Beneath the Surface – Chapter 30

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 30 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.

Simi’s perspective:

I think this was a very good idea. It was an interesting, if not fascinating, hour, and it was the first time I have seen Menuchi so relaxed. Perhaps it’s because here, her strong point was in the limelight. I hope that a few more such sessions will improve things between us.

She wanted me to leave the pages with her. I refused, and I hope I didn’t do any damage by doing so. I was just afraid that she would get ahead and translate on her own. After all, we don’t really have to sit and do this together. She can read it when I’m not there and write the translation, like she offered to do. But I do want us to sit together and work on it.

The day after tomorrow, I have to submit my ideas to the counselors’ box in school. Perhaps I’ll go write the background for the play now, and even the beginning scenes, from what I’ve learned already. We’ll see how it flows.

I’m leafing through the handwritten pages of my translated version, trying to decide with what to open. Perhaps the street fight should be the first scene, and that woman, Diana, will suddenly appear like a rescuing angel? Maybe I should write it in the order that she wrote her memoirs? Or should I begin with her description of the Belgian streets? Or maybe inLondon, even before she decided to travel toBelgium?

Now I pick up the English copy of the story. I told Menuchi that I want to reread the part that we translated already and I want to keep my word. My eyes quickly scan the lines, not stopping in order to understand. Half a page, and then another one, the second page, the third—there, that’s as far as we got. One moment, what’s this woman’s family name? She doesn’t mention it even once. She writes everything in first person, and even omits her first name.

I go into the kitchen.

“Ima, I’m trying to write a summary of the play. But what was the name of the woman who wrote the whole account? She didn’t write her name down even once!”

Ima took the pages from me.

“She wrote it, here,” she said, pointing. “When she was asked at the refugees’ office.”

I look again. I don’t need Menuchi to translate such a simple sentence. “My name is Diana Molis,” the page says, black (albeit a bit blurry from the fax) on white. I return to my room, sit down at the desk, pick up my pen, and begin to wri—

“I w-w-want Simi! Simi sh-sh-ould help me! Simi! Simi! Si-mi! Co-o-me!”

I put down the pen and return to the kitchen, to my sweet, special sister who wants only me to sit next to her as she eats her dinner.

***

When more than two minutes passed after the last patient left and no one appeared at the entrance, Chani rose from her swivel chair. “Dorit?” she called as she walked towards the waiting room.

Dorit, the receptionist, raised her eyes. “It’s empty today, Dr. Ostfeld. Do you want me to call and see what’s going on with the next appointment?”

“Yes, please,” Chani said, pressing the blue button on the water machine. A cool stream of water flowed into her Styrofoam cup.

“We’ve run out of regular plastic cups, Dr. Ostfeld,” Dorit said with a smile, her ear glued to the telephone receiver. “I’ll buy a new package later. Hello? This is the receptionist from Dr. Ostfeld’s office. I wanted to remind you that Motty has an appointment today.”

She listened to the speaker on the other end for half a minute. “I understand. Please try to remember to let us know about any changes in the future. Bye.”

She hung up. “Motty Carmi won’t be coming today. He has a big exam that he can’t miss. His father apologizes for forgetting to call us to reschedule the appointment.”

“And who has the 10:10 appointment?” Chani asked.

“It’s an empty slot, actually. The Rubinstein twins were supposed to have the 10:10 and 10:30 appointments, but they cancelled this morning.”

“Okay, and who’s at ten to eleven?”

Dorit glanced at the appointment book. “Shimon Nursky. Who’s that?”

Chani’s forehead creased. “The name rings a bell, but I don’t remember more than that. He was only here once before. He’s the last appointment today, right?”

Dorit opened the appointment book again after having closed it. “Yes, he’s last.”

“Can you check if they can come earlier? I could really use the extra hour.”

As she waited for Shimon Nursky, Chani decided to call her mother.

“Hello, Mother, how are you?”

“Anne! How are you? How’s your head?”

Baruch Hashem. Since Yehuda Kalman started sleeping a bit better at night, my head is also improving. And how’s your back, Mother?”

Baruch Hashem. Dr. Fligelt claims that I have to reduce the dosage of the pills I’m taking. He says they’re driving up my blood pressure.”

“Do what he says, Mother. High blood pressure is not a game.”

“No…” She sighed. “Nothing’s a game with me, Anne. I’ve long passed the age of games. But I told him that my backaches increase my blood pressure as much as the pills do.”

“And what did he say to that?”

“He gave me a prescription for different pills. We’ll see, I guess.”

“Why not?”

“What happened today, Anne? Why are you asking so many questions?” There was a trace of annoyance in Lara’s tone.

“I’m worried about you,” Chani replied. “You’re so far there, Mother, and so alone. Come here to Israel; be near us..You hardly see Dan; what do you have there in Belgium?”

“Truthfully, I don’t have anything here except for a few friends,” Lara said with surprising candidness. “Perhaps I would move, but I can’t do it.”

“Why? We’d be so thrilled, Mother! You have no idea.” Chani tried to capitalize on the unexpected moments of her mother’s mellow acquiescence.

“I know you’d be happy, Anne. You and Betty are truly wonderful daughters, but I can’t.”

“Why?” Chani repeated.

“Because I have to watch over your little brother,” Lara replied solemnly. “He is a baby despite his thirty-two years. He needs supervision.”

“He does what he pleases anyway,” Chani said quietly.

“Still, I’m sure that he thinks more about every step because he knows that I’m here. If I leave him here by himself, this little boundary he has set for himself will disappear as well.”

Lara nodded to herself in agreement as she spoke. Yes, her youngest child still needed her, even if he didn’t know it.

“That’s a real consideration, Mother, and you should know I really admire you. But if you ever decide to come, even if only for a set amount of time, you should know that you’re always welcome to stay with us. I’m sure you’d find some wonderful friends here. There are enough older women around who speak Yiddish and Flemish.”

“I know, darling. I just spoke to one last week… Oh! I completely forgot to tell you. Someone called here, not a young woman based on her voice, and spoke to me in Flemish, saying she lives inIsrael. She asked for your address and phone number.”

“Mine?” Chani was taken aback. “Who was it?”

Lara couldn’t answer the question. “When she contacts you, I’m sure she’ll identify herself,” she said.

***

It took Diana a long time to learn to pronounce the words “Bnei Brak” satisfactorily, but in the end she was pleased with her progress.

“A bus to Bnei Brak?” she asked in her halting Hebrew at the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. The balding man looked at her and then pointed in a general direction.

“Where? Where?” Diana asked in Hebrew, very proud of herself. “Ani lo mevin!” In three and a half weeks, she’d done a great job of learning the language!

Apparently sick of speaking to someone who didn’t understand him, the man simply walked away. Diana sighed. The Hebrew she had practiced so earnestly was now working against her. People thought they could answer her in Hebrew at a speed of two hundred words per ten seconds.

“Where is the bus to Bnei Brak?” she asked a woman wearing a green suit, in English. Only then did she finally find out where she had to go.

She reached the right floor and the platform of the 54 bus line, which was just about to depart, almost empty of passengers. She proffered a silver coin with a gold center to the driver, received a few smaller coins in return, and slipped them into her purse. She knew how to examine change here. Golda had taught her to recognize the different coins; right now, however, it didn’t interest her. She just wanted to look out the window and take in as much as she could.

The streets were not especially congested, perhaps because it was still only the morning. People walked briskly; there was some talking, a bit of laughing, and the air was heavy with the exhaust of passing cars. Every so often, she saw people walking their pets, which added their barking to the cacophony. Stores selling clothing, electronics, and food, as well as restaurants, passed by in a blur.

The people are like the ones on the kibbutz, she thought, feeling a keen sense of disappointment. It reminds me of Belgium, the stores, the food, the clothes. So what’s the difference?

But she remained patient, not allowing the depressing thoughts to dominate her mind. Bnei Brak will surely be different, she encouraged herself. You can see on Anne, for example, that she’s different. The scenery slowly changed to a wide boulevard with tall buildings and numerous advertising billboards.

“What street is this?” she asked the driver, hoping he knew some English.

“This? Jabotinsky!” he announced as he turned the wheel with broad strokes.

“Bnei Brak?” she queried.

“In another minute we’ll be in Bnei Brak. Please sit down, ma’am,” he replied.

She didn’t sit, showing him instead the address in Hebrew.

“I’ll tell you when to get off!” he raised his voice to be heard over the deafening honk of a cement mixer driving right beside him. “Now sit!”

She returned to the back of the bus and fixed her gaze on the window again. The bus turned onto a narrow street. It hadn’t traveled more than a few meters when she noticed that the figures had drastically changed. They were very different from the people on the kibbutz, and those in Tel Aviv as well. They looked different, they dressed differently, but it was more. She couldn’t define exactly what it was, but she was positive that there was a significant, tangible difference.

“Hey!” She shook herself out of her musings. “Lady?” She realized that she was being addressed. “This is your stop. Turn left at the intersection; that’s Yerushalayim Street.”

She got off into the Bnei Brak street, inhaling the different atmosphere. The street angled upwards ahead of her, reminding her of theJerusalemstreets she had toured during her previous visit. Perhaps that was why the street was calledYerushalayim Street?

A kind woman directed her to the right street. She found the building herself. What would she do now? Should she just go up and knock? Her mother would recoil in horror at the mere thought. But what choice did she have? To call? That would be even worse. She wouldn’t know what to say, how to express herself.

She would just go up and knock and ask Anne if she could speak to her for a few minutes, and if not then, then she’d ask when a better time might be.

But empty-handed like that? No, that she could not do.

Diana retraced her steps to the main road. She’d look for something she could bring to the Ostfelds, and then she’d come back.

One of the display windows in a store caught her eye. She entered the dim store, scanning the merchandise on the shelves. For some reason, she felt like the proprietress was looking at her hostilely.

“Excuse me? Can I help you?” the woman asked crisply.

“I’m looking for a gift,” Diana replied in English.

“A gift?” the woman repeated. “Wait a minute; you’re not from Romania?”

Diana continued perusing the shelves. “Certainly not.”

To Diana it seemed as though the woman suddenly became transformed; she was much more amenable and courteous. She asked for specifics and advised and showed Diana various items, until Diana left the store with a sculpted glass dish adorned with dried flowers.

“Why should I wrap it?” Diana objected to the saleswoman’s suggestion. “I need them to see it right at the beginning, as soon as they recognize me.”

She walked back upYerushalayim Street, gazing with satisfaction at her pretty gift. Now she just hoped that Anne liked this type of thing.

***

Chani approached the building with satisfaction. She had found Shimon Nursky’s teeth healthy and did not need to administer any treatment. Thus, she had gained almost an hour. True, her cleaning woman and Simi did so much at home, but there were still things that only she could do, and in recent months, since Yehudah Kalman’s birth, many of the myriad tasks had been neglected somewhat. The laundry, for example.

Who would have believed that clean, folded, ironed clothes would not be waiting in her cupboards for their wearers to take them out?

Today there was a new concept in her home: “the clean laundry pile.” There was one on the dresser in her room, another in the children’s room, and another one almost permanently located in the laundry room, on the dryer. And as much as she tried to fold the clothes in the piles, they somehow kept growing anew! Perhaps she could use this hour to finally put them all away?

She carefully skirted the muddy puddle near the path, still extant despite the sunny day, and walked up the path.

***

Diana walked behind her, keeping a safe distance. Only once Anne had entered the building did she dare approach the mailboxes. The only name plate with English lettering was the Ostfelds’. She listened to Anne’s footsteps in the stairwell, waiting for them to fall silent.

After hearing a door close, Diana entered the stairwell. Opposite the entrance she encountered a distorted reflection of herself in the metallic elevator doors. Why had Anne gone up the stairs instead of using the elevator?

She approached the cracked metal door and pressed the elevator call button, but nothing happened. The elevator was stuck. Oh, so that was why Anne had taken the stairs. So she would do the same. But should she go up now, right after Anne had arrived home? Shouldn’t she let her have a few minutes to relax? Who knew how much time Anne needed to put down her bag, boil up some water, make herself a cup of tea (or maybe she preferred coffee? She had heard that the Israelis drank more coffee than the Europeans), and enjoy a few minutes of peace and quiet?

Diana stood downstairs for ten minutes, observing the very still street. Upstairs, Chani managed to create three neat piles of folded laundry.

***

Diana approached the stairs. How much time would she wait for Anne to finish drinking? Who knew; perhaps later she’d be even busier!

Diana grasped her gift carefully and began to climb the stairs, one step after another. The bank of stairs suddenly seemed very short. She was already at the top, yet she had no idea what she’d say when the door would open! Should she introduce herself? Would it be necessary? Would Anne even recognize her after their one meeting, unforgettable as it was? What kind of tones would their conversation take on this time? Would there be understanding and gratitude, or residual tension and resentment? Would Anne even be able to speak to her?

Boom!!!

Diana found herself falling with a thud, accompanied by a quick, sharp tinkling sound. Something had broken, she knew. She looked around her with a dull ache. At the top of the stairs was a square-shaped landing that concluded on the right side with another step, which apparently she, Diana, had not noticed. Now, she was crumpled in a heap near the step, with dozens of glass shards surrounding her. Lying forlornly off to one side was the bunch of fake leaves; the flower petals were crushed under the broken glass.

Inside the house, Chani was just placing Yitzi’s folded Shabbos pants on the top of the pile when she heard a noise. First she thought that the last coffee cup from her Shabbos set had broken. That’s exactly what the cups sounded like when they broke. But then she remembered that she was alone at home and that the cup was nestled safely on the top shelf in the kitchen cabinet.

So what was that noise?

She rose from the bed, abandoning the laundry, and hurried to the entrance, where the noise had come from. The house was completely silent, and Chani almost decided that the noise had come from the next building, whose windows were very close to the windows of her own home.

But then she heard the rustling outside the door.

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