The housekeeper was coming at ten and Leslie was running behind. She hated being tardy ever since she had been five minutes late for kindergarten. Her mother made her march up to the class door by herself as she waited at the entrance, foot tapping, keys jangling in her hand. The whole room had quieted down as Leslie entered and apologized to the teacher, then squeezed into the circle. Her tears never made it down her cheeks.
She blooted her thin lips with a tissue. The color wasn’t too bright; softer than her fitted berry and white-striped shirt. It did look crisp with white slacks but it was a bit as if she had dressed up as a gourmet candy cane with the bottom stripes licked off. Her sudden allusion to food was irritating, especially as it was sugar. She had sweated for weeks to get off five pounds and shortly she was going to eat from a table loaded with calories. She fingered the top shirt button.
There was no time to change so she stood. The garden club had planned a brunch before a speaker. Then Leslie had to meet with her son’s interior decorator and discuss her suggestions. It was a full day, ending with dinner out with Gavin. If he didn’t cancel again. Being married to Gavin lately–well, never mind that now. She had to leave or forego the club altogether. Leslie bent forward to smile at herself in the mirror, her new brunette pixie cut given a nod.
The doorbell chimed. She swooped down the stairway and grabbed her purse at the side table. As she opened the door, Jana entered. Leslie was taken by the young woman’s hazel eyes–they always looked bright in contrast to her grey company uniform. The logo was stitched on the pocket, a plain monogram, the whole effect utilitarian as the work to be done. But Jana elevated it somehow.
“I’m running late–you know the routine. Please polish the piano. Peonies are in the sink; put those on the dining room table. Lock up behind you. Don’t worry about security; Gavin will take care of it remotely at two o’clock. See you next week.”
She raised her hand, then stepped out.
The door closed with a substantial thud, like all the big house doors Jana cleaned. The back doors, when used, had the same sound. She stood in the foyer and looked from right to left, her eyes scrutinizing dining room and formal living room, hallway before her, curved staircase. Nothing was dirty, nothing out-of-place. She was hired for four hours–it was over five thousand square feet–to brighten up things, and it always felt like a waste of time and money.
She started in the kitchen with the flowers, locating first the correct vase. Leslie—“say it as though the ‘s’ was a ‘z’, please, or Mrs. McBride, your choice”–was clear about certain vases for each room. Jana admired the pink and white peonies’ luxurious blossoms before shaking off water droplets and arranging them. Jana wished she was their gardener, if they had one. The back lawn was studded with a rainbow of color, the bushes perfectly round as if in a painting of an enchanted place.
The cleaning took even less time than usual, not quite three hours. The piano was most time-consuming. She didn’t like the smell of the polish she had to use. And it was gargantuan. It had to gleam. But it had a soothing, rich tone when Jana touched her finger on middle C, tapped a few notes up and back again. Did Leslie play or Gavin? It seemed likely neither did, or not often. The keys were an affront, unworn and too white and black. The McBrides appeared to live as little as possible in their house. She shook off the impulse to play “chopsticks.”
The bedrooms usually looked immaculate, but this time a tie had been absent-mindedly left on the valet stand. The king bed was remade with fresh ivory sheets even though it seemed lightly slept in. She didn’t like to think of them in bed, even sleeping. He was big and gruff, eyebrows dense and drawn together. Leslie had a frame that seemed made of paper or lace. And she gave off a fragrant coolness even when hurried, even when it was one hundred degrees.
Jana saw a pair of floral, linen-covered (or she thought–did people even have linen shoes? Didn’t they wear poorly, need special care?) heels, one fallen over, and set it upright, then vacuumed around them. Plump taupe silk pillows were off-center on the white loveseat.
In the study, there was a slight rim of dust on the glass bowl collection set upon an illuminated shelf. Jana took care with the pieces, admiring how they shone after she was done. The umbrella plant needed a dusting, too, and watering. There was Leslie’s big desk, lined up on the left side with two pens and a stack of papers, an in and out wooden basket on the right. The orderliness was strange to Jana, whose own built-in desk groaned under its piles. Leslie had left a volume in the middle of the expanse. Its cover was decorated with vivid tropical birds and plants. Thinking it was a book about nature with photographs, Jana put her finger between pages and let it fall open. Just for a quick look.
There weren’t pictures but writing. Pages and pages of handwritten words. Some were filled with only a small paragraph or two, others were crowded with small black cursive. Jana flipped back to the first page: A Poetical Life by L. McBride. Was that the same as poetic, like poetry, and what did it exactly mean? Was it a regular journal or writer’s diary? Maybe there was a relative who hand-wrote her a story book? Her son’s name was Liam. She rifled the pages. No, not a man’s handwriting. She glanced at the clock. She had fifty-five minutes before the security sytem would engage. She had time to look.
But should she? Jana had never invaded another person’s personal belongings. She hadn’t had the urge to sneak exotic chocolates from a candy dish or snoop in multiple drawers like some of her co-workers. Housekeeping was not an intrigue. It, in fact, bored her to converse with her clients. She thought little of their money and less of their occasionally pretentious manner. Leslie was less chatty than many but not rude. Pleasant, but all business which suited Jana. If she had to come up with one word for the woman it would be: detached.
Jana was attending college part-time and this work was a means to an end. After one more year, she would graduate and claim a life worth all the effort. She didn’t need to mess with anything.
But here was something unexpected. An puzzle. Leslie McBride, more private (and also disinterested in her) than any other homeowner she’d met would not leave a diary unattended, out in the open. Maybe she had been writing in it before letting her in. Or she had gotten it out to take with her but forgotten in her rush. Or Gavin had it for some reason, then left it there. It was not Jana’s business and not her way to look further.
The crystal clock on a bookshelf ticked off seconds with a finesse and firmness, as if to remind Jana she was in foreign territory and her visa was soon to expire. A polite warning, as Leslie might tender. But there the book sat, easy, visable. The jungle-like beauty of the covers and the impeccable penmanship lured her, so she turned to another page.
25 March 14
It is Tuesday, that day that is not the beginning or the middle of the week but informs me it is a long way until Saturday–when we will leave for the lake. But the color of the water finds me in sleep; I feel it lapping against my skin and dive deep into blue-greeness. One feels the chill a relief after the sunshine above. I can’t hear the boats or families from there. I can hear bubbles and sounds of fish turning and sand and pebbles moving at the step of my bare feet. I nearly find my soul. It is leaving one life for another and everything that matters can be found in the weave of trees and the transparency of water. At least that is what I am counting on again. It is what Tuesday tells me: hold on and prepare to be freed. And bewitched. And to find a sort of love where once you lost it. Or at least sound sleep.
Jana’s hand went to her chest. She turned several pages farther.
17 April 14
He stumbles. He cannot see through darkness
but senses his way to the window.
It was opened by my hand so wind
can carry in the night, birds can fly to
my side of the bed to make a nest there.
So the moonlight will vex him.
I have left this way before, leaping
from branches to flowers,
finding a current that
carries me to starlight.
I let him weep for the moon.
Jana shut the book and put it down, backed away. Her heart beat with a hard rhythm. What had she seen? It was a dangerous story, a peeling back of layers, a vision of someone she did not know at all. It was the life of a woman, yes, but it couldn’t be Leslie McBride, methodically correct person, icy society matron. The sadness of it, the beauty of it! Jana’s pressed her lips together, looked at the clock, then turned to the journal again.
1 June 14
The lake house is going to be sold, Gavin says without looking at me. He wants something in Mexico, a small villa where we can entertain all his business cohorts. I am not going there with him if he does this. I will destroy something of his; that will make him think twice. Or at least threaten to…! Who can leave a lake like that on the brink of summer? My own guileless lake? How can he take from me this source of renewal, my joy?
2 June 14
Remember the time when life
split our tidy seams, ebullience spilled
from my hands into yours
and loneliness was an echo lost
and love was the new sound it created
without even thinking?
I am asking you.
Find a way.
Jana sat down on the desk chair. She closed the journal and placed her hands atop it. She felt heat inside her, as if she had absorbed Leslie’s words so that the hope and hurt were all stewing there. What had she done? She wanted to cry out in defense of Leslie. But this was not her friend, not even her dear neighbor. Just a woman she cleaned house for. Now, Jana knew her. And she would never be able to look at her. It would worry Jana and make her feel things she shouldn’t when she had work to do.
She stood up, toured the home a last time. Found it satisfactory. All except for her trespass. So she left. Her eyes were stung by sunlight, heart bruised a little like a flower she’d dropped and then stepped on. Jana already cared. But she would not be back.