Authors: Mona Simpson
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
ALSO BY MONA SIMPSON
Anywhere But Here
The Lost Father
A Regular Guy
Off Keck Road
for Elma Dayrit
Once, we sat with a small candle between us on the tablecloth, drinks for our hands. After the salad, he asked if I wanted children.
“I don’t know.” I fingered the glass votive. “I’d like to, but I don’t know if I can.”
That got his attention. His whole head stilled.
My hands fluttered to reassure. “No, it’s not that. I mean, I don’t know if I can
them. I want to write music. And I’ve already started that.”
He had a nice manner. He said he didn’t know musicians that well, women or men, but he counted on his fingers female writers who’d had children. He actually couldn’t think of any.
“Nope, died of lupus,” I countered. “Young. Thirties, I think.” Then, “Married but no kids.”
“Probably would have preferred Henry James.”
“Well, who wouldn’t?”
I laughed. For years and years, he could make me laugh.
“Does Yo-Yo Ma have kids?”
“Two,” I said. “But he also has a wife.”
“Madame Ma, c’est moi.” He had an odd brightness I’d heard all my life.
You can be both!
my mother had said. But my mother was mentally ill.
He was not. I believed him, a trumpet promise. Some Bach came into my fingers. Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor. The haunting Prelude. I had to sit on my hand.
That evening, our first date, we had a conversation about who would do what.
“With a woman who worked, it’d have to be fifty-fifty,” he said. “Of course.”
We didn’t talk about that again until after William was born.
In Paul’s gaze, it seemed I couldn’t fail, as if the terrors I’d known, so looming they’d strapped me in bed a few days a month, had been products of an overly active imagination. So this is how it works, I thought. It turned out to be easier than I’d expected. When I talked about my childhood, his face took on an expression of pity, which also looked like reverence. Then he’d twirl in a dance step, with a confident air. I marveled at these shuffles and turns, as one would at the performance of a child not yours: watching happiness.
I became accustomed to myself in this new atmosphere. My opinions grew emphatic, my gestures expansive, my stumbling attempts at jokes more frequent. Who was to say this wasn’t love?
I burrowed into his chest at night. He lost his hands in my hair and I could sleep.
Children were a star-wish.
Love had been a problem, already. Perhaps I wanted to curtail my range. In the custody of Paul, within the larger corporation of his family, things I’d feared all my life became impossible. No Berend lived in poverty, or even without a weekly cleaning woman. I loved their formality and cleanness. We would always be in rooms like this. Insanity occurred, but that, too, with the proper funds, rounded to eccentricity. He carried within him a solid floor. Like most women, I’d spent a great deal of time thinking about whom I would marry. Paul never felt like the end of all that yearning. Could anyone have been?
I hadn’t really known, up close, a good love.
I promised myself to be grateful.
I’d always perplexed my mother. She attributed my temperament to my face and never ceased trying to fix me up. My wedding made the happiest day of her life. Balloons loose in a blue sky, forty-two of Paul’s relatives stood in suits as we said our vows. On my side, only my mother. My friends felt exuberant with relief. Paul was beautiful—that word. A perfect profile, dark smooth skin, Grecian hair, the small wire glasses of a yeshiva boy you wanted to lift off. He had a mother-father Jewish family, who belonged to the Harmonie Club.
The student photographer followed a guest we hardly knew. A dozen pictures of this oboist appeared on the proof sheets and a half page of my mother, in her long white skirt and cranberry jacket, looking, as one of the ushers said, like something out of the Kennedy era, but not one shot of the mother of the groom. In the only picture that included both of us, we were greeting friends, looking in different directions, his hair blown wild, my arms still young. His face looks open and surprised.
God bless them. Wish them luck
It’s the picture my son keeps on the face of his cell phone.
That’s how they get you
. I’d heard that phrase all my childhood, though who
were was never clear. Ten in the morning, Will seventeen weeks old, I knocked over the bottle of milk I’d been pumping. It hurt to pump, but I’d already adjusted to the sucking bites and the odd porousness of my nipples after. I hiccuped sobs, moving around the black kitchen. We
those ounces. I had a concert in New York in nine weeks.
Then he started crying too. I rocked him, his blanket loosening. No matter how many times I studied the folding diagram, my swaddlings opened. His small arms shook, his face blotchy. Everyone told me babies liked the bouncy chair. I slid Little Him in, and he screamed. Paul was gone. Will and I were both exhausted. I couldn’t sleep because I believed our baby might die. I didn’t know why he wouldn’t sleep. This was a monumental responsibility, like nothing I’d ever known.
The black kitchen depressed me. I would never work again, I thought, as if these two problems were equal.
Just then Paul’s mother paid me a visit, while her son was at work. She’d come to town for the weekend. I raised my eyebrows,
See! Look at my ruined life
. But she chatted on about the advisability of live-in help so Paul and I could dash out for a romantic evening. A romantic evening! I looked at her. Will cried. He seemed more furious than other babies, more bereft.
I had no talent for this. Paul could make funny sounds like the track of a cartoon, momentarily interrupting Will’s misery. But Paul wasn’t here. Will and I both felt astonished that he was stuck with me.
“Do you ever just put him in the crib and go up to your office?” Paul’s mother asked. We’d chosen this particular rental house because it had an upstairs room with windows on all four walls. Easterners, we’d wanted light. Unfortunately, the windows didn’t open and by ten o’clock, the room hit seventy, by noon ninety. I led her up, to show.
We’d needed four men to move the piano here. They had to take the legs off to get it upstairs.
“Can you order shades?” A reasonable question, but I’d wanted her to
. “I want to be a perfect mother-in-law,” she’d once said. That weekend alone, she’d bought us a set of stainless cutlery and six antique dessert plates. I loved those dessert plates. She’d seen opposing sides in her daughter-in-law and picked the one she preferred.
“You’ll have shades installed and then just give him to a babysitter and get to work.”
“But he cries.”
“Then let him cry.”
He wasn’t the only one who cried. Paul understood that I stumbled around the rental house broken and that this, too, might be something we’d have to endure. Still, I cried too much. That at least had to be fixed.
He knew a way. And we would use it.
On a Saturday in August, in Los Angeles, we interviewed thirteen women, all immigrants, on the quarter hour. Three toothless, more than half heavily made up, a few truly ragged, they resembled the hags of Grimm more than Juliet’s nurse or any Disney nanny. From far away in this flat city, women had boarded buses to audition for our fifteen-dollar-an-hour job. Paul set up a waiting room in the black kitchen of our rental house. He knew how to do this. He put out a newspaper and a plate of store-bought cookies. That was like him, the nice formality. But the 10:45 woman scarfed the cookies.
Paul’s mother had advised us to ask the women for their theories of discipline, but when he asked the first one, she just stared. “Like, say, if they don’t behave,” he said.
She shook her head.
Where are you from?
became our opening question.
We were new too, Paul explained. We’d moved five weeks ago from New York for him to have his chance. At thirty, he felt like a recent graduate, with a ten-week offer on a show he admired. I held his tremendous hope like an egg found in a fallen nest, but I wanted something too—what I’d always had. When we’d left, I held the baby and Paul carried my precious instrument onto the plane. We’d had to buy the cello its own seat, but Will flew free. Now it hurt to look at the scuffed black case. Since childhood, I’d played every day. Even holidays, even sick. I remembered, with a loosening of sobs, which fell onto my baby’s face.
make it home for dinner?” I’d begged into the phone. “Can’t you go earlier and come home earlier?” How had I become like this?
Once, we’d sat in a restaurant, with a candle flame between us.
“Claire, the other guys in the room have wives too.”
“I don’t know about the other guys’ wives, but I work.” I did know, though, and they didn’t.
He’d sighed. “And you’re lucky you don’t have a boss.”
“I have to work late,” Paul said, to the 11:15 woman. “Most nights, I won’t make it home for dinner. So we’d need you to help Claire get him to bed.”
“Sure, okay,” the woman said. “But what time I can go?”
Paul wrote down numbers and told her we would check her references.
“Would you be able to stay over some nights?” he asked the 11:45 woman.
, his mother had said,
there’s never the problem of her calling in sick
Why not? I wondered, like an idiot. How do they not get sick?
The gums of the 11:45 woman puffed over her teeth. She looked sick already. Paul’s own nanny had been a black woman from the South. When she died, after living with his family fourteen years, only Paul flew to Mississippi for the funeral. Every year at Christmas, he sent a card and eighty dollars to her living daughter.
I liked the noon woman, from Bangladesh, who wore a purple head scarf and looked fifteen.
“How old are you?”
she said, cascading giggles. “I am eldest. I have many younger. All brother.”
I never had a nanny. I had a mom, like everyone else I knew, and occasionally, a babysitter: a caustic high school girl who was not above mentioning that she was only tending me for the money (a quarter an hour, in those days). Because my mother had to work, after school I walked three blocks to a religious bookstore, where I was allowed to sit on the floor and page through monographs about saints and listen to the incorrigible girls the owner took in. I loved to watch them crouch over their toenails, stroking on polish with terrible concentration. Once I met a priest there who’d walked the length of Italy barefoot. Then, in third grade, my mother gave me a key. But I lost it. We lived on a street with neighbors whose houses I knew the insides of; if I’d knocked at any one of those doors, I’d have been offered a glass of milk. But I waited outside on the stoop. When my mother finally lurched up the drive, she screamed, “I’m going to have to string it around your neck.” It enraged her, seeing her mittenless kid in the cold.
I couldn’t choose my life over Paul’s for Little Him.
The twelfth woman sat silent and nodding, her hair cut like Herman Munster’s.
“Are you able to work live-in?” Paul asked.
“I want live-in, yes,” she said. “Is cheaper.”
“Do you have children?” Six of the women before, three of whom said they could stay overnight, had young children.
“No children. No husband. Single,” she added, with a lilt.
Paul said, “May I ask you to step out a moment, while we call your references?”
He led her back to the black kitchen.
“I liked the one with the purple scarf,” I said.
“She looked fifteen. And she only has one reference.” Her reference sounded like a Bangladeshi man who set the phone down for a very long time, before another Bangladeshi man came on the line to say “Meskie? Yah, I know Meskie. She’s good.”
Paul stood nodding as he talked to the twelfth woman’s references.
“Couldn’t be better,” he said, hanging up. “Let’s try her for a week.”
“When could you start?” he asked, when he called her back in.
“Would tomorrow be possible?”
She nodded again.
Until recently, I’d thought a nanny was something English, from long ago. But now I would have one, just because I wanted to work. Needed to or wanted to? A question I’d never asked before. In college, where everything felt equal already, I assumed I’d have children
work. He, the putative he, would work a little less and I’d work a little less and the kid would have long hair, paint-spattered overalls, and be, in general, a barrel of monkeys.
William was hairless and the other
left for the Lot every morning and never came home.
The doorbell rang. The last woman. William lurched up crying.
“You get him and I’ll tell her the job’s taken,” Paul said.
“Remember sunblock,” I instructed the twelfth woman, “but not the face, okay?”
She nodded. Every day in California started the same: hot, plain, and bright, mocking. Paul left, his jaw a way I’d never seen. For the first time since me he wanted something badly.
I was becoming a woman who sighed. Now I had my baby and I saw. Why women got so little done. How much my own mother had given. Why so many people feel mad at their mothers; because whatever childhood was or wasn’t, they’re the ones who made it. Fathers loomed above it all, high trees.
“How was the park?” I asked, when the twelfth woman bumped in the stroller, an hour later. (Only an hour!) She nodded again. This may have had something to do with English comprehension. Will’s tiny arms reached for me, his scream high and steady.
But her mere presence relieved Paul.
“Go to work,” he said, on speakerphone. “Go to your office and shut the door.”
I obeyed. I went up to my office, shut the door, and slept.
I had no confidence as a mother. From babysitting, I remembered sweet concoctions I’d made with milk and strawberry powder in other people’s kitchens, but I couldn’t recall the children. I met one family in my twenties. Both parents cooked and every meal was a slow production; they were particular about wine and cheese. They had two calm, pudgy, intelligent children whom they were raising, they said, “by hand.” She worked in the mornings. The father’s dissertation, which he wrote afternoons, was about the privatization of time. Time had once been public, in a clock tower on the town square; everyone saw the same hour and minutes. When watches were invented, he said, people could carry around their own time. That interested me, because musicians can always tell time. Even when I slept I knew what time it was. Except composing. That’s when I lost it. Of the five-year-old, the father had said, “I consider him already done.”
They must have had family money.
I’d also read a study in which scientists allowed children to choose their own food. Over a month, the kids picked nutritionally balanced meals. If these two ideas—the laissez-faire smorgasbord and the raising of children “by hand”—contradicted each other, they nonetheless constituted my entire philosophy about parenting. And neither seemed to apply.
To make matters worse, birth had taken me apart and put me back together again, with one piece missing. I’d had a series of appointments with a gastroenterologist. “You’ll probably get better,” the doctor said, recommending Kegels.
When I came downstairs, I found Will in the stroller again, sunblock smeared on his little face. The tube had a printed warning.
NOT FOR USE ON INFANTS’ FACES
. I pointed this out to her.
An hour later, I walked in on her playing with his tiny penis, swinging it between her palms. This didn’t qualify as molestation, exactly, but I didn’t want her to give him baths. I stayed up late that night to tell all this to Paul.
The next morning he barged in while she was changing the diaper. She pointed to the penis. “His
!” She laughed.
“She actually flicked it with her finger,” he said. “Obviously a cultural difference. I didn’t love it either.”
But Paul had to go. His first ten weeks were up, and they decided to give him another ten-week trial.
I began trolling parks. I set up interviews in coffee shops. My generation’s adultery, I thought, scanning the tables for the one dark head among blondes.
I found Lola sitting on a bench and hired her, without references. I liked the way she looked. She was small, dark, well joined.
The next morning in bed, I told Paul.
“Whoa, slow down.”
“I already did it.”
He stilled his head, blinking. “A person likes a little stability in his life.”
“Then you work at home and worry all day.”
“So what do you want to tell this one?”
I fired the twelfth woman. It turned out to be remarkably easy. I gave her money; she nodded and left.
I’d always wanted to do no harm. That was my banister. In my twenties, leaving my temp job, which I faithfully attended, I walked in the pedestrian stream. Like all those others (black tights, slitted coattails), I made a living. If I tried to do more and failed, at least I would leave the world as I’d found it. But now I had a fresh boy, who took every imprint, however faint. I feared that my invisible soul could harm him.
I knew my deficiencies and so I selected a supplement. I hired a happy nanny.
“I prefer a mother who works,” Lola told me. “Because then I can have the friends of Williamo to the house.”
“You’re hired,” I said.
“When will you be needing me?”
When Paul first told me he wanted to write television comedy, I’d been surprised. That’s your
I thought. It didn’t seem big enough for a dream.
“Yup. I really think I coulda done it.”
“I bet you still can.” He knew guys from college who made four hundred thousand dollars a year. Those little cartoon people? I used my thumb and forefinger. I hadn’t known such a thing even required writers. But I could see in his face, this was an ardent wish. Before, even with his sharp features, there’d been something undefined. Work still meant the true great thing to me; I wasn’t old enough yet to know people whose dreams had wrecked them. I only gleaned the wistfulness of those who’d quit.