Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Au Pair (Of Shoes) Part 6: The girl behind the gate

Failure is a funny thing:  It happens to everyone, but when it does, it generally comes in one big dose, one heaping plateful of fiasco, leaving in its wake a sort of silence that allows us to hear ourselves think, a certain space in which to work through the mess we’ve just made. 

I, however, was not privileged with that kind of space, for since I had arrived at my new job, at my new home, living with my new boss, I had managed to fail in one remarkable way after another, building up a brand new, bizarro world résumé, one that highlighted the skills I sorely lacked, the qualifications I clearly did not possess.  

That was something I simply was not used to.  And I didn’t like it.  All my life I had studied and worked and persevered, and was told that I was a good person--that I was talented and qualified to do the jobs that I was hired to do. After a while, I began to believe it.

But in one fell swoop, in a matter of two miserable days, all of that had changed for me.  My confidence had been shattered, and I was beginning to feel like a failure because this weird little family had managed to convince me that I was.

As I stood in the kitchen upon returning from the forest, watching Stuart revel in his trickster’s triumph over the new nanny, I realized what this experience was going to be for me.  In order for me to survive this family’s dysfunction, I would have to learn how to endure it.  And the only way to do that would be for me to reach the children in some way.  That might sound obvious, but in all of my years of teaching, I had never met such maladjusted children as these, so in order to reach them, as I knew I must, I would have to summon a new kind of strength, a strength that is rooted in patience, and, more importantly, compassion.  I would have to be creative in my attempts to connect with these children, and I knew it wouldn’t be easy, especially with Stuart, who, at the moment, was smirking like the unbiddable little boy from Mary Poppins after having sent their last nanny screaming out the front door. 

Calixthe knew the evil that was Stuart Silverman and knew exactly what he had done, but she was in a difficult position, as Stuart was her cousin--Netta’s son--and Calixthe, like me, was basically a guest in Netta’s home.  She looked at me, wanting to say something more, but didn’t.

“My mom’s looking for you, Chrissy,” Stuart so kindly explained.  
“Well, I look forward to speaking with her, Stuart,” I replied with a smile.  “I’ll especially enjoy informing her how you rode off without telling me first, and nearly sent your little sister into convulsions.”

Yeah, take that!

“I tried to find you,” he said, “but I couldn’t.  You were gone.”
“That’s pretty much impossible, Stu, as we never veered off the main path.”

Standing there listening to me, Stuart felt no fear.  That was fairly obvious. But that really didn’t matter because I was not about to let myself fall victim to this incorrigible imp.  I would not be chased off, scared away, or whisked out of sight like the fat, old nannies from Mary Poppins.  I would exercise restraint, I would be in control, and I would try to show compassion.  If that didn’t work, I’d take a cue from Stuart and move over to the dark side. 

“Calixthe,” I said, my eyes still on Stuart. “Where’s Netta?”
“She ran to dah market.  She’ll be back any minute.”

Just then a buzzing sound rang through the front foyer, causing Calixthe to drop her spatula and run out the side door.

“Where are you going?” I asked her before she’d closed the door.
“It’s Netta, at dah front gate,” she said. “I have to open dah gate!”

The speed with which Calixthe ran outside was mesmerizing.  Had she really dropped what she was doing to open the gate for Netta?  I didn’t fully understand the concept, based on the fact that in order to ring the buzzer, you need to get out of the car and walk up to the gate.  Did Netta really follow such a ritual? Did she really expect Calixthe to forever stop whatever task she was in the middle of to run outside to open the gate so that Netta wouldn’t have to? 

I had to see it for myself.
Running toward the front door, I nearly tripped over Stuart’s foot, which he had deliberately stuck out in an attempt to make me fall. Much to his dismay I leaped right over it.  
Standing at the window, I peered through the curtain and saw Netta stepping back into her shiny Mercedes SUV as Calixthe struggled to pull back the heavy, wrought-iron gate  in order for Netta to enter the long, brick-paved driveway.

I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.  Netta had trained Calixthe in the ways of subjugation, her own niece forced into a life of menial servitude.

At that moment, I didn’t have time to fully digest the magnitude of the cruelty I’d just witnessed, as my primary concern at the moment was the forest fiasco, for which I would surely be reprimanded. Still, in the back of my mind, I was quietly building a case against this family, images of soiled underclothes and Calixthe’s sad eyes beginning to cloud my thoughts. 

“Christina, good, you’re back,” Netta said, placing her grocery bags on the kitchen table.  “I heard you had a little trouble keeping track of my children this afternoon.”

I sort of had that coming, so I let her have her say.  But, I too, would have mine when the time was right.

“Yes, Netta,” I began, “it seems Stuart had a different agenda for the afternoon’s activities.  But he’s home now.”
“Christina, I know where my son is.  Unfortunately, you--the person to whom I entrusted him--weren’t able to say the same this afternoon.”
“I know that it looks bad, Netta..”
“Looks bad?”
“Yes, it looks like I wasn’t responsible in keeping track of the children, but I assure you, I was.  I was talking with Lia.  We were getting to know one another, and Sorya was riding just ahead of us.”
“And Stuart?”

“Well, it seems he went a bit off the beaten path and must have left the forest via a different exit.  But it’s not because I wasn’t keeping an eye on him.  Truly, we were having a very nice time.  And...”

“Well, he’s home now, and that’s what matters, right?”

“Really?  That’s all that matters, Christina?” 

Netta had stopped unloading her bags to look at me.  

“Now, that just sounds...well, I don’t know what to call that.  Ignorant, maybe?”
“Excuse me?  What exactly does that mean, Netta?”

Heart, pounding.  Vision, blurred.  Breath, stopped.

This was going to be it.

“Calixthe, would you please leave Christina and me alone?  I need to have a word with her.”
“Yes, Auntie.”

Once again, Calixthe dropped the spatula into the bowl, leaving her chocolate cake only half-frosted.

“Christina,” Netta said, in a tone that tasted like ice cubes between my teeth. “I find it somewhat disconcerting that you are not more upset about the fact that you lost Stuart in the forest.  Your job is to watch over them, to guide them, to nurture them, to challenge them, ensure their safety, enrich their lives!”

No, Netta.  That’s YOUR job!  I’m just the babysitter. 

“Actually, I’m very upset, Netta,” I said, struggling to maintain my composure. “The truth is that Stuart went off and left the group without letting me know, and he did it on purpose.”  
“So this is all Stuart’s fault?”
“No, it’s not all his fault, but it is partly his fault, Netta.  He’s eleven years old.  He knows right from wrong, and he needs to learn how to take responsibility for his own actions.”
“Well, you are right about one thing.  Stuart should never have come home without telling you.  But why was he able to do that, Christina?  Can you explain that?  Why was he out of your sight for so long that he had time to make it all the way home?”

I wondered if Netta would have understood what I was about to try to explain: that I had been having a wonderful talk with Lia, that she was opening up to me, and that we were starting to build a friendship.  Isn’t that part of what Netta wanted from me? If Stuart hadn’t taken it upon himself to sabotage our little sojourn through the forest, the day might have ended happily ever after.

“Netta, I believe that Stuart did this on purpose to try to get attention...from you,” I stated coolly.  “I think all of them are dying for more attention, not from me, but from you and James.  It’s a fairly common phenomenon.”
“I don’t think I like where this conversation is headed, Christina.”

“Netta, with all due respect, you were the one who accused me of being an ignoramus.  That was completely uncalled for...as are a few other things.”

“What other things, Christina?” Netta asked, eyes ablaze.

“Netta, I know that I am only a guest in your home, so I don’t mean to overstep my bounds here, but I don’t understand why I wasn’t given a key to the house so that I can come and go freely.  If you must know, it makes me feel like a...prisoner.”

With those words, I had sealed the deal.  From that moment on, Netta would never trust me, like me, or care one iota about me. I had insulted her hospitality, and that was an unpardonable crime. She simply could not fathom anyone seeing her home as a prison, but that is exactly what it was for Calixthe, and that is what it was quickly becoming for me:  a place that forbade freedom and kept its inhabitants confined in dark, dingy spaces--locked behind gates. 

“I’m sorry that you feel that way,” she said, her eyes almost tearing up, I thought.  “We have invited you into our home, given you a place in our home to sleep and a place at our table to eat, and yet you say you feel like a prisoner?  I find that insulting.  How dare you?”
“I’m sorry, Netta, but it seems that everything I’ve done since I arrived, two days ago, has not been good enough for you.  Granted, I never should have let Stuart out of my sight, but he knew exactly what he was doing.  I feel like you’re blaming me for everything, unjustly.”
“Christina, I have said all I have to say, for now.  But I think we need to re-examine whether or not this arrangement is going to work.” 
“Oh,” is all I said, feeling like everything was falling apart.  And it was.

I had come all that way, and now I was getting the boot.  My thoughts immediately went to conjuring ways of explaining such a fabulous failure to my family.  

“Please find the children and get them ready for dinner,” Netta said as she rose from the table.
“All right.”
“After dinner, I would like you to get them ready for bed and let them read silently in their rooms.  They need some quiet time to unwind after this chaotic day.”

When dinner was over, I was relieved to be away from Netta for just a little while. I helped the children get ready for bed, suggesting some books from their shelves as good nighttime reading.

I didn’t spend much time on Stuart, as I was still smarting from the forest fiasco.  He grabbed a book and I closed his bedroom door.  Lia, a voracious reader, needed no cajoling when it came to reading; practically every time I had seen her in the past two days she had had her nose buried in a book.  

My last stop was Sorya, who needed help finding her pajama bottoms.  As I dug through her top dresser drawer, I saw Netta walking down the hall toward Sorya’s room.  She poked her head in to issue one last order.

“Christina, please choose tomorrow’s outfit for Sorya and lay it out on the chair for her.  Something nice, that matches.”
“Of course.”

I looked at the clothes that I was wearing, wondering if Netta had concluded from my own ensemble that I lacked the ability to dress properly.

“Would you read The Secret Garden to me, Chrissy?” Sorya asked as she crawled into bed.  “My last au pair said that she would but never did.  I really want to read it.”
“Sure, Sorya,” I said, getting excited over the prospect.  “This is one of my absolute favorite novels.  You’ll love it.”

As Sorya flipped through the pages of the book, I opened up the middle drawer to pick out clothes for the next day.  I selected a navy blue shirt with short, ruffled sleeves and a pair of light brown pants.  Per Netta’s instructions, I laid them on the chair beside the dresser and proceeded to read The Secret Garden with Sorya.  

“When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. It was true, too. She had a little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression. Her hair was yellow, and her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another. Her father had held a position under the English Government and had always been busy and ill himself, and her mother had been a great beauty who cared only to go to parties...”

Within minutes, Sorya was asleep.  On the walk back to my room, I thought how weird it was for these children to have a mother who assigned to someone else such motherly tasks as tucking her own children in at night.  And I was pretty sure the weirdness of it was not lost on the children. 

Early the next morning, I found myself back in Sorya’s room, nudging her gently to wake her, thinking fondly of the sweet moments we had spent reading together the night before. 

I’m making connections, right?  Yay!

I turned on the lamp that stood on the dresser, and that’s when I saw something I couldn’t believe:  Laid out on the chair was an entirely different outfit from the one I had selected for Sorya the night before.  Had Sorya changed it? Or had it been Netta?  Either way, my authority was being undermined in very small but very meaningful ways. 

Sorya rolled out of bed and noticed that I looked upset.  She glanced at the clothes on the chair and then shot me a defiant look that caught me off guard.  It seemed to say, “You’re not my real mother.”

I smiled at her and thought to myself, Your “real” mother isn’t either.


  1. Kudos to you for standing your ground with that evil b----! Hopefully, that shows her that American women aren't to be reckoned with. Great post...it got my blood boiling when reading it. Can't wait to read what comes next!

  2. It truly was a close encounter of the crazy kind--and not the last.

  3. I am so ticked off at that hag that parades herself as a mother.
    I could say a lot more...but I'll wait until the end to see what you finally did to straighten her out.....I hope it hurt (heheheh)