The job is simple, your prospective employer explains, tapping her fingers together, elbows on her polished minimal desk. You will have no problem carrying it out, and we will take good care of you.
You’re not sure what you expected when you found the ad online: just another cleaning job, perhaps, or home health aid position, helping old folks get a lunch together, washing their hair gently in a bathroom sink. When your cousin came to America a year ago she said there were plenty of jobs like these, jobs that preferred immigrant women because they were quiet, they were uncomplaining, they performed labor that American women did not like to do and had family values American women did not like to think about. You’re not sure that you have these values she speaks of, but the work sounds easy enough.
Now you are in the cluttered second-floor office of a company called Home Companion Solutions in a drab wet suburb of Boston. In winter here the people around you are pasty and clay-colored, their shapeless coats black or charcoal or somber blue. You didn’t realize, after being here only a month or two, how you would miss azure, magenta, buttercup. Your mother, a painter, taught you hundreds of words for colors, and you love to recite them in your mind, taste them like flavors on your tongue.
The job requires little training, your employer explains.
You lean forward, eager to appear eager, knotting your fingers over your bag. Just what will my responsibilities be? You ask as politely as you can. While there has been talk of salary, you’re still not sure what you will actually be doing.
The woman smiles. A big lipsticked grin, confident, effortless. She has run through this routine before, and you have asked your question at exactly she moment she expected. Our clients are mostly men, she says, and they are looking for a service that has a high degree of personalization. If you’re interested, I’ll have you shadow a girl today and see if you like the work. It’s vital, the work that we do.
You feel a chilly sweat on the back of your neck. This does not sound like the kind of job you thought it was; this was what your mother warned you about, when you said that you had to go. You’ll end up in a hotel room, handcuffed to the bed, she wailed. I know how these things work. I know how those Americans are.
You were too smart and brave to listen to her fears. But now you are the one who is afraid. Your employer, whose name you have forgotten in the nervous panic of introducing yourself, comes around the table and lays a cool hand on your head the way a mother would, straightening your unpinned braid that has come loose. “I take good care of my girls,” she says. She slips you a card for a hair braiding salon that she has heard is good. She takes a look at the stiff office wear you have borrowed for this interview. “Wear something a little more relaxed, more feminine,” she says. You notice she is wearing a sleek red sheath.
You still don’t quite understand what is going on. But you suppose that you can always walk away.
Hana meets you outside the building an hour later. She is small and pale and wears a flowery headscarf. She is older than you but the scarf makes her look even older, setting her back a generation or two. “You’ll want to iron your hair,” she says, appraising. “They like it better that way.”
“Our clients. They’re — what do you call? Old-fashioned.”
You ride in silence in her rattling old Chevy, passing all the little fishermen’s houses, the clapboard duplexes with creaking porches, the lawns still shadowed with gray snow. “I start three years ago,” she said. “Is a good gig.” She keeps her eyes on the road; her mouth is drawn downward in Slavic stoicity. Her accent strong, making her voice sound thick and milky. “When you came?” she asks.
“Just a few months ago.”
“But your English is good.”
You try to explain that English is spoken in your country. Americans always find it so hard to believe, with your accent, your hair and skin. They don’t know where to place you. They don’t know what you know.
You wonder what you have gotten yourself into. But something is preventing you from asking Hana to stop driving, to get out and walk away and find a chambermaid job in a hotel. It might be curiosity. It might be that you want to understand what these Americans are all about, and the strange things they get up to.
Hana parks in front of a nondescript house on a quiet street in Beverly. In the neighboring yards there are kids’ tricycles and see-saws half-buried in snow, but this house looks more desolate. The walks haven’t been shoveled; the curtains are drawn. “Stay quiet and follow my lead,” she says.
“What are we doing?”
“Is different for every client. You’ll see.”
Together, you walk to the door. Hana pulls out a ring of keys, squints at the labels, chooses one and turns the lock.
Inside is the typical New England house you are coming to know: dark creaking hallway, flower-carpeted stairs right in your face as you enter, little front room crowded with furniture. Pictures jammed on the walls and little doilies of Irish lace on the arms of the sofa. Sitting in an armchair with a magazine is an elderly man. He looks up and closes the magazine on his lap.
You are surprised when Hana blows past him down the hall, only chirping a quick, “I’m back. This is my friend.” She is heading for the kitchen like she owns the place, this little mint-green vintage gem, rummaging in the fridge. You pause for a little wave. The man nods. “Hello.”
“You said you would shovel the walk. Now shoes are ruined,” Hana barks from the kitchen. And in the same breath, “I’ll make you sandwich.” She is slapping together something on a plate, turkey on rye, spreading butter lavishly on one side.
“I’m sorry, dear.” The man is in the doorway. He putters to the sunny kitchen table, still reading his magazine; the plate with the sandwich appears at his right hand, along with a glass of ginger ale; he eats one-handed, never looking up. The whole time, Hana hectors him about this and that. You left towels on the floor. How many times do I have to tell you? You’re the man around here, you are supposed to keep the walk shoveled and the grass mowed. Lord knows she does everything else around here. You watch in a stunned silence. You’ve seen the badgering style of some nurses before; at home they tutted at you when you cried as your broken arm was set, and the stern treatment made you feel a little better. But this just seems like purposeless nagging, the kinds of things wives do with years of familiarity. There is nothing medicinal about this exchange. But the man eats his sandwich in a content silence, basking in the glow of Hana’s impotent rage.
When the sandwich is done, she takes the plate and washes it, all without letting up her verbal assault; she helps him back to his chair. Then the three of them sit on the couch and she flips through a magazine, commenting unfavorably on each new movie star’s dress. He nods along until the nodding becomes deeper and deeper and finally he is asleep.
Hana stops talking. She pulls the magazine gently from his hand and covers him with a blanket. And then she motions for them to go.
Why did you treat him like that? you say when you are back on the road.
That is what the job is, she says. Though of course, every client is different. They don’t want a nurse. Most of them don’t need one; he is one of my oldest. See a few more, before you decide.
At the next house, Hana again pulls out the ring of keys, again barges in the door without knocking. But this time, no one is home. She walks through another dark house. She peels a banana and eats it, then she leaves the peel on the counter. She leads the way upstairs. “This one, he likes the smell of a woman,” she says. In the master bath, she sprays some perfume around the bath from the bottle that is waiting for her on the back of the toilet. She opens the shampoo bottle, dollops a little on a towel, and smears it in the walls of the shower. Then she pats the same damp towel on one of the pillows of the bedroom. Now you are beginning to understand.
“They’re widowers, all of them,” Hana at last explains in the car. “Poor men, they like to pretend. Some of them want their woman, some of them want any woman.” She drives fast and jerky like most Boston drivers, mashing a cigarette into the cupholder, swinging one-handed around a turn. There are far more houses to get to, more lonely people to soothe. She tells you, men are creatures of fantasy, and women are creatures of reality. Men love fantasy. Whether it is the fantasy that a woman, someone younger and lovelier, will love them, or that the woman they’ve grown accustomed to is still there.
“They’re not crazy,” she says. “They know I’m not who they look for. But is nice, for a while, to pretend.”
You get coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts and sit in the car in the ticking silence of the cooling engine, learning the silent way that New Englanders communicate, looking straight ahead instead of at one another. This is another form of the indirect love that the men favor: affection in folded laundry and de-crusted bread, in rehashing old arguments, in smell and sound and shadow. “So you can do the job?” asks Hana.
You aren’t sure. You think they are still a little crazy, no matter what Hana says.
By next week you have your own beaten-up car bought in an advance on your first paycheck and your own ring of keys. Your employer says she will start you off easy, with a handful of no-show clients. These are the ones that don’t even need to see you; they just want evidence of a woman’s presence in the house. You are given a detailed write-up of each house, when to come and what to do, when it is permitted to improvise. You treat your hair so it will lie flat and get your own fleet of black stockings. Still not sure if you are nurse or maid or actress. Your first client of the day, you huff up a third-floor walkup in Somerville to a messy, tiny apartment packed with thrift store furniture and signed baseballs under glass. You are not to touch those baseballs under any circumstances. But you are to sit in the ratty armchair by the television long enough to leave an imprint, and perfume from a spray bottle. Out of curiosity (it takes a while, leaving a good imprint), you turn on the television in front of you. It is tuned to the porn channel. Of course. You grew up in a Catholic country where such things are not quite so easy to see. You watch, fascinated, as the bodies churn against each other, something mechanized and dull about it. No one’s heart rate seems to be going up. The women’s bodies are sprayed an unnatural color. The men’s are bizarrely angled and muscular. They take the women almost casually, as if bored. You realize the camera is not on them, is not designed for them. It’s all about the women there, lapping up their simulated pleasure with its lidless eye.
You lose track of time, watching.
Your second client wants a meal wrapped in plastic waiting in the fridge. You sing while you cook the way your mother does, humming old folk songs amiably; this seems like real work. The first week you make saffron rice and jerk chicken for him, and receive a note on your evaluation requesting “less ethnic” food. They want a dry flavorless chicken breast and a soft pile of white rice, or roast beef and a clammy boiled potato. It is all about the fantasy of the normal.
You get a panicked email from your employer after two weeks of work. Can you play piano? This new client is your trickiest. You have to be in the back room playing the piano when he returns from work; you must listen, playing, for the slam of the door and the jingle of keys. He
wants to hear the music as he’s hanging up his coat, and imagine for that brief time that she is there. He will wait there and not advance down the hall. After playing for a minute or so, you will slip out the back door and away.
All your brothers and sisters were sent to the same old lady down the road who had a piano; all of you had to learn Mozart and Chopin. Your mother thought it would help you get into the good private school in the city, and didn’t understand that you had to know someone, or be a general’s child, to get there. Like so many of her hopeful plans, it amounted to nothing.
He never wants to see you, your employer said. Not even the back of your head. He wants to keep her as a ghost in his house.
It’s cruel, isn’t it? you asked. You’d gotten to like your employer, this smoothly assured woman who has found a need and is exploiting it so well. Now when you received a new client and talked over the write-up, you bantered and joked together. These silly men. Is this what they miss most about their wives? Is this? Did they even know them, really? Is it just the smell and feel of a warm body that they miss?
Your employer shrugged. It’s his choice, the way he wants to remember her. Maybe they were always a room away from each other.
All you know about your client is what you can glean from the house itself. You poke through the framed photos on the mantle: a man with salt-and-pepper hair, standing in a yard full of leaves, rake in hand. A woman on a sailboat, squinting good-naturedly. There is only one photo of them together, arm in arm, looking awkward and well-dressed. You stare into it. You have always been curious, even when it didn’t serve your interests to be. That’s what your mother said.
You set about playing a song from the roster he has requested: Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Baby stuff, really. Your fingers move down and back, down and back across the keys; your body remembers this. You are in the steamy room of your neighbor’s house, watching the cat shake its tail as it slides through the beaded curtain, getting a rap on the wrist for not paying attention. The details exact and aching.
There is the sound at the door, the stamp of his feet on the tile, the keys. You play for a minute more, the hair standing up on your neck. Now you are the object of someone else’s painful fantasy.
You nearly fall out of your shoe leaping up, half-trip as you scramble out of the room, through the kitchen, out the back door and away.
Now the day’s job is done; time to go to your apartment and eat leftovers, watch American TV with your roommate studying for her health aide certification. You wonder if you should be studying for something too. You’re not sure if anything will happen next, as long as you refuse to make anything happen.
Winter deepens; dirty snow piles on the sidewalks. You watch porn in the armchair of the baseball man, you cook bland Irish meals and leave them in the fridge. For the piano man, you try to vary up the staid list of songs he has selected. You buy a cheap electric keyboard for your apartment and a book of Debussy and work on your technique. Now when you hear the jingle of keys, you’re off into The Children’s Hour or Clair de Lune. You you remember your old neighbor grumbling about passion. She would not let her students play certain pieces unless she thought they had enough feeling. Well, here is your passion. You pound out a work, and go over time, knowing he is standing still, he is listening.
Sometimes you meet Hana for coffee when you both have a job downtown. She is getting tired of all the driving, the irregular hours that the job requires. She has a daughter in kindergarten and the girl has learned at five years old to walk home with a key on a string around her neck. “I don’t like it,” Hana says. “She is too young.”
You nod. At home, you were running home from school at five, but you had your brothers there, and the village was tiny, every face was known to you, every house had an unlocked door. Here a little girl walking home would pass a dozen strangers or more; she would have to learn so young not to smile.
Hana passes a hand over her eyes. “My old one died,” she said.
This is a loss of a client, which is too bad, but you can see that Hana is genuinely affected.
“Grumpy old bugger,” she says, and stirs her coffee.
“Do you get attached?” you ask.
“Sometimes. Not with no-shows.”
You are beginning to realize that you will only be getting no-show work. Too many of these old widowers do not want to see you and think wife. They would find round and circuitous ways to complain to your employer.
You vacuum, leaving shadowy tracks in rugs. You leave brown paper bags on counters with sandwiches inside. You spray yourself with another woman’s perfume and lie in strange beds, rumpling the sheets.
In one house in the suburbs, you are asked to go into a child’s room and neaten up the toys, putting one ragged stuffed bear on the pillow. He wants you to line up the shoes and leave a note on the desk that says Have a great day, pumpkin-head! You write carefully, and then wonder what he’s playing at.
This bedroom is so full of toys you’ve never seen: princess dolls and plastic figurines and jewel-cases with turning ballerinas. This was the richie-rich bedroom of American children you sometimes pictured when you were drifting off to sleep. You want to touch everything: the model horses with brushable hair, the building blocks in their tempting pile.
One day you linger too long and hear the door open downstairs. That’s all right, though; now that you’re a veteran no-show, you’ve learned to mark out your exits beforehand. You slip into the sewing room over the back stairs. This room is dark and cold; it hasn’t felt a person’s presence in months. You see a colorful paisley print still half in the sewing machine.
You hear him talking to his daughter, their chatter bright and nonsensical, the private code of a parent and child. Now they’re coming up the stairs. The father exclaims. “Look, Mommy’s left you another note.” You listen to the little girl slowly read your foolish letter, and tears burn the corners of your eyes. “She’s still here,” the father says. “See? She’s listening to you.” You’re surprised by your sudden, unconscionable rage. You did not think you would be used in this way.
You meet with your employer and ask to be taken off the job. “That’s not what I signed up for.” You sit very upright in your chair. You don’t want to be seen as difficult.
The employer folds her hands on the desk, showing her gleaming red nails. “You provide comfort. You soothe.”
“That’s not comfort. That’s a lie.” When you were young you went to chapel with all the other children and learned about heaven and hell, and thought for a little while how just and right it all seemed. Then your mother told you that it was a very nice, convincing, well-meaning lie. It made people feel better when they were lonely and scared and didn’t want to think about going to sleep forever and never waking up, but that was all it was: a lie.
“Of course it is,” your employer says. “Isn’t that what you’re doing with the others?” You find you cannot articulate the difference between the father, and the man listening to
you play the piano. “They know that it’s not really true,” you say finally. “Isn’t it just a game?” The employer sighs. “I don’t know.”
She tells you, she used to think everyone understood what was real and what was fake. It was just a game of pretend, wasn’t it, to stave off the loneliness for a little while. Like imagining for a while that the wife has just stepped away. There is her place at the table, there is her half-full glass, soon she’ll return with the pie—what is the harm in indulging in that wistful fantasy?
“But there have been incidents,” she said. “There was a client who got confused. He started begging the girl to stay the night, to do more and more. I cancelled the arrangement, but the man found out where my girl lived. He followed her to her house.”
“What happened?” You have a right to know, don’t you? But the employer is suddenly brusque.
“What do you care? You don’t know her. We have screening in place now, for clients.” She reaches out and holds your hands with her more beautiful hands. “You don’t have to question what these people want for their lives.”
Maybe your employer is right, you think, at home watching Jeopardy! while your roommate weeps on her phone. She can’t afford a ticket home for Christmas.
These funny Americans defy easy judgment. You’d heard coming here how no one cared for the old people, and hired out strangers to do the job for them; but you didn’t expect the wheelchair ramp at every city sidewalk corner. You’d heard about the sinister white-robed racists, the police officers with hands on their guns; but you hadn’t known about the people who volunteered to shepherd frightened women through the doors of clinics, to see them through the scorn and scrutiny like mothers.
You play pieces on the piano that do not comfort or soothe. You switch to jazz and blues, stomp out riffs that throb with longing. Then under the sound of the keys you hear the piano man whistling; he knows this one. You stop, heart pounding, and flee.
Hana insists you come to her house for Christmas Eve dinner. You wear all your thrift store layers and bring a hot tray of spiced rum cookies. You wonder how many of your sisters are pulling the same recipe out of the oven now, their houses alive with sounds of children and relatives, every voice known.
You are let up into a hot, steamy apartment crowded with religious icons and children’s toys. Hana shouts hello over the clanking radiators. She’s all warmth and laughter now, hustling you into the room, exclaiming over your limp cookies. A little hand comes up from hip height and investigates the cookies, selecting the largest; it’s Hana’s daughter, wearing reindeer antlers and white little girl’s tights.
Hana’s husband comes out of the cramped galley kitchen and shakes your hand. Somehow you assumed Hana was a single parent, toughing it out alone. On all your coffee dates she seemed so resolutely independent. Even when she and Matvey stand together in the room now, discussing what dishes have to come out of the oven, they never touch or look at each other. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing, or maybe it’s just how their relationship works.
Why did your mother never tell you there were so many ways to be in love?
You lean close to Hana while drying dishes. “Did you ever get close to a client? Really close?”
Hana looks around quickly. “Don’t tell Matvey. Once there was a client who tried to make me get into bed with him. He said, ‘What am I paying you for, if not to be a wife?’ He took off all his clothes, right in front of me!” Hana scoffed. “I give him a good slap and walk out. If you get a troublemaker, don’t put up with nonsense!”
You nod, and swallow, and don’t say that’s not what you meant.
At the piano man’s house, he has scribbled a note at the top of your sheet music. I love jazz piano. Do you know Herbie Hancock? Beside that is a new piece of music. You try a few bars, hesitantly, feeling out the unfamiliar rhythm. This is no Chopin; it’s syncopated but smooth. Then the key is in the lock. Still, you keep playing the new song, leaping up the octaves. You take twenty minutes learning it, your excitement growing, and he waits the entire time, listening.
At the house in the suburbs, you come early. No one is home; you slip into the cold sewing room and put your foot on the pedal. There is the sketched-out plan for a skirt in the paisley print, child-sized. A modern woman always delights a man when he discovers she possesses traditional skills, your mother said. You ease the fabric through the chugging machine. This mother had a playful taste in clothes; you saw the bright colors in the girl’s closet, not typical for this city of navy blue and gray. For a little while, you imagine you are making the skirt for your own daughter. Wouldn’t she look lovely, kicking up her heels in her run to school?
You are just holding up the skirt to the light to check the hem when the door of the sewing room opens. You freeze: the little girl is poking her head around the door. Downstairs, you can hear the father rustling about, pressing buttons on the microwave.
Before the girl can speak, you put a finger to your lips. “Ssh. Look, I made this for you.” I hold out the skirt.
She looks at it uncertainly.
“Your mother wanted you to wear it.” You stand up, gathering your things as quickly as you can. “Don’t tell your Daddy I was here, okay? It’s a secret.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m — like the tooth fairy, okay? Yes?”
The girl frowns, not buying it. “That’s not true. Tell the truth.”
You feel that is what you must do. “Your Daddy asked me to write you notes now that your Mommy is gone. He didn’t want you to feel sad. But you must pretend that it’s your Mommy leaving them.”
The girl thinks about this, fingering the skirt. “Why?”
“He loves you very much, and he worries about you. He wants you to be all right.” You stand up and pat her on the head. You can hear the quiet downstairs; you have to leave, now.
You think about how all you kids figured out Santa Claus wasn’t real years before your mother was ready to let it go; and out of kindness, you kept up the charade. That’s what children do, sometimes: they spare their parents sadness.
You aren’t surprised when your employer calls you into her office and says that the account has been cancelled. “Did something happen?” she asks.
You shake your head. You wonder how long the girl decided to keep up the lie for her daddy, or how long she was able to.
Your employer taps one long-nailed finger on a folder. “I’m not pleased with your performance. Another one of your clients wanted to cancel. He’s on the fence.”
She pushes the folder across the desk to you. It’s the piano man. You sit back, stunned; you thought you understood each other. Some weeks, as the winter light fades and you get fewer and fewer emails from home, he is all that you look forward to. “Why?”
Your employer shrugs. “He said something about it getting too personal. You need to respect your clients’ boundaries. You give them just a taste of what they want, you understand? Then you leave.”
You shake your head. “I can’t do that. I can’t do that.”
She frowns, but she is not angry; she is concerned, she wants to help you, to protect you from harm. “Why not?”
In the snowy parking lot of the building, you try to light a cigarette and miss a few times because your hands are shaking. You thought you had made one connection, just one, in this lonely buttoned-up city. But you are the one who is mistaken; you’d forgotten that this was just a game, after all, a financial transaction. All those funny things that Americans are willing to pay for.
You thought — you thought—
What was it your mother said when you told her you had to leave? Your sisters were married too young, settled into their lives. But you wanted something different. Fine, go be a stranger somewhere, she said. And it began as a fight but ended as a blessing, as so many things with your mother did. Go on, and don’t come back, she said. She always understood you best, and that was why she worried. But still, she let you go away.