| Serial |

Growth Curve: Chapter 15

 “Please, my wife and kids are waiting for me. I have to get home. Just tell me where to go and what bus to wait for”


Something was rumbling, then sputtering. Then there was a loud squeak, and a slam.

Benny sat up and blinked. What time was it? How long had he been sleeping at this picnic table? The sky was a pale, tentative blue tinged by rose. It must be very early; the Mideastern sky he knew was blazingly bright.

He squinted at his watch. It was 6:20. The parking lot was empty save for one car that had seen better days. Its driver, a dark young man with thick wavy hair that was shaved close to his head just above the ears, was staring at Benny.

“Shalom,” Benny said with a weak wave. “Boker tov.”

The guy nodded, eyes narrowed. “Who are you?” he asked. “What are you doing here?”

Benny stood. His body was stiff and unresponsive; every muscle seemed to protest the night he’d spent folded over a picnic table.

“It’s a long story,” he said. “I ended up here with no way to get home — but maybe you can help me? I really need to get back to Yerushalayim...”

“Hmm,” the guy said. He was still suspicious. Probably thought Benny was drunk, or worse.

Benny pointed toward his bike and made sure to sound as lucid as possible. “You see, that’s my bike, but it ran out of electricity. And I don’t have the charger here. So maybe you can tell me which bus to take back to Yerushalayim? And where I can catch it?”

The guy just stood there.

Benny found himself pleading. “Please, my wife and kids are waiting for me. I have to get home. Just tell me where to go and what bus to wait for.”

The guy cocked his head and appraised Benny. Then he took out his phone and started tapping.

“You have a 487 at 7:06,” he said. “It will pick you up from Kibbutz Beit Ha’arava. That’s just a few minutes from here. Give me a second to get started in the kitchen, and then I’ll show you which way to walk.”

Benny nodded gratefully. “Todah,” he said.

He had to call Tziporah, he had really meant to last night. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and began punching in her number.

Nothing happened. It was off. He tried turning it on, but it didn’t respond. It was dead, too, like his bike, like his plans.

Benny considered asking the guy for his phone. But he was striding purposefully toward the restaurant now, clearly putting as much distance as he could between himself and the strange American who’d spent the night in a parking lot.

Benny ran over as the guy pulled out a key to let himself into the restaurant.

“Please, chabibi — what’s your name?” he asked.

“Lior,” came the gruff reply. No way was he going to let Benny touch his phone, that was clear.

“Thank you, Lior. I’m Benny. If it’s okay, can I come inside and just wash my hands and face?” Benny realized he was groveling but he was past caring.

Lior shrugged. “Okay.”

He was schlepping bags of tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions from the fridge when Benny emerged from the bathroom.

“Here, let me help you with those,” Benny offered. “I have some time until the bus comes, right?”

Nachon,” Lior said. He didn’t protest when Benny lifted two bags of onions and followed him to the kitchen.

“You always show up at work so early?” Benny asked.

Nu, it’s a job,” Lior said. “Anyway, I like mornings, I always did. People who get things done in life, they wake up early. Right?”

Benny thought for a moment. “Right,” he said. “My dad, he always woke up early. He definitely got a lot done.”

“And you?” Lior didn’t make eye contact — he was rinsing tomatoes in a huge colander.

“Me, well, me.” Benny nodded into the distance and conjured up the guy Dave Rothman had described last night in the dark parking lot. “When I was a bochur in yeshivah, I had this list of what I wanted to learn every zeman. Not just what the yeshivah was doing — I had my own stuff too. If I didn’t finish my list one day, I woke up early the next morning to get it done.”

Benny remembered those mornings when he’d crept out of the dorm before the sun had hit the stone buildings, before the buses came roaring up the streets. Geula was still and silent at that hour, and he would slip out to the Har Tzvi shul where men with beards still wet from the mikveh stood wrapped in their talleisim, murmuring the words of davening as if speaking to a companion right alongside them.

A wave of longing rolled over him, a craving almost physical in its intensity. He needed to go back to Har Tzvi, back to that place where he had felt for the first time what it meant to set, struggle for, and reach a goal in learning. He needed to access that piece of himself again.

“Hey, gever, atah b’seder?” Lior was asking as the water ran over the tomatoes. He was eyeing Benny nervously again.

I am definitely not acting like a rational, sober person, Benny realized.

“I’m good,” he said. “Maybe you can show me how to get to the bus stop?”

Lior nodded. He turned off the water and strode briskly out of the kitchen. He waited while Benny grabbed his bike, then walked him to the road and pointed to the left. “That way,” he said.

“Thank you, Lior,” Benny said. “And wish me luck. I have a big balagan I need to figure out.”

“Good luck,” Lior said, averting eye contact.

Benny got onto the bike and pedaled to the bus stop. The 487 pulled up right on time. Relieved, he stowed his dead bike in the baggage compartment below, then climbed on.

There were four sleepy soldiers in a knot in the back, a few isolated middle-aged men who looked like hotel or restaurant workers, and a mother with two small kids covered in Bamba crumbs. Benny sank into his seat and rubbed his aching legs. For some reason, all he could think of was the interior of Har Tzvi.

He had to call Tziporah, for real. He could probably ask that woman with the two little kids; she wouldn’t mind lending him her phone for a minute.

But what would he say? How could he explain the last day to Tziporah? Was there any logical way to explain what he’d done? He grasped for words, some way to convey how low he felt, how he’d so desperately needed to just get away from everything.

The words didn’t come.

He would have to do it in person; there was no way he could talk to her properly on the phone.

He leaned his head against the window and tried to map out the conversation. Tziporah was so good, so easygoing, so faithful. She hadn’t really approved of this plan, but she went along with him anyway. She’d known that it made no sense, that no self-respecting guy asks yeshivah bochurim to pay his rent. How could he explain what had compelled him to stage his show? And how could he explain why he’d run away rather than face the facts together with her?

The road flashed by as the sun rose higher, and cars began to fill the lanes. Sooner or later you gotta face reality, Benny knew. Only little kids or drunks can run away from the truth. Or impetuous guys like Dad, guys who put themselves and their whims before their helpless kids.

He squeezed his eyes tight as he pictured Yehuda. Miriam. Little Momo with his soft cheeks and easy smile.

How had he disappeared on them like that?

What had he done?

There was a bus stop in Givat Hamivtar, and Benny eased his bike out of the baggage compartment. He could catch the light rail here and take it to Ammunition Hill. From there it was a short walk home.

The streets of Yerushalayim were busy now, with boys boarding vans and little girls in uniform racing to their bus stops. Shacharis, he had to daven Shacharis. He’d already missed it yesterday; he couldn’t let it happen again. And he needed all the Divine help he could get before facing Tziporah.

Somewhere near Maalot Dafna, he found a little minyan he’d never seen before. It wasn’t Har Tzvi — the men here weren’t clad in Yerushalmi attire and the davening was Eidot Hamizrach — but they willingly lent him a pair of tefillin. The davening was over all too quickly and he tried to hold on to the last few notes of Bircas Kohanim. Shalom. He and Tziporah would need that.

Now there were no more excuses left. He had to go home. But first he made a right onto Rechov Paran. The flower shop wouldn’t have a big selection on Monday, but he couldn’t come home empty-handed.

By some miracle, a worker was setting out barrels of water on the sidewalk just as Benny arrived.

Selichah, are you open?” Benny asked.

The woman took a quick hard look at him. Benny tried to envision what she saw: the wrinkled shirt and dusty Blundstones, the bloodshot eyes and dead bike.

“Not until later, but tell me how I can help you,” she said.

“I need a bouquet, something nice. Do you have anything in good condition? It can’t look like, um, like leftovers from Shabbos,” Benny said, feeling his face redden. “I need to show that I care.”

The woman nodded. “Come inside,” she said.

Benny followed her in. She pulled some fragrant golden blooms out of a bucket of water and slipped a rubber band over the entire bunch. Then she took a dark brown ribbon and tied it tightly around the stems.

Benny handed over his credit card. “Thank you,” he said. “I really appreciate it.”

The woman’s eyes were compassionate. “Enjoy,” she said.

Benny walked home on autopilot and parked his bike. He climbed up the steps to the apartment — his muscles were still so sore — noticed the door slightly ajar, and stepped inside cautiously.

Sitting there at his dining room table with a notebook and pen was that downstairs neighbor Yaakov Lederberg, talking to Tziporah, his forehead furrowed in concentration.

“So you didn’t find his phone anywhere in the house, right?” he was saying. “You checked—”

He must have realized the door was open, because Yaakov suddenly looked up and noticed Benny standing there, shirt rumpled, flowers outstretched.

He grabbed his notebook and ran out the open door like a scared rabbit.

Benny closed the door. He turned to Tziporah and tried to smile at her, but all he could think of was at that meddling, self-righteous Lederberg, sitting at his dining room table as if he owned the house. What was the guy thinking? What was he doing here? The anger rose up into his throat and he had to swallow hard to keep the rude words inside.

Tziporah stood, then sank back down into her chair.

“Benny,” she said, her voice tremulous, disbelieving. “Benny.”

But that was all she could manage. Her shoulders started shaking and tears began dripping down her face. Soon her nose was dripping too. Her tichel was askew, her cheeks were turning blotchy, and she didn’t even make a motion to find a tissue and clean herself up.

Benny held out the flowers. “Tziporah,” he said, “I’m sorry. So sorry.”

Her tears kept falling. She didn’t reach for the flowers.

Benny laid them gently on the table and sat down across from her. “I don’t have any way to excuse what I did. It was completely unacceptable of me to — to disappear on you like that. I was wrong.” He bit his lip and focused on the yellow petals lying in front of him. Did Tziporah even like yellow flowers? He was pretty sure she liked pinks and purples, actually.

“You must have been so worried,” he went on. “I don’t even know exactly why — I was just so focused on myself, on everything that went wrong… I just had to get away and be alone. And it was wrong, it was irresponsible, you deserve better.”

He stole a glance at Tziporah. Her shoulders were still shaking, and she still refused to meet his gaze. She was hurt, but that wasn’t the only thing. Her mouth was tight and her cheeks had turned scarlet.

She was angry. Fuming. Her husband had betrayed her.

Benny squeezed his eyes shut. “I need to tell you something important, Tziporah,” he said. “I’m done with Ner Olam. After everything I poured into the guys, the meals we hosted and the money we spent — it was just a huge waste. I’m done with the guys, I’m done with the rosh, I’m done with yeshivah life. I’m ready to make real money.

“Tonight,” he said, his voice growing firmer and his shoulders straighter, “I’m taking you out for supper. I’ll make a reservation at Red Heifer, you get a babysitter. After everything I put you through, you deserve to be treated. We’re not going to talk about the rent or our parents or any problems. We’re just going to disconnect from the tension and enjoy a good meal.

“And tomorrow afternoon,” he pronounced, “I’m going to Ner Olam, and I’ll tell the rosh that I’m leaving.”

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 938)

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