Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 35 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.
After pausing hesitantly one more time, Menuchi picked up the phone that she had just hung up and dialed reluctantly.
Simi picked up.
“Um, hi, Simi. How are you?”
“Hi,” Simi replied cheerfully—as always, come to think of it. “I’m good, baruch Hashem. How are you?” Her voice was warm, much like her mother’s. It was the same voice that she had been using to speak to Menuchi for an entire week already.
Come on, Simi’s waiting for an answer! “Baruch Hashem, fine…” Ribono Shel Olam, what are you supposed to make small talk to a sister-in-law about when you have a favor to ask her? School? Shidduchim? The pages we worked on together? Whatever came to mind seemed trite and tasteless to Menuchi. Simi waited.
“Um…” Menuchi despaired of finding a topic for small talk. She would just state her request directly. “Tell me, maybe you have an idea of what I can give, I mean buy, for the seminary girls I teach?” The girls I teach. How presumptuous. One would think that I spend twenty hours a week with them. “I mean, for a good-bye present. My lessons there are stopping for now because the girls are starting vacation in two weeks. Less, even.”
“What vacation?” Simi asked, puzzled.
“They’re being sent home early for Pesach vacation. There are serious money problems there, and it looks like the school might even close down permanently.”
“Oh, no, that’s too bad. So you’re stopping to work there?”
Menuchi clicked the wallet on her bed open and closed. Ugh! Such questions! “Yes,” she said quietly.
“What a shame…You actually enjoyed it there, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did.” Why ‘actually’? Is something wrong with the fact that I enjoyed giving those lessons?
Simi didn’t see Menuchi’s narrowing eyes, which was better off for both of them. She was busy admiring Menuchi in her mind. How easily she shared the fact that she no longer had a job! What would happen if she, Simi, would also display a bit more openness?
“Interesting. So we have something in common. Something happened today that hurt me also.”
Menuchi raised an eyebrow and listened closely. “What?”
“They didn’t accept my play.” Simi was struggling valiantly to preserve her pride. “They said that they had found something more suitable.”
“Oh… Did you finish writing it?”
Simi nodded vigorously, and then remembered that Menuchi couldn’t see her so she added, “Yesterday.” Why did Menuchi always hone in on the small, marginal details? Did the emotional aspect not interest her at all?
Meanwhile, Menuchi was scrabbling to find something comforting to say without sounding too pitying. “Oh, that must be so…disappointing. But maybe you can still do something with it? I’m sure it’s a great play.”
A heavy silence hung on the line, and Simi deliberated whether or not to conclude the conversation. Wasn’t it a shame to mar these moments of empathy between them with embarrassing silences, or worse, sentences said for no good reason that were later regretted a thousand times? Suddenly she remembered that Menuchi had called her for something. “So you want an idea for good-bye presents…” she said, scratching her forehead in thought.
“No, not an idea for good-bye presents,” Menuchi said with sudden haste. “I mean, not anymore. I just had an idea…for something else, actually. Do you have a few minutes to hear me out?”
Julian hummed loudly as he took out his wallet.
“The problem is not the money, sir,” the worker in the greasy overalls told him.
“Your axle needs to be changed, sir, and there’s no way the car will be ready in two hours no matter what. Try in the evening.”
Julian increased the volume of his humming, as he was wont to do when under pressure. What should he do? “Alright,” he stopped humming for long enough to say, and then picked up where he had left off. Maria? He quickly dialed, but discovered that she—and her car—were not available right then. He figured that she must be on yet another shopping trip.
His father was available, though, and insisted that he was in the area and would be at the garage in ten minutes flat.
Julian exited the blackened building that reeked of benzene and went to wait on the main road. He had managed to regale the wild brush growing on the side with two classical songs, and had begun a third, when his father’s silver Renault slowed near him.
“Hi, Dad,” he said as he entered, closed the door, and made himself comfortable in the passenger seat. “What’s up? Is everything okay? You look a bit distracted.”
The older man preferred to nod silently in lieu of a response.
“What is it? Are there problems? At home? At work? You? Mother? Diana?”
The last two guesses hit the bull’s eye.
“Diana. I just left the house after a very frustrating conversation with your mother,” he said and spit the butt of his cigar into the ashtray between the two seats. Julian took out his own box of cigarettes, but his father refused. “Not now, thanks.”
“Are there problems with Diana?”
“I wouldn’t call them problems, per se.” Roy Molis’s tone sounded pretty unconcerned. “But it’s causing problems. So, where do you need to go, home or to work?”
“To work, but it’s not urgent,” Julian said, his eyes on the road ahead of them. “Perhaps we can go someplace quiet nearby and you’ll tell me about it. Where are we now?”
Julian wrinkled his nose. “Not a very fascinating place, but there will be a bench for us to sit on, won’t there?”
His father was rather doubtful. “Today is Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.”
“They’re here, don’t you see?”
Now Julian saw.
“On their Sabbath many of them come to walk here, but if I’m not mistaken, when Mother and I were young and we lived not far from here, the Jews used to come more. We had Jewish neighbors on the same floor, and I remember them having a special name for this park. They called it ‘Shulen Park’ or something like that.”
“It’s the name of a special food the Jews eat on their Sabbath. The oldest son of that neighbor’s family explained to me that right after their meal, which included this food, they went out to walk here a bit, and so the name stuck.”Roysuddenly turned the wheel in a broad stroke and drove back on to the road he had come from.
“What’s the matter?”
“I don’t want to be there today with all of them.”
“Why? Don’t tell me you’re suddenly avoiding Jews. Is that something new since Diana went toIsrael?”
“Not at all, but why do we have to put ourselves in a place where so many people will see us?”
“What’s with her?” Julian reverted to the original discussion.
“She met Dan Weingarten’s sister inIsrael, and she wrote to us that she’s planning to keep up a ‘casual relationship’ with her. She’s still living on the kibbutz up north, but isn’t very happy there.”
“Wait a minute; does she want to come back?”
“No. She wants to stay there. To study.”
“I understood that. But to study what?”
Diana’s father clasped his hands together, and then quickly grasped the wheel again when the car made a frightening jerk. “That’s exactly what’s getting your mother so worried. Diana didn’t write exactly what she wants to study.”
“That’s what it looks like.”Roy’s eyes were focused on the back fender of the car in front of him.
Julian processed what he had just heard. “She wants…to be Jewish?”
“She writes explicitly that she doesn’t, but who knows.”
“Doesn’t the possibility concern you?” Julian asked tensely. He realized that his father’s run-in with his mother this morning was likely the first of many such confrontations in the near future. His father would agree; his mother would object. Father would support; Mother would fight.
“It doesn’t thrill me, but what can I tell you? There are so many ways of life in the world today. Who says that my way is the best, the most correct? If one of my children wants to try a different direction—by all means!” He waved his hands with an inviting motion, and then once again grasped the errant steering wheel.
Simi and Menuchi walked under the streetlight just as it switched on.
“…And on the stage will be a screen with subheads translated into Hebrew. I think it shouldn’t be a problem to make a slideshow on the computer with subheads that change as the play progresses.”
Menuchi spoke with such uncharacteristic confidence that Simi didn’t recognize her. She was like a different person.
“But the performers will have to be exactly at the same pace as the slideshow. Imagine if someone sneezes and then everything will be delayed by a second—the translations won’t match what the girls are saying and doing!” Simi fretted.
“Well, the slideshow doesn’t have to be automatic. We’ll switch the screens manually, according to the pace of the performance. Is that possible? You’re a bigger expert than I am in this.”
“Yes, it’s possible.” Simi nodded. “I think your idea is great. But why should we suggest it to the administration in such a roundabout way? Why don’t you tell them about it yourself?”
The bulb in the stairwell was burnt out, as usual, and Menuchi hoped her blush wouldn’t show in the dark. “I don’t have the nerve,” she said, rather bravely. “And why does it make a difference who suggests it? Let’s first see if things can still be changed.” Hey! Do you know who you’re talking to? This is not Adina, who, despite her domineering personality, is still a good listener. It’s Simi! Perfect Simi! Talented, confident Simi!
But Simi walked up the stairs beside her, matching her pace; to Menuchi it seemed she was even going a bit slower than she herself was.
They heard activity from inside the apartment. “Menuchi’s here!” a cheerful voice called out. “And she brought a guest. Welcome!”
“You’re early, Menuchi,” Helen said. “We haven’t finished decorating yet, Chasya’s not here yet with the cake, and Adina’s not back either. How are you? Who’s this?”
“My sister-in-law,” Menuchi said. “Hello, everyone. Wow! What did you prepare here?” They really had the place set up for a party! Music played in the background, and the table was covered with a burgundy tablecloth and laid with drinks and cups. Simi smiled at everyone and shook hands with those girls who proffered theirs.
“Hello! Oh, Menuchi, you’re here already?”
Menuchi turned to the door. Adina’s foul mood was apparent. “Hello, Adina,” she said with a soothing smile. “Where did you disappear to? I was looking for you.”
“Where did I disappear to? To buy you a present. What strange questions you have tod—” She stopped in mid-sentence as her eyes focused on a point to Menuchi’s right.
Simi smiled at her. “Wait a minute; aren’t you sometimes the monitor on Yehudis’s bus? I didn’t know you’re in this school!”
Adina was silent. Menuchi looked at her questioningly. “Adina? On Yehudis’s bus? Are you sure you’re not mixing her up with someone else, Simi?”
“No, I’m not. She even came upstairs to us once. But she’s pretty new at Givol; you haven’t been there more than a month, isn’t that right, Adina?”
“I’m…uh…well, it wasn’t really right of me to go there without telling you, Menuchi,” Adina said as she stuck the package she had been holding into a small cupboard in the corner and stood up straight. Her eyes flitted quickly between the two sisters-in-law. “But I really wanted to help. I only meant…the best. Maybe you can come with me to the kitchen now, just you two?”
“She just wanted to be nice,” someone said, and Simi identified her as one of the three girls who had come to visit Menuchi that Friday night. “She wanted us to come and tell you how Menuchi missed out on the trip so that she could help you out.”
“Thank you, Ditza,” Adina said dryly. “Come to the kitchen a minute, Menuchi and Simi.”
Simi entered the kitchen, somewhat confused. She wasn’t sure she understood what was going on here. Adina had this captivating pull, and she was also Menuchi’s good friend, or so it seemed. And moreover—Menuchi didn’t know until this minute about Adina’s volunteer work at Givol. What was behind all the secrecy?
“It’s better that I speak my native language, okay?” Adina told Simi. “Menuchi will tell you what I said soon.”
Menuchi listened with folded arms. Adina spoke quickly, and both her tone and facial expression were very apologetic. Simi observed her from the side. There was something very moving about the scene—Adina’s animated stream of words facing off with Menuchi’s placid listening. What a contrast, Simi thought to herself. But it looks like they understand each other very well.
Menuchi asked a question or two, not sounding very pleased, and Adina answered her. Then they both turned to look at Simi.
“Am I supposed to say something now?” Simi asked with a smile.
“No, Menuchi has to say something,” Adina answered in Hebrew. “Nu, Menuchi, tell her everything.”
Menuchi really didn’t want to—that much was clear. “Another time, Adina, okay? You did nothing wrong, and it makes no difference to us at all. I’m sure Simi agrees.”
“Too bad it makes no difference. I wanted to make a difference. I thought that maybe it would help if I would…”
“Adina, it’s fine. She didn’t come here because of that. She didn’t know that you know me, and I didn’t know that you were volunteering there. Listen, we came for something more important. We have an idea for how—”
Adina shook her head adamantly. “Ideas in a minute, Menuchi. Please, tell her and that’s it. Otherwise, I’ll feel like a liar. I want her to understand that I didn’t do it just to stick my nose in.”
Simi decided, as a loyal sister-in-law, to rescue Menuchi from her obviously uncomfortable position. “Adina, it’s fine. Menuchi doesn’t have to tell me anything if it isn’t comfortable for her. I really see no reason to be angry at you.”
“It’s really very…silly,” Menuchi said, her face pale. Adina genuinely did not grasp what a bind she had put Menuchi into! Adina wanted her to tell Simi plainly and simply that, “There were apparently times that I spoke about you with such obvious pressure, that Adina picked up on it, and so she was looking for ways to make peace between us.” What was Adina thinking?! That this was an argument between two second graders that could be resolved with a dash of hocus-pocus? She should stop pressuring! Who knew how much of their exchange Simi had understood?
Simi had absorbed something. She also understood what Ditza had said earlier, before they had retreated to the kitchen. She deliberated whether she should mention the trip that Menuchi had missed for nothing, but when she saw her sister-in-law’s face, alternating between red and white, she decided that now was not the time. The day would come when she would apologize for her obtuseness that day, and at the same time she would perhaps ask what Adina had wanted to achieve by volunteering at Givol. Right now, it didn’t interest her all that much. But that day wouldn’t come before her connection with Menuchi would become a smooth, knot-free one, and she would be sure that her question wouldn’t confound Menuchi and make her feel like she did now.
“Okay, Adina, it’s fine,” she repeated. “I promise I don’t think anything bad about you. It makes no difference to me why you came to Givol.” Did she detect a look of gratitude on her sister-in-law’s face? “In any case, we came here today to suggest something.” She took her sheaf of stapled papers out of her bag. “What do you say about doing a play? A big play that will introduce the public to your school and maybe help it get back on its feet?
“Menuchi? Can you translate what I just said?”
Pale-faced, Menuchi repeated the sentences in English without looking at either of the girls. Simi prayed she wouldn’t regret the whole idea.