Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Au Pair (Of Shoes) Part 5: Let him eat...cake!

A few hours and several delicious Heinekens later, Calixthe and I decided to call it a night, as we were both expected to be up early the next morning.  I was to wake the children at seven o’clock, get them showered and dressed, and make sure they were ready to start their first day of getting ready for their first day of school--which, interestingly, was not for another three days.  

Thoughts of what the next day would bring cluttered my head as I walked into my bathroom and proceeded to brush my teeth, staring at the busted bidet beside the old toilet. 

How did I wind up here? I wondered.  My love of French, maybe?  Yes, of course!  My intentions were pure, right?  I loved studying French, something I discovered during my freshman year of high school, when I was blessed with the consummate French teacher, someone who saw in me a talent for language before I even knew I had it. It was that teacher who had set this whirlwind in motion some seventeen years ago, only to have it culminate in this.  Whatever this was.  

As I spat into the sink, I glanced back at the busted bidet and the old toilet, fearing that those rusted mounds of porcelain and metal foreshadowed my ill-fated future.  

When I finally crawled into my fungus bed, the alarm clock read 03:00.  I lay there for a while, listening to the hum of late summer crickets outside my open, screen-less window, swatting the multitude of mosquitos that flew in for a feast of inebriated-au pair flesh.  

Before I knew I had fallen asleep, my alarm was sounding.  The clock on my nightstand blinked 06:00! in bold red numbers while French Radio NRJ blasted a really bad pop song over the airwaves.  I rolled out of fungus bed and immediately started scratching the myriad of mosquito bites that peppered my body.  I looked in the mirror and cringed, as I clearly looked like a pasty-white child with chicken pox.  As my eyes blinked everything into focus, I saw a button mushroom-sized bump rising from the fold of my drooping right eyelid, swelling pink and perky like a proper mosquito bite.  The extent of the itch was unbearable, the urge to scratch, unstoppable.  By the time I had stepped into the shower, my little pink polka dots were all grown up, and I was on the brink of a breakdown.

“Jesus!” I screamed as the shower head screeched into action, shooting ice-cold water all over my itchy skin. No hot water, and I was a hot mess!

I rushed through the process of getting dressed, so as to make sure I would be in the children’s rooms at exactly 7:00, rousing them from what was certainly sugar-plumb slumber. 

Calixthe was walking out of her room at the same time I was.

“Good morning,” she said, looking weary.
“Good morning, to you,” I replied. “How do you feel?”
“About as good as you.”

I walked into the kitchen, my eyes immediately drawn to a very expensive coffee maker.  I knew that life would be good after my first cup of joe, my first cup of love, my first cup of life!

“Shall we get a pot brewing?” I asked Calixthe.

She waved her finger back and forth, in a how-silly-of-you-to-think-it sort of way.

“Dey never use dat one,” she said.  “Dat’s very expensive coffee, you know.”  

Her look was one of sarcasm mixed with sadness.  

“So where’s the inexpensive coffee?” I asked, desperate for love.  “I don’t really care if it’s instant.”

Of course, I was lying.  Instant coffee?  Sanka?  I think not!

“It’s good dat you like instant,” she said, pointing at a basket on the counter.  “‘Cause dat’s all dey got.”  

Okay, that was the last straw!  I knew for a fact that French people loved coffee and that they spent hours drinking it at cafés.  I should know--I’ve done that myself!  So what planet were these people from?  No coffee? That was just uncivilized!

Distraught and dreading Sanka, I rushed upstairs to tend to the children.  I have no idea what came over me, but I started singing “Good Morning, good morning,” from Singin’ In The Rain.  It’s something my family and I always did when we’d gather at the kitchen table for breakfast, but, again, the Silvermans did not.  Soon, I would hear just how horrible an idea it was. 

I gently nudged Lia, Stuart, and Sorya from their sleep, and proceeded to sing to them.  Stuart and Sorya couldn’t stop laughing as they rolled out of bed instantly.  And I was certain that Lia would have also, if she were not still deep in her teen-ager’s dreamland.  

The kids showered and then carefully put on the clothes that Netta had laid out for them the night before.

“Wow,” I said, thinking the children had taken the initiative to prepare their clothes themselves.  “You guys are very organized."
“Mom did that,” Sorya explained. “She always does, unless we have an au pair.  Then she does it.”

I wasn’t about to question a mother’s decision to lay out clothes for her ten year-old daughter and eleven year-old son.  A mother could do worse things.  Much worse, as I’d soon find out.

“Hurry up, guys,” I called after them, shuffling off to Buffalo as I left the room.  
“I didn’t know you could tap dance!” Sorya said.  “Teach me, teach me!”
“Only if you’re good today,” I insisted.  “Come on, let’s eat some breakfast.”

Lia had finally stumbled out of bed and was heading for the shower, as Sorya, Stuart and I kick-lined down the double helix.  

“Good morning, good morning, it’s great to stay up late...”  

By the time we reached the foot of the stairs, we were laughing uncontrollably.  I started to see potential, here. 

Of course, my good feeling was soon thwarted by the glowering stare of my wicked step-mother.    While the children were finishing up their cereal, Netta had quietly entered the kitchen. Needless to say, she didn’t look happy.

“Children,” she said, trying to smile, “why don’t you rinse out your dishes and go read for a little while. I need to talk to Christina.”

Bracing myself for the verbal whipping I was about to receive, I grabbed my steaming cup of nasty Nescafé and had a seat.  The children scurried off to read some books.

“Well, good morning, Christina,” Netta began.  “I trust you slept well.”


“As well as can be expected,” was all I could muster.  “Thank you for asking.”

“What I’d like to do today is to sit down with you and clarify our expectations of you.  We need to explain the children’s schedule, hour by hour.  I have it all typed out for you in this emploi du temps.

Netta placed in front of me three typed pages outlining the children’s emploi du temps, or schedule.  I could feel her eyes on me as I read very carefully the break down of how she expected her children’s time to be spent every day, hour by hour--sometimes to the minute.

“Let’s start with wake up time, shall we?” she asked, pulling out her own copy of the schedule.

“I noticed that you were, um, singing, and...dancing with the children this morning, in order to wake them up.”

“Yes..oh, did we wake you?  I’ll be sure to be quieter next time...”

“Well, in this household, we feel that morning is a time for reflection and peaceful thought, not wild behavior.”

She went on, flicking her hair and folding those bejeweled fingers to rest flat on the table.  Her head and folded arms formed a perfect triangle before me, a pyramid constructed of cold, hard stone meant to honor a queen.  

“So, instead of waking the children in such a frantic way, I would like you to wake them more serenely, so as to keep them in a calm frame of mind.  Does that make sense to you, Christina?”

“Yes,” I replied.  “Perfect sense. I’m sorry that I...”

“Christina, you apologize too much.  It’s unbecoming of a grown woman.”

I looked down, feeling like I’d been psychoanalyzed.  The queen of the castle had sized me up as an insecure, partly incompetent oaf.  I had been there only one day, and already she knew I would be no match for her.  

“I’ll keep your instruction in mind, Netta,” I said, finally looking up and at her.  “But there are a couple of things that I think you should know.”

Immediately the mountain lion returned.  

“And what might those things be, Christina?” she asked, eyes aflame.

“Well, first of all, the fact that...” Just then Lia entered the kitchen.  

“Mom, where’s Daddy?” she asked, looking lost and sad and miserable, moping like the teenager that she was.

“He had to leave early this morning for Belgium,” she explained, a hint of exasperation in her voice.  “You knew he was leaving today, Lia.  Don’t act so surprised.”

Lia left the room looking dejected.  It was all I could do not to get up and follow her.  

“You were saying, Christina?”  It was obvious she was dying to hear my insights on her inadequacies.  She would listen, and then laugh inwardly, dismissing the notion that I could ever be so observant as to figure her out. 

“It was nothing,” I said, deciding it would be better to bite my tongue for the moment.  “You were explaining the children’s schedule.”

Eyeing me with suspicion, Netta continued.

“You will need to sit down with each child, Christina, and discuss with them what they feel their strengths and weaknesses are,” Netta instructed.  “Then, you will make a grid for them to follow, and you will evaluate the children each week, and report on their progress to James and me during your daily reports.” 

Netta used the word “grid” to mean “chart,” as in a chart that would show the children’s progress (or lack thereof, as would be the case for my little monsters).  The areas for evaluation included everything from not telling fibs to improving their sentence structure.  

I started to wonder if I had accepted a childcare position or a teaching one.  Or both. Either way, they weren’t paying me enough. 

“We will be monitoring very closely their progress on the grid,” Netta told me.  “So it is imperative that you update their progress very honestly and accurately.

I never knew it was possible to hate a word as much as I came to hate the word “grid.”  

“Where is the grid? Have you been using the grid?" Netta would ask, repeatedly.  It was sort of funny because every time Netta referred to that ridiculous grid--that was posted on the refrigerator as though it were something to boast about--the muscles in her face would tighten, and veins would pop out to criss cross the tiny lines that were emerging from her forehead all the way down to her chin.  I saw those lines and veins as a sign of her insecurity about the direction her children were heading in life.  

She was a very smart woman, so she had to have known that her children’s behavior was not normal and certainly not healthy.  Every time she mentioned the grid, she was really expressing her despair over her children’s weirdness.  And the lines and veins would continue to appear to the point that I would soon begin to see them as a grid of their own, a map charting the clear course of her children’s doom.

“Do you understand what I’ve explained, here, Christina?”
“I understand everything, Netta,” I replied.  “Everything has become very clear to me.”
“Well, good,” she said, getting up from her seat.  “Have you thought about how you would like to spend ‘active’ time with the children today?”
“Actually, I’d love to go for a run through the forest...I hear it’s really beautiful.  I thought the kids could ride their bikes alongside me.”

For the first time since she greeted me the day before, I saw Netta smile.  

“Why, that is a lovely idea,” she said.  “Let’s gather the children.”

*   *   *

The forest entrance was a gated path just beyond the trees in the Silvermans’ backyard.  Lia, Stuart, and Sorya walked their bikes over the rugged ground as I jogged slowly, just a few feet behind them.  An arch of trees hung over the path like an awning of green.  The leaves, blowing in the breeze, filtered the sunlight as it landed on our faces in speckles of shade.  As the path widened, it opened up to the forest, and before me stood a vast expanse of hills and grass and trees.  

“Stuart!” I screamed, as the little boy flew off in the direction of a different path.  “Don’t go too far ahead, okay?”

I sensed at the moment that little Stuart was going to be the bane of my existence, a child who barely saw the point in obeying his own parents, let alone a surrogate one who was still, by all measures, a stranger.

“Let’s go up that hill, Chrissy!” shouted Sorya.  “I’ll bet I can beat you, Lia!”
“As if I care,” mumbled Lia, who was peddling along lackadaisically.  I sensed that she might want to hang out with me--someone older--rather than her rugrat siblings.

Truthfully, I could relate.

While Sorya was racing off ahead of us, Lia started to talk.

“So you were a teacher, huh,” she said, peddling and looking ahead at the trees.
“Yeah, I was.  I mean, I still am.”
“Did you like teaching?’
“Absolutely,” I said, looking ahead to make sure that I could still see Sorya and Stuart. “Every job has its downsides, of course, but there’s a lot about teaching that’s very rewarding.  Why?  Do you think you’d like to teach some day?”

Lia kept peddling and looking ahead.  

“Maybe.  Maybe not.  I’d really love to be a singer or an actress, though.  But...”
“But what?”
“I just don’t think I’m pretty enough to be famous, you know?  Now, Sorya...she’s the pretty one.”
“What are you talking about, Lia?  You shouldn’t talk about yourself that way. You’re a beautiful young lady.”
“No, I’m a different kind of pretty.  At least that’s what Daddy says.”

Suddenly, my heart swelled with love for this sweet little girl.  What woman couldn’t relate to adolescent feelings of insecurity like that, especially when verbally confirmed by a parent?  Oh, the power of parents.

“Yeah, I’m all right with how I look.  I’m just, you know, pretty in a different way.”
“Hmmm,” I said, as though deep in thought.  “Well, I think you’re pretty in a...pretty way.”

Instant smiles and thus a friendship was born.

I looked up ahead to check on the children, only to see Sorya peddling back toward us from the hill she’d been so determined to climb.         

“Chrissy! It’s Stuart!  He’s missing!  I can’t find him!  He’s gone!”
“What?  What do you mean, ‘gone’?  How could he be gone, Sorya? We haven’t even been here that long.”
“I looked for him by the path he always rides down, but he’s not there!  What if someone kidnapped him?  Oh my God!!”  

Sorya was screaming as though her leg had just been sliced off, and I was on the verge of freaking out.  

“Okay.  It’s okay,” I pretended.  “You two stay right here, and I’ll go ride around and look for him!”
“Oh my God!!” she screamed again.  “We have to find him!”

The urgency I felt at having lost one of the children in my charge was unimaginable.  For forty-five minutes, I ran around the forest, up hill, down hill, dodging puddles and low-hanging branches, calling Stuart’s name in a deafening shrill.  After an hour had passed, I decided to run back to the house to see if perhaps my little lovely had scampered home.

“Let’s head back, guys, okay?” I said to the surviving Silverman children as I approached the spot where they’d been waiting.  “He might have headed home without our seeing him.”

Sorya had finally stopped screaming, thank God, and Lia seemed unfazed by the whole situation.  

“He’s probably playing a trick on you, Chrissy,” Lia suggested.  “He’s done it before.”

When we got back to the house, I felt like I was having a panic attack, my heart pounding against my chest the way Netta’s bejeweled fist likely would when she found out I’d lost her only son.

I walked in the door, smelling a freshly baked chocolate cake that Calixthe was currently frosting. She turned to look at me, wanting to say something. And that was when I saw him.  Sauntering into the kitchen with an evil smirk on his naughty little face was Stuart, my newfound nemesis.

“What took you guys so long?” he said, jauntily leaning his elbow on the granite countertop. "Did you get lost?"

Why you little piece of....

“Cake!” Sorya screamed, as she and Lia trudged in behind me.  

Calixthe’s eyes widened, whispering the warning only a true friend would give. 

“Chrissy, Netta is looking for you.”

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Au Pair (Of Shoes) Part 4: Ask not for whom the poo-bell tolls

Netta Silverman was not a particularly tall woman, but she definitely had a presence--a fierce, mountain lion-like aura that bespoke a territorial power.  She stood over me as I tried, unsuccessfully, to disentangle my left leg from the phone chord I had dragged beneath the door. 

Damn old-fashioned phones.

My heart was pounding fast and rhythmic like an angry fist against a dead-bolted door; no chance of getting in or out. 

“What is going on, here?” Netta asked, the mountain lion creeping behind her eyes. “I heard someone down here, and it made me nervous.”
“I was just using the phone,” I mumbled. “I...didn’t want to disturb anyone.  It’s late.”
“I am aware of the time, Christina.”  

Her eyes didn’t blink, but narrowed slightly.

“I’m sorry, Netta. I should have asked you earlier if I could make another call.  You see...I was just feeling...”

Netta took a deep breath, closing the collar of her velvet robe with a dazzlingly bejeweled fist.  

Diamonds and rubies and pearls, oh my!

“Christina,” she said. “Is...everything all right?”


“Yes, like I said, I just was feeling a little...”
“Of course you were,” she said, tightening the belt of her robe with a flick of her long black mane.  “I understand that you are far away from home.  I do, but this kind of sneaking around my home at night is unacceptable.” 

Her home, not mine.  She made that absolutely clear.

“I’m very sorry, Netta,” I said, dangerously close to those ever-imminent tears. “It won’t happen again.”

“I hope it won’t. Good night, Christina.”  And away she crept, back to her den, having protected her cubs from the evil predator:  the screwball au pair who sat in strangers’ bathrooms sneaking phone calls in the middle of the night.  

Netta was halfway up the steps when she heard a clanking in the kitchen.  

“Is there someone in the kitchen, Christina?”  she asked, eyeing me with suspicion as though I’d let in a burglar.

I peered down the long foyer and into the kitchen, where Calixthe was waving at me, a silly smile on her face that contrasted with the sadness in her eyes I saw earlier.

“It’s just Calixthe,” I assured her.  

Netta came down the stairs, once again flashing her bejeweled fingers as she held her robe closed.  She looked at me again, as if Calixthe’s late-night meanderings were all my idea.  

“Calixthe,” Netta said, looking befuddled.  “What are you doing down here so late at night?”

Calixthe’s West African accent made everything she said come out in soft, slow, round tones. 

“I remem-buhd that I forgot to..”         
“You remembered that you forgot?” Netta repeated.  “That is not logical, Calixthe.  That makes no sense.”
“I mean, I forgot to empty dah rubbish, so I thought I'd walk it out to dah poubelle.”
“That could have waited till morning.” Netta looked back at me, as Calixthe continued.
“I just know how you like dah rubbish brought out to dah poubelle...”
“Never mind the rubbish,” insisted Netta.  “Calixthe, when your uncle and I are in bed, we need to know that everyone else is, too.  Otherwise, I can’t sleep.  You know that.”
“I’m sorry, Auntie,” she said, lifting the kitchen wastebasket.  “I’ll just take dis out to dah poubelle and be right back.”

I was getting the distinct feeling that Calixthe liked saying “poo-bell.”  And I was right. Calixthe smiled at me over her shoulder as she headed toward the servant’s entrance I had walked through earlier that day.  Yay! I thought. Someone with a sense of humor! 

I was certain I had just made a friend.

Netta waited for Calixthe to return from emptying the garbage so that she could make sure the door was officially locked for the night.  I, on the other hand, walked upstairs and got ready to spend my first night in the fungus bed.

I heard Calixthe’s footsteps and then a knock on my door.

“Christina,” she whispered. 

I got up to let her in, and she greeted me with the warmest of smiles.

“I just wan-ted to make sure dat you were okay,” she said, still smiling.  “I heard you weeping earlier.”  

“I’m fine, thanks,” I replied.  “And please call me Chrissy.”

“You know, when I saw you arrive dis morning, Chrissy, I thought to myself, ‘Someone young dat I could talk to! Tank Gaw-t!’” She pronounced the “d” in “God” like a “t.”  Suddenly, I was “tanking Gaw-t,” myself.

Her smiling eyes sank back into sadness. “It gets very lonely he-ah.”  

“What do you mean, Calixthe?” I asked, wondering what her life was really like living with Netta.  

She shook her head, seemingly resigned to the life she’d been given. “I mean dat, Netta, my auntie...she is very strict wid me.  I have to do tings dat are very unpleasant.  Tings dat sometimes make me sick.”

My mind immediately conjured thoughts of brutality, beatings--horrible things.  Of course, I had a vivid imagination.

“What kinds of things, Calixthe?” I asked after a moment.  

She shook her head. “It’s just my life, here.  How man go do?”

“Excuse me,” I said, not understanding her.

She laughed and then explained.  

“‘How man go do’ is pidgin English.  It is how we talk back home.  It means, ‘What can a man do?’” She threw up her palms with a shrug, and then added, “How man go do?”  

We laughed and then started talking about our families and how much we missed them.  She told me about her father--Netta’s brother--her siblings, and all of her friends back in Africa.  I told her about my family, about Adam.  

“Adam...Oh my Gaw-t!  Is he handsome?”  I assured her that he was, and proceeded to show her my many photographs.  We laughed and talked for a while, both feeling comforted by the fact that we had found a friend.  Soon, she would become like a sister to me, the only person in that household who understood me.  The only one who didn’t treat me like a servant.  

“I could really go for a glass of wine or something,” I said, feeling miraculously lighthearted.  “Even a beer would be mighty nice.”  During dinner that night, Netta and Mr. Butterbeans had offered me a glass of wine, but I declined, not wanting to appear like a lush.  So much for keeping up appearances!

Calixthe’s eyes flashed a glimmer of mischief.  

“They have a stash downstairs, dans la cave, in dah basement,” she said with a tilted head.  “I could show you.”
“We really shouldn’t,” I said, feigning reservation.  “Do you think we should?”

Without a word, Calixthe grabbed my wrist and whisked me down the Cinderella stairs, both of us giggling like school girls.  We cracked the kitchen door, peering through the sliver of light to see if Netta were still standing guard.  We tiptoed across the ceramic tiles like cartoon cat burglars.  A mask, striped shirt, and giant money bag with a dollar sign painted on it were all we needed to top off the ridiculous tableau.

When Netta had given me the grand tour, she had left out the basement, and it was fairly obvious why.  There were shelves of canned goods lining the walls, along with boxes of holiday decorations, and what looked like old pots and pans.  Around the corner was a tiny fitness room with a Nautilus machine that looked like it had never been used.  At the far end of the hall stood a washer and dryer, stacked on top of which were piles of dirty laundry.  In essence, it was a basement of the peasantry.  A commoner’s cave.

“What’s that smell?” I asked, childishly holding my nose shut with my thumb and forefinger.  “Something truly reeks down here!”

Calixthe gestured for me to follow her. “Let me show you.”

As we entered the laundry room, the source of the stench became clear.  Piled in baskets, at least ten or twelve of them, were clothes and   bedding soiled with bodily waste.  Soaking in buckets of murky brown water were mounds of children’s underclothes.

“Whose clothes are these?” I asked, ready to gag from the violent stench.
“Stuart’s and Soryah’s,”  she said.
“But they’re ten and eleven years old!  Why are they still...?”
“Good question,” Calixthe replied, shaking her head.  “It is very sad.”  
“But, why haven’t Netta and James addressed this problem?  I mean, Stuart and Soryah are way too old to still be...you know.  To me that signals some sort of emotional or psychological dysfunction.  Don’t you think?  And they make you clean it?  Calixthe, that is awful.”

“They are crazy.  All of dem!”  Calixthe explained, shaking her head.  “But, how man go do?”  

Laughter, once again, stemming mostly from disbelief over such a tragic discovery.  This very wealthy, successful family’s striking façade was merely that:  a pretty picture that covered up a gaping hole in the wall.  

I thought of the stained bedding in my own room and realized, beneath the surface, this family was flawed.  Their children were soiling themselves at the dinner table, allowed to do so right before their parents’ eyes.  Maybe it was a cry for attention? Maybe, I thought, Netta should have been hugging her children more instead of hunting me down in the hallway bathroom.  

“I need a cocktail,” I said, leaving the laundry room, the stench having engrained itself in my memory for all time.

“How about a beer?”  Calixthe suggested.
“They are over here.”  She opened a fridge packed with Heineken.  
“Do you think they’ll notice that some are missing?”
“Probably, but..” and we giggled all the way back to my room, repeating the phrase that had already become our mantra.

How man go do?”

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Au Pair (Of Shoes) Part 3: Broken wings, busted bidets, and inkblots

Coming from a family of musical people, I developed early on the tendency to turn everything I said and did into a potential performance.  In my family, spontaneous sing-a-longs, kick-lines, and full-blown vaudeville stage shows could erupt at any given moment, sparked by a single word uttered in passing that just happened to be from a musical by Rogers and Hammerstein.   

But that’s because in my family, music was a form of magic, a means of transforming an ordinary afternoon into one that left you laughing as you caught your breath, having danced and sung together in harmony with people who loved you.  For us it was the norm; to others, like the Silvermans, it was frivolous and therefore foolish.  

As I stood in their kitchen after my ill-received routine, I quickly caught on that this family was different from mine.  Despite all the years of having been taught by parents and teachers to just “be yourself,” I would definitely have to temper the spontaneous stage shows, in order to fit in with my new surroundings.  After all, I was a guest in their home, and manners are manners.  

“So, Christina, this is our home,” said Mrs. Silverman, with a sweeping gesture.  “Would you like a tour before we show you to your room?”
“Yes,” I replied, very genuinely.  Their home was obviously tour-worthy, as it seemed to sprawl out and spin in grandiose twirls like a waltzing wedding gown.  

The kids scampered along beside me, Soryah grabbing my hand as she skipped, and Stuart dragging me forward in his excitement.  They pulled me in opposite directions, spinning me around until I felt dizzy.

The first thing I noticed was a grand spiral staircase, climbing toward the ceiling like a DNA double helix.  They dragged me into the main parlor, in the center of which stood a stone fireplace the size of my apartment back home.  Framed photographs diplaying a younger Mr. and Mrs. Silverman, perhaps during their days in Africa, lined the brightly polished wooden mantel.  

Through a massive arched doorway I could see the dining room, where a crystal chandelier, dripping with jewels, hung ornately over a long mahogany table the length of a bowling lane.  I was half tempted to say while miming a bowling stance, “Shame I forgot my bowling ball!”  But I stopped myself.  Thank God!  

When we walked back through the parlor, I was lead through towering French doors that opened up to the yard--a two-acre expanse of green, bordered by a wall of trees that marked the entrance to their town’s famous forest.  

“Wow,” I said, standing on the steps that lead to the yard, “this is all very beautiful.”  Mrs. Silverman was smiling, and the children were running around.  Maybe this would be a wonderful experience, I thought.  How could I be unhappy living somewhere so beautiful?

“Would you like to see the upstairs?”  Mrs. Silverman asked as she closed the French doors.
“Of course,” I replied. Manners, manners, manners.  “Thank you, Mrs. Silverman.”
“Oh, and please, call me Netta.”
“All right...Netta.”  
“You haven’t met my niece, Calixthe, yet,” Netta said off-handedly.  “Sorya, run upstairs and tell Calixthe to come down.  I need her to help me start dinner, anyway.”

As we walked up the double helix, I studied the art work on the walls:  medieval tapestries, French impressionists, and several mysterious African sculptures standing in recessed niches that rose along the staircase.  

Before we had reached the top, Netta looked down and called to her niece who was standing at the foot of the stairs.

“Calixthe, please come and meet Christina.”
Calixthe walked up the stairs with a languid lilt.  She looked at her feet as they swished up the carpeted steps.
“It’s nice to meet you, Calixthe,” I said when her eyes met mine. “I’m Chrissy.”
“Pleased to meet you, as well.”  
“Let me show you the bedrooms,” Netta said, and waved me down the hall.  

Calixthe was a young, African woman with very sad eyes.  Her sculpted cheek bones and long, braided hair belied the look that lay beneath her mystical beauty.  I could tell from the moment I saw her that she was very unhappy.

After breezing through the children’s rooms, Netta brought me to a door at the very end of the hall, the pièce de résistance.
“And here is the master suite.”   

She opened the door to a sprawling room with a vaulted ceiling, French doors that opened to a private balcony, and a mahogany four-poster bed.  Carved into its columns were small animals, fruits and gargoyles, upon which rested the white linen canopy that shimmied and fluttered in the breeze coming in through the windows.  
“Again, this is absolutely lovely,” I said, feeling like I was running out of compliments.
“Well, I’m sure you’re very tired and would like to settle into your room and get some rest.”
“Actually, I would like that very much.  Thank you.”
“Your room is in a separate wing, so you’ll have privacy when you need it.”

My own wing!  Like the West Wing?  Cool!  I’ve got my own wing!
“Calixthe will show you where it is.  Her room is right next door to yours.”

Okay, so it’s not my VERY own wing, but a wing nonetheless!  That HAS to be good!
“We’ll wake you when dinner is ready,” Netta said. 

I followed Calixthe down the double helix, feeling Netta’s eyes on me as I walked. Calixthe lead me through the foyer and back to the kitchen where we’d started.   I noticed for the first time a piano nestled into a far corner of the foyer.  Hmmm, maybe this place has more potential than I thought!

“Follow me,” Calixthe said, as she headed toward a tall wooden door at the back of the kitchen.  A true servant’s entrance. She opened it and lead me up a set of steep, narrow stairs reminiscent of those walked by fairy-tale maidens, kept locked up--hidden--from the rest of the world.  I am not Cinderella!  I am NOT Cinderella!

I opened the door to my room and depression set in.  Not only was it the size of my shoe, it looked ragged and gray like a dirty dishcloth.  There was a dresser on the right and a small twin bed along the window (which was open, with no screen, letting every bug on God’s green earth fly in to inevitably nibble me at night).  Some wing, I thought. If I were a bird, and this was my only wing, I’d be better off jumping out the window.  Hopefully it wouldn’t come to THAT!

The first place I headed was the bathroom--because I can handle a lot of things, but a bad bathroom isn’t one of the them.  
To my relief it was old, but clean.  There were cracked tiles in the shower, the mirror over the sink was mildly smudged, and the bidet next to the toilet looked like it had seen better days.  But seeing as I didn’t plan on using it, I didn’t really care.  Then I thought, well, maybe I could...just...try it....just once? Nawww.

I grabbed my suitcase and plopped it on my new bed.  Then I sat down on it, sinking into it as a test of its sleep-ability.  I ran my hands over the red and white striped comforter and noticed it was covered with a duvet.  That can only mean one thing:  there’s something gross underneath it!

Perhaps this was wrong of me, but I had to know if there were some strange, ungodly fungus--getting ready to sprout legs--just below that thin layer of cotton.  I undid the buttons that held it in place and surely enough, there it was...a huge brown stain from an unknown substance.  I sniffed it and then touched it quickly with my hand to see if it had at least been washed in an attempt to remove it. 

But something brown got stuck in my fingernail, and suddenly I felt insulted.  I studied the stain, as though it were a Rorschach inkblot, trying to understand what it meant, needing to know what it said about me--about what the Silvermans thought of me.  At least they covered it up, though, right?  No, it was still gross, and rude.  They cared so little about impressing me that they gave me stained bedding, thinking I would never notice.  That got me wondering what else they might be covering up--what other stains lay just beneath the surface.  

Stain notwithstanding, I was soon fast asleep, dreaming in kaleidoscopic color about birds, bidets, and the family I was missing more than I could stand.  I had been asleep for an hour or so, when Mr. Silverman tapped on the door to inform me that dinner had been served.

“Christina?” he whispered through the door.
“Coming!” I called, rolling out of bed, attempting to smooth out my hair and look presentable.  Was I supposed to dress for dinner?  Aw, geez!
“Dinner’s ready,” he said as I opened the door.
“Thank you.  I’ll be right down.”

My head and my body were apparently still in another time zone because even though I was standing and speaking, I felt like I was still asleep.  Maybe I really had entered the Twilight Zone!

Not wanting to hold up dinner, I rushed downstairs, carrying the gift I had brought for them.  The smells emanating from the kitchen were deliciously magnificent, and everyone was gathering around the table waiting for me to sit down.

“We wanted you to feel at home,” Netta said, gesturing toward the food before us. “So we made a traditional American meal of roasted chicken, broccoli, and mashed potatoes.” 
“Thank you, so much, Netta.  It looks wonderful.”
“I have something for you, for the family, if you’d like to open it now.”
“Why, thank you,” Netta said, accepting the box. “How very thoughtful of you.”
The gift was a print of one of my sister’s paintings.  It depicted two hands, open, in offering.
“This is a beautiful gift,” said Netta.  “Thank you...”

Just then, Stuart and Sorya began cackling like hyenas and rocking back and forth in their chairs like children possessed. What was next--satanic sacrifice? 

Mr. Silverman shot his wife a look who then put down my gift and proceeded to tell the children, very calmly, to sit still at the table.  Manners, manners, manners.  

I, on the other hand, could not believe what I was seeing.  The two children obviously needed to use the restroom, but instead of doing so, were holding it in and making a spectacle.  I truly did not understand why their parents did not excuse them from the table so that they could tend to their...business.  Twilight Zone!

Once the dishes had been cleared and the children had relieved themselves, Mr. and Mrs. Silverman sat me down for a little chat about their expectations.  As they did, Mrs. Silverman’s sweet, welcoming face quickly turned cold and sneering, as she laid down the law in a masterful tone, her meek little husband sitting with his legs crossed like a lady.  All that jazz about how they wanted me to feel at home, like I was a part of their family, was pure bunk.  And things would only get worse.

By the time our chat was over, one thing was made very clear to me:  Netta was in charge.  She was the master; I, the servant.  I was to have a curfew, I wouldn’t be given a key to the house, and I was to report each night to either her or Mr. Silverman--depending on which of them was not out of the country on business--about the “progress” of their children.  They expected each child’s grades to improve to an acceptable level, and, of course, I was to complete all of these tasks while building long, enduring relationships with the little spawn of Satan.  

The one thing I couldn't figure out was Netta's sudden shift in demeanor.  But then I realized that it was all about her children.  When it came to them, she felt like she was fighting a war to make them excellent, or perhaps, just normal.  When it came to her children, Netta took no prisoners.  

Well, except for me.

“I understand,” is all I said when they finished speaking.  “Would it be all right for me to call my parents now?”
“Of course,” Netta said.  “You may use the phone in the foyer.”
“Thank you.”
“But... for future reference...please don’t use the phone without asking us first, okay?”
“Of course.”
“Oh, and Christina,” Mr. Silverman added.  “I forgot to tell you not to use the bidet in your bathroom.  It’s busted.”  

After calling my parents, and pretending with my finest acting skills that I was happy and doing fine, I went up to my room and started to cry.  I couldn’t stop, mostly because I realized that I had made a mistake in making this move without properly thinking it through beforehand.  What made it worse was the fact that I had no one to blame but myself.  I was the one who’d created this scenario.  I would be the only one who could fix it.  

Around midnight, I was still crying, wanting desperately to talk to Adam.  Netta had been very clear about the rule of phone use, so how could I break a rule on my very first night there?  Why hadn’t I just asked if I could make one more phone call?  Thoughts of prison popped into my head.  One phone call allowed.  

Out of my mind with loneliness, I crept down the Cinderella stairs, through the kitchen, and into the foyer. I picked up the phone and sneaked into the small bathroom near the main entrance.  The door folded open like an old-fashioned phone booth.

“Adam, it’s me,” I whispered, crouched down on the cold tile floor in the cramped, gloomily-lighted space.  “I miss you...”

Then I heard a knock on the door.  

“Yes? Come in, I mean...I'm coming.” I said, scrambling to get up before the door opened.  But my legs had cramped, and the door opened to reveal me, the new au pair, crouched on the bathroom floor with a contraband phone to my ear.

It was Netta.