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The Polish Nanny
Once upon a time there was a Polish nanny.
She worked for a single mother named Claudette. Claudette was French and lived with her daughter in a small apartment in the 4th arrondissement of Paris. The floors were warped and the walls peeled paint.
“Water damage,” Claudette told me when I came over for dinner. “We’ve been looking for a new place but it’s just hell.”
The Polish nanny was mentioned over the duck. I forget why or how but I do remember that the duck was overdone and slightly chewy.
“If you don’t like it I can make something else,” Claudette said before I even took my first bite. “If you don’t like it just tell me.”
“No, no, it’s excellent,” I said.
The Polish nanny came during the summer, three years ago when Claudette’s daughter was eight years old. She showed up at the door with a card and two suitcases.
“I’m a nanny,” she said.
I started babysitting earlier this year. First for my next door neighbors, then for my neighbors on the 6th floor, then on the 3rd, then on the 4th, until my weekends were filled with screaming children and frozen pizza pockets.
I couldn’t say no. I knew that they had other babysitters, I knew that they wouldn’t be personally offended, but when they texted me, even if I had a prior commitment, I was free. Sounds like a plan, I’d write, or, See you at 8.
It was easier this way. I didn’t have to worry about this friend not texting me or that friend bailing on plans. I was busy. I had people who wanted me and I liked to think that I helped them.
My parents asked me if I was working because I needed money. I said no, I had earned 520 just that last month.
Well what are you spending it on? They asked, and I knew they were hinting at drugs. Was I buying drugs? Was I an addict? Did I want to talk?
Nothing, I showed them my wallet. Full, stuffed, bill after twenty dollar bill.
You can’t let your grades go down, they said. Put taking care of yourself first.
Claudette told me that her first thought when she saw the Polish nanny standing in the hall was that she was Mary Poppins. She could have been, really, only she wasn’t carrying an umbrella or a hat or a carpet bag. Just some blonde ratty hair in a poof on her head like a frizzy pompom.
Her name was Anelie and she was from Lower Silesia, four hours from Warsaw, six hours from Prague and Berlin. Outside of her window she was able to see Kamieniec Zabkowicki castle. She hadn’t gone to University.
Desperate for help, husband gone, child to raise, Claudette said ok. She said:
“We have a small room in the back. It’s not much, a bed, but nice. I’ll pay you to drop my daughter off at school, pick her up. Set the table, clean the house. You don’t need to cook, I do that myself.”
Anelie nodded once. Briskly, brusquely. And so that’s how the Polish nanny came to work for Claudette in that hot hot summer when the walls hadn’t yet peeled paint but the floors were warped and everything sweated, sticky, but not sweet.
I was in France for a month long internship, staying at a family friend’s on a pull out couch in their living room, and working on Ile de la Grande Jatte at Michel Lafon. Reading manuscripts, translating memos from French to English, listening in on editorial meetings.
I drank coffee every morning from the machine. It came in a little red plastic cup like a party cup. It made my head buzz and my skin itch, but I liked it that way.
On my way back to the Pierlot’s apartment, I’d stop at the fruit stand down the block. Loading my arms with heavy oranges, plums, and apricots.
But one day I knocked over a display of blueberries with my bag. I’m so sorry! I didn’t even remember to say it in French. I pressed Euros into the vendor’s hand but he frowned and began to shout about my clumsiness, about my lack of awareness, about my American stupidity.
I crossed the street the next day on my way home and even when I’d eaten the last cherry I didn’t go back.
My mother was the one who suggested I contact Claudette and ask her if she wanted dinner. They knew each other from college where they used to room on the same floor.
It’ll be good for you to meet people, my mother said. Begin to understand the culture and everything. The best way is through the people.
I know the people, I said. I thought about the people at the office who’d give me nods in the mornings, nods in the evenings. Who’d eat lunch, laughing, all together in the meeting rooms while I wandered outside in the sun for fear that if I sat at the table they’d be laughing at me.
My mother gave me Claudette’s email address and I emailed her.
The first incident with the Polish nanny happened the night of her arrival after Claudette’s daughter had been put to bed.
“No,” Anelie said when Claudette passed her the plate of duck. She didn’t say “no thank you,” not even, “no thanks.” Just no. And Claudette paused but brushed it off. In Finland they don’t say please. Maybe in Poland they don’t say thank you.
“I don’t eat meat,” Anelie continued. She got up from the table and came back with a small package. She unwrapped it and dumped its contents onto her plate. It looked like a large wad of shredded grass.
“What is that?” asked Claudette.
“Seaweed,” Anelie said. “I get it in the 17th. I get it everyday, fresh. I’ll need a Navigo.”
“From me?” Claudette thought of the money.
“I’ll think about it,” Claudette finally said and they ate in silence.
The Polish nanny moved to France three months before showing up at Claudette’s door. She became a vegetarian, gained twelve pounds and a boyfriend, and stopped dying her hair. She also joined Nannies Incorporated. That’s how she heard about Claudette.
I lost weight in France. Six pounds. I weighed myself on the scale and did the conversion on my computer’s calculator. Kilos to pounds. Pounds to kilos.
During my third week in the office, one of the editors pinched my arm when he walked by me. I held my breath and sat still in my chair until he had gone to his desk.
So skinny, I imagined the women twittering to each other. And I wanted to eat, but nothing tasted good anymore.
The morning after the duck dinner, Anelie asked Claudette if she had a moment to talk.
“I’m running out the door,” said Claudette. “Can it wait?”
“No,” Anelie said, as she took her seaweed out of the fridge.
Claudette paused in the kitchen doorway and waited for her to continue.
“The sheets,” said Anelie. “They’re white.”
“Yes,” Claudette said.
“I can’t sleep on white sheets.”
“You can’t sleep on white sheets?”
“I can’t sleep on white sheets.”
“Who can’t sleep on white sheets?”
“I can only sleep on red sheets.”
“You can only sleep on red sheets?”
“Yes,” Anelie said, walking out of the kitchen.
“I don’t have red sheets,”
“Monoprix is fine.” Was Anelie’s reply.
Claudette told me that she had chosen the white sheets because she thought they worked with the room. It gave the feeling of the seaside with the big window and the desk in the corner made out of recycled ship hulls. There was even a shell on the bedside table. She didn’t understand why Anelie needed red sheets. She didn’t understand why she couldn’t sleep on white ones.
Later in the day, Claudette purchased Anelie a Navigo from the Saint-Paul Metro station machine. She walked down Rue de Rivoli until it changed into Rue Saint-Antoine and bought red sheets from the Monoprix. She also bought mushrooms, lettuce, tomatoes, tofu, potatoes, pears, beans, and chickpeas.
Claudette’s husband left her when their daughter was seven years old. He took their two largest suitcases and packed most of his clothing and books. He threw out the rest.
“I’m starting over,” he said, hefting heavy black bags downstairs to the garbage room.
“Starting over what?” Claudette shouted. “Starting over f*ing what?”
“Everything, whatever and whatever. I’ll call you later,” he said softly, “but I have to get out now.”
Looking out the window, she saw him get into his car and drive away.
The Polish nanny’s boyfriend was named Gaston. He had thick, dark hair that seemed to cover him everywhere. Anelie told Claudette that they had met on the train her first week in Paris. The doors had closed on the back of her jacket and he helped her yank it out.
He asked her out for coffee and they went to a little café along the Blvd. Saint-Germain where a coca-cola costs six euros and tourists take pictures of themselves sitting with cigarettes and wine.
“What a sweet love story,” Claudette said to me.
“It’s creepy, don’t you think?” I asked.
“What if he was gross? What if you couldn’t say no? You’re trapped in a train after all.”
“I guess you’d just have to say yes, wouldn’t you?”
Gaston began coming to the house and Claudette would get home from work to find him sitting at the kitchen table, drumming his fingers while Anelie spread mustard on a ham sandwich. She would find him sitting on the couch, thumbing through her records, or with his feet up and a book off her shelf in his lap.
“Your boyfriend can’t be here,” Claudette finally said.
“Why not?” Anelie asked.
“Because my daughter is here. He can’t be here alone with my daughter.”
“He’s not alone, I’m always here.”
“He can’t be here.” Was all Claudette managed to say.
But a week later she came home early and found him lying in her bed. He wasn’t doing anything, he wasn’t even naked. He was just lying there, eyes closed, arms stretched behind his head.
“Get the f*** out!” Claudette shouted. “Anelie? Anelie?”
Anelie came from the hall.
“What is he doing in my bed?” demanded Claudette.
“I told him you’d be coming home at eight.”
“Why didn’t you fire her then and there?” I interrupted. “She’d already done so much.”
“I don’t know,” Claudette answered. “Maybe I needed her.”
The Polish nanny left after three weeks of working for Claudette. She stood in the hall with her two suitcases and said she had to go back to Poland, her sister was sick. When the door shut behind her Claudette began to cry.
I saw Claudette again before I left for home. She didn’t mention the Polish nanny but instead asked me about my plans for the rest of the summer.
“Nothing,” I told her. “Back home in the city.”
She gave me cookies to take on the plane.
“If you don’t like them there are many places in the airport to get something else,” she said. “Have a safe flight.”
I thanked her and put them in my backpack.
I slept the entire plane ride home, my cheek pressed against the icy oval window.
“Welcome to New York!” the flight attendant said to me when I got off the plane. “Welcome home or enjoy your visit!”
In the cab to my house I took the cookies out of my bag but I didn’t eat them. I left them in the backseat.
My parents answered the door when I knocked. They hugged me tightly and asked me how it all was. The internship and the family friends and did I have a good time?
I’m tired, I replied. I’ll tell you all about it in the morning.
In my room I changed into pajamas and brushed my teeth. I turned off the light and slipped under my comforter. My room became hot and I pushed it off.
I slid out of bed and crawled along the floor until I reached my suitcase. I unpacked my computer and turned it on. I tapped the keyboard while I waited.
“Red sheets,” I typed into Google. Red sheets from Garnet Hill, from Target, Macys, Bed Bath and Beyond. Solid red sheets, checked red sheets, striped red sheets. Staring at the screen made me dizzy and I closed the computer.
I went back into my bed and rubbed my face against the mattress. Against my pillows. I lay flat on my back and stared up at the ceiling. I thought about the world, vast and curved, and the millions of other people in bed now too. Beds like mine, beds on the floor, beds up high.
I wondered where Anelie was and if she’d really gone back to Poland. If she was with her sister or if her sister died. If she had understood that Claudette needed her. If she had understood that she’d let her down.