Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 16 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
“Diana? I’m going to the cafeteria!” Ruby stuck her head into the room.
Diana slipped her pen into the back flap of her loose-leaf. “Go and enjoy,” she replied blandly and walked out to her friend.
“Aren’t you coming?” Ruby asked.
“No. I have no appetite, I’m too tired, and the truth is, I don’t have time, anyway.”
“What now? You gave in the psychometric report this morning, if I’m not mistaken.”
“You’re not, but I have other things that I’m busy with besides school.”
“Oh. I forgot.” Ruby’s voice had taken on that tone of oozing scorn that was becoming so common whenever she spoke to Diana. “What’s up? You haven’t finished planning the wedding menu yet? Or are you going to choose a necklace? Be careful that his mother doesn’t convince him to buy you an ugly Star of David-shaped pendant.”
Diana sighed. “Oh, Ruby, come off it. It has no connection to that at all. I have to meet someone about a job offer, that’s all.”
“Work? Why? Are your parents stopping to pay your tuition? But you got a scholarship, didn’t you?”
“Right, but if we both keep studying after the wedding, how do you expect us to pay for the food we eat?”
“Oh. So you’re going to work. Nice. I understand that he convinced you that his studies are more important than yours. By the way, does he not think that your studies are needless anyway? He didn’t ask you yet to drop out of school permanently?”
This time Diana’s sigh was longer than before. “Maybe you really should head for the cafeteria, Ruby. And then you can stop dancing on my head, alright? If you want to know before you go, then most of my next year is internship and I have to worry about where I’m doing it. And that’s exactly what this woman is meeting me about.”
“Who is it?”
“She didn’t exactly identify herself.” Diana stopped at the edge of the footpath. “To tell you the truth, she was rather mysterious. She just told me she had gotten my name from somebody at the university who said I’m a trainee in pediatric and youth psychology, and she wanted to speak to me.”
“And she didn’t clearly say it has to do with work?”
“Not really. But for some reason, that’s the way I understood it.”
“I know you better than you think I do, Diana. You always understand whatever you want to understand, and you’re always wrong.”
“Always?” Diana’s voice was cold. “Do me a personal favor, Ruby, really, and run along to the cafeteria. Eat a mountain of cake and drink eight cups of coffee. But leave me alone, okay?”
She strode angrily down the street. A quick glance at her watch showed her that if she wouldn’t hurry, she’d be late to the meeting.
The corner bench on the tree-lined boulevard was still empty as she slumped down onto it, breathing heavily. It sure was a strange venue for a meeting or job interview. Perhaps Ruby was right?
Doubts began to creep into her heart. Who was the woman with the smooth voice who had called her, and what did she want?
She tried to find a comfortable position on the old bench. It creaked.
“Hi,” she heard a pleasant voice say, and she raised her head. The woman standing before her did not fit the image of the potential kidnapper that Diana had already conjured in her mind. She was dressed in a long-sleeved shirt, despite the heat, and a skirt and stockings. She also wore a wig.
Diana didn’t need more than that to draw her own conclusions. This person was an Orthodox Jewish woman. That didn’t mean that her dreams of a future job for next year had dissipated completely. Jews could also employ the services of a clinical psychologist, couldn’t they?
But her brain forcefully shuttered out those thoughts. No. An Orthodox Jewish woman who wanted to meet her a day before her engagement was to be finalized could mean only one thing. A very Weingarteny thing.
“Pleased to meet you; my name is Anne,” the woman said, proffering her hand. Her eyes studied Diana, but her lips gave no disclosure that she was silently praying. Praying with all her heart.
“Pleased to meet you, too,” Diana replied politely and shook the outstretched hand. “Diana.”
The woman sat down to her left on the bench; it squeaked again and then fell silent.
“I came to help you,” the woman said, and Diana suddenly realized that her thoughts had once again shifted to a potential job offer.
“To help me?” she asked interestedly.
“Yes, to help you. Before you make one of the most fateful mistakes in your life.”
Diana raised an eyebrow. That sentence did not sit well with her at all. “Fateful mistakes?”
“Yes,” Chani Ostfeld said, feeling her heart pounding painfully in her chest. “A very fateful mistake. Tomorrow.”
Diana’s expression became closed.
“I spoke to Dan’s mother already,” she said tonelessly, “and I must say, she didn’t try to be very forthcoming at all.”
“I know.” The woman pressed her lips together for a moment. “And I can tell you that she was very distraught about it. She asked me to apologize in her name.”
“So you came here to apologize or to help me?” Diana rose. She was not going to spend any more time talking to this woman. She could say what she wanted and react however she would react, but Diana would just nod and then walk off.
“Both.” Chani’s smile did not conceal the lines of tension on her forehead. “I simply know my brother very well, and I came to tell you that for your own good, you shouldn’t marry him.”
“So you are his sister.” Diana’s hand clenched into a fist in her pocket. “And may I know why you think it will be so bad for me to marry him?”
“Perhaps you could sit down?” Chani suggested gently, afraid to press the button that would arouse the girl’s anger and cause her to abscond.
“Thank you, but I prefer to stand,” Diana snapped.
Chani rose as well. She didn’t think that a situation where they were both standing was a comfortable setting for this loaded conversation. But to have her sit and Diana stand seemed much worse to her.
“First of all,” Chani began, “there’s the issue of your children. Have you thought about them? What will they be exactly?”
“I know very well. They won’t be Jewish. Judaism goes according to the mother.” If Chani was surprised by the onslaught, she made no sign of it.
“Good. I see you know what goes on in Judaism. Do you know how it works in your religion?”
Diana shrugged. “It’s hardly your business, especially since it makes no difference to me.”
“But you should realize,” Chani continued, her voice measured, “that although the definitions won’t change, your children will be miserable. They will not find themselves and will be torn between two worlds.”
“There aren’t two worlds here,” Diana replied, and clenched her second fist.
“That’s the way Dan presents it. You know that he promised my mother that he would keep several Jewish laws? For example, have you heard about Yom Kippur?”
“No, and it doesn’t interest me.”
“I’m sure that when these things suddenly enter your life, they won’t take into consideration whether you were interested in them or not. Do you know that not only did Dan promise my mother that he would not get married in a church, but that he would try and persuade you to convert? Not that we would want that anyway, but…”
Diana’s fists unclenched at once. “He said that just to calm her down. I’m sure.”
“I’m not so sure. He’s a very loyal son to his mother, and he wants to placate her.” Chani closed her eyes for a moment. No. It didn’t look like the strategies she had chosen to begin with would be very effective. She would have to take a sharper tack. If the sentences she was about to utter would ever reach Dan’s ears, he would never, ever talk to her again.
“And I’ll tell you the truth. It’s true that he’s a good son to his mother, but I, personally, would not want to be his wife. For example, the way I know him, he won’t last too long at one job, and the burden of supporting the family will fall on you. You’ll earn the money, and he’ll already find a way to spend it. Ask my mother how much money she’s given him the last seven years.”
“I won’t ask your mother anything!” Diana spat out. “And if you don’t mind, move away and let me go. I’m studying psychology, as you know, and these tactics won’t work on me. You aren’t all that concerned about me, and I don’t believe a single word you’re saying!”
She moved away from the bench. Chani followed her with a brisk stride.
“Diana, you’re right that I only arranged this meeting because I don’t want you to marry my brother, but every word I have said is one hundred percent true.”
Diana didn’t even look at her. Chani grabbed her arm. She knew she had nothing to lose at this point. “Excuse me, Diana, but do you believe in G-d?”
Diana paused for a moment and turned her head. “Yes,” she said uneasily.
“And you believe in the concepts of reward and punishment?”
Diana sufficed with a nod.
“So you might want to know,” Chani’s voice was strident, “that if you marry my brother, you will be punished for it; that much should be clear to you. A gentile woman who marries a Jew will only suffer. Perhaps in this world, perhaps in the next, but you will not escape punishment!”
Diana’s furious eyes stared at her for another long moment, and without another word, she continued down the dirt path. Each angry step sent a small cloud of dirt swirling into the air.
Two short peals of the doorbell sounded at the door. Lara paled a bit and rose from her chair.
“Who is it, Mother?” Chani asked, cradling the sleeping Yehuda Kalman in her arms.
“Don’t you recognize Dan’s ring?” Lara asked tensely. Chani wrinkled her forehead for a second and also turned to the entrance.
“Do you think you were successful?” Lara asked over her shoulder.
“I have no idea, and either way, whether I was or wasn’t, Dan is probably angry now.” When the two short, impatient rings sounded again and Lara reached to unlock the door, Chani added in a whisper, half to herself and half to her mother, “Very angry.”
The door opened and Dan entered. “What a nice sister I have!” he said icily, and tossed the bag he was holding onto the floor. “Tell me, why did you come here? What did you think you’d accomplish with your foolish acts?”
Chani did not recoil and met his gaze steadily. “I came because I love my only brother. That’s all.”
His eyes flashed with fury as he turned towards her. “You love your brother? Really? Then stay home, live your life, take care of your kids and your own private matters, and don’t interfere with my life. Is that clear?”
“No, not at all,” Chani said, her voice clear and firm. She put Yehuda Kalman down on the settee. He fidgeted.
Dan’s face creased with fury. “It’s not clear to you? Then do it without it being clear. If you came because you love me and want to try to help me, then I’ve come to tell you that you can pack your bags and go right back to Israel, as far as I’m concerned.”
“Dan,” Lara interjected sharply. “She’s my guest, not yours.”
“It’s fine, Mother.” Chani smiled wanly, even as tears flooded her heart. “By the way, Dan, why else would I have come, in your opinion, if not to prevent you from doing this foolish act?”
“Maybe to attend my engagement party,” he said sarcastically, “and to take part in the happy occasion of your only brother and wish him ‘mazel tov.’ By the way, you’re invited tonight at eight. I’ll give you the address if you tell me you want to come.”
“Of course not. Never.” He walked over to the mahogany table. “You planned to come here to Belgium just to meet my kallah and tell her what kind of horrible creature I am, right?”
“Don’t call her your kallah! She’s not!”
He stopped in the middle of his third revolution around the table. “Get it into your head, Anne. Your foolish attempts are just ruining it.”
“Whatever connection I still have with you. Got it?”
She took a deep breath. “Listen, Dan. Let’s sit here for a few minutes. There are a few important things I want to tell you, and I want you to listen to me seriously.”
“I don’t want to listen to you!”
“But don’t you realize that you are acting and talking like a little kid? I won’t force you to do or not to do something. I can’t, and it’s a shame, but I still want to just talk to you.”
He began pacing again. “No.”
“I don’t want to talk to you.”
He turned towards the stairs, red-faced. “Anne, I have finished this conversation. Thank you for your pleasantries. Have a nice life!”
The tears that had flooded her heart now began to drip from her eyes. “Just one more thing, Dan. I have a letter here for you, from Shragi. He wrote it and Gershon translated it.”
“I’m not interested in reading it!”
She followed him. Her hand, clutching the letter, was outstretched. “Dan, what do you care to read it? If you are so convinced that you’re doing the right thing, then you have nothing to fear!”
The envelope remained suspended in her hand.
“Fine,” she said tremulously. “I’m putting it here, on the top shelf. When you want to read it, know that it’s here.”
Dan went up to his room, ignoring her. The two women remained in the living room, not exchanging a single word for the next few minutes, until he appeared again.
“So, have a nice day, everyone!” he said and contorted his face into a forced smile. “And thanks for taking part in my happiness!” He turned to go.
“One moment, Dan,” Chani said, and squeezed her eyes tightly, trying to clear the teary veil. “Don’t you want to see my son? Your only nephew named for Father?”
He hesitated for a moment and suddenly returned to the living room. He crouched near the settee and quietly gazed at the sleeping Yehuda Kalman.
“He’s very cute,” he said softly and stroked the baby’s hair. “Poor, cute kid. What a horrible mother you have.” And without casting another glance at the women in the room, he stalked out of the house, leaving the door open.
The baby suddenly awoke and began to wail. A silently sobbing Lara hurried over to him.
“Don’t cry, Mother,” Chani said, although she let her own tears flow freely. “I haven’t given up yet. Gershon will speak to our rav, and we’ll see what can be done. Meanwhile, I’m staying here.”