterday, when he had excitedly interrogated Nava. But now he was sure that this name was supposed to mean something to him. What?
“I’ve met you before,” he said to the chassan, pulling his hand back abruptly. “Perhaps you know when?”
Abba and Ima were busy seating the guests, and explaining that yes, the men would sit in the dining room, and the women, in another room. They didn’t see a thing. Nava stood at a distance, observing her chassan and her brother, her heart pounding increasingly faster. Was everything okay there between them?
“I think I know,” Shmuel said, although he didn’t seem particularly disturbed. Perhaps he was good at concealing his true feelings, or perhaps he really didn’t see any reason to be nervous. “True, I never accompanied you all the way here, but I know your address, as well as your story, Rafi. Don’t you remember me?”
“I remember you, but I’m not sure from where,” Rafi said, and something in his voice resembled the Rafi of a long time ago.
“Well, if we take into account that until I became frum I didn’t use the name ‘Shmuel’ even once, then it’s understandable why you don’t recognize me. But if I fill in the missing information and tell you that my parents still prefer to call me ‘Eddie,’ and not the other name they gave me, then you might be able to make the connection.”
“I’ve made it already,” Rafi said somberly. He raised his eyes and saw Nava standing on the side, tense. “Well,” he said rigidly, “I wish you lots of mazel.”
From that moment on, there wasn’t a spare second during which he could encounter the chassan again, which didn’t upset Rafi in the least. The guests began to stream in, and brachos and kisses flew in all directions. Nava and her mother disappeared into the room for the ladies, and Abba welcomed the guests into the dining room. Rafi tried to fulfill the important role of “brother of the kallah.” Shimon, Nava’s real brother, sat in the corner of the room, deep in conversation with Shmuel’s older brother. Shmuel? Eddie! Eddie, the redhead! Ronny’s friend!
Someone brushed past Rafi and the cream of the cake he was holding smeared onto Rafi’s Shabbos suit. That was an ideal excuse to flee to the kitchen to try and think about Eddie Newman. Eddie, not Shmuel, whose friends talked and sang and looked just like Rafi’s friends from yeshivah would talk and sing and look in a few more years.
Eddie had actually been very nice to him. He had always helped protect him from the others. He was the only one who knew that there had been what to take from Nava’s school, and had kept the secret. But still, he had been Ronny’s friend! Ronny, who, even after they had settled matters between them, still floated in Rafi’s mind as a threatening image.
Except that now, Eddie’s friends were totally different. None of them were even remotely similar to Ronny or any of the other guys from the gang. Eddie had new friends and a new way of life, and if Rafi couldn’t accept that such drastic changes were certainly possible, then who would? Sarah, who had never had any faith in him? The unforgettable Mrs. Davidi?
It is possible to change when one wants to do so. A person can want to be better, and can want to change from “Eddie” to “Shmuel.” It was a fact.
The light stain had been completely washed off, and Rafi returned to the dining room, where one of the chassan’s friends was extolling Shmuel’s virtues. The friend described Shmuel as a brilliant and diligent lamdan who was destined for greatness. So, yes, it was true that one could record these speeches and play them at countless simchos, but it was still something, and it was good to hear that this was Nava’s chassan.
Rafi listened with his arms folded, leaning against the bookcase. His chair had been taken by a guest. He cast a glance at the chassan, and a funny thought crossed his mind: It was a shame that Nava hadn’t asked him about the chassan. He could have given her quite a dose of information.
Shmuel’s family bid the Cohens farewell, as did the rest of the guests. The only ones left were the chassan, Shimon, and Rina, who was helping Yael organize the leftover cake trays. Ten-year-old Danny was trying his hand at Rafi’s keyboard.
“A bit quieter, Danny, dear,” Yael cautioned. “The neighbors are asleep.”
Someone suddenly touched Rafi’s shoulder. He spun around. Once of the things he still couldn’t stand was being taken by surprise from behind.
“Can I speak to you for a few minutes, Rafi?” Shmuel, or Eddie—it didn’t really make a difference—asked.
“With the chassan? Sure!” Rafi said, following Shmuel into a corner.
“I’m happy you’re not angry at me,” Shmuel began, taking off his hat for the first time and placing it on the back of the sofa. “The truth is, you had me scared there for a few minutes.”
“But just for a few minutes,” Rafi said, looking directly at Shmuel. “I just told Nava that to the best of my recollection, you are really an excellent choice for her.”
“Well, if we’re getting to the compliments stage, then now it’s my turn,” Shmuel-Eddie said and looked at the flowers standing on his right. It was the bouquet his parents had brought. “You should know that you played a role in the changes I underwent. I can’t really say that you are the direct cause, but when I began to think in this direction, I thought of you, and you could say it definitely gave me motivation.”
“I’m very pleased,” Rafi said seriously, looking out of the corner of his eye as his father spoke to his oldest son. It was suddenly very hot and stifling in the room.
“I admired your gumption when you stood up to Ronny,” the chassan continued. “You remember that first night, when he laughed at your kippah? You defended it stubbornly, although at the end of the day, it was pretty new to you, too. I remember thinking to myself that I don’t know if religion is good or not, but it sure is powerful.”
A hint of a smile appeared on Rafi’s face. “Say all this at my engagement one day, okay? I’m sure it’s going to be a very interesting speech. Everyone’s going to listen.”
Shmuel and Eddie laughed at him together from under the mop of red hair. The faint roar of a motorbike engine and the sharp odor of spray paint suddenly filled the air… Metal bars felt cold against his hands, and the principal’s warm hands grasped onto his legs… Green journals fell out with a thump from a large bag, and Nava sat, waiting on his bed… A cold, empty bed stood in another neighborhood in Yerushalayim, and the refrigerator there was full of food that little boys did not like to eat… His mother wandered through the house, not knowing or caring if he was there, and Manny gave him his big, strong hand as they entered Ronny’s storage room…
Once again, Shmuel’s freckles laughed at him.
Rafi felt a sudden urge to stroke one of the flowers from Nava’s bouquet. But his arms remained folded. He could not express emotion in the presence of strangers— and even Eddie, at this point, was still a stranger. Perhaps soon, after Shmuel-Eddie would leave, he could do so. He would stroke his middle finger on the velvety petals of a flower, checking if the stem was firmly embedded into the green, firm sponge. After all, it was only because of the firm foundation that the flower could stand tall.