Without a Trace – Chapter 34

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 34 of a new online serial novel, Without a Trace, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.

Libby turned out to be a very entertaining child, who talked most of the time, spent a small amount of time wandering around curiously, and spent an even tinier amount of time listening to Chasida talk. Even then, she usually had a quick answer on the tip of her tongue for whatever Chasida said.

“This store is cute,” she said seriously. “But I think it’s a bit boring. Tell me, don’t you get bored from it?”

“Sometimes,” Chasida conceded. “When there are no customers. But when the store is busy, I don’t have a minute to be bored.”

“Well, I see that now there are no customers, right? If I wasn’t here, you’d probably be very bored. How much time could you be in one place without talking to a single person?”

“When you get used to it, lots of time.”

“It’s a real shame to get used to it. I think it’s much better not to be alone and not to be bored. My father says that doing nothing brings people to do bad things. He buys us lots of games and books so that we won’t be bored even for a minute, because he says that when he was a kid he did lots of silly things when he was bored.”

And even when he wasn’t, Chasida wanted to add, but didn’t. First of all, it wasn’t a very nice thing to say, and secondly, it wasn’t as if Libby was letting her get a single word in edgewise.

“On the way here, he told us that he lived here when he was a boy, and even later. He told us that lots of times he misses this house because all his memories are here. When we came into the yard, he got so excited, and he said that he loved this yard, and the street and the house here.” She stopped for a second. “You’re older than him, right?”

“Yes.” Chasida’s face muscles stiffened a bit, but Libby didn’t notice.

“Ima told us,” the girl went on. “She said that she and Abba said the whole sefer Tehillim lots of times for you, and they were also careful about shemiras halashon and they said Shir Hashirim, all in your zechus.” She sighed. “But it doesn’t seem to have helped at all, has it?”

“You can never know.” Good thing it was easy to put on an act for children.

“You think it did?”

“Maybe.” Chasida didn’t look at the dark-haired girl sitting on the chair beside her. “You know that tefillos are not always accepted right away; only when Hashem decides to answer us.”

“Yes, I know that it takes time, sometimes. With you, it’s taking a really long time, right? That’s why I think it’s too bad that you just work in a store instead of being a teacher or even a kindergarten morah. If you would be a kindergarten morah, then after work you would think a lot about the girls in your class, and it wouldn’t be so bad that you don’t yet have a husband and children. Did you notice that your cell phone is ringing?”

Yes, Chasida had noticed, and she had also identified the number on the cell phone’s screen. What did Mrs. Kurzman want from her now? Should she keep answering her calls? Blum just wasn’t for her, period. A person who didn’t bother listening to what was being said to him, and then, when you told him about a child who was suffering with pain from a burn, hurried to claim that he was also suffering…and then asked for water? You could see that he was an August egotist, the worst kind. Ima, without even being aware of the details of that date, had also turned down the shidduch.

“He’s not for us, Chasida’le,” she’d said firmly. “Everything that happened with Zevi’s foot that night, and Eliyahu, who broke Abba’s heart, and all our hearts… You’ll find someone else, who won’t bring so many bad things with him.”

So why was she allowing Kurzman’s calls to get her caught up in illusions these past few months?

Perhaps because it wasn’t at all simple to find that “someone else,” someone who didn’t bring with him so many bad things, because except for his bad horoscope, Blum was the best suggestion Chasida had received in a very long time.

Yes, but she knew how it was impossible to rely on inquiries. Most of the signs against Yerachmiel Blum had too much significance. True, there would always be those benevolent souls who would say that she was being terribly picky to be paying any attention to these kinds of things at her age, but if they wanted her to compromise, then she would even take someone with a limp, just not someone egocentric. That was why she had told Rochel Kurzman no at the end, and that was why she had no intention of answering this phone call.

***

“So, this is it? Our last day here?”

“Something like that,” Zevi said from the top of the stone on which he was sitting. “I can’t completely miss out on the days that my family spends with my grandparents. My grandmother would take it personally.”

“You were there with them on Shabbos!” Yehuda exclaimed as he clambered up next to Zevi and opened the bag of cookies that his grandmother had sent along.

“I know, but it’s not enough.”

“Tell me, Zevi, what are you planning to do next zman?”

“Me? I’m going to be a waiter in a wedding hall; what’s the question?” Zevi turned his eyes away from the bag of cookies lying between them.

“Ha, ha,” Yehuda said, taking a cookie. “I’m asking what you’re planning to do with your foot.”

“I stopped kicking friends at the age of two, I think,” Zevi said, without a trace of a smile, “after I realized it wasn’t nice. So kicking people is not something I’m planning to do with my foot.”

“Nice.” Yehuda swallowed the cookie. “And what are you planning to do with it?”

Zevi wrinkled his forehead, clearly irritated, and stayed silent.

“Because if you’re planning to continue to bundle yourself up inside your blankets, I’m ready to help you. But I think it would be better for you to just get over the secrecy. You’ll see very quickly how—”

Zevi cut him off. “Easy for you to preach,” he said. “And before you continue, you should just know that this is what my mother wants—that people shouldn’t know about my foot—so it would be a shame for you to waste any more words on me.”

“They won’t be wasted. After you understand what I’m saying, you can explain it to her. I’m sure she’ll agree with me.”

“That what?”

“That keeping a small, easy-to-keep secret is bearable, but to always be in bed first, to get up first, never to take off your shoes, to be so careful after you take a shower—it’s really going too far. Your mother doesn’t realize how hard it is for you to keep this secret in the dorm, Zevi. That’s not what she meant when she asked that you make sure no one knows. I understand that there are things that should be kept under wraps, but not to the extent that it borders on madness!”

“Thanks for the compliment.”

Yehuda’s black eyes flashed as he looked at his younger friend from where he was sitting. Zevi felt Yehuda’s gaze analyzing him from top to bottom, and he knew that Yehuda would not give up before he finished saying everything he had to say.

“You can get offended when we’re finished, okay, Zevi? First listen to what I have to tell you. You’re worried about shidduchim already? That might be reasonable, but the problem is that if you think that someone in our room doesn’t know that you’re hiding something, you’re making a mistake. And you can’t know what they are imagining. They are probably thinking that it’s something much worse, and that’s something I’m sure your mother doesn’t want.”

“So you want that on Rosh Chodesh Elul, I should walk into the room, gather all the guys on the floor, and maybe we’ll even set up a table with some snacks and drinks, and you’ll help me tell everyone that I’m only missing four toes, and that it’s nothing else?” Zevi spoke with his eyes closed, leaning back against the rock, as though he was tanning comfortably in the sun.

“Well, I think we’d both agree that Elul is probably not the most suitable time for that, but in any case, there’s a much simpler way.”

“Which is?”

“Just to be natural. Start getting up with everyone else, go to sleep at the same time as everyone else, and don’t be afraid to put on socks when someone else is in the room. You don’t have to use slippers if you don’t feel comfortable in them, but what I mean is that in general, just do whatever helps you feel natural and at ease.”

“What do you want? I was very natural and at ease this year.”

“Not true.”

Zevi started to say something but fell silent right away. His eyes remained closed, but he knew that Yehuda was looking at him now. Sure, it was easy for Yehuda to talk. Yehuda wouldn’t be the one having to get used to the piercing gazes and the whispers that would quickly quiet down whenever he, Zevi, would approach. Yehuda wouldn’t be the one having to come to terms with the fact that the whole world knew about his deformity—nor would he be the one having to deal with the consequences that were sure to arise because of it.

“And if I have no strength for all the stares?” Zevi asked as he opened his eyes. “And the whispers and the, ‘Did you see what happened to him…’ comments? I’m telling you, Yehuda, I prefer to sweat a thousand times in my quilt cover, rather than having to deal with all the questions, curious stares, and all those other delightful things.”

“I understand,” Yehuda said slowly, “But we really aren’t little children anymore, in case you forgot. I believe that most of the bachurim would act their age.”

“And those that won’t?”

“I’ll deal with them.” Yehuda laughed. “So?”

Zevi didn’t reply. He was thoughtful for a minute. “Believe me that I don’t know what you want from me,” he said suddenly, without turning to face Yehuda. “Are you worried about me? Thanks, but no thanks, really. It’s much easier for me to keep the whole subject closed and continue what I’ve been doing until now.”

“With all the pressure, fear, heat, discomfort and—”

“Yes!” Zevi didn’t notice that he was almost screaming. “With all that and that and that and I don’t care if you find a few more descriptions of misery to add to your list. I’m not as nebbach-dik as I look, okay? You discovered what I have; hooray for you. Now please drop the subject and leave me alone!”

“You are a nebbach,” Yehuda said quietly. “Just like I once was. I also thought that it would be better for me like that, until I finally got smart. A bit late, that’s true, but it finally happened.”

Zevi didn’t react. He looked at the mountainous horizon and studiously avoided the bag of cookies Yehuda pushed into his hand.

“And that’s what I don’t want you to do—repeat my mistakes. You understand?” Yehuda looked at Zevi, who was leaning forward now, his elbows on his knees and his eyes staring vacantly into the endless expanse before them. “How is it to learn with me?”

Zevi was taken aback at the question. “We learn in a very different way,” he said finally. “We didn’t quite manage together, if you noticed.”

“Of course I noticed. As my roommate, you’re not aware of it, but my regular chavrusos know that their job is to read me the Gemara; otherwise I can’t follow along with anything.”

After a long silence, Zevi found his voice. “You don’t know how to read?” he asked, knowing that it was not the most tactful question. Well, Yehuda had asked for it.

“I know how to read for many years already, baruch Hashem, but I have a serious learning disability connected to reading and comprehension.”

“Dyslexia?” Zevi remembered once reading that word in a book.

Yehuda laughed. “Dyslexia is just one type of learning disability. There are hundreds of types of them that don’t necessarily have names.” He paused for a minute. “I was granted one of them. I read fine today, not as slowly as I did in the past, but the effort that I invest in reading doesn’t leave any room in my brain to start reconstructing what I just read and then delve into the sugya.”

“You don’t read…books or sefarim, let’s say?”

“Have you ever seen me read something?”

Zevi had to admit that he hadn’t.

“I can read regular books today, but it’s really not one of my hobbies. With learning, though, it’s much harder. When everything is built on the last thing you learned, like building blocks, and there is so much mental energy expended on the initial reading—it really becomes complicated for me.”

Yehuda was quiet for a minute and then looked into his friend’s eyes. “Actually, in the beginning, learning to read was fine for me. It was only later that the difficulties began. Besides, I’m the oldest, so for my parents, everything I did was the smartest and best that could be, but in cheder they realized at one point that I must have a problem. At first they thought it was a matter of maturity or motivation, but later they sent me for all sorts of tests and evaluations that took tons of time, and at the end of second grade, I was finally branded, officially ‘learning disabled.’” Yehuda laughed, but he hardly sounded as cheerful as he usually did.

“I began going to private lessons in the afternoons, and with a lot of effort, I learned some pretty good methods. But the problem was that none of the methods bypassed my disability. I don’t know; I guess my disability is really serious. I’ve heard of some people that use these methods and can read almost normally, but that miracle didn’t happen to me. I learned to work hard to read—and to succeed—but I couldn’t, under any circumstances, read the same way that all my friends did.”

“And you were ashamed,” Zevi said with that I-know-the-rest-of-it tone. “And you decided to hide your problem.”

“Well, there was no point in hiding it from my classmates anymore,” Yehuda said casually. “They knew from first grade that it was hard for me to read, but that didn’t prevent them from being friends with me. The hiding started when I began mesivta, where no one knew me.”

“Why?” Zevi asked.

“You’re asking?” Yehuda smiled. “I didn’t want anyone to know. I was ashamed. I knew that I was an outgoing kid who made friends easily, but I didn’t want to always be known as the one with the disability. In cheder, with help, I had managed to get through. In Gemara shiur I would listen to the rebbi very carefully, and I was usually able to repeat what he said afterward by heart.”

Nu?” Zevi cut him off. “But what were you ashamed of, that caused you to decide to hide your disability in mesivta?”

“Well, I was a showoff,” Yehuda said candidly. “And I didn’t want to deal with the fact that everyone around me knew that I had a problem. In cheder, my friends would come learn with me in the afternoon, because I could only remember and review the sugya when they read me the Gemara. It’s possible that they enjoyed it, but I really didn’t. And I decided that I had to try and change the situation.”

He smiled. “My parents didn’t understand why I didn’t want to go to the excellent mesivta they had chosen for me, but I insisted. I went to a different yeshivah, which was just as good but had the added benefit of no one there knowing me, and I loved it.” He swayed a bit, almost like he was learning. “At first, I was still able to star during the shiurim as I always had, but the way I had worked until then turned out to be ineffective, because in mesivta, I soon discovered, I was first supposed to learn the sugya myself with a chavrusa—but my chavrusa wasn’t my rebbi, so he didn’t teach me. He expected to learn with me!

“Later on, at home, I spent hours trying to review what I had learned that day, myself, and I barely understood it. My father, who works, couldn’t sit and learn with me every day. On Shabbos we would review a little, but I can’t say he got too much nachas from me. Well, obviously, remembering a week’s worth of shiurim was a bit much, even for me!

“The problems grew, because when I didn’t remember the previous material, I couldn’t get into a new sugya the way I should have. My tests were awful, because I couldn’t properly write down even the things I did remember. You know, reading problems automatically affect writing as well.” He stopped for a minute to push the bag of cookies toward Zevi again.

“In short, I went from being a kid who dealt reasonably well with a problem, to being a very vulnerable teenager. I was well-liked among my friends, friendly and happy, but doing very poorly scholastically. I purposely made it seem like I wasn’t interested in investing effort in my learning. I came across as being scornful of my studies. Everything was allowed—as long as no one knew how much I tried and failed.”

Yehuda rose and brushed off his pants. “Wait a second; a brachah acharonah.” He sat down again. “I ate enough cookies here for both of us.” He made the brachah out loud, got up again, and then looked at Zevi. “You want the end of the story?”

“If you want,” Zevi replied nonchalantly. Yehuda’s story was interesting, but not so much so that he couldn’t resist asking for the ending. He didn’t want to show too much curiosity.

“I want it, very much,” Yehuda said, smiling for the umpteenth time during this conversation. “But first I want the end of your story.”

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