Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 19 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
As the clock indicated six minutes to four, the door closed. I looked around a bit helplessly, knowing that I had a few hours ahead of me with absolutely nothing to do in them.
Two plates, two forks, two knives, a bowl, and a spoon rested comfortably in the fleishig sink. Should I wash them now? I could, in theory, but if I would finish the dishes, what would I do in another hour?
What a funny question. Anyone who has what to do right now and asks what she will do later has no faith. I went over to the sink and slowly and deliberately washed each dish. I didn’t bother scrubbing the counter. I had done it yesterday and the day before; it wasn’t dirty.
Four-oh-seven. Technically I could go rest, but I don’t like resting in the afternoon. If I’m tired, then a rest is great, but when I feel as fresh as a crisp lettuce leaf and no less bored than that leaf, then afternoon rests just make things worse. So what could I do?
There wasn’t a book to be had in the house, except for a sefer I’d received for my wedding. But my parents already had that sefer, and I’d read it more than once during my engagement.
What else? A CD.
I didn’t have any.
But I could borrow!
But I didn’t have a CD player!
Actually, getting to know a new neighbor right now sounded like a nice idea. The problem was that I’m really not the initiating type who introduces herself and invites people to come over so everyone could get to know each other over coffee and cake. Maybe the neighbor would be busy but wouldn’t feel polite refusing me? And maybe she wouldn’t know if she could trust my kashrus? I could show her that I have a closed package of cookies. But what about coffee? I didn’t have it in the original container—all I had was a small amount of it in a clear sandwich bag which Ima gave me yesterday, to last until we’d get a chance to buy a jar of our own.
And how would it look if I’d begin digging around in a plastic bag for a spoonful of coffee? What would the neighbor think? And what would she say when she’d see my sugar in its original package and not in a sugar canister? Well, she certainly wouldn’t assume that it’s because I’m a bad housekeeper; she’d hopefully understand that we’re a young couple who have just begun finding our feet. But in any case, I didn’t really want to host anyone under such circumstances…
Besides, on which neighbor’s door would I knock? Upstairs? Downstairs? Across the hall?
One minute. Shragi said that opposite us lives a nice older couple whose only son lives in America… I could tell her that I’m going to the grocery (and I really will go!) and perhaps she wants something. By the time I ask this and write down what she wants, and then go and buy it and come back, I might be able to keep busy for forty-five whole minutes.
I hesitated for a moment, straightened my tichel, and checked to see that my new housecoat was clean before I went into the stairwell. What a nice door the neighbors had—like a walnut brown, with a gleaming, metallic nameplate. “Ehrentreu,” it read. Their grandchildren must have bought the nameplate for them as an anniversary present.
I offered a silent prayer as I knocked, waiting to hear soft slippers shuffling towards the door.
I knocked again.
I heard a staccato of raps from inside the house, and in the fraction of a second before the door opened, I envisioned a cane with a rounded head, lacquered to a shiny finish.
But the woman who opened the door wasn’t holding a stick. She wore a light, short sheitel and a tailored, cream-colored suit, and her brown eyes looked at me with interest. “Yes?”
“Um, is Mrs. Ehrentreu home?”
“That’s me.” She smiled pleasantly.
“I…um…I’m just…” I’m just stammering. “I…am your new neighbor across the hall.”
“Oh, welcome!” She continued looking at me expectantly.
“I…am going to the grocery shortly.” Somehow, the pleasant offer I had imagined in my own house sounded so foolish in front of this lady who was looking at me with a smile that I suspected was combined with quite a bit of impatience. “Perhaps you need something from the grocery? You know, if I’m going already…”
“The grocery only opens at twenty to five,” Mrs. Ehrentreu said. Yes, I’d forgotten that this was Bnei Brak. On our moshav, at twenty to five the grocery was getting ready to close. “But he’s rather expensive. I’m going to the supermarket in ten minutes. How about you tell me what you wanted at the grocery and I’ll buy it for you?”
I tried to refuse with the argument that I felt uncomfortable doing so, but she didn’t desist. “If I’m going already anyway, why not?”
I had no way out.
“Um, one milk (which I’d freeze), a bread (also for the freezer)…and I think that’s it. Thanks.”
She nodded and we parted.
I waited at the window until she left, and then went down to the grocery. I hadn’t told her to buy coffee.
I found the tiny store, waited until he opened (four minutes after the appointed time), went in, took a small container of coffee, paid, and went home.
And I knew without any doubt that I had to find something to do. The salary would just be an added perk.
Dan returned after a week. “I’m in a hurry, Mother,” he said, taking a big bite of Lara’s famous cheesecake. “I just came to straighten up a few things in my room.”
Lara suspected that he might be packing his clothes, but was afraid to ask. However, when she went into his room after he left and opened the closet, she was relieved to see that it was full, as usual. It didn’t look like he’d emptied it any more than he normally did when he came home.
She closed the closet and leaned against it, trying to think. He also hadn’t been holding any type of case or tote bag when he left, just a small plastic bag and his key-ring with the key to the car he’d bought three months ago. What was going on? What would be? Only Hashem knew.
A quarter of an hour later, Dan was pulling into a parking spot in front of an elegant, six-story building.
“I have been invited to the Julian Molis family,” he told the cordial-looking guard at the entrance. The guard picked up the phone.
“I’m sorry,” he told Dan after speaking quietly into the phone for a moment. “He’ll be down in a minute. He said there is no reason for you to bother coming up.”
Dan raised an eyebrow and turned away. The last week or two had been just as odd. Finally, Julian, Diana’s oldest brother, had sent him a short note—without calling—and invited him for a conversation to “clarify a few things.” For some reason, Dan’s hopes for a productive future were fading fast.
The black door opened and Julian emerged, his face expressionless.
“Good evening,” he said, glancing at Dan, who nodded slightly.
“I understand you received my note,” he continued, walking away from the entrance. Dan followed him.
“I wrote ‘conversation,’ but that’s not really the right term, because I have just a few words to say to you.”
Dan listened in silence.
“My sister Diana hasn’t been in Belgium for more than ten days, and there’s no point in you trying to look for her. She wants no more contact with you.”
“Has your mother finally influenced her?” Dan couldn’t manage to utter more than that.
“No, actually not. She got a letter from an Israeli girl—a Jewish girl, obviously—and one day she told us about her change of plans.”
Dan felt a cold tingle snaking up his spine and between his shoulders, until it suddenly transformed into a burning, red-hot fury. Anne! The utter nerve! So she had succeeded in the end!
Perhaps it was Betty? Why Anne?
Perhaps, but it was more likely that it was Anne. She was the more dominant of the two, like Mother. Betty was more like their father.
Julian’s forced smile heated the snake already simmering inside Dan even more. “I understand,” Dan said, trying desperately to release the tension in his tightened arm muscles. “And your father?” Diana’s father had always accepted him so pleasantly.
“My father? He agrees with whatever Diana does. I think that you’ve already gotten to know the relationship between them, haven’t you?” Julian unbuttoned the top button of his shirt. After all was said and done, he liked Dan; the Jewish young man found favor in his eyes. But if Diana had decided otherwise, he would be the last one to question her decisions. Well, actually, his father—Diana’s biggest fan—would be the last one. The first one would be their mother.
“You know, Dan,” Julian added, and the words suddenly took on a lighter, softer tone, “I believe that in the end, it will be better for you this way as well. Your family will be happy, won’t they?”
Dan did not respond. He would settle the score with Anne, but that was not Diana’s brother’s business.
“Okay, Julian,” he said with a light smile, as though the words “I couldn’t care less” were imprinted across his forehead. “I understand.”
And he turned towards his car, walking calmly between the bushes covered with flowering peach blossoms. He saw no reason to discuss the matter further with Julian.
To Chani it seemed that only a few minutes had gone by since Simi had gone, but when she heard Simi’s voice next and raised her eyes to the clock hanging on the wall, she discovered that almost two hours had passed.
“Oh, Simi’s back already,” she told Menuchi and rose from the couch with a sigh. “That means we have to set the table for shalosh seudos.”
A small muscle stretched taut in her new daughter-in-law’s face, and Chani knew that this time, it was not her imagination. Was there anything she could do to normalize the relationship between her daughter and daughter-in-law? If the issues between them were more tangible, perhaps there would be. But when it was only a feeling that came from the small, embarrassed smiles, words whose meanings were not very clear, faces that clouded over for no apparent reason (and it could happen to either of the two!)—then any intervention would probably just make things worse.
They didn’t fight—not at all. But the conversations between them were so flat, so forced. They didn’t flow. Was that normal?!
Simi entered the dining room and smiled pleasantly. “Good Shabbos! What’s doing?”
“Baruch Hashem, everything’s wonderful,” Chani replied.
Menuchi rose after her. “How was it?” she asked quickly.
“Very nice,” Simi replied. “I hope they enjoyed. It was really hours of work, this activity. I see I have a lot of work ahead of me this year. There’s no comparing being a Bnos leader for sixth graders to being one for high-schoolers.”
And of course, there was nothing to compare to not being a Bnos leader at all.
Menuchi swallowed the wan smile that was about to spread across her face and said, “And this year you have quite a load of schoolwork also, which you can’t compare to last year, no?”
Chani quietly spread the tablecloth on the table, listening to the exchange. Nu, what do you want from them? What’s wrong with this conversation? The girls both turned to the kitchen. Two sisters-in-law, each one so goodhearted and with so much willingness; why am I worrying for nothing?
“I remember that in the first year of seminary, schoolwork was really serious stuff. The material was interesting, and I like to learn, but when it gets to be too much, you get sick of it eventually.” Menuchi snapped off the white cover from the carrot salad container, and looked for a spoon to ladle it out into the bowls.
Simi took the spoon from her. “Stop, Menuchi; you don’t have to work so hard. You got married less than a month ago!” Yes, Ima told me already that she’s talented and that she invested a lot into her studies. I’m not like that; so what? I wouldn’t trade places with her for anything.
“So what? Do you think that my hands started shaking before the chuppah and haven’t stopped since?” Menuchi took another spoon from the silverware drawer and began dishing out the salad.
Simi laughed. “Okay, whatever you say,” she said and put two challos on the tray. “The truth is, even my hands shook from emotion at your chuppah,” she added. “Not only yours.”
Menuchi quietly counted forks. One was missing. What was Simi trying to say? Did she check my hands at the wedding to see if they shook? Was something wrong? Did they shake too much? Not enough? She coughed. “I wish you that your hands should shake under your own chuppah very soon.” I wonder if your husband will also have a sister who will check exactly how much they shake.
Simi sipped from a cup of water. Why did she detect a strange note in that sentence? Perhaps she was just imagining things…
“Amen.” She put down the cup. “Though I don’t know if I really have the head for starting shidduchim right now. You know, with my Bnos group and school and everything else I’m involved in. And I’m still very young. I just turned eighteen. It’s a very busy time for me.”
“Depends,” Menuchi said as she looked for the fork; it was more for lack of anything else to say. The fork was nowhere to be found. “Depends,” she repeated.
“Depends on what?”
“If it’s easy to pressure you to start shidduchim.” Menuchi bent down to look for the wayward fork. Did Simi not understand yet that the decision of whether or not to start shidduchim depended a lot on if you have what to be pressured about? Like, if you’re the type about whom people say, “Oh, her? She’s a really good girl. Really. Very good. Refined, quiet, very refined. Yes, a really good girl, and you know, sort of quiet…”—that could be kind of pressuring, wouldn’t you think, Simi?
“You weren’t pressured at all with shidduchim, were you?”
“What?” Menuchi picked up the fork she had finally found under the table.
“Yes, you look like the very calm type. Everything just flows along smoothly. Nothing fazes you.” Menuchi didn’t know if she should take the remark as a compliment or an insult, so she locked it up in a prominent corner of her mind for further perusal later.
“Actually, no…” she said as she rinsed the fork.
“Why?” Simi arranged the plates of salad on the tray.
“You know…” Menuchi was beginning to become uneasy. In principle, Simi was right; it was her nature to be calm. The problem was that while she had been in shidduchim, it had been hard for her to remain calm even if that was her nature. Right, I was pretty young when I got engaged, and not too many shadchanim had a chance to call. But, you know, Simi, it wasn’t easy to hear from those who did call that, “Look, they heard very good things, but she’s not really the type of girl they had in mind.”
But Simi was still waiting for an answer, and she couldn’t exactly tell her the truth. So, in a desperate attempt to say something, she said, “Overall, it was a very pressured time for me, what with school, model lessons, projects, and everything, you know… When everything happens together, it’s hard.”
School again. Simi silently carried the loaded tray into the dining room. Was that it? Was that the only topic her sister-in-law would ever talk about for the rest of her life? School? Now it was their schoolwork, then it would be the children’s schoolwork, and the grandchildren’s…
Is Menuchi so narrow-minded? That’s the beginning, middle and end of the way she evaluates people?
The door opened and Yehudis’s garbled “hello” filled the room. Simi saw Menuchi’s face light up with a smile. Yehudis ran to her with her unsteady gait and threw herself into Menuchi’s arms. An indefinable something crossed Menuchi’s expression for a second, but disappeared as her smile grew even bigger. Simi stood at the side, observing the scene, yet she did not miss the flinch in Menuchi’s eyes.