They hired their au pair off a job posting website for the northeastern Wisconsin area. Mrs. Clara Bush had been specific about the language in the post, insisting on the term au pair because it conveyed a greater sense of class than babysitter or nanny, and she wanted to attract an elite applicant pool. Clara’s husband, Mr. Nathan Bush, had come up with a one hundred-word description thoughtfully typed on their computer that sat in the second-floor office. The post read:
“Middle-aged couple is seeking an au pair for their seven-year-old son. The appointment will start this upcoming summer and possibly continue through the following year if the parents see fit. Applicants should have significant childcare experience, fluently speak a language in addition to English, be an efficient tutor in all areas of study, and be willing to undertake housework while the child is at activities. Room and board will be provided, and pay will start at $10,000 for the summer. Those who are interested should send a resume, cover letter and two references to email@example.com.”
Clara insisted Nathan delete the term “middle-aged,” but other than that, had no edits. It went live at 4:00 p.m. By the following week, the couple had twelve candidates who were interested in the position, but only four who would be considered seriously. The rest were Wisconsin locals who Clara believed did not have enough life experience.
Monica Cluss was originally from Canada, but only knew French because she studied the language in college. She was surprised when she received a voicemail from the Bush family one Saturday morning. The woman’s voice, which was soft yet terse, said they were interested in her application and would like Monica to come by the house on Wednesday for a formal interview.
“We want to get a better sense of you as a caretaker, how you would fit into the fabric of our family,” the woman said. Monica emailed the Bush’s later that day to tell them yes, she would attend the interview, and she was looking forward to meeting their son. In her studio apartment, Monica poured a cold cup of coffee and rummaged through her closet for something to wear to the interview. She decided on a long, white and blue floral sundress she had only worn once before to her cousin’s wedding. It seemed to convey a sense of authority and free-spiritedness, like something Mary Poppins would wear if she were twenty-three and American.
On Wednesday, it was gray and raining, and Monica felt a bit silly wearing the modern Mary Poppins dress in the cold weather. But she had already committed to it and searching for another outfit was not an option now. She was running late and was nervous. Changing clothes would only exacerbate the anxiousness that was lodging itself in Monica’s abdomen and knees. Instead, she grabbed her red raincoat, slipped it over the dress, and swapped her silver sandals for the lime rain boots in the bin under her bed. She listened to jazz on the drive over and only ran one red light.
Clara stood at the arched window in the living room and watched the small Camry pull into the driveway, the car’s windshield wipers’ efforts appearing futile against the steady rainfall. Clara had interviewed three other applicants the days before, all of whom she found fine but mostly underwhelming, each clearly nervous to be in their house with so much breakable glass and cream furniture. She watched the next applicant, Monica Cluss, climb out of her car and look up at the front door then back at her phone, likely double-checking the address Clara and Nathan had sent. Was she surprised by the house’s size?
Clara went into the kitchen when she heard the doorbell ring and called for Nathan to answer the door. She poured herself a glass of water and listened to Nathan hurry down the stairs, open the door, and exchange pleasantries with the girl. Clara walked to the playroom where Barry was wearing a sheriff’s hat and lining up his stuffed animals across the carpeted floor.
“I want you to come into the living room in fifteen minutes, okay?” Clara said.
“We talked about this at breakfast, Barry. You’re going to meet another possible au pair.”
“Can I just come now?” Barry said. He retrieved a lime green nerf gun from his chest of toys.
Clara left Barry to play and made her way to the living room. She could hear Nathan and the girl making small talk. As she passed the mirror in the hallway, Clara slowed her pace and made sure her hair was in place, no loose strands of red sticking out of her neat curls. She wondered how old the girl would guess she was. Thirty-three? Thirty-eight? At forty-one, Clara had minimal wrinkles and bright eyes. She entered the room with her hands clasped together in front of her.
“Ah, here she is!” Nathan rose from the couch. “This is my wife, Clara.”
The girl stood and Clara walked towards her, offering her hand.
“I’m Monica,” the girl said. She turned the handshake into a small embrace by putting her left hand on Clara’s shoulder. “It’s wonderful to meet you and your husband. You have a beautiful home.”
Clara nodded then took a seat in the arm chair while Monica and Nathan returned to their seats on the couch. Monica crossed her legs, and Clara noticed she was wearing lime green rain boots under her floral dress. She looked the girl up and down but could not decide if this look of hers was endearing or not. Clara flattened her black skirt against her legs and gathered her thoughts.
“Well, Monica, to cut to the chase,” she said, looking at the young girl with a smile she hoped seemed welcoming but also a bit intimidating. “We thought your application was quite impressive, particularly your fluency in French, which we’ve always wanted to get Barry started on. But tell us, more so, why you are interested in this job. What draws you to child care, more specifically?”
Monica paused for a few moments before answering the question, which Clara liked, believing it showed both intelligence and natural composure. She discussed growing up with six siblings, how that inspired her to study early education in college, and how she had thought she wanted to be a teacher but desired a more personal relationship with the children she worked with. The girl had a nice way of speaking, energetic, but not in a way that felt put-on.
“And frankly,” Monica said with a sheepish smile, “I think I just get along better with children. I like spending my day with them.”
Nathan laughed and Clara tensed, afraid that Monica might think he was laughing at her. Monica’s smile remained, however, and Clara took a deep breath.
“Admirable,” Clara said. She started to ask about Monica’s tutoring philosophy when Monica pointed to the doorway.
Clara turned to see Barry standing at the edge of the living room, his sheriff’s hat sitting sloppily on his small head and his nerf gun hanging by his side.
“My shoes match your gun,” Monica said.
Barry was silent for a moment. “Lemme see.”
She stood and lifted the hem of her dress. Barry walked over and held the gun against the rubber, comparing the shades of green. He nodded.
“Barry, this is Monica,” Clara said. “What do you say?”
The boy stared at Monica then held the gun up and closed one eye as if he were taking aim. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Clara blushed and put her hand on Barry’s arm so he’d lower the gun. She did not want the girl to think they’d raised a violent child.
Monica laughed and bent down. “Who on earth voted you Sheriff?”
Barry kept a straight face for a moment then laughed his shy, quick laugh that was the rare sign he liked someone. Clara decided they would hire Monica with the lime boots.
Monica was stunned. She often lost out on job opportunities after the interview, a blow that felt personal and often left her overanalyzing every part of herself. But driving home from the Bush’s, now employed, Monica was wondering what on earth she’d done right. She had been certain Mrs. Bush did not like her. The woman’s arms were crossed from the moment she sat down and she’d been unresponsive to Monica’s answers, her face as blank as a stick of butter. Mrs. Bush was a beautiful woman, no doubt, but Monica had the feeling she was not a good mother. Nonetheless, the boy seemed sweet and the guest room would be wonderful to live in. She had never slept in a queen-sized bed.
Before returning to her apartment, Monica stopped at Family Video to return an overdue movie and also to see Neal. He was leaning on the counter reading a magazine when she walked in. Like always, no one else was in the store. Monica walked to the counter and flung the DVD at him.
“I got a job.”
Neal caught the movie with both hands and opened it to make sure the disc was inside. “About time. The receptionist gig?”
“No. Babysitting.” Monica said. “Well, technically, I’ll be an au pair, so it’s classy.”
“A fancy name doesn’t make it noble,” Neal said with a smirk. “You’ll still be wiping snot and dealing with brats.”
Monica went behind the counter and over to the boxes that contained new movie arrivals. “It’s only one kid and he is sweet, so you don’t know what you’re talking about.” She started to sift through the DVDs. “Any good ones?”
Neal walked to the other side of the box and picked up a few movies, reading the covers then tossing them back.
“Nah, they’re all dumb road trips or bachelorette parties,” he said. “I’m still waiting on the new Star Wars.” He was wearing a floral button-up Monica had never seen before. The pink looked nice against his brown skin. She considered pointing out that the two of them sort of matched.
“Can I take this one?”
“Adam Sandler’s in it so it’s gonna be shit, but yeah.”
Monica put the DVD in her purse then went back around to the other side of the counter. The fluorescent light above the comedy movies was burnt out and the place smelled of Febreze and must.
“What’s your plan for the rest of the day?” Neal asked. He adjusted the candy on display so that all the labels were facing out.
“Can I come over tonight? I bought some cinnamon flavored condoms.”
The back of Monica’s neck got warm. She knew no one else was in the store, but still she turned her head to make sure no one had heard. Monica couldn’t decide if she despised or admired how openly Neal could talk about sex. They’d been hooking up for a few months now, a purely casual thing that started after they both got drunk at a friend’s birthday party.
“Yeah, I guess,” Monica said, trying to sound nonchalant as she thought about what cinnamon flavored rubber would smell like.
“You guess?” Neal said. “Mon, don’t tell me you’re cooling on me.”
Monica rolled her eyes and twisted a chunk of her dark hair around her finger. “I just have to pack and stuff. My lease is up soon and I’m moving into that family’s house next Thursday.”
“I can help!” Neal placed his hands on the countertop and leaned forward. “I’m the best at packing stuff. It will blow your mind.”
“Fine you can help, but we are packing my clothes before we do anything else,” Monica said.
Neal closed his eyes and sucked in his bottom lip. “The best foreplay.”
He laughed and snorted as Monica put on her purse and walked towards the door.
“Wait, I have leftover shahi paneer my mom made, so don’t make anything for dinner!”
Monica waved her hand in dismissal and tried to suppress a smile on her face as she left. She started her car and wondered if the night’s plan qualified as a date.
Clara had cleaned the guest room thoroughly and changed the sheets from light brown to lilac. The brown ones had been old and fraying and she thought Monica might like purple since it was a calming and feminine color. She looked at the clock on the bedside table and decided to go find Barry. Monica would be arriving soon. Clara went downstairs to find him sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast.
“The au pair will be here shortly,” Clara said, taking a seat across from her son. He was dressed for the day but had not combed his hair. A clump of blonde hair on the left side of his head was sticking straight up.
“Can we go to the park today?”
“Monica might want to get settled in first, but I’m sure if you asked politely she would be willing to take you.”
Barry was quiet. He spooned another scoop of dry cereal into his mouth.
“Like a cow, Barry. Mouth closed, remember?”
“He left for work already,” Clara said. “The two of us are going on a date tonight, so Monica will make you dinner and put you to bed, okay?”
Barry shifted in his chair so that he was sitting pretzel-legged. “Yeah.”
“We are going to see the musical at the college, won’t that be fun? And your father made dinner reservations at a new Italian place. I can’t remember the last time the two of us went out for dinner.”
“The doorbell.” Barry jumped out of his chair and ran towards the front door, his hard steps making the old wooden floors creak. Clara put Barry’s bowl in the sink, adjusted the collar of her blouse, then followed.
Monica and Barry were in the process of hauling in a large, gray suitcase when Clara joined them in the foyer. The au pair was wearing a peach romper and her black hair was pulled into a bun at the top her head. She laughed as Barry tried to lift the suitcase over the wicker welcome mat and failed, letting out a frustrated groan.
“Let me help you with that,” Clara said, shooing Barry out of the way and placing her hands on the bottom corner of the suitcase. The two women lifted the suitcase into the house and set it at the bottom of the staircase.
“Thank God that’s the last of it,” Monica said, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand.
“This is all your stuff?” Clara eyed the little pile of belongings that looked like the amount of luggage she’d bring to Door County for a weekend.
Monica shrugged. “I’m not really one to accumulate a lot of things. I like white space.”
Clara stared at Monica for a moment, wondering if most young girls were minimalists nowadays or if that was unique to the girl in front of her.
“Wanna go to the park?” Barry asked.
Clara placed her hand on Barry’s shoulder. “Honey, let her get settled in first.”
“That’s okay,” Monica said. “I have all day to unpack. Is it close by?”
“We can bike!” Barry said, standing on his tiptoes as if his burst of excitement were literally propelling him into the air. “You can use Mom’s.”
“Is that alright with you, Mrs. Bush?”
Both Monica and Barry were looking at Clara, awaiting her answer. Clara noticed they both had hazel eyes and small noses that were dotted with freckles. If it weren’t for their contrasting hair colors, they could be mistaken as siblings.
“Of course,” Clara said. She turned to walk back to the kitchen. “Be sure to wear helmets.”
Monica adjusted well to the Bush family’s routine. She woke up at 6:00 a.m. Monday through Friday, showered in the guest bathroom across from her room, did her makeup at the vanity next to her bed, and went downstairs by 7:30 a.m. to meet Barry for breakfast. Mr. Bush was usually making coffee when Monica walked in. He always said good morning but then would take his mug and paper to the patio just as Mrs. Bush came downstairs, her hair freshly curled, her lipstick still wet.
Barry, Monica learned, was a picky eater, insisting on either white eggs or plain Lucky Charms for breakfast. He never threw a fit exactly when Monica insisted he eat some fruit and yogurt, but he would become very quiet and Monica’s mind would go blank as to how to start up a conversation with a seven-year-old who momentarily hated her. Awkward silence always ensued, the only sound that of metal spoons sliding against ceramic bowls. Monica wished Mrs. Bush would leave the room during these conflicts. The woman, however, would sit at the head of the table and paint her nails or look out the window, always biting her bottom lip and spinning her wedding ring around her finger.
After breakfast, Monica and Barry would spend the rest of the day doing whatever they liked. Sometimes it was coloring city landscapes or pondering the logistics of filling up a flying car with gas. Would the gas stations be on the ground or in the air? If the technology for flying cars exists, has a more efficient fuel source been discovered, too? Maybe they don’t even need gas? Other days, the two would go to the pool or the ice cream shop or the library. Barry’s favorite days were when both the Bush parents were out because Monica would let them run around the whole house.
Six weeks into the job, Mr. and Mrs. Bush left around noon for an appointment that was written in red on the family calendar. Monica was vacuuming the living room when Barry plopped in the armchair and let out a dramatic sigh.
“Hi, bored. I’m Monica.”
“Dumb,” Barry said. Monica shot him a look, her right eyebrow raised, and he giggled. “Can we play hide and go seek, please?”
“Absolutely. You have sixty seconds to hide starting now.”
Barry rolled out of the arm chair and ran from the living room. “You have to close your eyes!” he yelled.
Obeying, Monica shut her eyes and continued cleaning, feeling out the edge of the rug as she pushed the vacuum forward and backward. After what she guessed was a minute, Monica turned off the vacuum, wrapped up the cord, and began searching for Barry.
She knew he was upstairs, but she loudly opened and closed closet doors in the foyer so Barry would hear her putting in an honest effort. She climbed the stairs two at a time and checked Barry’s room, which was the first one off the stairwell. The bedroom was baseball themed with signed posters of various Brewers players hanging along the cream walls. She checked under the bed and in the closet, the spots that were always her go-to as a kid. No Barry.
Monica looked in the bathroom next, flinging back the shower curtain, then moved onto the study where Mr. Bush worked in the evening. Barry was not hiding under the desk or curtains and Monica began to feel a bit anxious. She had heard stories of children climbing into washers and drawers while playing hide-and-seek and suffocating. She started to search faster.
Mr. and Mrs. Bush’s bedroom was located at the end of the upstairs hallway on the opposite side of the house from Monica’s guest room. Monica had never wandered to this area of the residence, but she had checked all the other rooms upstairs and figured Barry must be hiding in his parents’ room. The door was closed. Monica slowly turned the crystal knob to enter.
She was surprised to see the room was red, thinking the couple would prefer something more subdued like the rest of the house, a cream or beige. But the walls and curtains and even the canopy hanging over the bed were all a deep scarlet. The bedposts were carved out of dark wood and looked like something from an old English movie about royals. Monica was about to look under the bed for Barry when a crib pushed against the left wall caught her eye. She peered inside and saw it was made up with a small pink blanket. A stuffed giraffe and pig were sitting in the corners. Monica wondered why it was in their bedroom. She put her hand inside to feel the bed pad and the cotton sheets. They were soft and smelled like eucalyptus.
“Boo!” Barry jumped out of the closet across from the crib and Monica let out a scream that hurt her throat.
“Damn it, Barry!”
“Don’t say damn,” Barry said. He walked towards her and grabbed her hand. “You took too long. I don’t want to play anymore.”
“It’s not my fault. Your house is too big.”
Barry led Monica to his room and took down some of his action figures from the bookcase. He lay down on the rug and had two soldiers fight each other. Monica took a seat at the edge of his bed and watched him.
“Why do your parents have a crib in their room?” Monica asked.
Barry made shooting noises and flipped one of the soldiers into the air. “It was supposed to be the baby’s.”
“My sister’s. Sylvie.”
Barry didn’t look up at her but continued to ram his soldiers into each other, one flying into the ground then getting back up to ram into the other. Monica felt her stomach drop. She had thought the crib was perhaps for Mrs. Bush’s nieces or nephews or maybe even a gift for someone’s upcoming baby shower. She hadn’t thought the couple lost a child.
She moved off the bed and sat on the edge of the rug, a few feet away from Barry.
“When did that happen?”
“When did the baby…when did Sylvie pass away?”
“January,” Barry said.
Just over six months. Monica wondered why they hadn’t mentioned it to her.
“Can we watch a movie?” Barry asked.
Mrs. Bush didn’t like when Barry watched TV during the day, but Monica looked at Barry and imagined him in a tiny suit sitting at his sister’s funeral.
Clara was pleased with her au pair hire. Barry spoke highly of Monica when she pressed her son for answers, and she was excellent at keeping up with housework without being reminded. Clara allowed Monica to have Tuesday and Thursday evenings off, and she always went out on these nights. She assumed Monica was meeting a boy since she came down the stairs with more makeup on and her hair straightened. She had mentioned someone named Neal in passing, but it wasn’t Clara’s style to pry or make a big deal out of people’s love life. She’d always found such conversation shallow and a bit tacky. Clara could hear Monica getting ready in the upstairs bathroom with both the blow-dryer and radio on.
Clara attempted to use these Tuesday and Thursday evenings as family time, though Nathan often secluded himself in his office and read over cases for upcoming court dates. The therapist had told them to schedule in quality time together, to set dates like it was a new relationship, to court one another again. Clara thought everything the therapist said was useless, but her mother reminded her that making an effort was just as much a part of the healing process.
Clara walked to Nathan’s study and knocked on the door before entering. He was sitting at his desk and briefly looked up from his notes as Clara entered. The window next to the giant bookcase was open and the brisk fall air flowed into the room in waves. Clara placed her hands in the pockets of her sweater. Her fingers found a hole she had meant to have the seamstress fix last month.
“Barry and I were thinking we should do a movie night tonight,” Clara said. “Do you have anything in mind?”
Nathan took off his glasses and rubbed his forehead. “I don’t really care, no.”
“I was thinking that new one about the little boy and the dog?”
“I’m not familiar.”
“The dog has superpowers but the kid doesn’t know and—"
“Actually, you two just go ahead,” Nathan said. He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a new file. “I have a lot of work to do.”
“What case are you working on?”
Nathan sighed. “You don’t have to pretend to be interested, Clara.”
Clara fiddled with a loose strand of fabric in her pocket. There will be moments when he takes it out on you, her therapist had told her. She offered a small smile. “I’ll save you some popcorn in case you change your mind.”
She left Nathan in the office and went into the living room to set up the movie and laid out blankets for Barry.
Monica came down the stairs at 6:00 p.m. stopped by the living room. “I’m off to a movie night, too,” she said, surveying the scene of blankets, popcorn bowls and candy spread out in front of the Bush’s large TV. “Probably just gonna watch it on my laptop though,” she added with a laugh.
“You’re welcome to take some popcorn or a box of candy if you’d like.”
Clara nodded. Monica chose a box of Milk Duds from the top of the pile. “These are my favorite.”
“Have fun tonight,” Clara said.
“Thanks.” Monica was about to head for the front door when she turned around to face Clara. “Also,” Monica paused, “I just want to say I’m sorry.”
“For your loss. Barry told me the baby passed away a few months ago.”
Clara was quiet for a moment then stood up from the couch. She walked towards Monica with her arms crossed. “Barry didn’t tell you.” Her face remained neutral. “He doesn’t talk about it. You had to have asked him.”
“Oh, yes,” Monica stammered. “I guess after I saw the crib I asked why it…” Her voice trailed off as she realized she had just admitted to entering the Bush’s bedroom. Monica’s face warmed and she felt very young.
Clara stared at her for several moments. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t play your music so loudly when you’re getting ready. This house echoes.”
Clara picked up the remote and turned on the TV. “See you tomorrow.” She remained focused on scrolling through the movie menu as Monica walked out the door.
Monica sat in Neal’s kitchen picking at a divot in the edge of the table. Neal was searching for some funny YouTube video his friend had told him about, laughing as he described its content, a cat opening a screen door for a baby deer. Monica wasn’t listening. She had been excited to hang out with Neal that evening but now couldn’t shake the weird feeling she had since her interaction with Mrs. Bush. She couldn’t really name it, though it felt like embarrassment or guilt and also anger. She didn’t understand why Mrs. Bush needed to make Monica feel bad for trying to express her condolences. It was clear Mrs. Bush was a bitter woman.
“Why aren’t you laughing?”
Monica looked up from the table. Neal had started playing the video. A white cat was in the process of using its paw to push open a screen door. The person behind the camera could be heard chuckling in the background.
“Impressive,” Monica said.
Neal picked up his laptop. “It’s funny.”
“I think it’s funny too. It just didn’t make me laugh.”
“Why are you in such a bad mood?”
Monica rubbed her eyebrow. “I’m not.”
“You obviously are. You’ve said like ten words since you got here.”
She stood to get a glass of water. “Just a bad day at work.”
“Did the kid throw a fit?”
“More like the mom did.” Monica grabbed a glass from the cupboard that still had soap residue at the bottom. She washed it out.
Neal took a seat at the other side of the table and rested his chin on his hand. “What’d she do?”
Monica swirled her cup trying to form a little whirlpool. “I found out they lost a baby and when I tried to say sorry, she made me feel like shit saying I prodded her son and stuff.” Monica returned to the table. “I hate her.”
“Sounds like a real bitch,” Neal said. “Maybe the baby dodged a bullet.”
“Don’t say that.”
“It was a joke.”
Monica looked up at Neal. “Well, it wasn’t funny.”
He raised his hands in his defense. “I was just trying to be supportive.”
“I don’t need you to be.” Monica wished she hadn’t told him about the baby. “Can we just go watch a movie or something?”
“Yeah, but can I pick it?”
Monica nodded and made her way over to Neal’s couch. He chose an action movie he’d seen a dozen times. They made out during the scenes with dialogue because Neal didn’t care about them. Monica wondered if the Bush’s were able to be intimate after the baby. She couldn’t picture it, then felt weird for even trying. When the movie was over, Neal asked if Monica wanted to sleep over. He had never asked before so she said yes. She snuck out at 6:00 a.m., finding her clothes in the dark then throwing the newspaper on the deck inside as she closed the door behind her.
Clara was sitting in the living room reading the newspaper when Monica returned. She had noticed Monica’s room was empty when she awoke that morning but figured Monica had gotten up early for a run. She only realized the au pair had slept somewhere else when Monica walked past her wearing the same outfit from the night before.
“Did you get locked out last night?” Clara didn’t look up from the article she was reading about a new community garden downtown.
Monica pivoted away from the stairs and walked towards the living room archway. “No, I actually slept at a friend’s house last night.” Monica fiddled with her jacket zipper. “I hope that’s okay.”
“It’s okay, but it’s not ideal,” Clara said, looking up at Monica. “Please let us know next time. I know you aren’t officially on the clock until 7:30, but I’d like to know your whereabouts. In case of an emergency.”
Clara went back to reading the newspaper and listened to the stairs creak as Monica walked up to her room. She always took the stairs two at a time, producing louder creaks at longer intervals in comparison to Barry’s quick, light steps. Nathan was not awake yet, though Clara could never really hear him come down the stairs on the mornings she woke up early. He often used the back stairwell and wore thick, gray slippers. His steps were muted. Only the sound of the coffee pot brewing would give away his presence.
The couple sat in Sanford Cramer’s office for the seventh time since Sylvie died. The therapist’s office was a small, carpeted room that smelled of mint. Large windows let in sunlight and made the leather arm chairs where Clara and Nathan sat pleasantly hot in the afternoon, like a car parked in the sun. Sanford sat in the desk chair across from them. He was a tall man with sleek gray hair and always had his arms folded in his lap during their sessions. He had just asked how things were going for the couple. Clara was looking out the window, waiting for Nathan to answer.
“The same, I’d say.” Nathan uncrossed his legs and sat forward, rubbing his knuckle. “Still short with each other. Still struggling to talk in a meaningful way.”
Sanford gestured to Clara. “Would you say that’s a fair assessment?”
“Yes,” Clara said. She turned to Nathan. “But I think I’m making more of an effort.”
“It’s not a genuine effort,” Nathan said with a forced smile meant to mitigate the frustration in his voice. “You’re doing it because you were told to. It’s homework to you. It’s put on.”
“I don’t understand how you can say that,” Clara said. “You’re assuming the worst in me.”
Nathan looked at his hands and shook his head. Clara hated how he always shut down, never engaging when she pinpointed real problems. She looked at Sanford, willing him to call Nathan out.
“Why do you think he is assuming the worst in you?” Sanford said.
“When you resent someone, you look for things to dislike.”
“I don’t resent you, Clara!”
“We keep having this same conversation,” Clara said. “Every time we come in. It’s just this over and over again.”
“This is something we keep circling back to,” Sanford said. “What will allow us to move past this?”
“When he admits that he resents me,” Clara said. “I wanted the baby, and I convinced him to want her, too.”
“I don’t resent you. I just—“ he looked at the ceiling then back at Clara. “I feel indifferent at this point. I feel tired. I feel like I need a break.”
“You need a break,” Clara said.
Nathan sighed. “I wonder if it would be helpful to separate for a bit.”
The words, while hurtful, did not surprise her. She had seen the name and number of Russ Milton written on a sticky note in Nathan’s office the week before and knew what it meant immediately. Russ was a divorce attorney who Nathan had gone to college with. Clara had met him only a handful of times and actually liked Russ. He was a charismatic man, easy to talk to, someone who always felt present in conversation. It made sense that Nathan turned to him.
Both Nathan and Sanford were looking at Clara, but she felt no responsibility to answer them. She sat and watched a squirrel run along a branch, dipping under its weight. She thought about how Nathan had held Sylvie, no longer hooked up to tubes, and bathed her still body. Clara just watched, unable to comfort her sobbing husband. She knew he wouldn’t forgive her for that. She didn’t forgive herself.
In mid-July, Monica stared at the thin parallel lines and wondered who had decided two lines would be the symbol of pregnancy. Someone had sat in an office and pitched the idea at some point in time. She imagined how they phrased it. Two lines have neither a positive nor negative connotation, they are just lines. We are not here to ascribe joy or alarm. She wrapped the stick in toilet paper and placed it in the garbage, crumpling up several tissues to place on top of it in case Mrs. Bush were to look inside. She went back to her room to get dressed. With her shirt off, she looked in the mirror at her flat stomach and imagined what it would look like in three months, six months, nine months. She hadn’t realized she wanted a baby, but as she looked at her reflection and ran her hands over her warm skin, the thought of a child felt normal. She put on a sweater and went downstairs to start her day with Barry.
The two of them decided to spend the afternoon at Wilson Park. It was a hot day, and the playground was full of kids playing tag. Monica was sitting on the warm cement of the basketball court watching Barry attempt to dribble. He was using both hands and every few seconds would lose control of the bounce causing the ball to roll into the grass. After about a half hour of dribbling and chasing the ball he grew frustrated and sat next to Monica.
“I’m bad at basketball.”
Barry adjusted his position so that he was sitting with his legs spread open in a V. He put the ball between his legs and rolled it over to Monica. “You aren’t being very fun today.”
Monica mirrored his position so their feet were touching, their legs forming a diamond shape. She rolled the ball to him. “How so?”
“You’re being quiet.” He pushed the ball back.
“I’m thinking.” Monica said.
“About what?” The two of them continued rolling the ball back and forth.
“Because I’m going to have a baby.” Monica was surprised she said the words out loud, but she liked the way they sounded. Certain and mature.
Barry’s mouth opened in surprise. “When?”
“Boy or girl?”
Monica shrugged. She rolled the ball back. “Do you think I’ll be a good mom?”
He nodded and wrapped both arms around the basketball. “I like the name Christopher.”
“Christopher,” Monica repeated. “It’s a little worn I think.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means a lot of people have that name,” Monica said. “Do you have any Christopher’s in your class?”
Barry sat and thought for a moment. “What about Lucas?”
“I like that,” she said. “I should start a list.”
Monica and Barry returned home in the afternoon. Barry ran up to his room to take a nap and the house was quiet. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Bush was home. Mr. Bush had recently moved into a condo downtown, and Mrs. Bush was often out these days running errands to Home Depot and Lowes to renovate the kitchen. She returned around 5:00 p.m. hauling cans of paint into the foyer. Monica heard her from the living and went to help.
“You decided on a color?” Monica grabbed two cans near the door.
“I hope so,” Mrs. Bush said. “I bought a few different shades of light yellow.” She gestured for Monica to follow her to the basement. “I think it will go nicely with the Malibu cabinets. A beachier feel.” They placed the cans of paint against the back wall. Monica had never been in the basement and was surprised it wasn’t a finished room. An old upright piano with yellowing keys sat to her left. Monica hit a key. It was severely out of tune.
“It was my mother’s,” Mrs. Bush said. She stood next to Monica and played a G scale. “I wanted to start Barry in piano lessons, but there aren’t any teachers in the area that use the Suzuki Method.”
“You learn to play by ear. It’s how I learned.” She started playing a song, the minor chords echoing throughout the basement. She stopped abruptly and laughed. “That sounds terrible.” She pulled the cover over the keyboard. “I really ought to get rid of this.”
“It’s a beautiful piano,” Monica said.
“Well, it’s doing no good down here.” Mrs. Bush turned and made her way back upstairs. “Maybe one of the painters will want it. I’m sick of all this clutter.”
Monica drove over to Neal’s that evening and did not feel nervous about telling him the news until she was sitting on his couch with her toes digging into his stringy carpet. He was heating up spaghetti in the microwave, and she could hear the sauce bubbling and popping. She watched as he carefully carried the pasta into the living room, balancing the hot bowl on his fingertips. She wondered when the last time he held a baby was.
Neal sat down next to her on the couch and pulled the coffee table closer to his knees. He blew on the pasta then started stabbing the bowtie noodles with his fork.
“Do you want a bite?” he said.
Monica shook her head. She stood up and walked over to the small bookcase that was to the left of the TV. The first time she’d been to Neal’s place she had been intrigued by his collection of comic books and classic novels, marveling at how complex of a person the little bookcase made him out to be. She remembered how badly she wanted him to be her boyfriend, the nerdy, cool guy who worked at a failing video store. It seemed like a childish desire to her now, wanting a boyfriend. She turned around so she was facing Neal and placed her hands at her side.
“Neal,” Monica said in a voice she hoped sounded serious but not stern. “I came over here because I need to tell you something. Before I do, I just want you to know that I have thought about this a lot and feel that no matter your reaction, I have made up my mind.”
Neal put down his fork and looked at her. He covered his mouth which was full of pasta. “Shit, are you pregnant?” He swallowed. “You’re pregnant, aren’t you?”
Monica was irritated he stole the words from her. She had wanted this to be her moment. She crossed her arms. “Yes. I’m pregnant.”
He leaned back against the couch and placed his fingers on his temples. “Shit. Wow. How did—like when did this happen? We were always so careful.”
“It doesn’t pay to analyze what went wrong. That’s pointless,” Monica said. She moved back towards the couch and turned her body so they were facing each other. “The fact is I’m pregnant, and I plan on raising this baby.”
Neal was silent. He stared at her, his eyes moving around her face to gauge her level of commitment to the words she’d just spoken. She stared back.
“I work at Family Video, Monica,” Neal said. He produced each word slowly. “You are a nanny.”
“I’m going to make a great mother.” Monica imagined herself in the aisles of the grocery store, pushing a cart filled with toilet paper and produce with a small toddler sitting among them. She pictured people stopping at her cart to ask how old the child was, complimenting her on how cute he was, how well-behaved and observant for such a young boy. He would wave at strangers, and Monica would laugh, and people would walk past thinking wow, what a strong single mother. That boy is lucky to have someone like her.
“There is more to raising a kid than being a good babysitter.” He grabbed her hand in both of his. They were warm and clammy and it was clear that Monica’s news had something to do with that. “What about healthcare and daycare and all the expenses of diapers and clothes and toys. You gotta be realistic.”
Monica pulled her hand out from his. “I have money, Neal. I have family. I’m not an idiot. I can make this work.”
“I know you’re smart, Mon.” He took a deep breath. “I just need to take a moment, okay?” He stood up from the couch and wiped his hands on his jeans. “I’m going to go for a walk. I’ll be back.”
Monica watched Neal slip on his sandals and walk out the front door. Sitting in his house now alone, she felt at ease. It was obvious Neal was not particularly onboard with the pregnancy, but she didn’t mind. It’s not like they were ever officially together. And sure, without his full commitment she’d have to get a different job, one with benefits and consistent hours and ideally weekends off. Maybe she’d be a receptionist. Or the secretary for some CEO at one of the banks downtown. It was doable. It was, Monica thought, honorable. She picked up Neal’s fork and tried some of the pasta. It was cooled down now, and as she took several bites and felt the clumps of noodles move down her throat, she wondered if spaghetti was good for the baby.
Neal returned twenty minutes later, opening and closing the front door gently as if the whole house would crumble if he moved too fast. He paused at the entrance of the living room, leaning against the door and spinning his cellphone in his right hand.
“I just got off the phone with my dad,” he said.
Monica was surprised to hear this. She hadn’t considered the fact that this baby would make people grandparents. “What was the conversation?”
“He isn’t thrilled, obviously,” Neal said. “But my parents are willing to help us.”
“Yeah, us.” Neal looked confused and a bit offended. “What do you mean? You think I’m just going to walk away from this?”
Monica didn’t know what to say because she had in fact been counting on Neal to look for a way out. She couldn’t see him being a dad the way she could see herself being a mom.
“No, not exactly,” Monica said. “I just want you to know that I can do this on my own if I need to.”
“My parents had an arranged marriage and it worked out,” Neal said. “This is sort of like that. I mean, this is our future now.”
“Oh, so you’re just stuck with me?”
“That’s not what I meant.” He shook his head, looking frustrated. “I’m saying we can actively choose to try to make this work. You can move in here, I can get a sales job at my uncle’s office. I’m capable of doing this, too.”
Monica had never seen Neal look the way he did at that moment. Nervous and vulnerable, so clearly wanting Monica to have faith in him. Maybe this was what he needed, something to jumpstart his adulthood so he no longer sat idle behind the counter of Family Video, the only major decisions he made being which movies to feature on the main display.
“Okay, yeah,” Monica said.
“Yeah?” Neal straightened up.
He came over to the couch and hugged Monica with one arm like she was a fragile, breakable thing. He pulled away and looked at her. “Damn,” he said. “This is crazy. We’re gonna have a little Cluss-Sharma.”
Monica pictured their joint last name written in cursive by their child as he grew older, the loops of each letter rising and falling. She imagined the questions the small dash between s’s would raise.
Clara sat inside her car for ten minutes before walking into Sanford’s office. She knew Nathan was already inside, his red Sedan parked at the far end of the lot, but she wanted to make them wait. Nathan had been reluctant to start couple’s therapy again, which miffed Clara and proved only further that she was putting in the greater effort. It had been a month since Nathan moved out, and the two of them only interacted when either dropping off or picking up Barry, an exchange that never got easier or more natural, at least on Clara’s end. She got out of the car after what felt like a decent protest and walked into the building, conscious of the way her heels clicked against the wood floors.
She knocked on Sanford’s door before entering even though she didn’t have to. Sanford greeted her with a smile. Nathan offered a small acknowledgement by lifting his chin in her direction. She sat down in her usual chair.
“Sorry for running a little late.”
“No worries, no worries,” Sanford said. He folded his hands over his notepad and looked from Clara to Nathan. “Shall we get to it then?”
“So, how are the two of you doing?” Sanford said. He scrunched his eyebrows together to emphasize his concern. “Both individually and as a couple? Have you seen or felt significant changes since the separation?”
“I can start, if that’s okay,” Nathan said.
Sanford nodded. “Certainly.”
Nathan leaned forward. “I, personally, have felt less on edge. Being away from the house has been difficult at times, yes, but it also has allowed for some necessary distance from everything. At home,” he paused and rotated his cuff link, “everything was a reminder of Sylvie or tension…with Clara. At my new place, I feel like I’m able to breathe easier.”
Clara’s face remained composed, but something inside her flinched at the sound of gratitude is Nathan’s voice. Breathe easier. As if Clara were some deep-sea octopus wrapping her legs around his torso, watching him turn blue. She had given him plenty of space. She was still giving him plenty of space. And yet here Nathan was talking about Clara in a hushed tone as to not wake the monster he saw inside her. She imagined the octopus attaching itself to the large window behind Sanford’s desk, the suction cups on each tentacle pulsating with the cadences of Nathan’s speech, warning him that it was listening.
“How has Barry been handling the separation?” Sanford said.
Nathan looked at Clara to see if she wanted to intervene. She remained silent.
“He seems to be doing alright,” Nathan said with a shrug. “We explained to him that we needed some time apart to help us be the best parents we can be.”
“Did he ask if this had to do with the loss of the baby?” Sanford said.
“Yes, of course,” Clara said. She stared at the diamond designed etched on the front of Sanford’s desk. “He’s a smart boy.”
“How did you respond to his question?”
After several moments of silence from Clara, Nathan answered. “I told him that losing Sylvie was nothing we ever expected, and that we are both a little angry at each other because of it.”
“And do you know what Barry said?” Clara looked at Sanford. He shook his head as if Clara had actually expected him to guess. “He said, ‘Why can’t you just be mad at the baby?’”
There was silence followed by the hum of the air conditioner turning on. Sanford turned over a new page of his notepad.
“Has Barry seen a counselor at all since January?”
“No,” Nathan said.
“Do you think it’d be beneficial for him to see one?”
Nathan scratched his chin. “I think he has been handling things well. I was nervous that Monica’s pregnancy would bring back up difficult topics but—"
“Wait.” Clara looked her husband in the eyes for the first time during their session. “Monica is pregnant?”
“Yeah…” Nathan glanced at Sanford then back at Clara. “I figured you knew,” he said. “Barry told me several weeks ago.” He shook his head in disbelief. “You live with the girl. How on earth could you not know?”
Clara wanted to feel angry, to snap at Nathan like he expected her to, but she felt only the sharp tag of her sweater scratching against her neck. She couldn’t bring herself to look at Sanford who was surely wondering what kind of person she must be to have both her son and au pair withhold such important news from her.
“She is my employee. I don’t need to know every detail of her life.” Even as she said it Clara knew it wasn’t convincing.
Nathan laughed at her, and at the sound of his low snicker, she wished she’d never suggested they start therapy again. For months, all she’d wanted was to repair their family like broken glass, to take the shards and piece them back together with the smallest amount of the clearest glue.
“You weren’t aware your nanny is pregnant?” Sanford said. He was looking at her with pity. Clara refused to be made the victim.
“I haven’t seen her much,” Clara said. She uncrossed and re-crossed her legs. “I’ve been busy redoing the house, designing, meeting with contractors. This separation has been good for me, too.”
Sanford raised one eyebrow in what Clara interpreted as a challenge. She knew he would never go as far as to call her bluff.
“I’m also breathing easier.”
Clara returned home that evening to find Barry and Monica working on a puzzle at the kitchen table. It was a landscape puzzle, and the two of them had the cover of the box propped up as a guide. It depicted a white cottage near a body of water that was dotted with multicolored sailboats. Monica was kneeling on one of the barstools, her black, long-sleeved shirt tight against her body. Clara saw no sign of curvature to her figure, which made her feel a bit less foolish.
“Hi, Mom,” Barry said as she walked in. “Wanna help with the puzzle? We are finishing the border.”
Clara hung up her keys and walked over to Barry’s side. He was scanning the counter intently, searching for the left corner piece to complete the puzzle’s outline. Clara spotted the piece on the counter but didn’t say anything, waiting for Barry’s gaze to make it to the far edge of the table. He reached across the counter and slide the piece over to himself, picked it up and placed it in the border, pressing hard to make sure it stayed.
Clara rubbed Barry’s back. She wondered if he consciously decided not to tell her about Monica’s pregnancy or if Monica had asked him to keep it a secret. She hoped it was the latter, though she knew she’d have to fire Monica right away if that was in fact the case. Asking a child to keep a secret from his own mother? It’s one thing if the secret is that she gave him ice cream before dinner. A pregnancy is a completely different story.
“Me and Monica went to the library today,” Barry said, turning around on the stool to face Clara.
“Did you get anything good?”
Barry nodded. “Frog and Toad and Captain Underpants.” He returned to working on the puzzle. “Can we read them tonight?”
“Absolutely,” Clara said.
“Do you want to finish the puzzle tomorrow, Barry?” Monica said. “You should probably start getting ready for bed.”
Barry began to protest, but Clara put up her hand. “Monica is right. Go brush your teeth and get your pajamas on.”
He climbed down from the stool with a dramatic groan.
“If you do it without complaining, we can read from both of your new books,” Clara said.
Barry raised his eyebrows and motioned like he was locking his lips, a sign that he accepted her deal. He left the kitchen and ran upstairs. Clara waited to hear the sound of the faucet running.
Monica started to put the puzzle pieces that were scattered about back in the box, quietly humming to herself. Clara watched her for a few moments then started stacking the puzzle pieces in front of her.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she said.
Monica paused. She looked confused for a moment, then looked down at the counter in what Clara hoped was shame.
“Nathan mentioned it today. I just don’t understand how Barry knew and I didn’t.” Clara thumbed the edge of the puzzle piece in her hand. “Did you ask him not to tell me?”
“No,” Monica said, shaking her head.
Clara couldn’t determine if she was telling the truth or not.
“I was going to tell you,” Monica said. “I was just waiting for the right time.”
Clara nodded even though she didn’t accept the excuse. She knew the girl hadn’t told her the news because she believed Clara would be jealous or offended by Monica’s ability to still have children. The thought of Monica thinking this made Clara feel overexposed.
“Well, congratulations,” she said.
“It’s an enormous responsibility.” Clara said. She walked over to the sink and filled a glass of water. Still facing the faucet, she took a sip. “When do you want to be relieved of your au pair duties? You’ll obviously need time to get things in order.”
There was a pause. “I was thinking October,” Monica said.
Clara dumped out the rest of the water in her glass and turned around. “I think that’s fine.”
Monica placed the cover on the top of the puzzle box. “I’m going to head upstairs to bed.”
“Barry will be sad to see you go.”
Monica smiled. “I won’t be going far.” She walked towards the stairs then turned back around. “Goodnight.”
Clara sat at the counter for a few minutes and listened to Monica move around upstairs, the sound of the sink running, the sound of her bedroom door closing. When everything was silent, she got up and turned off the lights throughout the house. Clara walked upstairs and quietly opened the door to Barry’s room. His library books sat on the nightstand, but he was sound asleep. Clara turned off his light then crawled into Barry’s twin bed, her pantsuit still on. She pulled the covers over both of them and stared up at the ceiling. There was a Y-shaped crack extending from the base of the ceiling fan. She fell asleep imagining herself jumping up and down in the attic, the Y-shaped crack getting longer and longer under her weight.
Moving out of Mrs. Bush’s house at the end of October had been unceremonial. It was done in less than two hours, the guest bed made and the dresser drawers emptied and dusted in preparation for the next person. Monica loaded her bags into the car and said her goodbyes to Mrs. Bush and Barry, hugging them both but Barry for longer. Mrs. Bush handed Monica her final paycheck, including a generous bonus, though whether this was done out of guilt or gratitude Monica wasn’t sure. She moved into Neal’s house the same day, setting up her makeup in his bathroom and making room for her clothes in his small closet.
The following months unfolded with little surprise. Monica grew bigger, she met Neal’s parents, she waited in the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices. Though she secretly had wanted a boy, Lila Cluss-Sharma was born in March. She had a full head of dark hair that Monica loved to look at but was too afraid to touch. It was weeks before she felt comfortable taking Lila outside though Neal had no problem bringing her into work or driving around with the baby in the car. Whenever they would go out as a family, to the grocery store or to visit Neal’s parents, Monica became self-conscious when Lila cried. Her high-pitched shrieks drew too much attention for Monica’s liking. She would hand Lila off to Neal and walk to the deli section or excuse herself to go to the bathroom.
On a warm afternoon in June, the air conditioner in the house broke and Monica sat sweating with Lila on her lap. Her thighs were starting to stick to the leather couch. Every time she bounced her legs up and down to soothe Lila, her skin would slowly peel off the cushion and make her wince. She strapped Lila into her stroller and decided to walk to the park.
The park was filled with children for what appeared to be a birthday party. Several picnic tables were pushed together and covered in polka-dotted tablecloths, balloons tied to each end. Monica pushed the stroller off the sidewalk and over to a shaded part of grass away from all the commotion. She picked Lila up and sat against the tree, careful not to let Lila’s socks touch the woodchips. The kids were running around the playground with party hats on, yelling and laughing as they chased one another.
Clara spotted Monica sitting under the tree during the middle of her conversation with Danny Fielder’s mom. Peggy Fielder was talking about how rude the teenager at Party City had been when she asked if he could fill the birthday balloons more fully.
“He looked at me like I’d just asked him to give me everything in the store for free,” Peggy said.
Clara was no longer listening. She hadn’t seen Monica since she’d move out six months earlier. Her former au pair looked the same, wearing clothes that didn’t quite match but somehow worked because she had a pretty face. Clara looked to see if Barry had spotted her, too. He was still wrapped up with his classmates in a game of tag.
“Excuse me, Peggy,” Clara said. She left the picnic table of parents and made her way over to the shaded area where Monica was sitting. Monica didn’t appear to notice Clara until she was about four yards away. She looked surprised then, Clara believed, embarrassed.
“Oh, Mrs. Bush!” Monica said. She shifted her body forward like she was going to try to stand up.
Clara motioned for her to stay seated. She knelt down across from Monica and leaned in to look at the baby. “She’s really beautiful.”
Monica glanced down at the baby and smiled. “Her name is Lila.”
A gust of wind came, making leaves fall from above. One landed near Lila’s mouth and the baby burst into tears. Monica picked the leaf off her face and tried to soothe her daughter with soft hushes. The cries persisted. Monica rocked Lila in a rigid motion and looked agitated.
“Can you try?” Monica looked up at Clara. She appeared to be on the verge of tears, but Clara pretended not to notice.
She nodded and took Lila into her arms, feeling the baby’s back rise and fall with each cry. Monica stood up and got a pacifier from the stroller, slipping it between Lila’s lips only to have her push it out. It fell to the ground.
“She hates that thing,” Monica said with a frustrated laugh. She picked up the pacifier and rubbed it against her skirt.
Lila continued to cry.
“If you want to go say hi to Barry quickly I can stay here, try to get her to calm down,” Clara said.
Monica looked towards the playground, her face softening. “He’s here?”
“Friend’s birthday party,” Clara said. She pointed towards the monkey bars. “Striped shirt.”
“I’ll be right back.” Monica jogged over to the playground.
Clara looked down at Lila. Her mouth was open and pink, reminding her of a cat’s. She started pacing with the baby, rocking her in a rhythmic motion that eventually made the wailing die down. When she stopped crying, Lila looked up at Clara. She had dark eyelashes and hazel eyes like Monica, like Barry. Clara had not held a baby since Sylvie, and as she realized this she started to hum. At first it was a quiet a hum, so quiet she wasn’t even sure the baby could hear it. She closed her eyes and let the hum get louder, liking how it made the roof of her mouth vibrate. The feeling made her aware of the curvature of her mouth. Clara started to turn in small circles, humming and losing direction of which way the playground was, which way the parents and Barry and Monica were. She continued to do this until she felt dizzy. She opened her eyes and Lila was still looking at Clara, smiling.
She placed the baby back in her stroller. She looked to see Monica standing in the middle of the playground surrounded by Barry and his classmates. Clara pushed the stroller through the grass. As she moved closer to the center of the park, she watched Monica cover her eyes with both hands. Monica started to count aloud, and the kids around her scattered, ducking behind the playground equipment and bushes. Clara took a seat at one of the benches near the slide and watched the game of hide-and-go-seek unfold. She didn’t allow herself to hold the baby again, but she kept her hands wrapped firmly around the stroller, the black handles growing hot under the sun, warming her palms.