Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 47 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.
“Mali!” Chani stood at the open door, gaping at her sister in such shock that Mali started laughing.
“What’s the matter, Chani? Aren’t you going to let me in?”
“Of course I’ll let you in!” Chani moved aside, and Mali stepped into the tiny hallway of the apartment. Immediately, she dashed right over to little Bracha’s cradle.
“I haven’t seen her in so long!” she exclaimed as she picked Bracha up. The baby burst into wails of protest.
“Hey!” Mali pretended to be offended—or perhaps it was genuine. “Are you crying because your aunt picked you up?!”
“If her aunt would come by a little more often, she would recognize her and wouldn’t cry when you pick her up,” Chani said as she patted Mali’s shoulder and took her baby with the other hand. “So, maybe you can clue me in on why we have the privilege of a visit? I don’t think you’ve been here since Bracha was three weeks old.”
“We had a photography project at the National Park,” Mali said, stroking her niece’s cheek. Bracha was now studying her with big eyes. “I decided that if’ I’m so close to Bnei Brak already, why shouldn’t I pop in for a visit?”
“Great!” Chani smiled and walked over to the counter. “So tell me, how are you doing?”
“Baruch Hashem, amazing.”
“How’s the freedom?”
“Fantastic. We’re nine girls in the dorm, and there’s something special about it…”
“And you don’t sometimes feel an urge to go home a bit?”
“No, and please don’t talk to me about it. Even Baruch went to Avigdor’s.”
“But he came home for Shabbos twice already.”
“Right. And I didn’t.”
Chani decided that it would be wise to change the subject. “Sit down, and I’ll get you a piece of cake. You’ll take ice cream also, right? I have pistachio.”
“I won’t object,” Mali said with a laugh. She put down her gray handbag on the table. There was a big fur pompom hanging from it, and next to it was a framed picture. Chani was curious to see who was in the picture, but at the angle that Mali had placed the bag, she could not see who it was.
“What’s going on by you?” Mali asked, after Chani had sat down.
“Baruch Hashem, we’re fine.”
“Have you spoken to Ima recently?” Mali dug her spoon into the cup of ice cream.
“Yes, the day before yesterday.”
“How did she sound?”
“Fine. A little bit worried, maybe. She said something about Michoel and that she’s nervous about him…”
“Right. I spoke to her yesterday, and she told me that he had called her. You know I went to his house in Yerushalayim once?”
Chani raised an eyebrow. “When?”
Mali chuckled. “Not five years ago; about a month ago. I met Ima at the Kosel and told her about it. She didn’t tell you anything?”
“No.” Chani looked at her cup of ice cream but didn’t touch it. “Ima’s been very busy lately, and I don’t pry too much. So sometimes I think that by the time we speak, she doesn’t remember to tell me the interesting things that happened to her.”
“It wasn’t so interesting,” her younger sister consoled her. “We met by chance at the Kosel, and then we went to Michoel’s house together, but he didn’t open the door for us. And there was some strange stuff going on…”
Mali took a slice of cake from the center plate. “Forget it, The whole thing got cleared up, and by now Ima realizes that all those strange stuff were nonsense and misunderstandings. The problem is that this afternoon, I spoke to her again, and she sounded more worried than I’ve heard her sound in a long time.”
It’s nice to hear that you’re so worried about Ima, Chani wanted to say, but she kept her opinion to herself. “Worried?” she repeated.
“Yes. Because of Yosef.”
“Yosef?!” Chani’s hand stiffened for a moment. Bracha, sitting on her lap, shifted uncomfortably. Chani studied her sister for a moment before asking, “Why? What’s with Yosef?”
“You know I don’t like talking about him.” Mali pressed her lips together. “But Ima sounded so bad that I asked her if everything was alright. And she said that he had returned from work earlier than usual today, and was lying in bed and not speaking to anyone.”
“Is that a…deterioration of sorts?” Chani asked. Neither of them knew enough about their brother’s condition on a day-to-day level to figure out what this meant.
“If Ima is worried, I guess so.”
“Poor her,” Chani murmured.
“It might also ruin things for her,” Mali blurted after a minute.
“Ruin?” Chani smiled bitterly. “Please. She’s not in shidduchim anymore.”
“That’s exactly what might ruin things. I think—” She swallowed. “I think that things are going very well for her right now, baruch Hashem… And I don’t want her husband to get nervous from Yosef…”
Like you got nervous from him. And then you left, Chani wanted to say. But again she didn’t say a word.
Three full minutes of silence passed between the sisters. “I think that all we can do is daven,” Chani finally said. “For Yosef, and for Ima.”
“I thought you might want to call her,” Mali said. She studied her shoes and then added, “Also… I can’t do it, but maybe you…maybe you can invite Yosef over for a bit? Get him out of the house a little for Ima?”
Chani raised her eyebrows. “Here?” she said, looking pointedly around. “When I move to my own apartment, Mali, there’s a chance. But as long as we’re here—” She motioned to the bedroom door across from the table. “Where in this tiny unit could I stuff him in, do you think?”
Mali was quiet.
“I’ll call Ima in any case.” Chani stared at the ice cream in her cup; it was turning into an ugly green mess. “Maybe she’ll want to talk; maybe it can help her. Even though lately…” She stole a glance at Mali and saw her own reflection in her sister’s eyes. “I’m feeling more and more that her life is busy enough even without me.”
“And I’m feeling that suddenly, there’s more room for me.”
Chani would have wanted to point out that there had always been room for Mali, but after her own somewhat pitiful statement, she realized it would sound foolish. Again, all she could do was remain silent.
Now Dov was trying. He closed the door to the room behind him and pulled up the stool next to the bed. The lump wrapped in blankets did not move, but for some reason, Dov had the distinct feeling that Yosef was very awake.
“Your mother is worried about you, Yosef,” he said in a low tone. “And so am I. You’re acting differently than usual, and we’re afraid something happened to you.”
A muffled voice was heard from under the blanket. “That’s right.”
Dov leaned his palm on the wall. “Were you injured?” he asked, looking at the two vials of pills on the nightstand. Hinda had tried to find out from her son if he’d taken his medications as usual, but hadn’t gotten an answer. It would be a mistake for him to try that direction as well. “Did you fall? Did you catch something at the hospital?”
Silence. He wondered if he should try to feel for Yosef’s shoulder through the thick woolen blanket. At least the air conditioner was on the in the room. “You usually look very cheerful, Yosef. You also came home early today.”
“I know!” the lump under the blanket snapped.
“What do you know, that usually you are happier, or that you came home earlier than usual?”
He wondered if Yosef might answer, “That you’re a nudnik,” but he knew there was no chance of such a witty answer. Two long moments passed, and then another three, and he added, “I’m bringing you a cup of cold water, Yosef, alright? I think that a cool drink will refresh you, before anything else.”
He left the room and closed the door, thanking Hashem that Simi and her husband had left already. He would not want them to witness this situation. For Yosef’s dignity, and for Hinda’s—and for a few other reasons.
“He’s not apathetic at all,” he told Hinda, who came toward him with a worried expression. “And it’s true that I don’t know much about this, but it seems to me like he’s just in a bad mood.”
“I can’t take the risk,” she responded quietly. “Yosef is not a regular boy. A bad mood is not something I can allow him to wallow in.”
“Right,” Dov agreed, wondering what she planned to do. Call emergency mental health services?
“The fact that he’s not apathetic is an encouraging sign,” she said, her voice hoarse. As she spoke, she turned her head toward the front door, where someone had started knocking.
“Martin,” Dov said, pursing his lips. “I will tell him the truth.”
“That we are preoccupied now with a serious matter, and I cannot speak to him right now.”
Hinda went over to the door of Yosef’s room and opened it wide. She did not even try to listen to the conversation taking place at the front door. “Yosef!” she said loudly. “Yosef, I am asking you to get up and answer me. Don’t leave me worried like this, please. Are you feeling okay? It doesn’t look like it. What is happening? What happened?”
She didn’t get an answer. Dov walked up behind her with a cup of water that had two ice cubes floating in it. “I promised him cold water. Yosef, get up and drink, please. You’ll see you’ll feel better afterward.”
“Why do I have to feel better?” The lump of blankets was thrashing about. Suddenly, a chess board was tossed out, and Yosef’s balled fist also emerged, scattering black and white pieces on the floor of the room. “He died! He really died! The man who was the nicest to me these past two days! His chess set also has to die! Why should I feel good? What for?”
“Who died? The man who gave you the chess set?”
“Yes—Yaakov I-don’t-remember-his-last-name!” Yosef’s voice was hoarse, and his face wasn’t visible. “We played chess together. I went to visit him in his ward. True, he kept coughing, but so what! I also cough sometimes, and I don’t die from it! You don’t ever cough, Ima? You never cough, Dov? Why did he die? Why?”
“Yosef, first of all, please take a drink.” Dov’s voice was very stable. “If you want, we’ll talk about death after that. It’s a very complicated subject in Hashem’s world… But it’s not possible to speak about complicated subjects when we’re buried under a mound of blankets, without a drop of air or water.”
“And where do you think they are going to put Yaakov? Deep in the ground, where there’s also not a drop of air or water!”
“But you are alive, baruch Hashem, Yosef, until 120,” Hinda said. She sat down on the chair and looked at the mound of blankets writhing constantly on the bed. “And anyone who is given life by Hashem—has to take care of himself.”
He didn’t respond. The blankets stopped moving, but his head did not appear, and the cup of ice water remained full in Dov’s hand.