Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 27 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.
“What happened to Diana?” Julian asked when he popped in to his parents for a visit. “Haven’t you gotten regards?” he repeated when met by his mother’s stony silence.
“Mother won’t answer you; she doesn’t like to talk about it,” his father interjected with forced apathy. “Diana isn’t at Joyce’s anymore. She left London.”
Roy looked at his wife. She shrugged. “You can tell him. I don’t care and it doesn’t interest me any longer.”
He turned back to Julian. “She flew to Israel. She’s volunteering on a kibbutz there.”
Now his mother turned to face him. “And if I was already so happy that her connection to Judaism had been broken off, it’s back, big time.Israel! I mean, really! What is she looking for over there?”
“Something, apparently,”Roy said dryly.
“What do you mean?” She put the enamel bowl she was holding down with a bang onto the table.
“Nothing. But Diana is smart. She knows what she’s doing.”
“Hmph!” Mrs. Molis sniffed and took a big spoon. “You’re too big of a believer in her sense of discretion. She’s not even twenty-five yet, you might recall!”
He didn’t react.
“If she doesn’t come back within two weeks, I will simply go and bring her back!”
Her son raised his eyebrows. “Really? To Israel?”
“Yes! A mother is allowed to know what her daughter’s up to, isn’t she?”
“Oh, don’t overdo it Dora,”Roysaid, poking his fork into the piece of chicken on his plate. “She’s not a baby anymore.”
Julian chose not to interfere. He toyed with his spoon.
“Besides,”Roysaid seriously, “do you really think it will be so simple to go and get her? She’s independent already and makes her own decisions, unfortunately for us.”
“There! Now you also said ‘unfortunately for us’! So if you find it so unfortunate, why aren’t you giving me more support? Why are you letting me deal with this by myself? It doesn’t seem like her trip has particularly troubled you!”
“True, I believe today’s young generation shrugs off their parents’ supervision too quickly and that’s not good at all. But to tell you that I’m sorry she went? At least she’s not taking advantage of her independence for worse things than traveling to Israel.”
Dora huffed again. “Like what, for example?”
“Have you forgotten the drugs they caught on her campus? And the two computer hackers who broke into the main computers at the CHIL bank headquarters? They did it in order to pay for their studies, they say. I prefer that my daughter spend some time in Israel than in prison. Don’t you?”
“Do you have her phone number or her address?” Julian tried to switch the gears of the conversation to less jarring tones. “Maybe we’ll write to her.”
“She didn’t leave an address,” his mother said with pursed lips. “Nor a phone number where I can get a hold of her.”
“I tried her cell phone but she didn’t answer.”
“Of course not!” She sighed again, this time longer and deeper than before. “She told me that she ‘forgot’ it at Joyce’s house. It was clear to both of us—her and me—that it had been left there on purpose, and that I knew that.”
“She said that she isn’t in one place all the time and that she’ll call when she can and try to send lots of letters,”Roysaid soothingly.
Dora didn’t answer; she just began collecting the plates.
The alarm clock has a strange ring today, Menuchi thought to herself as webs of sleep clouded her brain and she stuck her hand out from under the covers to bang the button on the clattering red clock.
“Shragi, get up,” she whispered exhaustedly. “It’s 7:15 already. The alarm is ringing.”
She could barely hear her own words; Shragi certainly didn’t hear. The clock continued ringing strangely.
“It has a strange sound today,” Menuchi said to her pillow, rolling onto the other side. “But if Shragi doesn’t get up because of that he’ll be late to davening.”
The ringing paused for a few seconds and then started up again. This time Menuchi was more alert. “Shragi!” she called loudly, and raised her head. “Don’t you hear the clock?” She reached out to turn off the alarm, but found the button already depressed. She had turned it off the first time.
“So what is that ringing?” she asked and sat up in the bed again. Then it dawned on her. The red light on the phone hanging on the wall opposite her bed was blinking incessantly at the same tempo as the ringing. So that was the nuisance.
She quickly washed her hands, splashing water every which way, and grabbed the phone. “Hello?” she asked hoarsely.
“Good morning, I’m sorry to be bothering you at this hour.”
“What hour?” Menuchi wondered, glancing at her watch. 5:47!! It was no wonder it was dark outside.
“It’s just that my parents just left with Yehudis…” There was hysteria in Simi’s voice.
“Left? To where?” Menuchi asked.
“ToTelHashomerHospital. She shrieked all night that her teeth were hurting her. The clinic there opens at six and so they left ten minutes ago.”
In the interim, Shragi had awoken and washed his hands. “Your parents took Yehudis to the dental clinic at Tel Hashomer,” Menuchi informed him as she passed him the receiver.
In the large, empty kitchen, Simi rocked Yehudah Kalman’s carriage. Yitzi was sleeping peacefully in his room, as he had been doing all night, blissfully unaware that anything was amiss. “Hello, Simi?” she suddenly heard her brother’s voice through the phone.
“Shragi, oh, it’s so good that I can talk to you. You have no idea what went on here tonight! Yehudis cried and cried and we were so helpless. Ima gave her some syrup but it didn’t help.”
“Let’s hope that everything will be okay now,” Shragi soothed his sister and pulled the shutters up near his bed. The first rays of light were beginning to peek over the rooftops. Despite the fact that no one had opened any shutters in the room where she was, Simi rubbed her eyes. Should she ask? No? But she knew that despite her exhaustion and the discomfort involved she had no choice. She had to give the lesson she had prepared for today.
“Shragi do you think Menuchi would be able to come and take Yehudah Kalman from the babysitter at lunchtime and give Yitzi to eat? I have to give a model lesson today on the other side of town and won’t be home before 2:30.”
“I’ll ask her,” Shragi said. “I’m sure she can.” He turned to Menuchi, who was listening tensely and trying to motion to him something that he didn’t understand. “Do you think you can watch Yehudah Kalman and Yitzi at lunchtime?” he asked. She stared at him wide-eyed.
“You think it will be too hard for you?” he hurried to ask. “I can also come right after kollel.”
“But Shragi!” she whispered. “Today’s the trip, did you forget?”
He slapped his forehead. Right. Netiv Rivkah’s trip. The seminary. They had asked Menuchi to join and she had been so excited.
“One minute, Simi…” he said into the phone. “Wait a second there’s a problem here, but we’ll solve it b’ezras Hashem.”
He went back to Menuchi. “What should I tell Simi? Do you have an idea of someone who can watch the kids?”
Her eyes returned to their normal size. “It will be fine,” she said in a subdued tone. “I’ll watch them.”
“No way!” Shragi whispered firmly. “You don’t have to miss out on your trip. It shouldn’t be so hard to find an arrangement for the children. It’s only for an hour-and-a-half, even less if I come there for lunch. We just have to find someone to pick Yehudah Kalman up and watch Yitzi until I come at a quarter to two. It’s barely forty-five minutes!”
On the other side of the line Simi could her brother’s last sentence, when he inadvertently raised his voice. Why did Menuchi need so much convincing? How much did he have to plead with her royal highness until she understood that this was an emergency? Did Shragi have to get down on his hand and knees and explain that it was only for a short time? Couldn’t she just willingly do what had to be done when she was needed?
A logical voice tried to penetrate the eddy of thoughts whirling in Simi’s tired brain. Maybe she had special plans? Try to understand her!
But Simi didn’t have a drop of strength left to even try. She could barely even wait for an answer. “Nu Shragi, yes or no?” she asked impatiently, her voice loud enough to reach Menuchi’s ears.
“Yes, and that’s it,” Menuchi said in a decisive whisper and left the room, leaving her husband behind with the telephone.
“Okay, Simi,” he said hesitantly. “Menuchi agrees to come, in principle. But tell me, don’t you think you could find a different arrangement? A neighbor or something?”
Yehudah Kalman began screaming loudly and Simi felt an odd desire to join him. “Forget it, Shragi. I’ll manage somehow,” she said in a voice that was intended to sound determined, but came out tremulous instead. “No need. Menuchi doesn’t have to make any effort to come; I’ll find a solution.”
Shragi’s eyes went from the receiver in his hand, through which he could almost feel his sister’s sobbing, to his wife, who had returned to the room with a tranquil smile. “So, did you finalize it with her Shragi? I’ll be there at lunchtime. Where does the babysitter live?”
“Wait a minute,” he said to Simi. “I see that Menuchi wants to come despite everything.”
“I went on enough trips in school,” Menuchi said calmly. “I’m not that desperate to go on this one.” Either I am or I’m not. But what I for sure am desperate for—even at the expense of a trip to I-don’t-know-where—is a good relationship with my sister-in-law.
“Okay, Simi,” he went back to his sister. “So she’ll come. The babysitter lives in the building next door, if I remember correctly from Yitzi, right?”
She nodded quietly, despite knowing that Shragi couldn’t hear her through the phone. She couldn’t muster up enough energy to speak. The lack of empathy was so uncharacteristic of Shragi. Couldn’t he understand what kind of night she had been through and what she was carrying on her shoulders now? And the tension…Couldn’t he and Menuchi seem a bit more sympathetic and interested?
But the main thing was that they had agreed in the end. Didn’t that show that they did care? The thought suddenly flashed through her mind.
“But Simi,” Shragi said, extinguishing the flash that had just illuminated her mind for a moment. “If you do see that you can come up with an alternative solution, let Menuchi know, okay? It’s important to me.”
Okay. Not okay at all.
The phone rang twice in a short time. The first time it was Daniela’s cell phone.
“Menuchi? We miss you!” For fifteen minutes, Menuchi listened to the cheery voices, the stories and the hum of the bus engine.
“Thanks for calling!” she said finally.
“We’ll call from the Banias too!” Chaya, the last girl she spoke to, said. “Were you ever there in the winter? We’ve heard it’s the most beautiful at this time of the year!”
“I’ve heard,” Menuchi said, folding the plaid towel with care. One fold and then another. “But if there’s no answer, then it’s a sign that I’m not home.”
The second call was from a public phone.
“Hi, Simi. What’s new? Were you in touch with your parents?”
“Before I left the house,” Simi said, her voice as dry as the Banias on a steamy summer day—parched and cracked. “My mother called when they took Yehudis in to treatment.”
“Oh, so I know that part. She called us, too.”
“So I have nothing new to tell you,” Simi said in the same tired voice. “In any case, I wanted to tell you that you don’t have to come. Our neighbor will pick up Yehudah Kalman and she’ll keep Yitzi by her until Shragi comes.”
“Until Shragi comes…” Menuchi echoed and arranged the pairs of socks in a long row. “But Simi, I can come. I have no problem to come.” Now there really was no problem.
“It’s fine,” Simi nodded politely. “Really, thanks. But it’s a shame that you should ruin your plans for this. We managed.” Menuchi now arranged the socks in a circle.
“So, bye, Menuchi, and thanks for the good will,” Simi said, trying to keep the cynicism out of her words. Good will. Really.
“I can’t get her address!” Diana grumbled and hung up the phone. “Either her strange mother doesn’t know it, or they don’t answer. You could just explode!”
“Don’t you have any other way?” Golda queried, nibbling on an oatmeal cookie that she had baked for Diana. Diana did not like oatmeal.
“Maybe through her husband?”
“I don’t even know his name…” Diana murmured, and suddenly raised her eyes. “She sent me an invitation to her wedding, but only translated the date and location into English. As though I would have come.”
“If it would have been now, you would have gone, wouldn’t you?” Golda asked, pressing a crumb that fell to the table with the pad of her index finger and licking it off.
“Well, that’s not relevant anymore,” Diana said, sipping from her cup of water. “And I left the invitation in Antwerp.”
A moment of silence hung between them, and then Diana raised her eyes again. “I brought another letter from her from Belgium, and it solved a dilemma that I had, but on the other hand, confused me even more.”
“It helped you or confused you?”
Diana sighed. “Both. I want you to read it and tell me if they’re right or not. You have an idea or two about these things, don’t you? You grew up in an orthodox home.”
Golda sighed and waved her hand dismissively. “I grew up…yes. But I don’t remember much of that today. I don’t think I’ll be able to help you.”
“Well, if you insist…I can try and read it.” When was the last time she had had a guest who sat and spoke to her and even took an interest in her opinion?
In the evening, Diana returned with a bundle of folded pages.
“I’ll translate it for you from English to Flemish, okay?” Diana asked, and without waiting for an answer, began to read what Menuchi—or rather her father—had written four months ago. The sentences were simple, and worded with such clarity that it bothered her again, for the umpteenth time, and cast what she had heard for so many years into a scornful light.
“Nu, enough, enough,” Golda suddenly interjected. “My concentration level is not for this. I told you, I can’t help.”
“Yes you can.”
“If you tell me and prove to me that it’s not true.”
Golda laughed hoarsely. “Diana, dear, I can’t prove such a thing to you.”
“Why? Because it is so?”
“Because I don’t know anything today about the subjects of faith and religion. But tell me, do you have any plans to convert?”
“Me? Why ever do you think so?”
“So why do these things interest you so much? This answer helped you once—that’s wonderful. Now throw this letter into the trash and stop confusing yourself and me.”
Diana sighed and carefully folded the pages. Deep in her heart she knew that she could not divide Menuchi’s response into two. One part was hinged on the other in an absolute, uncompromising way. And if she agreed with what was written in this letter, she was in a serious bind. Because according to this letter, every moment of her life was a colossal waste. She was walking in a straight line, directly into the abyss of nothingness.