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.”


  1. Ha! It took many years and a great deal of distance for me to finally NOT hate her. She definitely left an impression.

  2. I personaly would have woke them up the next day singing "Super Freak" and posted on the grid "Children are now familar with Rick James" instead of calm reflection we decided to go funky.

  3. Now, why didn't I think of that, Tommy? See? You really should consider the au pair thing!