A Window into Worlds Unfamiliar
Words By Joyce Carol Oates, Art By Ejiwa Ebenebe
A Pioneering Writer Feature
Over the course of her 60-year career, Joyce Carol Oates has published more than fifty novels and thirty short-story collections, many of which went on to win prestigious awards such as the Pushcart Prize, the O. Henry Award, and the National Book Award.
Her dedication to the arts and diligence in production have not gone unnoticed. In 2010, she was awarded a National Humanities Medal from President Obama, in 2012 she received the Norman Mailer Prize for Lifetime achievement.
For most people, awards like these would be capstones to already incredible careers, and reason enough to slow down. But not Joyce Carol Oates. Fresh on the heels of last year’s The Hazards of Time Travel comes a new novel slated for publication this year. Due out in June from Ecco, My Life as a Rat follows the story of a young woman who goes into hiding after providing testimony that sends her brothers to jail. Be sure to check out our exclusive excerpt, “The Sorrowful Virgin,” after the interview.
You have published over 40 novels, as well as a number of plays and novellas, and many volumes of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. Is there anything about the creative process that gets easier with time? Any elements that grow more difficult?
Writing is probably “easier” for the beginning writer because they have all the world to explore of fictional technique. As time progresses, these strategies are explored, and as each is executed, there are fewer possibilities remaining. For instance, first-person unreliable-narrator confessional mode is a fictional perspective that is very appealing to me, but I feel that I can (probably) not use it again, or at least not soon again.
The psychological effects of writing—the oscillation between frustration and (if but minimal) satisfaction, dismay and (if but temporary) excitement—become more familiar, so that, ideally at least, one expects to be discouraged, disappointed, and dismayed in the execution of the text. The older writer understands that writing is a process, and must take time. A younger writer might feel impatient with slow progress. The older writer also understands that the revision process will be a thrilling experience, no matter how arduous the first draft has been, so this is encouraging; indeed, something to look forward to.
What was the industry like with regard to personal When beginning a project, how much do you plan? Do you always have specific intentions when approaching a piece? Do those intentions or goals ever shift as you get into a piece?
My new novel My Life as a Rat has its genesis in a short story titled “Curly Red,” which was written long ago, so this is quite new for me—the experience of revisiting a story and developing it. Obviously, the early version of the story was much too sketchy and condensed, and one can see that this should have been a much longer narrative. (The story appeared originally in Harper’s Magazine and was reprinted in I Am No One You Know (2014).) The tragedy of being rejected—“disowned”—by one’s parents must be deeply imprinted in my imagination since it is also, in a very different way, a theme of my novel We Were the Mulvaneys.
Developing a story into a novel was—surprisingly—more difficult than writing a novel out of sheer imagination. For some reason, the early stages of this novel were extremely arduous, and I remember having written 200 pages and having only about 20 that were actually useable.
You’ve said before that you use the pseudonym Rosamond Smith as a way into an “adequate voice” (Nightmare magazine). Can you talk about what you mean by that? Do you have other methods for finding the “adequate voice” for telling a story?
I have also written under the name “Lauren Kelly.” What I’d intended in these pseudonymous novels was to create narratives that, unlike my usual narratives, move quite swiftly, without much accommodation for background, exposition, and description. Each chapter is imagined as a sort of short story, propelled forward. Because they are “suspense” novels, each final chapter clearly resolves the mystery, though it may have an element of irony, as in Soul/Mate with its ambiguous ending.
In your memoir, A Widow’s Story, you say, “Writing fiction is hard to do when real life seems so much more important.” Have you ever struggled to continue writing? Broached a difficult topic? On the other hand, have you ever found writing to be therapeutic?
Creating fictitious worlds is problematic when the “real world” is so broken, tumultuous, and ever-changing. The imagination is most fertile (and feels more worthwhile) in times of relative calm, even stasis. (Recall the Bronte children trapped in their father’s parsonage at the edge of the moors. Nothing to do but read and write for years.)
You’ve spoken about the rhythm of writing, revising, writing, and revising (The Paris Review). What would you recommend to a new writer working to develop their own rhythm?
Just follow one’s intuition, I suppose.
I’ve heard that you’ll sometimes leave a work-in-progress alone for years at a time. Do you continue to think and wrestle with it while it is shut in the drawer? How do you determine when it is time to pull it out and continue to work? How do you know when a piece is finished?
I did work on the manuscript for the novel that would eventually become The Accursed for a remarkable number of years—from 1989 to 2011. But I did not work on it consistently and often did not look at it for months at a time. The manuscript was in another room—I would enter the room and re-enter the novel’s world—or rather, I would try—but was usually rejected or rebuffed after an hour or so. This went on for years until eventually I discovered the ideal “voice” for the novel and so could rewrite every word, every line, while maintaining the plot and the characters. It became an ideal experience of revision because I did not have to re-invent anyone or anything—I only had to rewrite, and since I love to write, this was a joy.
You’ve said, “There is no fiction so horrifying as the horror of actual life” (Nightmare Magazine). When writing fiction, are you seeking to replicate the horror of actual life? Are there factors that might motivate you to write genre fiction over literary fiction? Do you see genre and literary fiction as separate and distinct?
We don’t replicate “reality” in art but present a distilled, selective simulacrum of it. Most art that deals with extreme subjects depends upon the principle of synecdoche. The scene in which the affable hedonist Gloucester suffers the loss of his eyes, in King Lear, is terrifying to behold on stage, but if there were numerous other eye-gougings in the play, the dramatic effect would diminish considerably.
How much fun do you have with Twitter?
Twitter is a window, or rather windows, into many worlds unfamiliar to me. I learn a great deal from Twitter—things not available in mainstream media.
You’ve been teaching since the age of twenty-two. Is there anything you would tell that fledgling educator now, if you could?
I think I have been very fortunate to have had excellent students over the years. So “teaching” is really a pleasure, and is often just intense discussion among like-minded persons.
In the literary world you’d like to see “less emphasis by publishers in promoting just a very few titles while not attempting to promote other titles that might be equally meritorious” (The Rumpus). Are there other aspects of the literary world you’d like to see changed? Are there recent titles/authors that you think deserve more attention?
This is difficult to answer since there are so many prizes and awards, especially in poetry, that the effect has been somewhat numbing. Yet some sort of “award-giving” seems inevitable—since at least ancient Greece. Of course there are countless titles/ authors who “deserve more attention”—but there is not enough space to do justice to them, I’m afraid.
MAYBE HE WILL SEE ME, SOON. ACKNOWLEDGE ME.
That is all that I want: to be seen by him.
WANTING TO PLEASE THE MAN WHO WAS NOT READILY pleased.
Wanting not to disappoint the man who was frequently disappointed.
For more than once when I was cleaning his apartment I’d overheard Orlando Metti on the telephone speaking harshly to someone at the other end who’d been presumably silenced, abashed by the man’s speech precise and cruel as rapid face-slaps with the palm of a hand.
Someone female, I had to assume. Ex-wife, or another woman. Fluttering moth-wings, broken.
But to me, Metti was courteous. What pride I took in this!
Gentlemanly, soft-spoken. Expressing (mostly) satisfaction with the work I’d done. Pressing tips into my hand.
It was a matter of anxiety to me, standing only a few inches away from my well-groomed employer, that possibly/probably I smelled of my body after hours of dragging a vacuum cleaner through the apartment, stooping to scour tub, shower stalls, toilet bowls, tile floors. Cleaning, polishing, buffing fixtures until they gleamed with manic and pointless intensity as I’d been instructed.
Sweated through the thin white T-shirt, you could see the shadowy outlines of my breasts, nipples. If you wished to look.
My forehead was damp, oily. The little star-shaped scar at my hairline throbbed with heat.
Out of shyness/cageyness I did not exactly look Orlando Metti in the face. My wistful glances at the man were sidelong, covert. It had become my way to register the world in quick sidelong glances hoping that the world would do no more than glance at me in turn.
Metti was amused by me, it seemed. The little star-shaped scar intrigued him but (of course) (as it intrigued many men) he was too polite to inquire about something so personal.
“Would you like a drink, Violet?”
So unexpected a question, I thought at first that it might be a joke. A test? Heard myself stammer No.
Standing very still, smiling inanely.
At Maid Brigade we’d been warned of certain of our (male) customers but no one had named Orlando Metti as a threat.
“Are you sure? Wine spritzer, vodka soda?”
The damp T-shirt was sticking to my skin. Damp hair straggling down my neck, hot-tingling scar on my forehead. Determined not to scratch the scar with my fingernails and inflame it.
“I guess—not. But thank you, Dr. Metti.”
“Next time then?”
“I—I don’t know…”
Metti laughed at my stammering reply as if I’d meant to be amusing.
Now staring more frankly at my forehead—the scar that felt so livid, alive. Wondering if indeed it was a scar, or a birthmark. Tattoo?
Would you like to tongue it? Kiss it? Suck it?
Feeling dizzy, as Orlando Metti smiled at me.
“Y’know, Violet—you could take a shower here. I mean—if you wished. Before leaving.”
Another unexpected remark I could not answer. My face pounded hotly with blood.
Metti laughed again, and relented: “All right, Violet. Don’t look so alarmed. We’ll plan for some future time. What I’d like you to do now is—”
Drop off clothes at the nearby dry cleaner. Drop off a prescription at the nearby drugstore. Or, take the dog for a quick walk, he hadn’t the time or patience for his daughter’s damned dog today.
HE MEANT TO INSULT ME. ALLOWING ME to know he could smell my body.
He meant to excite me. Allowing me to know he could smell my body.
THE GAME. FOLLOWING THIS METTI would leave money scattered about the apartment for me to discover. And small expensive items—jade cuff links, coins from foreign countries, figurines of crystal or mineral, so small they could easily be slipped into a pocket.
One- and five-dollar bills. Half-dollars, quarters, dimes and nickels in unexpected places like drawers used to store towels, linens.
Are you tempted, Violet? Go right ahead, dear. Help yourself. Plenty where this comes from!
And when I’d become accustomed to discovering bills of small denominations, which I always left where I found them, there was a twenty-dollar bill made to look as if it had casually fallen between a bedside table and a bed—and here, on the floor of a closet, amid shoes, a fifty.
A fifty! This was serious money, to me.
Of course, I was not tempted. I would never steal from Dr. Metti even with his tacit permission. But the game excited me.
For the nature of a game is uncertainty. How will it end? And who will be winner?
A treasure hunt, it was. Except nothing would be moved far from its place of discovery, so that Metti could have no reason to think that it might be missing.
The bills, I would leave in plain view, on a tabletop. Which is where a cleaning-woman would naturally leave something she’d found on the floor in a room.
Articles of clothing to be put in the laundry, with pockets— frequently there would be coins in these pockets, even folded bills. (Since all clients leave items in pockets, I could not determine if this was part of Dr. Metti’s game, or accidental.) Felice had instructed me: check all pockets before putting clothes in the laundry, place items you find in a small basket in the laundry room where the client is sure to see them.
But the bills and other items scattered through the apartment had not been there when Felice and I had cleaned it together.
This is new. This is for my sake. But—no.
By this time I had cleaned for other clients at the Agency, uneventfully—all women. No games. No one remotely like Orlando Metti. Anxious—waiting for the client’s key in the lock. Waiting for him to return.
Obsessively shutting off the vacuum cleaner so that I could hear more clearly if he was at the door—but no. Not yet.
I’d learned: Metti had been divorced eighteen months before. In the rooms of the apartment there were no visible reminders of a past: no photographs of a family.
No wedding pictures, family pictures, baby pictures. Not even pictures of Metti at a younger age. Works of art, framed, under glass, prints and lithographs by artists of whom I’d vaguely heard, on the walls, tastefully neutral colors, abstract designs. A row of framed Modigliani prints, ethereally thin nudes, young girls with beautiful mask-faces, small sculpted breasts. That was all: nothing personal. As if the man had divorced not just a wife but also an entire shared past.
Wistfully I thought—That is the way. The only way of salvation.
Digging out weeds. Yanking out weeds. Toss onto the compost, into a bushel basket.
Recalling from my mother’s garden how quickly even the sturdiest weeds would go limp, begin to die.
This was heartlessness, and heartlessness meant survival. Extirpate the past like weeds.
Metti wasn’t a medical doctor, I’d learned. Instead, an administrator at the Saint Lawrence Biomedical Institute, a research center. His degree was not an M.D. but a Ph.D. How rich was the man? I wondered. Not knowing what rich might mean, exactly.
Forty-three years old. At least six feet two or three. Towering over me as I’d towered over Felice. Or so it seemed.
And there was comfort in this, the man’s height. As there was comfort in the man’s confident manner, the modulation of his voice, the very dark eyes, the air of restraint and reticence where another man, in such close quarters with a lone young female, might have exuded an air of sexual aggression.
Beautiful clothes he wore. Closets of clothes. Shirts of fine cotton or linen, in pale, pastel colors, with thin stripes. Trousers with a precise crease. Sports coats of soft wool flannel, rich tweeds. (There were several suits in Metti’s closets. But I would never see Orlando Metti in a suit.) Handsome leather shoes, black. Always kept polished to perfection.
He’d asked me to polish these shoes, once or twice. See if you can remove the scuff. Thanks! The elegant shirts that required ironing were done at the dry cleaner’s and not entrusted to a cleaning-woman.
Sometimes he asked me, would I pick up these shirts? An errand that wouldn’t take more than a half hour. Usually.
And sometimes he asked me, could I run out to the drugstore and pick up a prescription refill and while I was there, in the store, could I buy a few small items for him?—Thanks so much.
A terrible sick rage stirred in me, for the individual who lived in this lavish apartment. Who owned such elegant clothing, and who took advantage of his employee’s wish to please him. His employee’s need to survive.
Your mother oughtn’t to have let you. This voice, I could not recognize. It was not an accusation, I wanted to think.
FALLING IN LOVE WITH AN EMPLOYER. You have to be very naïve, foolish, or stupid. Or desperate.
HOUSEWORK IS GRIM WORK. HOUSEWORK is solitary work. You are made to toil in the service of another’s house. You are made to inhabit the interior of another’s life. You are made to experience an unnatural and one-sided intimacy.
Hairs in drains, stains in toilets and on sheets, indefinable smells that make you gag. Clothes, underwear carelessly flung down for someone else to pick up. Disheveled beds, soiled towels. A spillage of shoes underfoot, no matter if they are expensive leather shoes—too much intimacy.
The scummy condition of his safety razor. Broken, yellowed bristles of old toothbrushes, for what unfathomable reason saved beneath a bathroom sink.
Dishes encrusted with food, soaking in gray water in the kitchen sink. In the dishwasher, more dishes, glasses, silverware encrusted with food which I would have to chip away with a knife, scrub off with steel wool, before they could be properly washed in the machine.
Scattered through the rooms of the apartment were dirtied glasses. In some of these, remnants of alcohol that smelled sharply. Whiskey glasses, wineglasses. Beer glasses. Occasionally, those delicate glasses I’d learned were for champagne.
Felice had taught me: start the laundry as soon as you can. Strip the beds, gather the towels, haul the soiled-laundry baskets into the laundry room and start the machine. The time you spend housecleaning should approximate the time required to do the client’s laundry for you may have to do more than one load and you must make sure that the clothes are sufficiently dry before you leave. Especially, you must not—ever—put away damp things, for the client will discover them and be unhappy.
Wash, dry, sort, fold, put away. Repeat.
Felice had taught me: never leave a room until you’ve checked it thoroughly, all the corners, ceiling, floor, and beneath furniture especially beds where filth can gather. Then, check it a second time.
Still, Dr. Metti had not valued Felice, much. She’d assumed a good relationship with the (single, male) client who tipped more generously than other clients but he’d dropped her, the more experienced house-cleaner, with a single curt call to the Agency.
Just the girl. Not the other.
When Ava informed me I’d felt a sensation of panic. But then, later, satisfaction. For I’d been preferred, unfairly.
Fact is: one day I would be Felice. And another young girl, not beautiful but young, with that expression of naive curiosity, wonder, sexual possibility in her face would supplant me.
You know I want to fuck you, dear. Is it—Violet?
I knew this. But, I did not wish to know this.
Thinking of how my mother, as a girl, cleaning houses on Highgate Avenue, had been approached by her employers. Some of her employers.
For all that I knew, my young mother had allowed these strangers to exploit her. She may have clipped the old man’s gnarly toenails, she may have massaged the old man’s flaccid body. Certainly she’d have said yes if he’d asked her to do extra work for him without the cleaning service being any the wiser. Off the books.
Thinking these things. Dragging the vacuum cleaner from room to room while in another part of the apartment the lonely little French bulldog was barking. Here I am! Feed me! Free me! Love me!
Each Thursday the forlorn sound of the little dog barking tore at my heart. Yet I could not allow Brindle to run free as I worked, he would cause too much commotion. Nor did Metti allow him in most of the rooms for he had a mischievous habit of dribbling urine.
The little bulldog was someone else’s responsibility, not mine. I wanted to think so.
When at last I opened the door to the sparely furnished, carpetless small room in which he was kept Brindle blinked at me in astonishment as if for a magical moment he’d convinced himself that I was not a stranger but his beloved mistress, who seemed to have abandoned him; then the frantic barking began again. I was hurt that Brindle didn’t seem to recognize me from the previous week. Or wouldn’t forgive me for being the wrong person.
Each week, I had to win the little dog’s trust another time. Each week, the little dog’s tremulous affection, that seemed scarcely distinguishable from terror.
How strange, this breed of dog! A miniature bulldog, scarcely as large as a cat, with a very short, compressed face, bizarrely flattened pug nose, enormous wide-set shining eyes that bulged in their sockets. Deep-chested, short-legged, dwarfish. His coat was stiff-haired, brown mingled with white. Yet there was something elegant about the dog, so unlike the coarse-haired mongrels of my childhood who were free to roam the neighborhood and were never “walked” on leashes.
You had to laugh at Brindle, he took himself so seriously. No idea of his small size though when he tried to run, he sometimes tripped and fell. To me he displayed bared teeth, raised hackles. Panting, and growling deep in his throat. Sharp toenails that clattered against the hardwood floor as he slid and skidded about trying to gain traction and rush at my legs. I wondered—was this miniature animal going to attack me? Bite me? Hadn’t I been the one to take him on a walk the previous week when the master hadn’t had time for him?
“Brindle, no. I am your friend.”
He’d overturned his water bowl. He’d devoured all his dry food. A puddle on the tile floor—urine. Quickly I cleaned up the puddle, mopped and cleaned the floor before Metti arrived and was furious.
Bleach, Dutch cleanser. Windex. Doggy-Out! Paper towels. With rubber-gloved hands fending off Brindle feinting and rushing at me.
Felice had been frightened of the little bulldog, taking him at his own self-assessment. She’d complained of having to clean up after a dog though (it seemed to me) this was hardly the dog’s fault, that he was so neglected; Brindle had no choice other than to make messes indoors, and wherever he could in the apartment when he was able to run freely barking and knocking things over with the joy of abandon. Felice had told me that Brindle belonged jointly to Metti’s ex-wife and their daughter, and that the daughter was away at college in another state and couldn’t bring Brindle with her; the ex-wife was living somewhere not far away but in another city, unable or unwilling to take on the responsibility of the damned little dog.
I could not decide if the deep-chested bulldog, with his short legs, and ridiculous mashed-in face, was ugly or in his eccentric way beautiful. It seemed sad to me that he was so lonely for companionship. Ravenous for food and for affection. Dutifully I fed him, and replenished the water bowl, that had become scummy since last Thursday and would have to be scrubbed clean. With a tissue I tried to wipe away mucus that had gathered in his eyes but he shied away from me with a little whimper as if I’d hurt him. Badly the room reeked of dog, I dreaded Dr. Metti reacting in disgust and blaming me.
Last time he’d said, reprovingly—This place needs airing out. Please.
A previous time he’d said—Not all the stains are out of that rug in the foyer. Try again. Please.
I wondered if anyone had spoken to Brindle with affection since the previous Thursday. Or had spoken to Brindle at all.
After he’d eaten, and sloppily lapped up water, Brindle reconsidered me and decided that I was his friend. His stubby little tail whipped back and forth. His hindquarters quivered. My heart was suffused with an exasperated sort of affection for the damned little dog.
But exertion caused Brindle to pant, wheeze. I knew that miniature bulldogs are prone to respiratory ailments. Their joints become arthritic as they age, they are susceptible to many health problems. The compact little creatures are bred for display, not for survival. Not for their own sake but to flatter an owner’s vanity.
Brindle had lulled me into petting him, and speaking to him, and not watching the opened door behind me; he managed to dart past me, out into the hallway skidding on his toenails, and into the living room where I dreaded he would leak urine in his excitable state, onto the newly shampooed soft-beautiful-beige-woolen carpet from Ecuador . . .
“Oh, Brindle. Oh no.”
I wondered if the little French bulldog was the punishment the former Mrs. Metti and the daughter were inflicting upon Metti for his having expelled them from his life.
By the time I finished re-cleaning the carpet, and putting away most of the laundry, and dragging the vacuum cleaner back into its storage closet, there came a sound of a key in a door—the door opening at last. Metti had returned.
A shock of anticipation ran through me. Like Brindle, in an instant I was alerted to the arrival of the master.
Hesitantly Brindle trotted toward Metti. His hindquarters were quivering. His tail moved hesitantly. He was eager to greet the master yet fearful of the master. I didn’t want to think that the master sometimes “disciplined” him—struck him or gave him a kick.
“Ah. You’re still here, Violet—is it? Violet.”
Metti greeted me courteously. I saw his eyes moving on me more readily than in the past, when he’d scarcely noticed me at all.
With an effort, Metti greeted the little dog. Laughed at the dog’s antics. Damned if he’d acknowledge how irritated he was with the dog, in my presence. Like a parent with a disfigured and obstreperous child, wishing to be rid of it but not when others were observing.
I was feeling very warm. Metti’s gaze made me uneasy. Through a roaring in my ears I could barely concentrate on what he was saying. The gist of it was, could I spare a few minutes to do a favor for him, by taking Brindle for a quick walk?—“I will pay you of course.”
It was gratifying to feel that Metti had come to depend upon me in such ways; yet, it made me anxious that I had already spent so much of the afternoon cleaning the apartment, and dealing with the little dog, I hadn’t had time to complete the reading assignment for that evening’s class. Also, during the housecleaning it had come upon me with a small thrill of horror that I had yet to prepare a one-page, single-spaced critique of the assignment, to be handed in that evening.
But I had to say yes. I could not say no to the man who smiled at me so warmly, and who had secreted bills and little treasures for me in his apartment, as a game; or as a suggestion of what I might claim, if I wished.
When I returned from walking Brindle in the light-falling snow Metti greeted me at the door and took the dog’s leash from me. He thanked me profusely, and asked me another time if I would like a drink before leaving; but now I did tell him no, for really I had to leave. My pulse was quickened, snowflakes were melting in my hair. I could not raise my eyes to Metti’s face for I wondered if I seemed beautiful to him, in that instant.
“Tell you what, Violet. Stay, have a drink, and I’ll drive you home. Or—to the university? D’you have a class tonight? I think you said.”
Metti was breathing audibly as if he’d been running. He did not step toward me. Yet, I would recall that he’d stepped toward me.
Quickly I told him No thank you. Suddenly eager to escape.
Not even noticing, until I stepped dazedly out of the elevator on the ground floor, that the bill Orlando Metti had pressed into my hand at the door was a fifty-dollar bill.
I’D CONSIDERED INFORMING THE AGENCY that I didn’t want to return to Dr. Metti’s apartment. And why? Has the client harassed you?
IF YOU WON’T FUCK ME, YOU’RE DONE. We’ll give it another week or two. Understand? Sure you do, you’re not stupid.
JERR SAYS, OK, LET ME FIX IT.
Squatting beside my bicycle. Frowning at the jammed chain.
I’d been riding my bike in the street when something happened to make the wheels lock, I’d fallen tangled with the bike, shuddering with pain as my right leg was dragged against the pavement so that my jeans tore at the knee, a bright burst of blood seeped through the fabric.
Blue Schwinn bike with balloon tires, already an old, discontinued model when Daddy brought it home for me, a trade for carpentry work he’d done for a friend. I’d been ten years old, totally thrilled.
Falling from the bike on Black Rock Street within sight of the house but there’d been no one to hear my cries, I’d had to drag myself home limping and bleeding.
And now, Jerr is repairing the bike for me. For in my dreams of my brothers, Jerr is alive. He and Lionel are just boys. When they’d liked Violet Rue, or anyway had tolerated Violet Rue, as the youngest sister who adored them.
The time before I’d learned to fear them. Before they’d learned to despise me.
SHAME. THE EX-WIFE WHO CALLS METTI too often, leaves (drunken?) rambling messages on his answering machine which I am tempted to erase out of shame for a woman so abased, abandoned.
Never! I would never. Absolutely never beg. Not me!
EVIDENCE. IN EACH OF THE (THREE) bathrooms, in the sinks, on the tile floors, in shower drains there have been strands of hair conspicuously longer, different in color from Orlando Metti’s hair which is dark, gray-streaked.
In a bureau drawer in his bedroom, a silky black nightgown—smelling of faint, fragrant perspiration.
Yes, I’d pressed the nightgown against my face. Yes, my eyes had closed in a swoon of angry rapture.
On a bathroom counter, a half-empty tube of maroon lipstick.
On a shelf in the shower, an unfamiliar brand of hair conditioner.
On a bedside table, a jar of what appeared to be face cream or moisturizer, an Italian brand—Yves Rocher. So rich and buttery, I am tempted to rub some of it on my face.
Quickly removing the rubber gloves from my hands, that stuck to my fingers. Always, the gloves felt moist, even wet inside. I thought there had to be a tiny pinprick in the rubber but I haven’t been able to locate it. Hated the feel of the gloves and wished never to have to wear them again.
It was rare that I paused to examine anything in a client’s house. The women whose houses I cleaned had little that appealed to me—clothes, jewelry, cosmetics, husbands. Possessions.
I wasn’t jealous/envious of their lives. In thrall to the husband, or rather to the idea of the husband of years before now fading, vanished.
Recalling my mother’s stricken face when Daddy stared at her coldly, insulted her. Look. You were the one who got pregnant, not me. You were the one who wanted children.
Sure he’d loved her. This was the voice of love. Sometimes meant to hurt, and sometimes just for laughs. For other men, husbands of other wives, could be counted upon to laugh heartily.
In the bathroom mirror the face was a wan hopeful girl’s face. Not a bad-looking face, I thought.
The scar at my hairline might’ve been a birthmark. Or a clever little rose tattoo. More than once I’d seen Metti glance at it and his glance linger. An exquisite sensation, to imagine the man pressing his mouth against it.
Also, I’d changed the color of my hair since the previous Thursday.
Metti had seen my hair as brown. If he’d noticed at all. Now it was glossy-jet-black, with “russet-red” highlights. Shorter, with bangs that fell to my eyebrows.
Changing the color of my hair at intervals. Though I knew that no one was stalking me still it seemed prudent to take measures to prevent someone from stalking me.
And the maroon lipstick, that smelled like overripe grapes.
I wasn’t so shy when I was alone. People who believed they knew me would’ve been astonished to see how brazenly I rubbed the fragrant Italian cream onto my face, neck, hands.
Telling myself no one would know. Whoever owned the cream had left it behind. If she did return, she wouldn’t ask Metti what had become of it. Or, she’d have forgotten it herself. Or, Metti would never bring her back.
Maybe he tired of them, quickly. That was the male prerogative.
More than one woman. I was sure, examining the evidence.
Thrilling to me, that my employer was cruel to women. Adult women.
In years I was an adult woman—twenty-five years, seven months. But so slender, lean-hipped, with small breasts and a flat belly, at a little distance you might have mistaken me for an adolescent boy, in T-shirt and jeans.
Not unlike the Modigliani nudes on the living room wall. So it had occurred to me.
Just the girl. Not the other.
Indeed I was smelling of my body. For I’d been working very hard. Determined to do a good job for Orlando Metti, to earn the generous tips he gave. To please the man, to avoid a look of displeasure, disappointment in his face.
Should I take a shower?—would that please him? I would clean up after myself, if I did.
The idea was thrilling. I could hardly breathe, considering. But had not Dr. Metti invited me to take a shower in his apartment? Smiling at me, enjoying my discomfort. Taking care to call me by my name—Violet. To prove he hadn’t forgotten my name.
How many girls, women whose names the man had forgotten. Shaken off like something on a gleaming leather shoe. Quickly then, before I could change my mind, I stripped off my clothes—T-shirt, flannel shirt, jeans, underwear. Gray woolen socks. Rare for me to glance at myself in the mirror for I did not like to be reminded of who I was but I saw now that my small hard breasts had oddly large, soft-looking nipples, a pale brown, like freckles. There was a shadow at my belly, a kind of cleft. A swath of downy pubic hair. The pallor of my skin suggested illness or malnutrition but it was the winter pallor of the Irish, the Kerrigans.
In a bathroom drawer I found a shower cap, saw with interest that there were several blond hairs stuck to it, which I shook out. One of Metti’s women.
How many, I could not guess. Perhaps two or three. Or more. I had not once encountered any woman in the apartment, leaving or arriving. Yet there’d been the evidence of soiled sheets. Mucus stains, lipstick stains. Though I stripped the king-sized bed in Metti’s bedroom as quickly as I could, not wanting to see anything, half-shutting my eyes that I would be spared seeing anything, yet it was my sense that yes, Metti’s bed was often slept-in by more than one person, and for all that I knew, Metti had changed the bedsheets himself during the week, or one of the women had changed the bedsheets replacing soiled sheets with clean sheets out of a sense of delicacy, decorum.
Languorously I stood beneath Metti’s elegant nickel-plated showerhead, slowly I soaped my body, and let hot water stream down my torso, belly, legs. Even before I shut off the shower, and rubbed myself dry in an enormous soft towel, I began to feel sleepy.
Removed the shower cap, fluffed out the glossy-black hair. Still there was maroon lipstick on my mouth, smudged. The buttery-rich cream had worn off in the shower and so I applied more to my face, flushed now from the heat of the shower.
Made my way barefoot, wrapped in the towel, to the room where Metti kept his liquor. Had not Metti invited me to join him in a drink, more than once? Of course I’d always declined. But now, brazenly I went to the liquor cabinet and poured an inch or two of whiskey into a glass.
It was an experiment: observing myself. Smiling at Metti as he handed it to me. Thank you, Dr. Metti!
In small cautious swallows I consumed the whiskey. When men bought me drinks I did not always drink them but found ways to dispose of them. But when I did drink, I became sleepy. And now, I was very sleepy.
I intended to dress quickly, and to complete the housecleaning. If Metti was to return home before I left, he would return in about forty minutes; he’d already left a tip for me on a table in the foyer, a sign that he might not be returning.
I had not yet taken the tip. That would be my reward, when I completed my housecleaning.
In Metti’s bedroom the bright sunshine of an hour before, that had spilled through the tall windows, had become muted, bleak. The king-sized bed was awkward to make, requiring a fit- ted bottom sheet. As soon as I’d arrived to do the cleaning that afternoon I’d stripped the bed to throw the sheets into the laundry and in the interval I’d begun to make the bed with fresh sheets. You do not want to use the same sheets each week. Nor hang the same towels in the bathroom each week. In the midst of making the bed I’d become diverted by the Yves Rocher face cream on the bedside table.
So very sleepy, I had to lie down on the bed. Shut my eyes for only a moment, I thought.
Should’ve removed the maroon lipstick but too tired. If Metti saw, he would know . . .
But too sleepy. Sleep like ether lifting into my brain.
Then I was asleep. That delicious voluptuous sleep like floating in dark water. No dreams, for the water is too shallow. Yet the water is deep enough to cover your mouth, nose, eyes. And soon then, it seemed that I was being wakened—not by a light switched on to blind me, nor by an exclamation of surprise, but by a sudden presence close by.
The man had returned, and was standing in the doorway of the room, staring at me.
Utterly astonished. Staring.
Outside the tall windows the wan winter light had shifted. Hours had been lost, it was much later in the day. There were no lights in the bedroom.
A single light in the hall fell slantwise onto me sprawled naked in the oversized towel and my arms outflung as if I’d fallen from a height, helpless.
At last Metti spoke. His voice caught in his throat, he was deeply stirred. His face was livid with feeling. I thought—He is furious with me. He will fire me.
Then I thought—He will make love with me.
“Violet. My God.”
This was not an Orlando Metti familiar to me. This was an abashed man, totally taken by surprise, smiling, but dazedly smiling, almost at a loss for words.
“You are so beautiful. So sad. Like the Sorrowful Madonna—or maybe—Sorrowful Virgin…Can’t remember the artist’s name, something like Rossi, or—Bellini? Italian Renaissance…”
In the doorway the man stood indecisive, tentative. This was his bedroom, and that was his bed, and yet: What was permitted him? He had not yet removed his overcoat. His dark, graying hair glistened with melting snowflakes. He was waiting for me to give him permission to approach. He did not want to misunderstand. He did not want to make a terrible mistake. He did not want to be accused of a sex crime. He did not want to be sued by Maid Brigade, or blackmailed by the naked girl wrapped in a towel in his bed.
By this time I was sitting up. Groggy, uncertain where I was. An aftertaste of whiskey in my mouth. (Was I drunk? Who’d made me drunk?) Hugging the damp towel close about myself.
Yet strangely calm. Not at all frightened. For whatever happened, had happened. And whatever was yet to happen would happen, beyond my control.
At last unable to resist Metti stammered: “Violet? May I—OK if I—touch you? Is that what you would like?”
Yes. Yes. If you will pay me extra.