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My Helper, Charlotte
"But you don't even know who they really are!" I exclaimed, waving my hand to illustrate my point.
"Who cares? Everyone else has one; it's not like they're really part of the family anyway," laughed my blond, tall, obviously expat roommate, Annabel. I frowned at her couldn't-care-less attitude. I simply was unable to get past the feeling of awkwardness at having an older woman we hardly knew come and live with us. 'Bel giggled again at my apprehension.
"You know, Mitchie," she smirked, pointing manicured finger in my face while I struggled not to go cross-eyed. "If you really wanna know her life story, you can just ask her." I bit my lip – by then it might be too late.
Bel assumed a stance of triumph, her hand spunkily positioned on her hips.
"So it's settled. We're getting a helper!"
Three months of intense background work later, and of Bel loudly countering my worries with proclamations of how she couldn't wait 'till she didn't have to share dish duty any more later, Charlotte arrived.
A small elegant and demure woman, dressed in a pristine white uniform, carting an unexpectedly tiny old suitcase, stepped out of a red taxi, examining her surroundings interestedly. I watched her with equal wonderment. She appeared to be 10 or 15 years older than me and Bel. I knew she had immigrated to Hong Kong to supplement her husband's income, too diminutive to support their two youngest children's elementary schooling. She had a square, motherly face and her straight black hair was tied back in a neat pony tail.
Bel had chosen her from a pile of files provided by her selected agency. I wondered what kind of life she had had in the Philippines that made coming to do the housework for a pair of gweilo university students a whole ocean away from her children seem that much better.
I, unlike Bel, shied away from the novel experience of leaving my dirty plates lying around, and at the end of a day, handing a wadded ball of dirty clothes, complete with embarrassing stains to someone else. Even when I lived at home with my parents, I had been expected to help around the house. I felt lazy just sitting on the couch, lifting my feet out of the way as Charlotte diligently vacuumed the living room of our flat.
My way in life was suddenly and completely smoothed. I had practically nothing to do around the house. I was incredibly gratified to Bel for making the suggestion. I had all the time in the world to focus on my valuable studies. I didn't even have a part-time job – Bel and my wealthy parents fully provided our bread and board. My grades increased by a significant margin, and I still had more time to go on outings and to parties with my equally-blessed friends.
Charlotte was a pretty good cook, and we enjoyed a few weeks of traditional Filipino cuisine, before Bel, in typical Bel fashion, declared she was tired of such meals, and handed Charlotte a weightwatchers cookbook, and instructed her on how to keep track of the points. Aside, I told a bewildered Charlotte not to fret overly much – this was probably just another of her 'phases'.
"Last month she was on a Japanese kick. There was so such salmon in the fridge, it still smells."
Charlotte just smiled and nodded blandly, before turning back to the ironing board.
Exam week came at University. Far from our previous leisurely lifestyle, Bel and I had no time for anything but eating, sleeping, and studying. Books covered every surface. No sooner had Charlotte tidied our desks but they were wallpapered with notes and diagrams again. We bolted down dinner – Charlotte had mastered the cookbook – and raced back to the relative seclusion of our rooms. Stress gnawed at my gut and brought my mind to the point of implosion.
Then came the Night Before.
It wasn't her fault, but my frazzled mind was incapable of coherent though by this point. I was glaring down at the one imperative point I failed to comprehend, when Charlotte, influenced by motherly instinct, quietly opened my door. I became aware that she was standing directly at my side in the harsh desk light. I struggled to ignore her, and continued my futile staring, waiting for her to leave. When she didn't, my frustration overflowed and I spun around in my computer chair.
My elbow smacked her hand.
The steaming clay mug was knocked from Charlotte's hand and handed with a discordant smash on the desk. The rich, hot coffee spilled from the shattered shards of the cup. I watched in paralyzed horror as the brown liquid saturated my carefully annotated notes; my life's work.
Charlotte stood by, stunned. I gawked at her in disbelief. The sediment-rich substance washed the precious papers, staining and distorting the essential knowledge, stored for me in type.
I jumped from my chair and stood up angrily, practically shaking with outraged fury. "What the HELL, Charlotte?! My notes! They're ruined! Now I'm gonna fail, thanks to you!" I jabbed a finger at her chest, and opened my mouth to say more, but gave up. Charlotte stared at me. Her eyes were wide and her mouth half open, bottom lip trembling slightly. She looked a picture of mortification. I blinked my anvils of eyelids. I let my breath out in a small gasp, almost a sob. "Never mind. Just go, ok?"
Charlotte turned and scurried from my room, abandoning me in the atrophy of my hope for the future.
The next morning, Bel and I left early. Charlotte stayed in her room; there was no sound behind her closed door.
Leaving the exam room felt as if I was Atlas, finally freed from my burden of the earth. I felt positive jubilant. Bel and I attended a wild party at one of our friend's houses, out in Sai Kung. The pounding music and alcoholic buzz that filled the heavy July air outbalanced any regret regarding my performance, and even trumped the prospect of the mountain of mosquito bites I knew would tattoo my legs by tomorrow. The only modicum that had the potential to disrupt the mood was the memory of my harsh treatment of my poor helper.
In spite of our pounding headaches and dry mouths, classic symptoms of the frat party hangover, Bel and I dragged ourselves from the comfortable bat cave of bed at around two the following afternoon. Charlotte fussed over our disheveled appearance and shockingly dirty clothes (now some of THOSE stains really were embarrassing), before preparing us a fry-up brunch/linner. She smiled at us and bustled about, opening windows to "get some fresh air into you!"
The guilt surfaced.
A little later, when I felt human again, I took her aside. "Charlotte, I'm so sorry for how I treated you last night. I know you were just trying to help, and I way overreacted. Can you forgive me…?"
She laughed. I stopped, blinked.
Charlotte patted my arm in her maternal way. "It's okay, maam. My son goes to university back in the Philippines – I should be sorry to disturb you."
Her smile was so warm and so without guile, I caught the disease and returned the expression with glee.
Over the next few weeks, Charlotte and I began to get to know each other better. We chatted when I had free time, and she good-naturedly protested when I picked up a dishcloth or a broom to help. "You pay me for this, maam! I must do my job!" Somehow she was not surprised when I ignored her.
Maybe it was just wishful thinking, but from then I felt us begin to form a connection that I had been lacking ever since I moved from the family home. A friend, but more someone to rely on. To say "have a nice day" when I left, to smile when I returned. A particular style of cooking that just reminds you of home. A simple "see you in the morning" at night. Eventually, I talked her into dropping the customary 'maam', and I just became Mitchie.
I finally realized what had been missing.
Charlotte had been with us for close to six months when she came to us with a request. "I'm sorry maams, but I have go home now. My husband is sick. I want to be with him."
She wrung her hands in front of her apron, and worry was evident in her eyes. "Please let me go, maams." Her voice shook, totally convincing us of her legitimacy.
What could we do but release her?
The next few weeks felt almost as alien without Charlotte as with her. Bel and I restarted our chore routine. I was surprised at how difficult coping suddenly seemed. The house was quiet when we arrived home at night, and the shadows loomed in the unlit unit. I mourned the quietly content atmosphere that once filled the rooms. Bel simply bemoaned her returning dishpan hands.
I frequently imagined Charlotte in the Philippines. Was her husband okay? Would he recover? How were her children? Had her son come home from the city university too? What about the smaller ones? I felt close to the same concern I would feel for my own relative.
Bel complained that we were still paying her, even when she wasn't actually here.
I began to question my feelings. Bel was correct in that Charlotte was, in the essence, an employee. As I knew full well, we paid her for her work. We supplied her with a place to stay; the three of us has signed a contract to allow her to live in Hong Kong, provided it was Bel and me who housed her. Bel certainly thought of her as nothing more than a personal handmaiden.
But was I so wrong to believe, that in those six months, we had formed a bond, if not a friendship, that went beyond the boundaries of master/servant. Was I so wrong to believe that as we swapped stories about friends, family, and life in general, something had changed?
But I still remembered how I felt when Charlotte was here. How I had loved being fussed over; being treated with near reverence. How I had been made to feel important solely on the basis of not having to partake in household drudgery.
I wondered, did I miss Charlotte the way I did because of our mutual affection, or because of how she had made my life so much easier?
Two weeks past. Then another two. The end of Charlotte's leave drew near. But suddenly, out of the blue, we received a letter. Charlotte wrote to us telling that her husband was still ill, and was unlikely to recover. She begged to be let go of her contract; to allow her to be with her family in this time of trials. Bel and I spent hours hunched at our now-just-as-messy-as-ever dining-room table, nursing cups of slightly bitter coffee. We poured over the pros and cons of letting our helper go; moral as well and economic.
At long last, we reluctantly came to a decision.
We sent the letter shortly after.
What would you have said?