There was something about Cristina that I liked right away. I was embarrassed to admit how quickly I calculated her looks and their probability of arousing my husband, but maybe such estimations were inevitable and instinctive. Sizing up Cristina was easy. She was chubby, with a pretty face, and wore nondescript outfits such as jeans and a white t-shirt. I was sure my husband would see her as asexual.
She came to work for us at the end of the summer just over a year ago, after we discovered our former maid had been stealing my jewelry. The interview and hiring process were rushed and we took Cristina in without careful scrutiny. She had arrived in the U.S. eight months before we met her, after divorcing her husband in Guatemala. She had two children, to whom she sent a third of her check every month. We were lucky, as she proved to be hard working, respectful, and calm. She seemed to stabilize every room she entered, her hands deftly sorting out all disorder in the background. When she first walked into our large living room, she looked around in bewilderment.
“Such lovely things!” she exclaimed, wide-eyed. I found it hard not to be flattered by her. We had just redecorated the downstairs and I was proud of how it turned out. The dining room was ensconced in a lush wallpaper of red and gold, and the dining room table was dark wood, the edges of which were also lined with gold. The living room was more eclectic. We had experimental sculptures, such as a great winged bird made out of silverware, and green velvet couches. She went from room to room, amazed, and stared for a long time at a painting over the fireplace of a snowy road leading to a cozy house, lit from within by orange light, smoke trickling out of the chimney.
I had begun working from home earlier that year and, as I was still getting used to budgeting my day into chunks of productivity, I was relieved to leave all the housework to the maid. My study was next to the kitchen, so I could sometimes hear the various tasks being completed in the other room, such as unloading the dishwasher or mopping the kitchen floor, and would feel a pang of guilt for not helping and for having the luxury of spending the day doing my own work, editing manuscripts for children’s books.
Eight years prior, I had made the career choice to work every day at the publishing house. This decision meant less time with the children, and what emerged seemed a more professional relationship with them. They approached me rationally and would state a need they had, listing all the reasons they felt they should have, or be able to do, a certain thing, and then I would or would not grant permission. My recent decision to work from home was a last-ditch attempt to see my kids and bond with them before they grew up completely. Cristina became excited when she learned I published children’s books and I gave her some to send to her children in Guatemala. They could still look at the pictures, even if they couldn’t read or understand the words of the story.
Cristina moved into the little apartment above the garage, and, except for her two days off a week, she became a member of our household. That was the year my son fell ill with mono and had to stay at home for almost two months. To keep up with the expenses of a maid, my husband began working longer hours at his firm, in the hope of being made a partner. I rarely saw him, and when I did, he was exhausted and would eat and usually go straight up to bed.
My son’s room was down in the basement. He had requested that we allow him to move there when he was ten years old. At the time he seemed so certain it was the right and necessary thing, so we had given in and let him do it.
Now he was fifteen, and I would go down into his den of sickness and find him reclining, surrounded by movie boxes, tissues, and empty bowls as he lay in the main room of the basement. His bedroom was off to the right and was the darkest room in the house. It had a little rectangle of a window on one wall that gave a view of tangled ivy. I was discouraged from going down there, because the place made my stomach turn—it was forever in disarray, and I couldn’t quite scold him for it because he was sick, so I would half-suggest he do things such as open a window or pick up his tissues. He would mutter some reply, and then I would go back up the stairs.
Before Cristina, I found a porn magazine once while I was making his bed. The place seemed more and more to be a territory best left alone. His body was growing at a monstrous rate, and his voice, after two years at a higher pitch, had settled into a deep, masculine tone, an almost musical bass. He was turning out to be strikingly handsome. Instead of descending the steps to his room, I would call to him from the top of the stairs and ask him to come up to the first floor if I needed to talk to him about something.
I sent Cristina down to my son’s room three times a week to clean. She became an expert in knowing his needs. She would put his favorite candy in little bowls on the coffee table, would make him smoothies, and bring him rented videos from the store down the street. My eleven-year old daughter would go down there and the three of them would often watch movies together after Cristina had finished her work. Cristina seemed to have a way with children. I could hear them laughing from the kitchen.
One day, I ventured down to check on my son. A strange red light cast dark shadows on the wall by the couch. After commenting on the red bulb casting its eerie glow, I learned Cristina had brought him three different-colored light bulbs, one red, one green, and one blue. Cristina explained to me later that these were to put in his lamp by the couch to change the atmosphere if it got too dull or gloomy. This did not surprise me, as I had recently learned that Cristina had an active interest in craft-making. She had shown me some Christmas ornaments she made in Guatemala, and I found this hobby of hers to be cute and endearing. It was one more piece of evidence that she was safe, a good influence for my children. On some level, you could call her an artist.
I fell one step behind all that was happening, and actually began to prefer it that way. She seemed to have a knack for maternal care, while I had always felt I was missing that feminine grace. I would peer down over the side of the staircase to the basement and see my son lying on his back, bathed in red light, his mouth flung open in a dazed dream state, and then return, puzzled, to my study.
I came down one morning to find that my daughter had slept on the basement couch. She was so deeply asleep that I had to shake her shoulder to wake her up. She was in a state of bliss when she awoke, her face relaxed and her eyes glowing.
“What is it, Mom?” she asked me, but she kept drifting back to sleep as I talked to her.
We found out several days later that she had somehow caught mono from spending too much time down there, although I had no idea how. I had always thought mono was only contagious through kissing.
The place soon came to feel like some drug den with its psychedelic lighting, old, smelly couches, and heavy-lidded eyes gazing at me from the darkness. Cristina seemed to know how to handle all this, as she would breeze in and vacuum, add flowers to the table, disinfect the bathroom, and crack open the windows.
I began to notice, as the weeks went on, that Cristina became more casual with her chores in the rest of the house. I noticed that the living room had not been dusted or that only the center of the room had been vacuumed. She began taking naps in the afternoon and would emerge from her room still sleepy and mutter a half-greeting to me as if I weren’t even really there. But the basement was always kept spic and span. She even cleaned the terrarium of my son’s snake without my having to give her instructions about how to do it.
After dinner, Cristina could be found downstairs with the kids. She would help them every evening with their homework, which I picked up once a week from their school, or giggle as they watched silly American movies. She looked to them to fill her in on all things American. The sheer number of mindless movies the three of them rented to “catch Cristina up” on all the ones she had missed living in Guatemala must have cost me and my husband at least twenty dollars a week.
I overheard her helping my son with his environmental science study of glaciers. Maybe help is the wrong word—she tested him on things by holding the book with the definitions, or asked him to explain concepts to her so that he would drill the material into his head. It was not within her ability to teach him anything about this kind of subject. I was sitting on the top steps to the basement, hidden from view, listening to their chatter.
When I wasn’t working, I found there wasn’t much else to do in the house except for checking out what the kids and Cristina were doing. My husband was becoming more and more of a ghost in our home, and when he was there, he was plagued with exhaustion. He rarely interrupted me in my study if I was up late working. I always suspected that he found my work meaningless. When I would tell him about the latest book I was editing, he would smile and listen with the kind of uninvested enthusiasm you would assume when listening to a child tell you about an illogical but amusing game she made up to play with her imaginary friends in the backyard. His eyes were often slightly glazed over, from exhaustion, from disinterest, or for some other reason. So, on this night, I took a break and sat on the steps.
I could hear Cristina and my son talking on the other side of the basement. She expressed particular pride when she saw a huge photograph of the Andes Mountains in his textbook. The photograph was from Chile, and she had seen pictures of it from a wealthy cousin of hers who traveled there on her honeymoon.
“My cousin, Gloria, stayed at the most fancy hotel you ever seen. It had a pool and each room had a patio looking out on the street. You kids should travel when you get older and see these places. There’s nothing like seeing new places to open up your minds. Remember that.” I thought about my own honeymoon to the Hawaiian Islands, the sheer luxury of the hotels my husband and I had stayed in, places that would undoubtedly shock Cristina with their decadence. Of course my kids would travel; my husband and I had already brought them to several countries. But how could I have the heart to tell her this. Let her think she at least had this advantage over them, of counseling them and imparting experienced advice.
“Read to me about the volcanoes and glaciers,” she said excitedly in her thick accent.
My son began reading aloud from the book, pronouncing the words slowly and with an earnestness that I was unused to hearing from him:
“Glaciers move in several ways. One way, sliding, involves the large tongue-shaped block of ice, hundreds of miles thick sliding over the lithosphere, crushing the rocks of the uppermost region and dragging them as they inch along. These rocks then become glacial till. Glaciers severely distort the land they cross. They carve out valleys and then retreating glaciers produce a hilled effect where flat land used to be.”
“Sweetie, thank you for telling me this.” She laughed. “So the golf course next your house, those hills is from an old glacier.”
“Maybe,” he chuckled a little flirtatiously.
“What you going to do with all this knowledge?”
“Probably nothing,” he said and yawned. “This is a photo from Japan of Mt. Fuji.”
“Okay, read that part.”
“An eruption column collapses only after enough isostatic pressure from underlying gases and magma pushes up on it. There are three types of lava: basaltic, andesitic, and rhyolitic. Each lava type erupts differently”—
“This is for what class, geology?”
“It’s for the geology section of the class, environmental science,” he said carefully, educating her. I found this whole exchange to be amusing and sweet, but also irritating. She must have known on some level that textbook writing wasn’t meant to be read aloud. I found myself wondering if her naiveté was somewhat of an act. No one could be that innocent and interested in these mundane things.
The next night, I found Cristina carrying two cardboard boxes from the storage space to the main part of the room. A movie was on and both kids sat in a daze staring at a ski chase scene. Cristina had her hair down and wore green leggings and a white sweatshirt, the fabric of which was covered in fake pearls. She motioned me to come over to where they all were.
“Come, come, sit, Mrs. Mitchell,” she said, taking control of the situation. I walked over, smiling sheepishly and my son slowly moved his legs to make space for me at the end of the couch, never once taking his eyes off the screen. Cristina leaned over and opened one of the boxes in front of her, took out a dozen or so Styrofoam balls, and lined them up on the carpet. She took out two tubes of glue and a device with a cord that resembled a pastel gun. She set it in front of the Styrofoam balls. Then she walked back to the storage space, out of view. I tried to focus on the movie but couldn’t help wondering what Cristina was up to. She returned a minute later with armfuls of dried flowers, and then plugged the pastel gun into the wall and stuck a tube of glue into it.
Slowly, my daughter rose and came to sit at Cristina’s feet, still watching the movie out of the corner of her eye. It was as if she moved to cues that were invisible to me. They all watched the movie. Cristina watched it standing up.
Cristina picked up the glue gun and stared at the tip for a minute. The glue was apparently hot enough. As she stuck the tip of the gun into a Styrofoam ball, it made a grinding and crackling sound, and a string of glue trickled down onto the newspapers lining the carpet. She pulled the gun out and looked at us. My daughter was staring up at her with rapt attention.
“Pick some flowers you like,” she told my daughter and then reached down and lovingly petted her head. She waited, ball in hand, while my daughter crawled over to a pile of flowers and selected a clump of little yellow blossoms and what appeared to be dried violets, as well as a handful of green moss. My daughter stuffed these into the gluey craters and they stayed where they were, making up a bumpy and colorful layer. The pair kept going until only a few white bald spots remained and the last flower heads were placed in their spots. Cristina closed her eyes and held it to her chest, a third flowery breast.
“That is gorgeous, Cristina,” my son said with exaggerated kindness. I couldn’t tell where he’d learned to compliment things as gorgeous. If he was serious or was just trying to be respectful.
“Where did you learn to make those?”
“In Guatemala, we grew up making these as well as many other things with dried flowers. This is presented as a gift often to new brides. I am showing your daughter how so she can make them.”
I stood up and carefully maneuvered around the floral mess. The flower balls were ugly and I cringed to imagine my daughter using up her time with such nonsense. But maybe this was what little girls were supposed to do. I had no right to interfere.
Unable to concentrate on my work, I decided to go upstairs and take a bath. I went up to my room. My laundry lay in a heap on my bed, unfolded. Normally, it was all in neat little piles, respectfully placed near the edge of my bed. There was a pile of dirty towels outside the bathroom as well. Cristina had failed to finish her chores.
Once in the bathroom, naked, I sank into the hot water. I realized there were no clean towels piled on the rack. I held up my book and tried to concentrate on the story before me, but was unable to focus. I thought about how things might have been if I had simply put aside my career and been an available mother. I would have been a part of the neighborhood network of moms, who dress in fancy sweatpant outfits and pull up to the curb in cars loaded with groceries and field hockey sticks, smiling, reassuring. As it was now, I was awkward around my children, unnatural, and it was dawning on me that it might be too late to regain a critical connection. I thought of the four of them down in the basement, watching a silly movie and laughing, making crafts and telling mindless jokes.
I was startled by a little knock on my door. I sat up a little bit in the bath and defensively covered my breasts with the arm holding my book and placed the other hand over my crotch. It was probably my husband, come up at last to see me. I removed my hands.
Cristina poked her head into the bathroom and then entered with a stack of purple towels.
“I realized I had left you with no towels,” she said. She placed them on the shelf above the toilet. “I am so sorry,” she said, so genuinely that I felt moved. “Mrs. Mitchell, we would love to have you come back down when you’re finished,” and then she smiled and left the bathroom. I felt a sting of sadness. I laughed a little—it was absurd. A year ago, I would have been outraged if a cleaning woman had waltzed into my bathroom while I was naked, but something unidentifiable had changed and I did not feel that way.
After my bath, I went downstairs and made myself a cocktail, orange juice with a shot of vodka. I couldn’t bring myself to go down to the basement. I took the drink into my study.
I finished my drink and went back into the kitchen to pour another. I decided against turning on the overhead lights, but instead maneuvered around the kitchen by the glow of a tiny nightlight near the stove. I moved quietly and sat at the table, which was built in a glass alcove overlooking the yard. The moonlight coming in through the window was bewitching. It shone on the green marble table in front of my outstretched hands that rested on the surface. As if she sensed I was up there, Cristina came into the room. She startled me. She reached instinctively for the overhead light, but then thought better of it and sat across from me.
“Can I have one?” she said, motioning to my half-empty cup. She must have been able to smell the bitterness of the vodka in my glass when she sat down.
“Sure, of course.”
She made her drink and then returned to the table.
“How are things going for you here?” I asked
“This job is perfect for me. Your children are very good to me, Mrs. Mitchell. You are very generous and treat me the best of any job I had.”
“Do you ever miss your husband?”
“No, no, not really, to tell it the truth. He was a real sour puss. He was all things bad for a woman—weak, unemployed, sometimes hitting me, you know. Plus, he was very boring! Nothing like Mr. Mitchell.” She laughed, leaning forward onto the table, and I couldn’t help but laugh with her. “Divorce was good,” she said. “Thank God for it.” In the half-light, she looked shockingly pretty.
I thought of what I could contribute, and excitedly remembered Peter, my other possible choice for a marriage partner. “I was engaged to someone else before Mr. Mitchell,” I said. “He was hot-blooded, or hot-tempered, whatever the expression is. I sometimes wonder what things would have been like for me if I had ended up with him. He was kind of wild—extreme moods, and passionate, so passionate. Mr. Mitchell is so different from him…more grounded, stable…” I said all this, looking down at my hands, relaxed, and then stopped when I looked up and saw the look on Cristina’s face. It was blank, unpitying. She remained silent for a little while, studying me. Had she misunderstood what I said, mistranslated it?
“You don’t know how good you got it,” she murmured softly, as if she had momentarily forgotten I was there, her face expressionless, her gaze set on some distant point. A cold sensation spread through my chest. Then, seconds later, her face snapped back into action, smiling and warm.
“I’m sorry,” she said, getting up and taking her glass to the sink to rinse it. “I guess I sound jealous. Ugly, ugly stuff,” she said.
I woke up in the middle of the night, alcohol still buzzing in my blood. As I passed the basement door, I heard giggling, and stopped in my tracks, heart pounding, listening. The sound ceased immediately. I leaned my head in closer. An eerie silence followed, and then a tiny moan. I felt a spinning sensation in my head as I walked down two steps into the basement, soundlessly, and then peered over and saw two shapes huddled under a blanket on the couch.
I would kill her when I got to her. That bitch had slipped from her room and come down here after I went to bed. Unable to control myself, I darted down the stairs and ran at them. They shrieked and I saw the face of an unknown girl, huddled under the blanket with my son. I stopped a few feet from them, my eyes bulging, breathing hard.
“Mom, what are you doing?”
“Who is this?!”
“Lisa, my girlfriend,” he said, his arm wrapped around her as if I would harm her. Incredulous, yet relieved, I laughed. He must have let her in the side door after we had gone to bed. I had never seen the girl before. I’d had no idea he had a girlfriend.
Standing there, bewildered, I kept looking from one to the other in an idiotic fashion. Finally, I composed myself. The girl looked as if she might cry.
“We will talk about this tomorrow,” I said and left the basement.
Cristina had the next day off and took the bus to the mall to do some shopping. She was out of the house before I came downstairs, so I didn’t have to see her. In the morning “Lisa” had vanished, and my son came up for breakfast, his eyes sheepish, watching me move around the kitchen. Since it was just the two of us in the kitchen, I spoke up. I had decided to surprise him and be cool.
“From now on, have Lisa come in through the front door, no secrets. Also, invite her to dinner this week. I’d like to meet her in a more appropriate context. You are technically no longer contagious, but I hope you haven’t given her mono over the past few months.”
“That’s it? I’m not in trouble?”
“No. And if you do as I say, I won’t tell your father. Also, no sex for now, okay? You’re too young.”
He nodded and ate his cereal hungrily, relief evident on his face. He really was devastatingly handsome—that square jaw, those sharp features. He was going to be a treasure for girls. My own husband paled in comparison to my son. Where had such a creature come from? He hardly resembled either of us. Probably some distant relative in the male line, whose genetics were surprisingly perfect, had exerted his code into my egg and formed such a masterpiece.
“Did Cristina know?” I said.
“She met her, didn’t she?”
His silence was all I needed. There was a tight feeling huddled at the base of my throat, a knot of pain, and I knew if I spoke, that it would cause my voice to shake. For months, Cristina had been leaving the basement when his other guest arrived. I could see her winking at him, glad that I was being fooled. Who knows what could have occurred? Maybe they had already had sex?
I imagined my son quietly moving his body over this tiny girl in the red light, Cristina in her own room on the other side of the house, pleasantly aware of the activities taking place in the basement. I could see her bathing in her bathroom, thinking about my son, smiling to herself about one thing or another, thinking about her no-good husband and her emaciated little kids running around barefoot somewhere in Guatemala. Her own mother took care of them, and God only knows what condition they lived in. How comfortable she made herself in our house, traipsing around with her ridiculous flower balls and fancy candies for my son. For what woman would not find my son handsome, I mean my God, he looked like Michelangelo’s David for Christ’s sake. I hardly knew him and there he was, beautiful, glowing with light next to me, in that perfect transitional spot between boy and man.
Of course my son had a girlfriend, whom he took under blankets at night—this was the only result that could have come about. Why had such a thing never occurred to me? Where had I been for the past year not to notice all of the changes?
Cristina began cleaning the house more fervently, sensing that some shift had occurred. She made her Cinco de Mayo dinner, a decadent display of meat and cheese dishes. I met the timid Lisa at dinner one night and liked her well enough.
I decided to take some time off from work. I slept in most mornings and then spent the afternoons with the kids. It was May and school was almost out anyway, so there was no point in their returning at the end of the semester, even though they were almost fully recovered from their mono. We went on a picnic one day and the kids brought along their schoolwork, and I, a novel to read for fun. It was an awkward day, we hardly spoke, and I only in brief philosophical stints. For some reason, I was only able to produce random, reflective conversation, instead of the quick, playful banter they could get from Cristina. I knew it pained Cristina to be excluded from these trips; her days were empty without the kids.
I took them shopping for summer clothes, and then to a movie at the mall, an outing they enjoyed much more. During the movie, I forced myself to smile for their sake, but it was awful from start to finish, a thriller set in Beijing with a lot of rap songs. I clutched the popcorn bucket and tried to exude warmth while they cackled and chatted next to me.
The very sight of Cristina’s things in the house was daily wearing down any desire I had to see her face. Her keys on the counter, huddled as they were on the plastic key chain that said “Miami” in orange script, were little reminders of her that pained me. I had started going into her room on her days off and would stand there and stare at her neatly organized things: the photo of her two children as they stood hugging each other in front of a waterfall, her prim blue Bible, sitting beside the bed, and the various crafts sitting on the desk by the window—a little yellow hat she knitted, and of course, the multi-colored flower balls.
I began doing a lot of the housework and convinced my husband that it was too much of an extra expense to have a live-in cleaning woman. We decided he should be the one to tell her.
I was outside pulling weeds when she came out to find me, tears streaming down her face.
“I never expected this. Why now? Why not just cut down my salary a little? I could stay for less,” she said.
“We just can’t afford it, Cristina. You know we love having you here.”
“That’s not true,” she said and stopped midway, hesitating. “It’s as if…” she paused again, crying, her hands gripping her chubby thighs. “You hate me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said.
“Admit it,” she blurted out, “you hate me!” Her voice had risen to a shrill tone, and I would have taken great satisfaction from saying nothing and letting her continue to grovel, her desperate voice echoing around the empty yard, but I looked up at her instead.
“Fine, I hate you” I said, and it was the truth. Her awkward clothes, her simple nature, her presence in my house and her ability to get along with everyone in my family except for myself were hateful to me. Her desire to marry herself to us for good was hateful to me.
Summer kicked in weeks after she had left. It was surprising to me how quickly my husband and children forgot her. They seemed undaunted by her leaving and accepted it without much explanation. Perhaps she had not been so beloved after all. We went to the beach on the weekends and stretched out in a line of four bright towels on the sand. I often thought of her and wondered where she was and what she was doing. We hired a new woman to come twice a week to clean the house. She was a stout, elderly woman, uncharismatic and straightforward.
In the fall, my son returned to high school and was soon immersed in it. My daughter entered seventh grade. I went back to working at the office. We were all soon busy with school and work.
I was the only one who still remembered her. They had never truly cared for her, it turned out, after all the time she put in and all the admiration she held for them. I briefly thought about trying to find her and rehire her, but the impulse vanished as quickly as it had come. I knew that the moment had passed for such a thing, for clarity or forgiveness, what Cristina herself might have called redemption. In the end, I was just her employer. It was nothing personal.
Taylor Larsen is the author of the debut novel, Stranger, Father, Beloved, which released in July of 2016 (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster). A graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program in fiction writing, Taylor currently teaches fiction writing for Pace University, Catapult, and The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. She is the co-editor of the literary website, The Negatives. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Joyland, The Brooklyn Review, and Windmill: The Hofstra Journal of Literature & Art. Her essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Rumpus, Bustle, Literary Hub, The Negatives, and Women Writers, Women’s Books. Taylor will be EJ Levy’s Peter Taylor fellow at The Kenyon Review Writers Conference in the summer of 2018. Originally from Alexandria, Virginia, Taylor currently resides with her family outside of NYC.