Story of the Month: In Domestic Service

 

Dr. and Mrs. Nathan had contracted with the agency for a cook-housekeeper, but from her first day on the job, Licha Morales would not leave the kitchen.

“Unfortunately, I have to be out most of today,”  Doña Allison had said while Licha was making chilaquiles and scrambled eggs with chorizo on that first morning.  “I think I showed you everything yesterday.  If you don’t remember where something is, like the linens or the cleaning supplies, just leave it until I get back.

“Though I do like the bedrooms done before noon,” she added tentatively, as if Licha might find that a strange custom.

Licha nodded to show that she agreed that bedrooms needed to be tidied first.  She didn’t feel it was necessary to tell la doña that she, Licha, would not be doing the tidying.  Not today or ever.

Licha didn’t carry breakfast into the dining room, but instead set it out on a wheeled cart, transported it to the threshold, and propped open the swinging kitchen door.  Doña Allison frowned in confusion, but after a moment’s hesitation, she got up from her seat and carried the coffee pot, the glasses of fresh orange juice, the plates of hot food, the cups, cream and sugar, and silverware to the table herself.

Licha was slightly surprised at Doña Allison’s silent acquiescence.  But perhaps she was one of those women who didn’t like to chastise servants in front of other people, even—or in some cases, especially—in front of their husbands.  For his part, el doctor took no note of who had put his breakfast down next to his open magazine.  Licha went to wash up the frying pans and put the eggs and milk and chorizo back in the refrigerator.

She hummed to herself while she worked.  Bright and clean, the Nathans’ kitchen was a pleasant room in which to work, very different from the rest of their house, which was glutted with heavy, dark furniture elaborately carved with clawing griffins and troubled sphinxes.  Though the kitchen was large—Licha’s own living room, dining room, and kitchenette together could fit inside it—it had a comforting homeyness to it.  Licha imagined it would be a cozy place on gray, rainy days, done as it was in white and yellow tiles and blond woodwork, with gleaming copper pots and pans hanging from the ceiling.  Wide windows on two walls looked out onto lush, well-kept flower gardens.

The day before, when Doña Allison was giving Licha a tour of the house and yard, she had pointed out a small herb garden just beside the back door.  Already, Licha was thinking how this afternoon she’d pick some basil to grind with piñones and chipotles for a sauce for roast pork.

“Delicious breakfast, Lupe,” el doctor said to Licha on his way through the kitchen to the garage.

“Licha,” she corrected him.

He stopped at the door.

“Yes, sorry.  Licha, of course.  Lupe was our last cook.  Couldn’t hold a candle to you.”

Doña Allison hurried through the kitchen next.

“We must talk, Licha, when I get home,” she said, distractedly rummaging in her purse. “About meal service.”

She extracted a short silver tube from her bag, and studying her face in a small mirror on the wall near the pantry, she replaced the lipstick she’d eaten off at breakfast.  Despite the ordinariness of this operation, Licha watched it with fascination.  It was Doña Allison’s face that intrigued her, so sweet and dewy and expressionless, like that of a sleeping child. Even Doña Allison seemed entranced by it, for after she’d applied the lipstick, she kept staring intently into the mirror.  Licha saw Doña Allison’s eyes moving around, examining the full surface of the mirror, as if she expected to find something else there besides her own reflection.  Licha remembered the massive, gold-flecked mirror she’d seen hung over the wide bed in the master bedroom.  She wondered briefly if Doña Allison studied herself in that mirror, too, while her husband was making love to her.  And she wondered what Doña Allison’s face would look like during that experience.  Somehow, Licha felt that her face would not change, not because she imagined Doña Allison an unfeeling person, but because the face appeared detached from the person, frozen in bland prettiness like a mask.

Then Doña Allison straightened her back and pulled down on the lower edges of her cashmere sweater, both actions emphasizing her full breasts, which were amazingly large for a woman who stood only a little over five feet tall and had such delicate arms and legs.  She turned to face Licha.

“Supper at seven?” she said, as if she were inviting Licha to a party.  “The grocer’s number is next to the phone.  You can order whatever you need.  We’ve got an account there.”

Again Licha nodded.  She had the impression Doña Allison wouldn’t leave without receiving an encouraging sign from her.  Licha had had another employer like that, Doña Sally, the young wife of a norteamericano businessman in Ecuador.  Doña Sally had come, she said, from a place called Iowa and had never had servants nor even known anyone who did, and she was often so apologetic and beseeching in her instructions that Licha was at a loss to discover what exactly she wanted done.  To make matters worse, in the beginning Licha spoke no English except for the Hail Mary and the Act of Contrition, and Doña Sally knew very little Spanish, mostly menu items and a catechism of formally constructed questions and answers about the time, the weather, and the location of bathrooms and bus stops.

But Licha, the eldest in a family of fourteen, knew what was needed to run a house, even when the house was much grander than the one she had grown up in.  Used to making decisions and giving orders, Licha soon organized Doña Sally’s cleaning maid and laundress and gardener and baby maid into a band of coordinated workers who got done what was needed and sometimes a little beyond, within, of course, the confines of the heat, the erratic delivery of electricity and water, and the unpredictable will of God.  So Licha wasn’t dismayed by Doña Allison’s tentativeness, though she found it unexpected.  By the looks of her house, her husband, and her soft, pale hands with their pink, tapered nails, Doña Allison was a woman accustomed to servants.

“Well, then,” Doña Allison said, tugging gently at her sweater again.  “I’m off.”

Licha enjoyed her day.  She cleaned out the refrigerator and rearranged the food pantry and the utensil drawers to suit herself.  She washed the floor and sat on the back stoop in the sun with a cup of cocoa while the floor dried.  From there, she spied the mailman at the end of the long drive and strolled down to bring up the mail, mostly bills and catalogs, she saw, and a postcard from one of el doctor’s patients who was on vacation in Acapulco.

“My new bikini was a big hit!”  the card read.  “Many thanks, again.  (Though I’m still miscalculating and bumping into people in tight spaces.  George says all my problems should be so small—you know what a kidder he is!)  Adios from one satisfied customer.  —–Midge Bauer.  P. S.: George says, make that two satisfied customers.  What a cut-up!”

Licha laid the postcard on top of the stack of mail on the kitchen table.  It was certainly the most interesting piece.  The picture, anyway.  There was an expanse of curving white beach edged by blue ocean and bluer sky.  Two tourists wearing big straw hats and holding tall, iced drinks in their hands were stretched out on deck chairs in the shade of a palapa.  On the right, a squat Mexican woman and a little girl, both with skinny braids down their backs, were approaching the couple, who invited them forward with indulgent smiles.  The woman and the girl carried large metal tubs on their heads.  Licha supposed they held tamales or pan dulce or maybe fresh fish.  Whatever was in them, Licha knew, it was for sale.  She herself had lived eight months in Tijuana before coming to Los Angeles three years ago and had sold chicharrones and empanadas on the beach at Rosarito.

Licha looked at the female tourist on the card.  Of course, it wasn’t the woman who had written the strange message on the back, but she was wearing a bikini.  Her body was long and pale, like the Barbie doll Licha’s niece, Ofelia, was saving up for.  Licha examined the bikini.  She wondered how a bikini could make you bump into people.  Licha had never worn one, not even to try on in a store.  In fact, Licha had never worn any kind of bathing suit.  Licha liked the beach, liked spreading a big picnic lunch on a blanket under an umbrella on the hot, soft sand, liked the sound of the waves and the salty smell of the air.  She even liked the screaming gulls who would swoop down and snatch your chips or your bread as soon as you turned your back.  But when Licha wanted to swim—not swim, actually, but splash around or sit on the wet sand and let the breakers wash up over her lap—she simply went into the water in her clothes, whether it was a cotton housedress or shorts and a t-shirt or even long pants.

Licha turned away from the postcard and went back to work.  She decided to make a lemon cake for tonight’s dessert.  It had pained her to see how much fruit lay rotting on the ground under the two lemon trees behind the garage at the back of the Nathans’ property.

At 4:00, Licha opened the back door to let in Doña Allison, whose hands and arms were so full of shopping bags she couldn’t get out her keys.  Licha had seen such bags before, in the other Beverly Hills house where she used to work.  That lady, Doña Esther, used to ask Licha to put away the things she’d bought, to cut off the tags, lay sachet over the lacy things that went in the underwear drawers, put sweaters in the cedar chest, use padded hangers for silk blouses and wooden hangers for jackets, push false feet called shoe trees into the shiny new pumps.  The bags said Maxwell’s and Gucci and Valentino.  Licha took them home to Ofelia, who used the small ones as play purses and made the large ones into masks, cutting eye holes in them, pasting magazine photos and scraps of colored paper on them, and pulling them upside down over her head, sometimes slipping her thin arms through the corded handles.

Licha saw a large bag in Doña Allison’s cluster of packages that she knew her niece would like.  It was black and shiny, with no lettering at all on it, but only a small red half-moon printed at one corner.  Licha had found that the bags with no name usually held the most expensive items.  Ofelia favored them because they were blank canvases.   With nothing to cover up, Ofelia could paste things exactly where she wished.

Licha sighed.  If it meant Licha’s leaving the kitchen to get possession of the attractive black bag, Ofelia would just have to do without it.  Licha regretted that, despite the fact that Ofelia would never know what she had missed.  Licha believed that a person, especially a girl child, could feel the lack of something even when she hadn’t seen it dangled before her and then snatched away.

“Oh, thank you,” Doña Allison was saying as she came through the open door and dumped the bags on the table.

Licha noticed little red welts on Doña Allison’s wrists where bag handles had rubbed her flesh.  How tender she must be, Licha thought, like unbaked dough.  Doña Allison stood irresolutely next to the table, breathing in quick little puffs, as if she had just climbed a hill.  Licha guessed she was a person who didn’t move easily from one thing to the next, however simple the activities, that to her, each shift of her attention was not a forward action, but a letting go, a leaving, even a forsaking.  She was probably the kind of person, Licha surmised, who was very loyal, once her sympathies were engaged, and who took direction well.  Licha remembered that phrase from a letter of recommendation she had gotten from Doña Sally when she was leaving Ecuador.  Licha Morales does not take direction well, it had said, but she is a smart and independent worker, so she does not often need it.  Licha hoped, for Doña Allison’s sake, that el doctor was a kind man.  A woman like her would not defend her own desires effectively, might not even know what they were.

“Well, Licha,” Doña Allison said, picking up two of the bags.  “If you’ll just help me take these upstairs…  Tell me, what’s for supper?  It smells wonderful in here.”

“No, I can’t do that,” Licha said.

Doña Allison looked puzzled.

“No, Doña Allison, I am happy to cook for you and take care of your kitchen.  And I will do the laundry and ironing and mending if you bring the clothes and sheets down here to the laundry room, but I can not go into your house.”

“Why not, for heaven’s sake?”

Licha looked down at the checkerboard tiles on the floor.  She had hoped Doña Allison would not make her explain herself.  Though she barely knew her, Licha already had a tender feeling toward her new mistress, as one might have toward a lost kitten with a wounded paw.  Certainly, she didn’t want to insult her by saying that she couldn’t bear even to walk through a place where Doña Allison ate, slept, bathed, made love.  Licha liked this kitchen, and she thought she’d like working for Doña Allison, if only they could reach agreement on this.

“I don’t feel right in there.  No es simpatica,” Licha offered.

“But why not?”  There was an edge of irritation in Doña Allison’s voice, but more of honest curiosity.

“The animals,” Licha said.  After a deep breath, she added, “Y los pechos.”

“Pechos?”

“The breasts.”

Doña Allison turned her head to look out the window.  She was still holding a shopping bag in each hand.  It seemed as if she were expecting a taxi to arrive at any moment to take her away somewhere.  Licha noticed how the sun slanting in the window fell on the woman’s wispy yellow hair, how it slid over her unlined face, not finding purchase for even one shadow.

“Yes, well, I suppose it is a little unusual,” she said, still peering outside.  “You know, Dr. Nathan lived here alone for years before we met.  They’re his things…  I’m so used to it now, I guess…”

The bags in Doña Allison’s hands rustled as she made a slight shrug.  When she turned her head and regarded Licha again, her expression had changed.  Something had closed up in her.  She was calm, but she was clearly displeased.  Licha could tell this more from the way Doña Allison squared her shoulders and lifted her large, pointed breasts than from her smooth doll’s face.

“I’m afraid, Licha, that this simply will not do,” Doña Allison said.  “I mean, you must see that I can’t have a housekeeper who won’t go into the house.  We’ll pay you for today, of course, and for the time you spent yesterday when I took you through the house, but please don’t come back tomorrow.”

Doña Allison left the room without picking up her other packages.  Licha was sorry it had worked out like this, but she didn’t regret her refusal to work in the rest of the large, gloomy house, where almost every room contained at least one dead animal.  A zebra skin lay on the den floor in front of a chair whose arms and legs were made of scores of water buffalo horns glued together; a stuffed owl with outspread wings and a stuffed hen sitting on a dusty straw nest graced the bookshelves in the living room.  A stuffed squirrel sat on the desk in the guest bedroom, and a thick-bodied python was installed in a corner of the downstairs bathroom.  Glass eyes followed you everywhere.  Who knew what lurked in the closets or under the beds?

Licha was neither a timid woman, nor a foolish one.  She could have gotten used to the dead animals, as distasteful as they were.  But not in combination with the breasts, which were ubiquitous.

The walls of every room were crowded with paintings and drawings of bare-breasted women.  Statuettes of voluptuous nymphs and goddesses paraded across tabletops.  The dining room was dominated by a huge mural depicting a turn-of-the-century brothel parlor, complete with fat, leering customers.  A glass case in the sunroom displayed an international collection of postage stamps, all showing women with exposed breasts.  A life-size blow-up doll of a nude woman reclined lasciviously on a settee in the upstairs hall.

The fact that Dr. Nathan was a plastic surgeon was no excuse, Licha felt.  If anything, that ought to make him sympathetic to women.  After all, they must come to him sorrowing and supplicant.  He should be more like a priest, Licha felt.  She wondered how many patients would continue to patronize him if they could see this house, this side-show.

Licha served dinner in the same way she had served breakfast, wheeling the food to the door for Doña Allison to retrieve.  Again, Dr. Nathan didn’t question this odd arrangement, even though at dinner he had no magazine to distract him.  Licha saw him eye his wife over the rim of his wineglass as she went to and fro.  He seemed to be enjoying watching her move.

When Licha brought the dessert and coffee to the door she overheard the end of a conversation that she sensed was about her, so she paused just out of sight to listen.

“Don’t you think it’s a bit impertinent of her to criticize our home so strongly?”

“I find it rather funny, actually.”

“But it’d be so impractical to keep her, Herb.  We’ll have to put a phone in the kitchen if we expect her to answer it.  I’ll need to hire someone else for the cleaning…”

“Do it, then.  Anyone who can cook like Lisa is welcome to her own decorating opinions.”

“Licha.”

“Huh?”

“Our friends are going to think it’s strange…”

“Until they taste her food.”

“You’re sure about this?”

“As far as I’m concerned, Allison, the subject is closed.”

In the months that followed, Licha tried to be as accommodating as possible while still standing her ground.  She could see that Doña Allison was not a woman with much fight in her, and Licha didn’t want to take advantage of that or even to seem to be taking advantage.  On her own, Licha made the compromise of serving meals in the dining room, always averting her gaze from the lewd painting looming over the sideboard.  She kept the kitchen spotless and added personal touches to it.  She made sure there were always cut flowers in a vase on the table, and from home she brought potholders her sister had crocheted and photos of her family, both here and in Ecuador.

After the first week, during which she was stiff and cool toward Licha, Doña Allison became friendlier.  She gave Licha a radio and a phone for the kitchen, and she began spending more and more time there, reading or doing her needlepoint or writing letters.  The two women talked sometimes, first about food, then about gardens and news stories, then about their childhoods, even about old sweethearts and bad dreams.  Finally, they had talked so much that their silences came to feel easy and intimate to both of them, and each one felt that she understood the other, despite the fact that they hadn’t told any of the true secrets of their hearts.

One rainy afternoon, Licha was kneading bread dough when she looked up and saw through the glass of the back door a girl in a torn, over-sized black leather jacket.  Her hair was very short, looking chopped at more than cut, and though most of it was platinum blonde, tufts of blue and pink stuck out here and there.  A row of silver rings of various sizes outlined the entire curve of her right ear, and a small silver star perched at the edge of her left nostril.

Licha was alone in the house, but she wasn’t alarmed by the sudden appearance of this stranger.  For one thing, Licha’s nephew, Salvador, who insisted on being called Sam, had a girlfriend who looked much as this girl did, and she was as mild and simple as a dandelion, despite her incredibly short, tight skirts and her hard mouth.  For another thing, the girl at the door was wet, which diminished any effect of menace she may have wished to convey.  She had obviously been bare-headed in the rain for some time.  Black smears of mascara shadowed her cheekbones, her spiky hair was not as jaunty as it should be, and her shoulders were hunched up with cold.

The final touch to the girl’s unlikely aura of innocence was the fact that she had neither knocked nor called out but had just stood there waiting to be seen.  Even now, she made no sign that she wished to be let in or acknowledged.  Licha felt the girl would be willing to stand there indefinitely without making any kind of request.  She had that much stubbornness in her face, despite her bedraggled state.

Wiping her floury hands on her apron, Licha went to the door.

“Come in,” she said.  “It’s a bad day.”

The girl entered.  In the light of the kitchen, she looked younger than she had outside.  Licha guessed she was about 15.  Licha noticed the girl’s heavy military-style boots tracking mud across the floor, but she didn’t say anything.  The girl sat down at the table and sloughed off her wet jacket.  She wore a lacy leotard top and a gauzy skirt.  No wonder she had been shivering, Licha thought.  Leather was no comfort against rain and cold.  Licha winced when she noticed through the lace that the nipples of the girl’s small teacup breasts were pierced by gold rings.

“So, is my mother home, or is she out getting herself waxed or something?” the girl said, sneering with more success than Salvador’s girlfriend, but still without convincing Licha she was as tough as she was pretending to be.

“You mean Doña Allison?  La Señora Nathan?”

“Yeah, her.”

“She and el Doctor Nathan are in Catalina.  They’ll be home tonight.”

“El doctor!  I like that.  El Doctor Frankenstein-o.”

The girl ran her fingers through her hair, tugging at it until it stood up all around her head like bristles.

“I am Licha Morales, the cook.”

“Hi, Licha.  I’m Bet Hurley.”

Licha had heard about this daughter, but she had imagined her quite differently.  Doña Allison had said the girl was in boarding school and spent most vacations with her father in Carmel.  Thinking of the rich families in Ecuador who sent their sons away to Spain to school and their daughters to local convent schools, Licha had come up with the image of a hybrid creature who wore a navy blue uniform with a round-collared white blouse and who sat around a cafe table with other young people discussing poetry.

Doña Allison had said that she missed her daughter, but Licha heard relief in her voice, too.  Licha wondered what could make a mother relieved to be apart from her child.  Licha had had to leave her three daughters with her dead husband’s mother in Ecuador and was saving every extra cent to send for them.  Though it ate into her savings, Licha yearned for them so, she had flown home once every year she’d been gone just to see how they’d grown and so that they would not forget the smell of her.  She still remembered her own mother’s smell, of cinnamon bark and turtle oil and smoke.

“You are hungry?” Licha asked.  She had some left-over menudo, a cure for hang-overs, the Mexicans said.  This girl needed fortification, Licha felt, if not because of the ills of alcohol, then because of some other sour influence in her life, some unshakeable mantle of grief or disappointment.

“Yeah, sure,” Bet answered, as if she would be doing Licha a favor to eat her soup.

When Licha had set down the steaming bowl and a hearty green salad and a plate of hot cornbread, she took a seat opposite Bet.  While Licha was preparing the food, Bet had gone to her mother’s room for a sweater.  Licha was glad to be spared the sight of the pierced nipples, which made her feel not only revulsion but sadness.

“Doña Allison forgot to tell me you were coming,” Licha said.

“She didn’t forget.  I never let her know.  What’s in this soup anyway?”

“Entrails.”

“You mean guts?  Gross!”

Bet pushed the soup bowl away from her and started on the salad.  Licha was satisfied to see she had eaten half the menudo before questioning its ingredients.

“So, you make a nice surprise for your mother.”

“A surprise, yeah.  Usually she only hauls me in at Christmas.”

“Your school is finished?”

“My school is finished with me.”

Bet bit off a large hunk of cornbread and chewed it ruminatively, like a cow.

“Listen,” she said to Licha, “if my father calls, you can tell him I’m here, okay?  So he won’t bring in the cops like last time.  But I definitely do not—get it, do not?—want to talk to him.”

Licha inclined her head to show she understood, allowing herself only a mild frown.

“It’s just too boring,” Bet continued.  “We send you to the best schools, and what do you do, you waste your opportunities, blah, blah, blah.  Boring!”

“You will live here now?”

Bet stood up and walked around the room.  She stopped in front of the grocery list taped on the refrigerator and studied it with great interest.

“I might consider it,” she said with her back to Licha.

Licha surveyed Bet’s slight frame and her small, round head and thought how she seemed as fragile and airy as if she were made of spun glass.  The heavy black boots were like weights steadying her and keeping her solidly upright.

“I think I’ll have a bath and a nap,” Bet announced, turning around.  “There’s towels and sheets in the guest bedroom, I guess?”

Licha shrugged.

“I don’t go there,” she said.

“Oh, yeah, I forgot.  You’re the cook.  Their other cooks always cleaned, too, though.”

“I clean only the kitchen.  Here is my place, no other.”

“I’m there with that,” Bet nodded after a moment’s contemplation.

Licha didn’t understand the meaning of the girl’s words, but she thought she caught beneath the slang phrase a quiver of what sounded like longing or envy.

Licha was making a chocolate cake with chocolate icing and cocoa-flavored whipped cream between the layers.  Chocolate was Bet’s favorite, and Licha thought a girl should have her favorite on her 16th birthday, even if the Nathans both warned constantly it would ruin her skin.  Bet (or Betsy, as the Nathans called her) had been with them two months, and Licha enjoyed having her around, even though she was cranky in the mornings and never wiped her feet before coming inside and changed Licha’s radio station to rap music while she had her after-school snack every day.  Perhaps it was because Bet’s blaze of self-centered, youthful energy reminded Licha broadly of her oldest daughter, who was 14 now and who was, Licha saw in photos, beginning to blossom awkwardly out of childhood.

Perhaps, too, it was because Bet’s presence had changed Doña Allison.  Doña Allison struggled with Bet over how she dressed, over how much attention she gave her homework, and over how disrespectful she could be at times when speaking about her father and her stepfathers.  The struggles had given Doña Allison more substance somehow, as if before Bet came she had been a watercolor and now she was an oil painting.  It was because the struggles were a kind of love.

Bet was delighted with Licha’s refusal to enter more deeply into the house than the dining room and called her a guerrilla mama.

Bet managed to be civil to el doctor, though she gave the distinct impression, without putting it into any exact words or grimaces for which she could be called to task, that she found him singularly unimpressive and uninteresting.  Licha had observed, while serving dinners, that for his part, el doctor Nathan had snaked through a circle of reactions to his step-daughter.  At first, he had paid little attention to Bet, aiming at her the same question every evening, as if it were a mechanical duty equivalent to brushing his teeth.

“Well, Betsy,” he’d encourage with polite jollity during the appetizer course, “and how was school today?”

Bet’s responses were sufficiently vague that after a week’s time, el doctor had dropped that conversational tactic.  Next came a period of observation.  El doctor would watch the interchanges between Bet and her mother as if he were at a tennis match.  Then, gradually, he began entering their flow, usually by appending stray comments to his wife’s remarks.

“Betsy, dear, you must sit up straight,” Doña Allison said one night while Licha was standing at the sideboard slicing pieces of blueberry pie.  “Posture is very important.”

Groaning elaborately, Bet pulled herself up in her chair.

“Your mother’s right, Betsy,” el doctor chimed in.

“Yeah, if you’re a soldier,” Bet grumbled.

“Or if you want to be counted as a beautiful woman,” el doctor replied.  “Just look at any fashion model—not a slouch among them, even the ones that haven’t got enough flesh on them.”

“Well, I don’t want to be a model,” Bet said.

“Why not?  You’ve got the build for it.”  El doctor gave a brief snort of laughter.

“Herb, really,” Doña Allison said reprovingly.

Licha had been putting down el doctor’s pie at that moment, and she glanced quickly over at Bet.  The girl was blushing.  Her bony shoulders were held back and her face was lifted haughtily, but she seemed, nevertheless, undecided, quelled.

“I like my build,” she finally said, a small tremor in her voice.

“Fine, fine,” el doctor said, looking not at Bet but at his wife.  “We’ll say no more about it, then.”

Bet threw sharp scowls at both ends of the table.

“I think the whole thing is disgusting,” she said more emphatically.

Showing a wisdom Licha had not thought he possessed, el doctor let this fierce statement lie unanswered.  Or perhaps it was only that he’d lost interest in the discussion.  Doña Allison carried the family through dessert with a long story about the next door neighbors and their custody battle.  Bet listened complacently enough, seemingly satisfied that she had made her point and aptly defended herself.

But the following Saturday, when Licha was clearing away the luncheon things, she noticed through the dining room doorway that Bet had her face pressed up close to a row of World War II pin-up drawings in the foyer near the front door and that she was turning regularly from them to a full-length mirror next to them, reviewing her body’s profile and running her hands down over her chest and hips.

Licha heard no more mention at the dinner table of either Bet’s posture or her figure.  Indeed, Bet, by remaining unfailingly erect in her chair throughout every meal, provided no opportunity for comment.  Licha wondered if el doctor even noticed.  He had returned to an occasional use of the school question, otherwise largely ignoring Bet, though Licha had seen him smile benevolently at the girl when he was required to pass her the salt or refill her water glass.

Now, Bet and her mother sat at the kitchen table reading the newspaper and drinking hibiscus tea while Licha frosted the chocolate cake.

“Mom,” Bet said, not lifting her gaze off the paper, “does it hurt very much?”

“What?”

“You know, getting fixed.  Getting your boobs made bigger and your ass higher and your nose smaller and your eyes undroopy and your thighs tighter and all that shit.”

“Really, Betsy, I haven’t had all that much done.”

Licha saw Doña Allison glance nervously her way, so she turned on the tap and pretended she couldn’t hear what they were saying.

“Oh, please,” Bet chided.  “You’ve had some of them done more than once.  Plus there’s probably a few snips and implants I don’t know about.  Extra, extra, read all about it: the secret life of the American wife!”

“That’ll do.”  Doña Allison ostentatiously picked up another section of newspaper and opened it.

“All right, all right.  I’m sorry.  It’s just that whenever I ask you a question, you avoid answering it.”

“What was the question?”

“How bad does it hurt?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“See what I mean?  God, this place is getting as boring as home.”

“I would hope, Betsy, that since you’re living here now, you’d consider this your home.”

“Oh, you mean I’m not on probation any more?  I’ve gotten the seal of approval?”

“Really, Betsy, you wear me out.”

“Yeah, it’s a bad habit of mine.  Too bad I don’t do something that’s easier to stamp out, like nail-biting or public masturbation.”

“Do you want an answer to your question or not?”

Bet stared at her mother.  In the sudden lull, Licha let herself look over to the table.  She could see only the back of Bet’s head, but Doña Allison’s face was in full view.  It was as vacant and pleasant as usual—the muscles seemed incapable of any other arrangement—but even through the robin’s egg blue contact lenses, the eyes were flashing apprehension and challenge.

“Yes,” Bet finally answered, so softly Licha barely heard her.

“It hurts incredibly,” Doña Allison said.  “For weeks.  And in the beginning, you look as if you’ve been in a boxing ring with a heavyweight champ.”

“But later you look good,” Bet said.

“In a way.”

“Well, of course you do.  Why else would you do it?”

“Lots of reasons.”

“Like?”

“Like trying to forget who you are underneath.  Trying to forget that you don’t know or can’t remember who you are underneath.  Like pleasing someone else for whom changing the size of your breasts or the angle of your nose is more important than not changing them is to you.”

For the first time, Licha wished she had responsibilities in another part of the house.  She had never heard Doña Allison talk like this.  She felt she didn’t belong in this private moment. Still, the mother could have taken her daughter out of the kitchen, and she hadn’t.  Perhaps Licha was too unimportant to bother excluding her.  When Licha thought about the frequent, companionable afternoons Doña Allison had spent in the kitchen before Bet’s arrival, she didn’t want to believe that.

“Now I’ve answered your question, answer mine.  Why do you want to know?”

Bet slumped back against the padded bench around the table, wriggling her shoulders in a characteristic way that Licha knew meant she was about to be evasive.

“So’s I’ll be ready, that’s all.”

“Ready?”

“In case I ever decide…you know.”

“I hope you never do, Betsy.  I hope you’ve turned out stronger than I am.”

“Yeah, well, maybe I’m sick of being strong.  And of being ugly and flat-chested.”

“You are certainly neither of those.  Do you hear this girl, Licha?  Wasn’t I saying just the other day how lovely she’s become?  Sweet sixteen, like in the song.”

“I don’t want to be sweet.  I want to be gorgeous.”

“You will be.”

“Guaranteed?”

Doña Allison laughed.  Licha was glad to hear it.  Maybe now, the constriction in her chest would go away, that feeling of dread that something was about to happen that would be hard to watch, something that would mean she’d have to leave this house and this job because otherwise none of them could ever forget or pretend, not with her there as a witness, someone outside the family, someone with unclouded vision.

“He said he’d give me a guarantee.  He said I’d be a pleasure to work on because I was young and fresh, not like most of the sagging biddies that come to him wanting back beauty they never had in the first place.  He said…”

“Who said?”  Doña Allison stood up and leaned forward so that her porcelain face hung over her daughter, who, in turn, thrust her chin forward defiantly.

“Who do you think?” she said contemptuously.

Doña Allison came around the table and grasped Bet by the shoulders.  The girl writhed but couldn’t break free.  Licha saw she wasn’t really using her full strength.

“Never,” Doña Allison said.  “He’ll never touch you.”

“Yeah, right,” Bet sneered.  “You’re gonna say no to him.  For my sake.  That’ll be the day.”

Doña Allison released the girl and walked into the center of the kitchen, stopping suddenly, as one does who has hurried purposefully into a room and then forgotten why.  She looked at Licha, and Licha saw tears welling up in the impossibly blue eyes.

“You are right, Doña Allison,” Licha reassured her.  “You are the mother, and you must save your child from your mistakes if you can.”

Doña Allison looked over at her daughter.

“Go upstairs and pack some things for both of us,” she said to Bet.  “We’re going to the beach house for a few days.  I’ll see him in his office tomorrow.”

Bet stood up uncertainly.

“Hurry,” Doña Allison urged.

“Licha,” she said, turning to her again.  “Go help her, please?  I want to call Dr. Nathan.”

Licha raised her eyebrows.

“I know we have an agreement, Licha, but—”

“I will put that aside.”

I will not be here again, anyway, Licha thought to herself.  And maybe you, too, Doña Allison will not be here again, either.  Or if you are, you will be here in a new way, with your same silken face and your same shapely body, but with different eyes and a different tongue.  You can not turn back now.

So Licha Morales left the kitchen on her last day in the house of Dr. and Mrs. Nathan and walked with a skinny girl past all the glass eyes of the stuffed animals and all the blind eyes of the proud-standing breasts.  She helped the girl pack.  They did not speak.  But as they came down the stairs again, Licha began to sing a lullaby she had learned from her mother’s mother, a lullaby about the warm sweetness of mother’s milk and the petal-velvet feel of a baby’s skin.  She was still singing later, when she turned the key in the lock and slid the key under a flower pot.

Licha was careful to keep horizontal the box containing the chocolate cake, even on the crowded bus.  How excited Ofelia and Salvador and even their parents would be to see it.  If only her girls could be there, too.  Licha would write to them tonight, she thought.  She’d manage a trip home before the next job.  And she’d count her money again.  Maybe by now there was enough to send for one or two of her daughters.

 

 

“In Domestic Service” was published in the journal Zone 3, Clarksville, TN, 2004 and was the recipient of their annual fiction award.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.