Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 12 of a new online serial novel, Beneath the Surface, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every Thursday or Friday. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © 2011 by Israel Bookshop Publication
Chani finished the conversation with her sister and walked out of the room, passing the nurses’ station. True, she had seen the baby just an hour ago, but even that was too long for her. For her own peace of mind, she had to see how he was doing, up close. She entered the nursery, passing rows and rows of screaming babies.
One of the nurses greeted her at the entrance to the neonatal unit. “How are you Chani?” she asked. “Don’t come every minute! You’ve got to rest!”
“Not every minute…” Chani said with a wan smile as she peeked into the incubator on the left side. “It’s been fifty minutes since I was last here!”
“My, what a long time ago that was!” the nurse said with a laugh and moved out of the way. “Come as much as you want. For the baby, it’s excellent. The question is, what’s with you?”
“For me it’s also excellent,” Chani said and slipped inside. Most of the nurses here knew her well. After all, she’d parted from them tearfully just a year and a half ago.
She bent over the miniscule face, and a wave of love overwhelmed her. The tiny closed eyes twitched for a second, but didn’t open. “Sleep, darling, sleep well,” Chani whispered, stroking the thin wrist with her pinky. “You need to grow, and b’ezras Hashem you’ll have a lot of koach!”
“Oh!” Chani suddenly heard an exclamation to her right. An unfamiliar-looking nurse opened the drawer of cloth diapers. “Is that your son? He’s our ‘giant’ in the ward now! One kilo, eight-hundred-eighty grams—bli ayin hara!”
“What? He lost so much weight?” Chani was almost hysterical, and she scanned the doctor’s clipboard that was attached to the incubator. Those threatening declines in weight were her worst nightmare.
The nurse glanced at her with an expression of rebuke. “What are you talking about? That’s a very normal weight loss. You have nothing to worry about! He, for example”—she pointed to a swaddled bundle on her right—“was born last week, 980 grams. And he went down, down, down, until he finally started going up again. Now he weighs 870 grams. You really have nothing to worry about, Mom; your baby weighs twice as much as that!” The rebuke in her eyes turned to sympathy. “But I understand you. A child born very small is always a bit scary. It must be your first preemie, isn’t it?”
“Third,” Chani whispered thinly as her tear-filled eyes looked at the closed window.
“You did great, Yehudis, like always!” Cheryl, the occupational therapist, tossed the lump of clay back into its pink box and closed the lid. “Did you see your new baby yet?”
Yehudis stuck out her bottom lip. “No. They don’t le-et li-t-tle girls go-o there.”
“Don’t worry—he’ll come home soon and then he’ll scream so much that you’ll forget there was a time you didn’t know him!” the therapist soothed.
“I w-wa-ant to help a-al-o-ot!”
Cheryl shouldered her large tote bag. “Great. What will you do?”
“I w-w-want to-o-o w-w-ash dish-sh-shes!”
Cheryl paused for a moment and immediately took her bag off. “Then let’s go. I’ll teach you how to do it.” She offered her hand to the child, who grasped it tightly. “Come, Yehudis, off to the kitchen we go!”
“P-p-l-lease mo-ove!” Yehudis announced to Simi, who was standing and washing the last of the fleishig dishes.
“What?” Simi was puzzled.
“We want to try and wash the dishes,” Cheryl explained. “Will you leave us a few?”
“Sure!” Simi took off her apron and tied it around Yehudis’s waist. The excited girl stroked it reverently.
Simi sat down on a chair and watched Cheryl’s every move with interest. First, Cheryl placed the sponge and one plate on the counter. “Now, pick up the bottle of dish soap. Excellent. Put a bit of soap on this plate.”
Cheryl supported Yehudis’s fragile fingers, and together they tilted the bottle of soap. The green liquid oozed generously onto the sponge, which Yehudis grasped tightly in her left hand. “Now scrub?” she asked excitedly.
Cheryl held the plate, and Yehudis went over it with the sponge. Her uncontrolled movements made it hard for her to keep to the plate, and Cheryl’s arms were also sprayed with a shower of suds.
“Excellent!” the therapist cried enthusiastically. “Now my hands will also be clean!” She turned the plate over and Yehudis repeated the process. Cheryl rinsed the plate and placed it on the drying rack. She picked up a plastic tray from the nearly empty sink.
Simi, who had been thrilled that she might actually be getting some help, began to regret having agreed to this. Couldn’t Cheryl have thought of a better time? she thought to herself. I know what’s going to happen. Yehduis will want to wash dishes every day. It’s wonderful for her muscles, I’m sure, but the mess… Does Cheryl think I don’t have enough work to do, or that I have extra time on my hands? She tried to brush the dour thoughts from her mind, and when she heard a light knocking at the front door, she welcomed the distraction.
Miriam, the Tuesday volunteer, was at the door, with an unfamiliar girl standing beside her.
“Hi, Simi. Mazel tov,” Miriam said and walked in with a smile. “This is my friend Hindy. She wants to get to know Yehudis.”
“With pleasure!” Simi returned the smile and closed the door. “How was your test last week?”
“Baruch Hashem. It was actually pretty easy. So, what’s doing? What does Yehudis have to say about the latest news?”
A call from the kitchen cut their conversation short. “Mir-r-iam! C-come see-ee what I-I’m do-oing!” In two steps, Miriam was at the kitchen door. Her brunette friend hung back near the front door, a bit uneasy.
“Miriam’s wonderful,” Simi said appreciatively. “Yehudis adores her.”
Half an hour later, when Simi walked past Yehudis’s room with an armload of laundry from the dryer, she heard peals of laughter. “Hey, what’s going on in here?” she asked, poking her head inside the room. The laundry got caught on the doorknob and the pile went tumbling to the ground.
“I like folding laundry. May I?” Hindy volunteered and bent down to pick up the scattered clothes.
“Thanks!” Simi was pleased and made no effort to conceal it. Together, they carried the pile over to the bed.
“I a-als-o-o w-want to f-f-o-o-ld!” Yehudis begged.
“You also want to do math homework!” Miriam pinched Yehudis’s cheek and helped her grasp the pencil that had dropped. Simi and Hindy spoke in whispered tones so as not to bother them. The topic of interest for Simi was comparing the summer activities their two schools were planning.
“In our school, each grade is so big that they all have their own sleepover trips. I’m helping to organize the eleventh grade overnight. It’s supposed to be in two-and-a—half weeks, b’ezras Hashem. You’re also in eleventh grade, right? When is your overnight?”
Hindy shrugged. “The truth is, it doesn’t really interest me much. I’m not the type who gets involved in these sort of activities. On Shabbos I also prefer to do my own thing rather than sit with my class and pass the time with idle chatter or doing some organized activity.”
“Well, each person and her personality,” Simi said, nodding as she placed a folded towel in the correct pile.
Miriam turned around to face them. “You know, Simi, that’s exactly why I brought Hindy here.”
Simi stared uncomprehendingly at Miriam.
“You told me that you’ll probably be giving up being a Bnos leader next year, so I found Hindy. She would gladly come over every Shabbos to play with Yehudis. Your mother will be able to rest, and you’ll be able to go to your Bnos group.”
The young man picked up the vibrating receiver with a polite “hello.” A minute later, he called to his wife, “Yael, someone wants to speak to you.”
Yael swallowed another spoonful of salad and hurried into the hallway. Either it was about a job for next year, or another friend had gotten engaged. Or … or what? No other possibility dawned on her in the split second she had before beginning to speak.
“Hello?” she said in as respectable a voice as she could muster. Perhaps it was the kindergarten supervisor.
“Yael, how are you? It’s Zahava.”
“Do you think I didn’t recognize your voice?” Yael replied, looking at the phone with a trace of disappointment. Traitor, that phone. Didn’t it know she was waiting anxiously for a call that would inform her of some work, however temporary? But even a call from a friend meant something special, because friends didn’t usually call, especially at this hour.
“Why do you think I’m calling?” Zahava asked.
“Well, yes, someone did, but not me.”
Yael mentally scanned the list of her close friends. Going out to a l’chaim was not what she really wanted to do right now—but how could she not go when everyone had come to hers?
“Im yirtzeh Hashem by you, too, Zahava! So, who is it?”
“Oh, how nice. Mazel tov,” Yael replied. Menuchi … well, it was wonderful that she was getting engaged, and it was great news and all, but the two of them had never really had much of a relationship. So she wouldn’t have to go out tonight to the l’chaim after all. It was better that way.
“Who’s the chassan?” she asked.
“That’s exactly why I’m calling. I think he learns in the same yeshivah where your husband learned.”
“Who is it?” Yael asked again.
“Somebody Ostfeld, from Bnei Brak.”
“I think I heard that name, but if so, it’s really strange. I think he’s a really outgoing, popular guy.” Yael put the phone down, and came back a minute later. “Interesting. It seems like it really is my husband’s friend, because there is only one Ostfeld in that yeshivah. He’s a great boy, my husband says. He thinks very highly of him.”
“Menuchi is also an excellent girl,” Zahava said quietly, as though Yael had said something to refute the fact.
“You’re right,” Yael agreed. “It’s just hard to see it through her quiet exterior. Anyway, let’s not get off topic. Where’s the l’chaim? Don’t tell me on the moshav!”
“I wouldn’t have gone, but my husband feels he has to. It’s one of his good friends.”
“Well, it’s at her sister Sarah’s house. Rechov Chazon Ish—um, I don’t remember the number now. I guess you could look in the phone book.”
“Thanks, Zahava. May we only meet at simchos.”
Yael hung up the phone and returned to the table, where her husband was sipping his coffee and smiling dreamily to himself. “What are you thinking about?” she asked, taking a bentcher from the small shelf above the table.
“Nothing special. I was just remembering all sorts of nice memories. You know what Shragi Ostefeld is to me? We were roommates for two years, and we learned together for a short while, too. I’m so happy he’s engaged. I thought he’d get stuck.”
“Because on the one hand, his family does not exactly conform to the norms of Bnei Brak. His father is a university professor and his mother is a dentist… And on the other hand, they were very picky.”
“Dr. Chani Ostefeld!” Yael exclaimed, running her tongue over the filling on a back tooth. “Oh, so he’s a brother of the Ostfeld from my school. I know her from a few programs we participated in together in school. Listen, this shidduch sounds … um … a little incompatible, I think.” Incompatible? What an understatement! According to the stories she’d heard about this Ostfeld and his exuberant personality, this shidduch sounded like a bad joke.
“Why, is his sister like him?”
“Very outgoing, yes. I can’t imagine her having a sister-in-law like Menuchi. And the families … they’re exact opposites!”
“Which Feder is this?” Yael’s husband asked.
“Her father is the rav of a moshav. You know, a chashuve type of family.”
“Well, Hashem is mezaveg zivugim in the world, not you,” her husband joked and got up to put on his hat. “Otherwise, from what I understand from you, they never would have gotten engaged.”
“I hope that it really is the right zivug. What can I tell you? She’s so quiet…” Yael waved with her hand, swatting at a pesky mosquito that was trying to find a perch on her forehead.
“So what? That means nothing.” He went over to the sink. “There are people who are not at all bothered by quiet.”
Silence spread over the kitchen as the couple bentched. Then Yael’s husband rose. “Shall we go?” he asked, flipping through a phone book for the address.
“Let’s go,” she replied resignedly.
I can’t believe it, but baruch Hashem, it happened! I got engaged yesterday. The l’chaim was wonderful. True, very few friends came, but being that I didn’t expect more, I wasn’t too disappointed about that. One of the important things I discovered is that the two people I was most afraid of, I have nothing to worry about. First is my chassan’s mother. She’s such a sweet woman. You could tell she was very tired (having come straight from the convalescent home), but she hugged and kissed me and told me that she couldn’t have chosen a better girl (nu, nu) and how grateful she is to her sister from Yerushalayim who went to see me and decided that I was right for her nephew. She kept saying she was going to call her again and thank her. “Thank her for me, too,” I said to her, a bit uneasy, though happy to see that my future mother-in-law wasn’t the cold European I had feared she was.
The second person is my chassan’s younger sister. I went over to her, pretty hesitantly, but I didn’t even have a chance to open my mouth and say what I had prepared because she started first. She gave a long speech, and I didn’t understand a word and felt awful. But my future mother-in-law stood next to us, nodding and smiling. “Yehudis is saying a hearty mazel tov and that she’s very happy to be your sister-in-law and that she hopes you will have a very happy life.” How did she realize that I hadn’t understood?
Yehudis added another sentence. “You’re excited for the wedding, Yehudis? Wonderful!” Simi exclaimed, having approached from the other side.
Simi is the third person I was really afraid of, and it seems there is what to be afraid of. At the l’chaim she was a bit reserved. She kept looking me up and down from my head to my toes and offered a few words with forced politeness. Not that she wasn’t sweet. She tried to be warm; I saw that. But I could feel something in her manner…
But I’m sure that it’s only a matter of time before we’ll warm up to each other. Maybe she, too, like me, has a hard time meeting new people?
We get a mazel tov. Yes, I know, and I really think that Shragi got a catch of a girl, because she makes a very positive impression. But … this is not the sister-in-law of my dreams. I knew she was a bit quiet, but I had imagined something totally different, not like this at all. Hardly any of her friends came. Ima says that that impressed her, that she once read that the custom of friends coming to the l’chaim has a lot of drawbacks to it. Could be, but if the girls go to everyone else’s l’chaim, then why didn’t they come to my brother’s kallah’s one?
The only friend there whom I knew was Yael; I don’t know her last name. “Doesn’t your class usually come to friends’ l’chaims?” I asked her. She mumbled something about the school year having just ended and everyone being busy with their schedules. She also commented that she wouldn’t have come either, but that her husband is Shragi’s good friend from yeshivah.
What does it mean that “everyone’s busy with their schedules”? I’m sure that if I would get engaged even at this time of year, almost everyone would come to my l’chaim. I don’t know what the girls are so busy with. Besides, Yael added that even she hadn’t come for Menuchi; she was only there because of her husband. And maybe another friend came because she’s a neighbor, and a third because she’s a cousin…? So this Menuchi is not worth anyone coming for her because of who she is? Is she so marginal, such an outcast?
Ima says that sisters-in-law really don’t have to be like each other, so it doesn’t matter if Shragi’s kallah’s not my type. But Shragi is so much like me! It’s not compatible for Shragi!
I didn’t like it when Ima told me she had sent Aunt Betty to check out Menuchi. Ima is not Aunt Betty, and their taste is totally different. But what could I say to Ima? That I would go check Menuchi out? Well, I guess the most important thing is that my brother is happy, and I hope they’ll be happy for many more years together.
I hope, at least, that when Yitzi gets engaged, b’ezras Hashem, Ima will rely on me a bit more, and maybe I’ll have more in common with that sister-in-law. (How old is she today? Five? Six?) Maybe.
Baruch Hashem. We are happy and grateful to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. But Simi is a tiny bit disappointed. Like the good sister, she just told Shragi how wonderful his kallah is, but she told me a bit more privately. She doesn’t think it’s a match. She thinks that Menuchi will not blend into our family.
Oy, these eighteen-year-olds are already sure that they know everything and can make earth-shaking decisions on their own. Betty was actually very impressed when she saw Menuchi at that wedding. The truth is, I know that Betty and I are very different; on that point, Simi is right. It’s possible that Betty would have seen somebody whom I wouldn’t be impressed with and yet still think that she would be a good match. But I also had Shragi’s opinion, and everything I heard when I made my inquiries, and I decided to rely on that. I’m not a teenager anymore, who’s sure that only someone who knows how to promote herself properly has any value. In fact, I know that often, it’s the exact opposite.
I was very positively impressed by Menuchi. I think she’s wonderful, and hope that she will be a good wife for Shragi. Perhaps it’s because of my personality—seeing the good in situations that cannot be changed—that helps me think this way. I wonder if I would have thought differently had I been the one to see Menuchi first…