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  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.


  1. C.L.Smith..all I can say is,"Finally a writer!"
    I am so happy that we met! So many blogs on how to decorate on a budget...or quilting blogs.
    And you live in Chicago!
    I love your story about the Netta. Being from Chicago too, I have a few words for her..but I'll behave myself. Now I have to go back and read your whole blog...but today is a day of prayer and reflection for later this evening I will dive in. Oh, a writer!

  2. I remember that first call from you. I never got the full story, but I'm glad you are able to share it with the world.

  3. This is great. Your writing is pulling me in.