Fiction

Homestay

Rachel Sherman

 

Welcome

This year, like every year, you are blonde. This year: lavender. We spot you at the airport by the lavender sweater you have wrapped around your shoulders.

We show you your basement room with its cheap, argyle print carpet where you will sleep on a hard, double mattress. We have built you a shower whose head trickles water down only after we have all finished showering. You wash yourself less, we figure: you are from Denmark.

We know by now that you will not shave the down beneath your arms. We know that you will pluck the hairs on your legs without a wastebasket beside you in our living room. You will let the small, stiff hairs fall onto the white carpet where they will hide like ants until your next vacuuming.

...

Housing

My father hears noises coming from the basement when he comes home late. We are all asleep except for you and him.

My mother is lucky that blondes are not his type. Still, she will buy you a bathrobe on your first Hanukah to cover yourself up – until then you only wear short shirts and underwear to breakfast.

"It's different in Denmark," my mother says.

For dinner you make meatballs and potatoes until my father says something.

You take your top off at the Beach Club until my father says something.

When my father hears the noises, he opens the first set of folding doors that mark off my parents' section of the house. He closes the doors behind him, then takes off his shoes in the study. He does not wake my mother.

In my parents' room, lying in the dark, my father still hears your sounds. He hears you clearly now - our house was made cheaply, with thin walls and ceilings, by an airplane pilot for his family.

My father hears you crying but he does not get up. You, he knows, are not his type.

Upstairs from my father I am dreaming of kittens, sick and locked in the trunk of a car.

…..

Privacy

You are dangerous. You could walk in anytime. You are one more person in our small, weak house.

You are blonde. You are pretty. I brush your hair and knock on your door in the morning to look at your closet of clothes.

You are Christian. You are Danish. You have only seen what it is like to be American in our house.

You are dangerous. You are one more person in our home. You could twist my doorknob so that it opens, even when it is locked.

…..

Location

We live on the Island at the beginning of a cul-de-sac. From where we are you can hear the school sports teams practice after school. We can hear the cheering from the stands on weekends and boys making paths with their dirt bikes, driving through the woods that separate our lawn from the school field.

We live near the water. We can drive from our house to the causeway that runs through the bay and the Sound, leading out to the Neck of the Island. When it snows, the causeway is closed. When it snows you will be glad you are here.

At our house, on snow days, we will unfold the blankets and eat defrosted bagels on the floor of the living room. We will stay in our pajamas all day. I will pick the dandruff from your scalp, and we will look out the window at my father's disappearing yard.

The water will start to freeze and the snow that will cover the golf course, the school gym, the Bath Club, and the tennis courts, will also cover the shore. Soon we will not be able to tell where the land stops and the water begins.

…..

Pay and Privileges

Sixty dollars a week plus free boarding plus use of a car plus travel time plus a family waiting to be all yours for a year. For a whole year you will be the only Danish person in our house.

Please remember there are other girls with your name waiting in a pile of postcards in my mother's top, desk drawer. We have kept their photos, which I sneak in her desk to look at. The ones who look like you I put away. The other ones, the ones without luck, I bring up to my room and put in a box marked "Girls."

…..

Responsibilities

To help me get up after I faint in the shower. I haven't eaten enough and have been screaming your name from the second floor bathroom, yelling at you when you do not come fast enough.

To run from the sunken living room, where you have been reading a magazine, past the dining room and up the staircase. My mother has hung pictures of our family that I will soon knock down, sweeping my arm against the wall and watching people with my face fall on each stair. I break their frames, which I will have to clean up.

To watch me pick up tiny bits of glass from inside the carpet, cutting my fingers. I will have to pay for new picture frames with the money I earn from working in a French pastry shop. I refuse to describe the cakes and pastries to the customers; the words "chewy" and "moist" make me sick.

To open the door without knocking and turn off the water when you get to the upstairs bathroom. Inside, you feel the heat from the red heat lamps on your sweater, through your shirt. You find me, without a towel, lying on the floor of the bathtub, still yelling your name.

…..

Holidays

At Christmas, in your home, you have a large Christmas tree. You give out your presents on Christmas Eve and dance in a circle around the tree. You wear funny hats and drink.

"Skol!" you say, lifting your glasses and pouring more.

You have those features: small stubby fingers, short hands, a pushed-in nose. Your mother must have been drinking while you were inside her. Or else you have a mother with small stubby fingers, short hands and a pushed-in nose. Or a father. Or a mother that had a mother that drank, too.

…..

Vacations

My parents drive the car north for hours. You are stuck in the backseat with my doll and me. I am too old to have a doll. You watch me smell my fingers on my left hand.

The doll is in the shape of me. It is me in the world of dolls. It has black yarn hair and black button eyes. In the doll world, my skin is the color of cotton balls.

When we get there, it is dark. Inside the small, wood house, bare light bulbs light the rooms. There are wood beams holding up the second floor. You and I must share a room.

"There's a lake," my mother says.

It is late. Out the window of our room we can see the black lake water. We think we see canoes, a buoy, a painted dock, and a bicycle lying flat on the sand.

We are tired and get into bed with my doll, which I keep on my side. Your t-shirt rides up your back when you lie down. I do not wear underwear to sleep.

Mid-night, you can hear me. I am loving my doll. I have turned her sideways so that her hip is pointed. I shake the bed with my love. I am arched like a dolphin, moving sideways, on top. I have made no space between my doll and I, so that when I move, we all move together.

…..

Transportation

Twice a week you drive me across the Island. You drop me off at the bottom of a driveway, watch me walk onto the blacktop, up the hill, and in the side door of a large white house. You drive away and pick up roast beef sandwiches and french fries and biscuits. You eat your dinner and bring me mine.

Fifty minutes later you are back at the bottom of the driveway. I come out, walking quickly down the blacktop, and get in the passenger door. I have small eyes that looked pruned on the sides.

"Here," you say. You hand me my dinner.

"Thank you," I say. I eat while you drive.

We turn on the radio. Separately, I eat each thing.

My mother has tried to explain analyses to you before, but in Denmark, it is only for crazies.

"Here," my mother has told you, "everyone goes."

You do not ask me what I talk about in the white house. You do not ask me what I am thinking. You do not have an office with modern furniture and a picture of two camels intertwined on the wall. You do not lean back in your black, leather chair and stare at me and smile. Instead you stare ahead and drive. Still, I tell you my dreams on the car ride home.

…..

Free Time

There are other au pairs. My mother and her friends brought them over at the same time. All the girls are from Denmark. Each of my mother's friends is also a mother, and each of her friends has a girl of her own.

On the patio, I can hear the mothers talking:

"I came home the other day and the kids were all inside, alone, while she was outside smoking."

"I didn't know she would be so cute. I mean, her picture did NOT do her justice."

"I couldn't believe she didn't set the alarm. I reminded her three times the night before, and she still forgot to set it."

"I said, 'Dressy' and she came down wearing a halter-top and jeans!"

"Can you understand yours? How am I supposed to understand mine?"

"You can always send her back."

"You can always get another one."

"There's always next year's."

"We could trade."

…..

Family Life

I spy on you and my father in the living room, late. You are both drinking from the Kiddush cups my mother's father gave us. It is not Shabbas, and you are not drinking wine.

My father, who once made you cry, lifts up his metal glass and toasts you.

"L'Chaim," he says.

The glasses make a metal sound.

You smile and say, "I didn't know you liked this stuff."

My father makes a face when swallowing.

"I don't," he says, still in his work suit and tie.

My father laughs, "I don't like it at all."

…..

Miscellaneous

Eva, Tina, Lena, Seena, Bettina, Christina.

We may call you last year's name. You are from the world of Legoland. We know: you have shown us pictures.

You show us pictures of your father in his Christmas sweater. Your brother, Christian, wears a shiny soccer outfit. Your mother smiles and holds your dog.

In Denmark it gets dark in the winter. An entire season paints your windows black.

You soak up the sun here. Each day you wake to light. I wonder if this throws some cycle of yours off. Are you menstruating normally? Are things off-kilter? Is the tilt of the earth, the change of the weather, turning you inside out?

…..

Length of Stay

You have left the letter on my bed. You have written my name on the outside of the envelope. I recognize my mother's stationery with its tiny blue pattern.

My mother calls my name from downstairs. I can hear her cursing, scuffing the kitchen with her shoes.

I open the letter. It is sealed with tape, not spit. I wonder if this is the Danish way; to leave without a trace.

You have not been with us long enough to see all of America. You have not even been here long enough to see me grow. But you are leaving, your letter says. By now you are gone.

I remember that you owe my father money. Will you pay it back?

My mother calls my name from the kitchen.

I look in my box and find my pictures. I line them up to pick: girls all in a row.

I figure there is only so much you wanted to see of our family. And Denmark waits for you, its blonde wood tables shimmering.

I keep your letter. My mother throws your photo away.

Together my mother and I sort through the postcards. We each pick a girl with your hair. Then I give her my girl, and she hands me hers.