Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 22 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
Simi stepped into the stairwell. She lowered the umbrella and her eyes fell on Morah Yavniel, standing next to a flowerpot, where someone apparently had planned to plant something one day.
“Hello, Sima,” Morah Yavniel said, flashing a friendly smile. “One minute; you girls are sisters-in-law, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Simi replied. “Hello, Morah, hello, Menuchi.”
One last drop dripped from Menuchi’s gray jacket, splashing into the small puddle that had formed at her feet. How humiliating.
“Hello, Simi.” Menuchi decided to use the blessed method of ignoring reality—there was no rain, no puddle at her shoes, everything was dry and gleaming, and the birds were chirping outside. “You bought an umbrella?”
“I did. And I passed here and saw you, so I’ll walk you home with the umbrella. Um…I can walk Morah as well,” she said, suddenly remembering her manners.
Their teacher smiled again. “Thank you, Sima, but it’s fine. I’ll continue to wait here. I’m sure the rain will stop soon.”
They smiled at her and Menuchi bent over to her bag. “Good luck with the kugel,” her teacher remembered. “And you know Sima, you have a special sister-in-law.”
“I know,” Simi said. She smiled and waved the umbrella again. Right. I know.
“And Menucha, I don’t know your sister-in-law Sima that well, but from what I have seen, I’m convinced she’s very special, too.”
“I know,” Menuchi said. She smiled and lifted her bag. Right. I know.
“Quick, tell me all about the kugel!” Simi said as they walked down the path. “I didn’t know Morah Yavniel has room at home to make kugels. I thought she only has tables and books and binders and papers and pens…”
Menuchi giggled. “She didn’t tell me she’s preparing kugel. She did speak about soup, though.”
“Oh, the kugel is something you’re making?”
“Yes.” The heavy bag slipped around in Menuchi’s wet hand.
“I see. Is it the kugel you brought us last Shabbos when you came?”
Menuchi sufficed with shaking her head from side to side. She was too busy battling with the errant bag.
“Sort of…” The simplest, most normal thing to say now would be, “Ugh, my hands are wet and this bag keeps falling.” But with Simi, nothing was simple and normal. She might think it was because Menuchi’s hands shook at her wedding.
A car passed by them, spraying water over the curb and onto them. Simi jumped back.
Why does Menuchi always answer so tersely? Why is conversing with her like feeling that you’re in a traffic jam in the middle of the street, where the cars advance two feet and then seem to go back one foot?
And why is it only with me? How can Ima and Shragi and Yehudis carry on normal conversations with her, while only I can’t?
The bag tore and fell and the only one who was surprised was Simi. Menuchi and the bag both knew that that would be the end. The zucchini rolled into the middle of the street, but at least this time, it wasn’t alone. Two large onions rolled up alongside it, thirstily drinking up the large raindrops still pouring from the sky. The other products remained scattered on the sidewalk.
“Careful, Simi!” Menuchi called to her sister-in-law, who darted over to the vegetables in the street. That’s exactly what I needed to happen to me next to Simi. If she had any doubts about her inept sister-in-law’s abilities, there are none left. And what am I supposed to do now?
But the question was no longer relevant because Simi had already opened her bag, removed a large dry bag, and quickly collected the products. Menuchi stood the entire time, holding the umbrella, protecting her own head and the head of her sister-in-law who was working so hard.
“Thanks,” she finally breathed. “Wh-where did you get that bag from?”
“My friend returned a book to me in this bag, that’s all,” Simi said offhandedly and proffered the bag to Menuchi. They continued down the street, and Menuchi knew that she hadn’t thanked Simi enough.
“I…” She stared out at the falling drops and started again. “You really saved me today more than once. Thanks a lot.”
“Sign here. Thank you,” the postal clerk said, and Lara signed on the line he pointed to.
Once at home she opened the package carefully, removing the strips of tape that held down the brown wrapping paper. There was another layer of paper beneath it, this one floral. What was this? A “Pass the Package” game?
She glanced at the postal slip again. Yes, Dan could not get angry that she was opening things addressed to him. The slip clearly stated, in blue on white: “For Mrs. Lara Weingarten.”
True, the sender was Diana Molis, and that was rather surprising, to put it mildly. But perhaps the package would explain the silence that Dan had maintained for the past several days; he hadn’t called or visited. Nothing.
Finally, the last layer of wrapping (there were four!) was torn away, and she discovered a plastic box with a piece of paper stuck to it. It was a white page that had a small blue flower on the bottom corner.
She read what it said:
Dear Madame Lara,
I don’t know if you are aware of the changes that have recently occurred. At first I didn’t plan to send any explanations with this package, but I decided that Dan is surely convinced that I left Belgium because of you or because of your daughter Anne. You can tell him in my name that neither of you was the cause of my departure. (While reading, Lara could not see the creases that had lined Diana’s forehead as she had written the letter.) The one who influenced me was a Jewish girl with whom I have contact. She persuaded me that such a marriage would cause only damage.
In any case, I am sending you back the engagement gifts I received.
Wishing you all the best,
The paper was wet in several places when Lara finished reading it for the second time. She placed it carefully on the edge of the table and went to wash her face.
The rushing water drowned out the sound of the door opening and closing, and when she went into the living again, she recoiled in shock. “Dan? When did you get here?”
“I’m here,” he replied blandly and put the note back on the table. “You were crying?” he added, almost as an afterthought.
He looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “It’s good that you’re happy,” he said and pushed the box in her direction. “Here, this is also yours. I’ve long said that I still don’t have any assets of my own.”
“Believe me, I would send them back to her right now.”
“As a token of appreciation, huh?” His lips curled into a smile.
“Exactly.” She sat down beside him. “Tell me, Dan, don’t you see how Hashem Above is guiding you every step of the way? Do you know how much we davened for you?”
“You davened.” His face still held that crooked expression.
“Yes! We davened! All of us! Me, Anne, Betty and your nieces and nephews.”
“How nice. How devoted of you.”
“Mother, it doesn’t really interest me that much.” He kicked the chair beside him impatiently. “It doesn’t interest me what you did and what your opinion is of anything related to me. Not now, not in the future.”
“But Dan,” she exclaimed, “don’t tell me you haven’t learned the lesson!”
“Lesson? I learned a very clear lesson. Not to share any of my plans with my dear family. They are so worried about me, that out of love and worry they ruin everything for me.”
“That’s the only lesson I learned.” He pointed to the paper between her fingers.
“You know I mean something else. I don’t have a strong heart and I won’t be able to withstand this kind of tension again. Don’t repeat this horrible nonsense, Dan. Don’t you see that—”
“I don’t see anything. What do you want, Mother?”
“A promise, dear. A promise.”
“I can’t promise anything.”
“I’m a big boy, Mother. I do what I want.”
Lara rose with a sigh and turned towards the stairs.
“They really enjoyed the story you told them in Hebrew two weeks ago at supper!” Chasya said, clasping her hands together. She had stopped me downstairs in the yard. “Baruch Hashem my back lets me prepare their suppers and fold their linen again, but I’m not talented enough to prepare mussar lectures.”
Mussar lectures? I wondered if that was the right description. I remembered the first rainy day when I went to shop in the morning, and in the evening I came to the dorm to fill Chasya’s place. Half an hour before I went to them, I remembered the daunting task I had been given, “to talk to them about something in Hebrew.” I decided to tell them about two girls (changing the details, of course) who were walking together in the rain under an umbrella with a thick lump of tension between them. But when the bag tore, and everything spilled, and one of the girls helped her friend extricate herself from the situation, the ice broke and everything straightened out between them.
The girls really enjoyed the story. Some of the expressions I had used were ones they didn’t understand and I didn’t know how to translate into English, so we played charades, which led to bursts of laughter. I also found it funny, and you could even say I enjoyed the evening.
So why was it that when I walked with Simi that day, the ice didn’t break, the sun didn’t shine, the rain continued to come down, and the flowers didn’t bloom?
“Mrs. Deutschlander wants you to go to them for an hour of conversation every day; a story, some mussar, something like that.”
“What?” This was a new name. “Who’s Mrs. Deutschlander?”
“The principal of Netiv Rivka. Most of the girls can be available at five, five thirty, and with a bit of effort, it can be arranged that they should all be there. She wants you to take this job; they told her that you are so pleasant and friendly and you have a great way of speaking.”
I imagine I blushed.
“Here’s the payment for the times you took me over.” An envelope appeared in her hand and was pressed into mine. “She asked if twenty-five shekel a lesson is enough. You know, money is pretty tight over there. I think the problem is that they don’t expose themselves enough to the public.”
“Um, okay…” I shrugged. “I’ll ask my husband, but I guess it sounds fine.”
“Excellent. So you’ll start today? Tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow,” I said. It was 1:30. She didn’t really think I could be there with a ready lesson on any topic in three-and-a-half hours, did she?
“Why not today?”
“Because…I didn’t prepare anything. I want to—”
“Nonsense. It’s a shame on the money; you may as well already earn something for today’s lesson. Take a book and tell a story to them!”
“Tomorrow,” I repeated gently. “It’s better tomorrow.” I picked up the two clothespins that had fallen to the ground—the original reason for my foray outside—and returned to my tiny kitchen porch. It was a typical Bnei Brak porch, with a broom, dustpan, and washing machine all crowded together on it.
So, you could say that I had a job, baruch Hashem. If anyone would ask me if I worked or stayed home the whole day, I could circle the first option.
And if they would say, “Doing what?”
What was I doing? Teaching? No, that wasn’t it. My new profession was more like being a private tutor, if you could say that about someone who taught seventeen girls together. Actually, it wasn’t so different from being a Bnos leader.
The questions would continue: “What do you teach?” So what do I teach? We’ll see. Maybe we’ll choose a mussar sefer that’s not too difficult. Is Mesilas Yesharim easy to understand? I had to ask Shragi.
What else could people want to know about my work? Who my employer was? Well, that wasn’t a problem. Chasya Ehrentreau had already told me the principal’s name. It was a long, yekkishe-sounding name with an “r” at the end. What was it exactly?
I opened the washing machine. The name of the principal of Netiv Rivka (at least I remembered the name of the school) had flown out of my mind.
So what would I answer someone who would inquire about my new occupation?
“I’m a teacher, or rather a tutor. Actually, a counselor, who might be teaching Mesilas Yesharim. Actually, maybe not. (Maybe Shragi will say it’s too difficult.) And my students are girls from the Netiv Rivka seminary, and their principal has a long German-sounding name that finishes with an ‘r’.”
Sounds good? Not to me.
But not to worry, or as the girls in the dorm always said, “Don’t worry; it will be okay!” No one would grill me. Whom do I meet already? I would tell my mother and sisters that my funny substituting job had a nice continuation, that’s all.
And my mother-in-law? And more importantly, her daughter?
I slowly removed the mass of wrung-out towels from the machine and began shaking them out. My mother-in-law? I could tell her the same thing I would tell my mother. Her daughter? That would be a task I would have to execute somehow. It would be impossible to keep my new job a secret from Simi, despite the fact that I really wanted to keep the news about it from her. Even if she considered it a better job than just secretarial work.
Why? I didn’t even know why myself.
Shragi arrived. I stuck the last clothespin on the last towel and ran cheerfully to the door.
“I have a job!” I announced gaily even before he had finished wiping his shoes on the mat outside. They were covered in mud. “Which puddle did you visit?” I joked, placing his dry umbrella in the small bucket near the door.
“It’s not raining now,” he said. “Great about the job! Baruch Hashem! Nu?”
“I know it’s dry out. I was hanging laundry outside.”
“But the puddle outside my parents’ building is still there…you know which one I mean. So what kind of work are we talking about?” He placed a large bag on the kitchen table, and then I remembered that he had planned to stop in to his parents’ house to take some sefarim. I hadn’t even noticed that he had come late.