Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 18 of a new online serial novel, Outside the Bubble, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
He had no idea how it happened, but Martin soon found himself on the bus. It didn’t seem like any of the handful of passengers had helped him board; he must have dragged himself on, somehow. He swiped his bus card and slumped down onto the front seat, leaning his head on the clear plastic partition that separated him from the driver.
The bus sped through the empty streets, and the monotony of the ride made his brain even fuzzier. But he couldn’t let the fog overtake him. Every few seconds, he opened his eyes and glanced outside. He wondered if this route was purposely designed to take the windiest roads, with the sharpest turns. To Martin, it was all unfamiliar territory. But the sixth time he opened his eyes, he began to recognize the scenery. Now he could not allow himself to slump forward. He sat up straight, despite the hammering in his head, and pressed his face to the window. When the bus passed a certain house, his eyes grew as big as tennis balls.
He got up, hardly resembling the same youth who had stumbled onto the bus, and hurried to the back door.
“Stop, driver, stop!” he yelled.
“That’s what the bell is for, kiddo!” the driver answered with annoyance. “It doesn’t work like that; I’m not a taxi. There’s a stop in another fifty meters. Wait patiently, and ring the bell in the meantime!”
When the bus finally stopped, Martin hurried off, and immediately turned to the nearby house belonging to Mr. Perl, the older American guy from the pizza. Or from the non-pizza, depending how you looked at it. He had no time to waste, nor any other option. This place could be a pretty good refuge for the next few hours, and he’d just have to find a way to work things out with that strange young man, who seemed to be Mr. Perl’s relative.
He tripped on the path, trying to imagine the reaction of the people in the house when they’d open the door. Or maybe they wouldn’t open up; he had a solution for that as well.
He knocked. And again. There was no response. In fact, had there been a response, it would have been strange.
He didn’t press the button for the intercom. Instead, he slowly descended the stairs, taking care not to fall. He tried to stomp a path in the thorny yard full of brush. There was a path that led to the back garden, but Martin didn’t use it, just like that threatening guy hadn’t. He walked close to the wall of the house, as if hiding from an unknown threat. Martin found himself imitating the other man’s movements: he huddled near the wall and tiptoed, eyes darting around constantly, like a criminal on the run.
Like a criminal on the run?
Yes, like one.
No, not like one. He really wasn’t a criminal! He hadn’t meant anything bad, and it wasn’t his fault that Rudy had been dead tired; he just—
Martin grew dizzy when he instinctively raised his head to see if anyone was looking out the window on the second floor. He paused for a moment, leaning on the wall of the house, and then he took one more step forward until he reached the window he wanted.
Yes, the key was waiting for him, in the same place where the other young man had placed it, under the rotting rubber frame, hardly visible between the piles of dust.
He wondered if there was cleaning lady in this house. If there was, he’d have to fire her.
How brilliant it had been of him to keep an eye on the other fellow.
Martin looked around again, and in one rapid movement, the key was safely tucked into his palm. That was it. Now he had to get back to the front yard, go up the stairs, and try to open the door.
Who was waiting for him there? Probably poor Mr. Perl. The guy who ordered pizza and didn’t remember to come and pick it up, and who answered his intercom with the same monotonous sentences over and over, both in context and not. It was probably dementia, or something similar. But what would he do when he came face-to-face with a caregiver, or with a grandson, if there was one there?
Martin bit his lip as he limped back to the front yard. His head was pounding, and he couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t dripping blood from the deep gash in his forehead, above his left eye. There was no doubt that he didn’t look like a particularly becoming figure right now, but maybe he’d manage to get inside quietly, without anyone seeing him.
A sound from the front yard made him freeze at the last second before he stepped back around the side of the house. Someone was speaking—or rather, shouting. Martin retreated behind the wall, under the edge of the curved porch, trying to hide behind the pillar.
“Reb Michoel!” he heard the voice call out, accompanied by knocking that could not be called gentle. “Reb Michoel, are you home?” A moment of quiet and then, “I’m sorry I’m knocking like the police, but it’s because I’m worried about you. Either you don’t answer the phone, or you answer in a really strange way. This is the second time that I’m coming, and I can’t get you to open the door… Would you just let me in? I promise not to mention money or receipts or checkbooks or anything like that. I’ve come simply as a Yid who cares, not as a yeshivah administrator. Can I please come in?” The speech came to an end, but it didn’t sound like there was any response.
Martin dared to peek out carefully. He saw a Chareidi man, wearing a long black coat, slowly walking down the stairs. He just hoped the man would not decide to take a walk around the house, if he had also deduced that something wasn’t right with Mr. Perl.
The man did not turn to the back garden. He remained standing under the long balcony, as if waiting for something surprising to transpire. He stood for a few seconds, seemingly deliberating what to do, and with a sigh that even Martin could hear, he headed back to the gate and out onto the street.
Martin wanted to count to at least fifty in order to make sure the guest was far away enough. But he knew that no number would obey him now, not even the numbers arranged from one to fifty. The wheels turned in his mind, and without counting even to three, he turned to the cracked stone stairs. He pressed his ear to the door, and when he heard no noise coming through, he stuck the key into the lock.
And although he kept telling himself over and over again that he wasn’t a criminal, he sure felt like one.
Hinda sat on her bed, plucking at a thread that was peeking out of her pillowcase. In the background, she heard the door to the house open, and Dov greeting his son-in-law. She had to hand it to this young man, who traveled almost every evening from Bnei Brak to Haifa, and almost every morning back to Bnei Brak, all to make his wife feel good. Dov had suggested that he try to learn in the nearby shul during this time, but he’d declined, saying that he did not know how long Penina planned to be here, and he didn’t want to leave his chavrusa for a long time. Dov had nodded understandingly, and only afterward asked Hinda quietly how she would define “a long time.” She had answered that she had no idea, but he shouldn’t worry, because she wasn’t at all bothered by Penina’s presence here.
She looked at the phone. She tried calling Mali each Thursday, but more often than not, her daughter wouldn’t pick up. In the last year, they had spoken so little, and the conversations had been so short, flat, and uninteresting, that they left Hinda even more pained than the times when Mali just ignored her calls.
“Hi, Ima.” Mali’s voice came through the phone without warning, and Hinda nearly jumped.
“Mali! How are you?”
“How is school?”
“Are you making progress with the photography?”
“Yes. Listen, Ima,” Mali said. “I have a friend,who has been a photographer for quite a while. Longer than me. Do you know someone Shira Lev?”
“There was a photographer here named Shira.” Hinda reached over to open the window behind her. “Is that the friend you’re referring to?”
“Yes. I saw the baby she took pictures of in your house two days ago. I saw the picture of you.”
“I would be happy to see a picture of you, too,” Hinda replied candidly. “I haven’t seen you in a long time, Mali.”
Mali was quiet for a moment. “The baby is still there?”
“And her parents too?”
At one point, when she was around thirteen, Mali had stopped calling Yosef by his name. Hinda had commented about it a number of times, but when she saw her words being totally ineffective, she’d stopped. Yosef himself did not complain; maybe he didn’t notice.
“Avigdor invited him for Shabbos to Kiryat Sefer, so he’s going. It’s not comfortable for him to spend a whole Shabbos with the young couple here.”
“I see.” Mali’s voice was trying to convey something, but Hinda had long stopped trying to interpret her tones, because Mali always claimed afterward that she had meant something else entirely.
“Baruch is probably coming home from yeshivah, though.”
“Baruch!” Mali exclaimed.
“Yes, b’ezras Hashem.”
“Well,” now the bitterness was clearly dripping from Mali’s tone, “I hope you enjoy.”
“I would enjoy it even more if you would also be coming,” Hinda said, not calculating how much time had passed since Mali had stepped foot in her home. Ten months? More? “But there aren’t enough rooms. If you want, I’ll ask the Goldenthals upstairs. Avidgor and Esty slept there with the children last Pesach.”
Mali was silent for a long time. No, she did not want to come. The house, even before seeing her mother’s new relatives, would only evoke anger and shame. The red flag that she’d always waved was Yosef, but she had built up so much anger and so many complaints on his poor back that even if he would not be there for Shabbos, she preferred not to come, and not to forcibly stimulate the longings. For now, they were simmering quietly, deep down, partially asleep. Perhaps they were under the root of the tooth that had undergone the final treatment this week, so that she should never again feel any pain from it.