Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 4 of a new online serial novel, Dance of the Puppet, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
Today there was actually no traffic on the way, and the bus came on time. Elchanan walked down the street, skirting two stones that lay on the edge of the sidewalk, and wondered apprehensively what was waiting for him at home. Yaffa had been miserable when he’d left in the morning, and all the way to the store he wondered what more he could do that he hadn’t already done. But when he arrived at the store and the pressures at work began, all matters relating to home flew out of his mind. Only when he left, after parting from Dvir with a, “Take care, see you later” did Yaffa’s face rise in his mind’s eye again.
He sighed. He really felt for her, a young, slightly naïve girl, who had woven a nice dream for herself that was suddenly beginning to crack before her eyes. But what could he do? He was ready to try and fulfill her other dreams, to do a lot to make her happy, but without the gasoline called money—nothing was possible, even if Yaffa thought it was. He was not built for the belt-tightening and frugality they had been forced to live with these past few months, to reckon every container of cheese or each chocolate bar that he wanted to buy. It was just not for him. When he’d told his mother on the phone how much he was sweating, she simply did not understand.
“Sweating? Don’t you have air conditioning in the apartment?”
Go explain to her that the last electric bill had been so huge that if he’d receive another one of similar proportions, he’d have to take a loan from a friend to cover it.
Perhaps it had been a mistake to learn half a day in a kollel that paid so little, but that kollel was where he had enjoyed the learning. Should he have looked for a kollel based on how much they paid? Something about that idea sounded uglier than going to work for Dvir; he didn’t know why, but that was the way it was. Perhaps Yaffa would have preferred that he do that, but that wasn’t what he was interested in doing. Torah is Torah, work is work—and he didn’t want to mix up the two.
As he walked up to his apartment, his compassion and apprehension were suddenly replaced with resentment. He had no strength to come home and find a tearful wife, a messy house, and a screaming baby. He didn’t deserve it. He had worked hard today, and a lot of it was for them, not only for himself. Yaffa couldn’t expect him to do things that he was not capable of doing, just like he did not expect her to do things that she was unable to do.
The door was locked, as always. He knocked, and she opened it, with her regular smile and “hello.” He entered, murmuring his own greeting, and turned to the small dining room to put down his jacket and hat.
She followed him. “How was it?” she inquired.
Elchanan turned around. “Fine, baruch Hashem.” He looked at her carefully. Was this the same woman who had been weeping just this morning? Was it over already?
“So am I. How do you feel?”
She went into the kitchen and he followed her, looking in surprise at the spread on the table. “Hey!” he exclaimed. “What’s this banquet all about?” Had it been Lizzy, his sister, he would have suspected that it was an ingeniously underhanded way to influence him to do something. But just like ingeniousness was synonymous with Lizzy, it was the absolute antithesis of Yaffa. So what was it all about?
“I was at the well-baby clinic this morning, and then I decided to try making some interesting salads, so I popped over to the vegetable store.” She smiled apologetically. “It’s not such a banquet. Aside for bread and salads, there’s nothing major.”
“It looks great,” he replied, carefully looking at the plates on the table. “Where’s Bentzy?”
“He’s still sleeping. I guess the nurse over there tired him out the same way she tired me out.”
“I don’t remember you telling me you had an appointment today,” Elchanan said, thinking that even if he had known about the appointment, the morning’s events were enough to make him forget about it.
“I didn’t,” Yaffa replied as she wiped the counter with a pink dishrag. “The nurse called and asked us to come.”
She shrugged. “She hadn’t filled in his weight when we were there last week, or something like that. I have no luck with nurses; I know that.”
“Not sure. I have this feeling that she’s looking at me with a negative eye.”
“Did Chaya go with you today?”
“Good. Listen. If I was the nurse, I don’t think I would have any reason to think anything bad about you, but with your sister constantly…” He stopped suddenly. And although Yaffa wanted very much to know what Elchanan was thinking, he didn’t say another word on the subject.
They ate in silence. There were five salads—rather simple ones, but they tasted good. Elchanan looked at the finely diced vegetables on his plate. “Nice,” he said, and speared a small piece of carrot that had somehow remained bigger than its friends. “The colors are pretty.”
He raised his eyes, surprised at his wife’s silence. She was focused on the slices of bread in front of her and wasn’t responding to him at all. Elchanan sighed to himself and continued eating. Yaffa’s constant mood changes worried him. If only she was a bit more predictable! Morning—crying, lunchtime—industriously preparing lunch and greeting him with a smile, and suddenly…what had happened now?
“Tell me, Elchanan,” Yaffa said suddenly. “It’s true that the salad is pretty and colorful and nice and everything else you said. But if I would have told you that I’d brought it at the grocery, you would have thought it was foolish of me, right? Why pay for something so simple that you could just as easily prepare at home?”
He had no idea what she was getting at. “Could be,” he said. “But sometimes people have no time or interest in putting in the effort even for such a simple thing. You worked hard on these salads, right? You can see that. Sometimes people want to spare themselves that work.”
“Yes…” she said, suddenly dejected. “But only sometimes.” And once again she was frozen in place, gazing at the loaf of bread, not even moving her fork.
“Yaffa?” Elchanan asked carefully. “What happened to you today? I mean—I know about what happened this morning, but why all these strange questions about the salad?”
She raised her eyes. A familiar sheen glistened there for a moment, and he imagined for a fleeting instant that he saw a tear, but then it all disappeared. “Oh, nothing,” she said in her normal voice. “Nothing serious. I was just thinking about something for a minute. We’d better finish eating so we can rest a little before Bentzy wakes up.”
Elchanan wasn’t home that evening. Yaffa piled neat squares of folded laundry on his bed, which was closest to the closet, her mind awhirl with thoughts. Truthfully, it had only been on the way home from the clinic that it had dawned on her that Elchanan didn’t deserve to come home for lunch to a sad, irritated wife, even if his plans were not exactly cohesive with her own. She wondered what Morah Stern would say about it, but the last thing she felt like doing right now was calling her. They’d spoken just two weeks ago. Yaffa preferred to think of solutions herself. Chaya? She had anyway been preaching to her for the past two weeks straight that it wasn’t good for her to sit at home all day and that she should seriously consider getting a job.
But since lunch, the catering solution, which had actually excited her at first, seemed illusory and not practical. Really, simple salads like kohlrabi and carrots or tomatoes in olive oil and black pepper—who would want to come and buy such things from her?
Once, when Yaffa had been ten years old, Chaya, then a newly-married, young woman, had suggested that she sign up for a home economics club. Chaya was the oldest in the family of four daughters; Yaffa was the youngest. Chaya observed her youngest sister, who was very different from the three girls that preceded her, and worried about her.
After their mother’s two heart surgeries, which had left her as a sickly, forty-seven-year-old woman, the house had only been able to be maintained with the help of the girls in the family and a regular cleaning woman. Since the age of thirteen, Chaya had been in charge of most of the cooking. Shifra was in charge of cleaning, and Ruchi took care of the shopping and errands. Only little Yaffa had no responsibilities.
Chaya didn’t come for Shabbos very often after her wedding. It was enough that her weak mother had to take over the cooking again, with the help of Shifra and Ruchi; Chaya wasn’t looking to make things any harder for her.
But on the few Shabbosos that Chaya had come to her parents, she made sure to ask Yaffa, “Why don’t you go study with Leah’le? Aren’t you her friend?”
“I’m her very good friend,” Yaffa had replied, continuing to gaze out of the window. “But not to study.”
Chaya’s questions never ended: Why are you playing cards by yourself when your friends are sitting downstairs and studying math together? And why don’t you know how to make your own sandwich in the morning? And why don’t you want to sign up for English lessons if Abba and Ima agree to give them to you? And why, when you were playing ball downstairs, didn’t you try to catch it, instead of just looking at the girls, who saw that you wanted to suck your thumb but were holding back? And why, why, why…
It wasn’t long before Chaya had asked her, “Yaffa, why don’t you sign up for a home economics class?”
“Because I don’t know how to cook and bake.” Yaffa had shrugged, holding a folded paper in her hand. The compliment that Morah Rabinowitz had written on her most recent Navi test interested her much more.
“Someone who knows how to cook and bake doesn’t have to go to a home economics course. Someone who wants to learn, goes. Yaffa? Yaffa, you’re not listening to me!”
Reluctantly, Yaffa raised her eyes from the test paper. “What?”
“I said that people who want to learn how to cook go to the course, not people who already know how.”
“Okay, then I don’t want to learn how to cook.” Yaffa lowered her eyes again to Morah Rabinowitz’s small, close writing.
Chaya didn’t say a word. She just went out of the room to her mother, who was sitting on her chair in the living room.
“That girl is so spoiled!” Yaffa heard her grumbling. Ima said something to Chaya in a low voice that Yaffa couldn’t catch.
She was spoiled? Could be. As a child, she’d actually gotten the feeling that she worked very hard her whole life and wasn’t spoiled at home. It was hard to make people understand you when they really, really didn’t.
But today, year later, she was beginning regret ever so slightly that she hadn’t made the effort to heed Chaya’s pleas back then. Perhaps if she would have registered for a home economics course at the age of ten, it would have been possible for her to open a home catering business today, at age twenty…
The annual year-end gathering of the high school teachers took place, as usual, in the teachers’ room. The principal, Adina Kotzker, listened with half an ear to the loud voices that came from the corridor and smiled to herself.
“The girls are getting ready for the overnight, aren’t they?” she asked Malka Mann, her daughter, who was sitting next to her. “Hey, you’re not eating anything, Malky. What’s the matter?”
Malka smiled distractedly and took a knish from the central platter. Since Ofrah Cohen had been put in charge of the refreshments at teachers’ meetings, everything was on a much higher standard than it had been when Yael Braun had been in charge. She turned her head to look for Yael on the other side of the table. But Yael wasn’t there.
Malka put her knish back down and walked out of the teachers’ room. Her mother had finished speaking and thanking the staff for a wonderful year, where they’d all contributed their share, and the guest speaker had not yet arrived. The break was a good opportunity for the teachers to chat with each other before they would part for the two-month-long vacation, but Yael always had other, apparently more important things to do.
Malka stood in the corner of the corridor, observing a group of girls standing and arguing heatedly in the opposite corner. Three of the girls broke off from the group and hurried away, pausing for a second as they passed her and nodded politely in greeting.
“Miss Eisentein!” Malka stopped one of the girls. “Have you seen Morah Braun in the last few minutes?”
“She just helped us make a few decisions a couple of minutes ago,” the student replied, pushing back a few errant hairs that had come loose from her ponytail. “Now she went to the office.”
“No, she went upstairs to help the choir,” the girl standing next to her said; Malka did not remember her name. “They asked her to come up for a few minutes to see something.”
“Okay, thank you.” Malka smiled. “You can go back to what you were doing; I know you’re very busy.”
They nodded, and without waiting to hear anything else, ran to the steps, as though trying to make up for the moment they had lost when Malka had stopped them. Malka hesitated and then turned toward the office.
No, Yael wasn’t there, but another familiar figure was talking animatedly to the secretary. The guest speaker. Malka pasted a smile on her face and approached the petite woman.
“Oh, you look just like your mother!” the woman exclaimed. “I got confused for a minute. Has anyone ever told you that?”
“Many times.” Malka chuckled. She escorted the speaker to the teachers’ room as the woman spoke about her high school days and how the wonderful Morah Kotzker had been her mechaneches.
“Your mother,” the woman concluded. “We loved her. To this day, I don’t know what it was that drew her to her students; she has something special about her.”
“Yes,” Malka said, raising her eyes to the other end of the teachers’ room. Her mother rose to greet the guest speaker. The seat to her mother’s left was no longer empty; Yael was sitting there as though she’d never left. She was slicing the crumbling cake on the plate in front of her with a terribly solemn, yet familiar expression. But the teachers sitting next to her were still laughing heartily, as though someone had just told a great joke.
Yaffa gripped the scrap of paper in her palm. Chaya was always telling her that it wasn’t proper for a married woman to leave the house without a respectable purse or pocketbook, but Yaffa hated such items. She liked plastic bags.
But right now, she regretted not having listened to Chaya and bought herself a small bag with a zipper closing. The house key, Bentzy’s pacifier, his bottle, and an extra diaper were all in a small plastic bag tucked into the carriage. No, the pacifier wasn’t there now. She had just taken it out and stuck it into Bentzy’s screaming mouth.
“Like that, without a pocketbook or diaper bag?” Chaya sighed. “It’s so untidy, Yaffa! Things can fall!”
Yaffa sipped the water that one of her nephews had brought her and wondered if the phone number now stuck in her right hand wouldn’t be completely erased by the time she got home. What could she do? She couldn’t put the paper into the bag when Chaya opened it so freely. In fact, a diaper bag wouldn’t have helped either, because Chaya could open that as well, and ask a thousand questions. Could she evade them? Perhaps. If Elchanan would be in her place, he would certainly be able to, but Yaffa didn’t know how to evade questions. She’d never mastered the art.
Her foot rocked Bentzy’s carriage, and the bottle with the boiled water emitted little gasping sounds as it rolled from side to side to the rhythm of her rocking.
“That’s how you went to the well-baby clinic when I didn’t come with you?” Chaya asked sharply. “With a bag of things falling out all over the place?”
Yaffa tried to remember. She thought that two days ago she may have gone with a diaper bag, but she wasn’t sure.
“So where’s the diaper bag now?” Chaya asked, standing up to put the bottle back into the plastic bag after it kept banging into Bentzy’s little foot.
“In the laundry,” Yaffa answered tiredly and leaned back against the couch. She didn’t really like visiting Chaya, but it was still better than having her sister come to visit her. And if she didn’t come to Chaya, she could be sure that Chaya would come to her.
“In the machine?”
“You can wash it in the machine? Isn’t there a cardboard piece on the bottom or something?”
Yaffa had no choice but to admit that she had no idea. She hadn’t looked at the washing instructions before stuffing the bag into the washing machine with the rest of the clothes. One of Yaffa’s nieces entered the room, and Chaya gritted her teeth, glaring pointedly at the little bag in the corner of the carriage. “And how did it come out?” she asked after a long moment, during which her daughter rummaged around in one of the drawers and then left as empty-handed as she’d come.
“Don’t know,” Yaffa said placidly. “I didn’t open the machine yet.”
“You didn’t open it yet?” Now Chaya was truly shocked. “You leave the house when the washing machine is on? And what if there’s a short? Or a blockage that will flood the whole house? What’s with you, Yaffa?!”
“The machine isn’t on now,” her younger sister replied, gazing at a picture on the wall. “It finished before I left.” She didn’t remember exactly when the cycle had finished and hoped that Chaya wouldn’t ask. She had no idea if it had happened right before she’d left or two or three hours earlier. She sometimes forgot there was laundry in the machine—that was all.
So perhaps this phone number was not for her in the first place? Would this option also dissipate?
Chaya went into the kitchen, leaving Yaffa with Bentzy and her two-year-old nephew, who kept trying to climb onto his cousin’s carriage, and with her morose thoughts. No, she couldn’t give up so fast. She would make the extra effort this week, before she called. If Elchanan would notice the difference, it would be a good sign.
Chaya returned holding a closed container. “I made a great salad for supper last night,” she said simply. “But the kids didn’t like it. Here, Yaffa, take it. You may as well enjoy it.”
But Elchanan prefers fresh vegetables, Yaffa wanted to say, but didn’t. Chaya didn’t like refusals, and it wasn’t nice. After all, her older sister made such an effort to help her and fill the role of a solicitous mother or compassionate sister or however you wanted to call it—Yaffa just couldn’t be ungrateful. “Thanks,” she said with a smile, and went home to tackle the full sinks that were waiting for her. She wondered if Elchanan would notice anything.
Elchanan sensed the difference that very evening.
“Wow, it’s so clean!” he said when he came in. “You’re working too hard, Yaffa. You need lots of energy for Bentzy; don’t waste your strength on sinks and floors, okay? You know it’s not that important to me.”
“Oh, it’s fine,” Yaffa said, and looked critically at the window shutters, which weren’t fine at all. How, for goodness’ sake, was she supposed to reach their farthest corners? With q-tips? She’d never finish in a million years!
Her husband waited patiently, observing her as she poured a generous amount of all-purpose cleaner on a rag and tackled the window again. He didn’t say a word, even when he realized that basic things like supper were completely not on her mind. Instead, he opened the refrigerator, discovered a salad that she must have prepared at some point, took out a few eggs, and made them both an omelet with lots of oregano and cumin.
“Can I make the plates dirty?” he asked with a smile as he opened the cabinet with the milchig dishes.