Green Vase

Up at five. I rise before she does. I begin cleaning by six. It takes seven hours. It never ceases to humiliate: cleaning another woman’s home.

Take a break to wake Mrs. Pattershall, serve her tea, and provide a hand to help her out of bed. After dressing, she gets under my feet. I think of her as in my way, as out of place, as imposing. It is her apartment. I just clean it. But I am the one taking care of it. She is in the way. In her own home. How humiliating.

She’s poking around, looking for the green vase with the gold filigree. “It’s the only thing I have left of my mother.”

Trying to be helpful, I say, “I know I’ve seen it recently, but can’t place where or when.”

She says, “Now, who could have taken my green vase? If you were to come across it, you will give it back, won’t you?”

I would emphasize the word “Catholic.” I think that she hates us even more than she does the Jews.

I aim my eyes and my energy, with the focus of an intercontinental ballistic missile, on polishing her credenza. I want to say that I would never steal from her, and not just because of my Catholic morality. I would emphasize the word “Catholic.” I think that she hates us even more than she does the Jews. Although I’ll never forget this particular Pattershall-ism: “I can distinguish between New York Jews and California Jews by their facial features alone.” I’ve never heard Mrs. Pattershall utter a word against blacks. Her prejudices, like her, are antique. They calcified long before the Civil Rights Movement; even before the Holocaust, in the early days of the twentieth century, when she was a young schoolteacher, in white gloves, and scary Jews and Catholics from Eastern Europe clogged urban ports. I would never steal from her, I would say, not just because of my Catholic morality, thank you very much, but because of my good taste. It’s raining outside, heavily. I reconsider. I do not say anything. Eventually I will say the thing that will make her kick me out, but it will not be this thing, not on this day of heavy rain. I view my reflection in the fiercely polished surface of Mrs. Pattershall’s credenza.

She finds a different green vase, the one with the white enamel. She insists, “This is the only thing I have left of my mother.” She retires to the living room to watch her big-screen color TV. I don’t want to steal her vase. I want to steal time in front of that TV, which I never get to watch. I go out every day, see the sky, the world, people. I envy a shut-in’s big-screen color TV. Feh.

While cleaning, not seeking for the long-lost, gold-tricked, green vase, I toss the white enameled one about roughly. If – accidentally – I were to drop it, she’d have to throw me out, now, wouldn’t she? “It slipped,” I think. “I couldn’t help it!” I mentally practice pleading, as I mentally pack my bags. “How could you do this to me?” I accuse, as I mentally slam her door for the very last time. The vase does not drop. I am, for another term, a live-in domestic.

I fix her lunch, though that is not part of my contract, as are the morning tea and evening dinner, which nail my every day to her. Take a thorough shower. Hike to campus through a driving rain that renders my shower redundant.

Suddenly there is a new sound in Stephen’s Lounge, or something entirely new – any sound at all! – other than the subdued turning of pages, politely creaking furniture as bodies reposition strategically, muffled coughs or, rarest of all, escaped, apologetic, farts.

In Stephen’s Lounge, I dive into Preface to Plato, a tremendously exciting book. Today read two hundred pages of it; learn oral cultures are fundamentally different from literate ones. Suddenly there is a new sound in Stephen’s Lounge, or something entirely new – any sound at all! – other than the subdued turning of pages, politely creaking furniture as bodies reposition strategically, muffled coughs or, rarest of all, escaped, apologetic, farts. This sound is unpracticed, more dolphin-like than human – has this man ever spoken? “Is there a Nancy Hobart in the room?” asks the Stephen’s Lounge caretaker, a tall and rugged Daniel Boone of academia.

I look up and see a dripping delivery boy in a yellow slicker holding high a dozen red roses, reminding us that it is Valentine’s Day. A blushing and giggling Nancy Hobart, freshly wrenched from her version of Preface to Plato, rises from her study, reaches out over a couch, over the heads of three studying students, and takes her the roses, which drip, subtly, on the students. Daniel Boone hands her an emptied-out milk carton to serve as vase for her bouquet. We all laugh. After an initial pause, one person begins to clap. We all applaud.

I am surprised at how quickly, after I have clapped a few claps, my head drops back to my book; at how quickly I have changed from a working class Jersey girl who would have, with her buddies, milked this moment for a good thirty-five minutes of boisterous camaraderie, to a Berkeley scholar for whom silence and isolation are paramount, for whom they are gems wrenched from the pinching claws of life as Mrs. Pattershall’s live-in domestic.

I wonder if Glamorous Biker is here. I saw his bike downstairs. Even his bike is sexier than I, and pricier. I fell in love with him the day I came upon him as he rode his bike to the foot of the stone stairs leading up to Stephen’s Lounge. He stopped, dismounted, took the heavy bike in his right hand, held it away from his body, and sprinted with it, up the flight of stairs.

Have I been imagining it all? This is a silent study lounge. I’ve been in the same room with Daniel Boone for the last ninety days and all I know about him is that he looks like his name ought to be Daniel Boone, and that he keeps the coffee percolating, and the Pepperidge Farm cookies splayed on a tray, for a small fee, which we drop into a coffee can, a fee whose accuracy he calibrates by the thud our coins make as they collide with the mound of mixed coins at the bottom of the can.

They say that you can tell when you are being stared at. For at least the past month, in silent Stephen’s Lounge, deep in my books, I’ve been feeling that Glamorous Biker has been staring at me.

They say that you can tell when you are being stared at. For at least the past month, in silent Stephen’s Lounge, deep in my books, I’ve been feeling that Glamorous Biker has been staring at me. One day last week, I lifted my head from my book and gazed directly at him. He struck a pose of affront, as if I had started it, so I stopped noticing him. At all. After three days of my refusal to notice him, he dropped a piece of paper into my lap. There was a phone number on that piece of paper. Alone on that piece of paper. No name. No proposed plan.

I didn’t want to phone from Mrs. Pattershall’s. Last night I walked to Oakland, to Rick’s.

For whom would I ask? Glamorous Biker? Offering my name wouldn’t help; Glamorous Biker doesn’t know my name any more than I know his. But I’d recognize his voice – I’ve never heard his voice.

“Hi, this is Danusha from Stephen’s Lounge,” I ventured.

“Oh, yeah, right. He said you’d call. I’m Nate, the housemate.”

Nate’s knowledge was either a very good sign, or a very bad one. Nate took a message.

“Well, how did it go?” Rick asked gently.

I told him.

“Omigod. He lives with Nate?” Rick exclaimed.

“Nate?” I asked.

“All the girls I meet…all the girls I’ve rented houses with…all the girls in Slavic…they’ve all been with Nate in Political Science.”

I felt so crushed. Whenever Glamorous Biker enters Stephen’s Lounge, I, I alone, recognize him, and – and just, just, appreciate his light and loveliness and, and … okay, so we haven’t spoken, but I can just tell…

If Glamorous Biker and I ever do go out for a beer, I’ll have to ask, “Why do you flirt with me? And, come to think of it, not just with me, but also with that German student with the flea-bitten ankles and the chocolate addiction? She’s never met a Pepperidge Farm cookie she didn’t like. How does she stay so slim?”

Nancy Hobart has folded her roses unobtrusively into the studious gloom of Stephen’s Lounge; she is once again, an anonymous scholar in reading glasses, fighting, like the rest of us, to rein in her focus, her enthusiasm, and her farts. Daniel Boone is deep in his book, keeping the most disinterested of eyes and ears on the cookie change clunking into the coffee can. My fingers tighten around Preface to Plato. Glamorous Biker has just entered the room.

He doesn’t look my way; doesn’t greet me with a silent nod or a mouthed “Hi.” Displays no awareness that I’m here. But he must know I’m here. He must be able to tell I’m looking at him. Everyone here, whether they are looking at their books or not, knows I’m looking at him. It’s a spontaneously combusted wildfire of silent awareness. He swings past, slices right through my eyes’ importunate appeal, stretches his blond and lean and limber body on a couch, places The New York Times over his eyes, and, perhaps, sleeps.

What’s the right metaphor – I devote little time to trying to figure out how to describe other women’s breasts. Her breasts are better than mine.

Then why did he give me his number, then? Was it just bait? Did I fall for a trap? Do I exist to make the German chick jealous? I’ve told you she has flea-bitten ankles; did I tell you that she has breasts like grapes, melons, bowling balls? What’s the right metaphor – I devote little time to trying to figure out how to describe other women’s breasts. Her breasts are better than mine.

I walk back – I do not say “home” never “home” but “back” – in a streaming rain and prepare a perfect soufflé for Mrs. Patershall’s dinner; she delays coming to the table; it partially deflates. I do not care. I dine on a care package of Rick’s hummus; hummus does not deflate.

After I have the dishes all cleaned up, and the floor swept and washed – I do not do that on my knees, no matter how hard Mrs. Patershall insists – I return to my room, to quiet and solitude and Preface to Plato. I hear some small commotion: the doorbell ringing; Mrs. Pattershall finally answering it; some chirping, some arranging of something. And then: CRASH! Followed by tears.

I just know. I walk into the kitchen and across water and sea-foam green, gold-flecked shards. Mrs. Pattershall found the long-sought vase. Trying to fill it with water for the red roses her dutiful daughter has sent her, late, on this day (Mr. Pattershall died more than half her life ago), she dropped it. She is now seated on a chair, crying. I begin rubbing her back. I say nothing. I’ve come to conclude that she can’t accept others’ words; hers must be contrary and superior. I want to avoid frustration. So, I say nothing, while rubbing her back.

“That was the only thing I have left of my mother.”

I nod.

“She died when I was four.” That buzz-saw Yankee accent. “Four” comes out as “foah.” “As she was dying, she said to Aunt Lucy, ‘Take care of my husband and the farmhands. Don’t worry about her, though. She can take care of herself.’ I was only four! I’ve kept that vase for almost one hundred years. I’m so stupid. All I do is drop things.”

I squat, pick up the splinters of green glass, which nest readily in the palm of my hand, as if to make ready for a family of glass bluebirds. “I drop things too,” I say.

“Not as many as I!” she announces.

“It was a mistake,” I say calmly, “everyone makes mistakes. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” I think I risk saying this because I’ve never heard her speak of her mother, or anyone, for that matter, with any warmth. She spoke of the vase – as a connection to her mother – with warmth, and now it is broken, and it was she who broke it. “Do you want me to keep the pieces?”

“No! Take them from my sight!”

I descend to my knees. My fingers venture gingerly under the cupboards.

“I feel so guilty,” she says, softly, “for suspecting people of taking things. But people have taken things.”

I remembered. Mommy had been promised, before she left, that in America the streets were paved with gold; she was informed, upon arrival at Ellis Island, that she had been invited to America in order to clean those streets. I remember one day that Mommy had gone to a new job, and her new boss had placed large wads of dollar bills on top of a dresser and in the refrigerator. Mommy could see what was going on. These greenbacks were the bait of a trap. He was testing her. She walked out, never to return. She didn’t linger long enough, even, to get paid for the work she had done there. That was her victory. That bastard. I don’t know his name, but he lives on in this family story.

“We had more than the others,” Mrs. Pattershall announces.

“The others.” She knew I was an “other” because I was poor; that’s why Professor Dundes sent me to her, so I could pay tuition and have a roof over my head at the same time. She rejoiced when she discovered that I am Catholic. “Catholics have too many children! That’s why you have to live with me.” How did she know who “the others” were in her New England village, where everyone was a WASP whose family had been in North America for the previous three hundred years? Incidents like this: “My mother left me a truly beautiful hat. A true chapeau. I wore it in front of the other children, who envied me because I was smart, and envied my father, because he was intelligent, and rich. They made fun of my hat and called it ‘an old piss pot.’ ‘I wouldn’t put that old piss pot on my head!'”

She waves her arms around the apartment, around the things that make a four-room, two-bath apartment a seven-hour job to clean. “Why don’t I just throw out this old junk?” she asks.

Foolishly, I take the bait. “Why don’t you donate it?”

“Are you serious?” she looks down at me. “Why just that little cracked toy there, do you realize how much it’s worth? Take a guess. You’d be wrong. I’ve had it appraised. Five hundred dollars! It’s been passed down in my family for one hundred and fifty years. Be careful when you dust it. Probably you’re not used to handling things like that.”

My not stealing must be such a disappointment to Mrs. Pattershall. She lacks the aesthetic sense to appreciate her things. My stealing them would solidify for her their real value: to arouse others’ envy.

I rise and place the glass splinters into a bag. I knot the bag. I’ll take it downstairs immediately after saying goodnight to her. She need not be tormented by having the remains in the apartment. I put the bag down on the countertop. I rinse my hands of quills. With clean hands, I stroke Mrs. P’s narrow shoulders under her velveteen robe.

Mommy couldn’t afford a babysitter for us when we were sick home from school. After third grade, we fended for ourselves. Before that, before she felt safe leaving us home alone, she would take us with her while she worked. If I hadn’t already known that cleaning houses is dirty, the way the rich treated my mother was enough to let me know.

I was five years old, and too sick to attend kindergarten. Mommy transported me to a neighborhood confected of clouds. I gazed at tiny glass swans afloat on a mirror pool in the forgotten corner of one rich woman’s vast home. I knew that these swans belonged with me, not with the shits in that house. It was a question of justice.

The phone call came that night. I was in bed. Mommy looked at me. “They want to know if you stole their swans.” There was no anger in her.

How could I spirit away large waterfowl in my little kid coat? That was really the first confused image that staggered into my mind. I learned to disassociate from my crimes early. And it was already night. In little-kid time, what had had happened that morning was eons ago.

I breathed out an exaggerated, “Noooo!”

Nothing more was ever said. The swans, the elegant glass miracles, were inviolable in the most remote place I knew, a place never entered by others: my sock drawer. It had never occurred to me to question how socks entered that drawer. One day I realized that the swans were no longer there. At that moment I felt much older than I had felt before it; I felt much older on that day of awareness, followed by awareness, followed by awareness. In that domino cascade of awarenesses, including, “Oh, so that’s where socks come from,” was this one: That I had stolen, not liberated, the swans. That they were not my long-lost family, and that my placing them in my pocket was not an act of reunion. That they were objects, and that they were best classified, not as something loved and appreciated, but as something owned. Their ownership was decided by something I did not have: money. I realized that I was ashamed. In another awareness, I realized that I was ashamed for a different reason.

After dredging up this story, a fresh awareness suddenly arises. That was probably the classiest way that my mother had ever behaved toward me. I can no longer continue to say that my mother never showed me any tenderness. And I realize why she was so kind to me on this occasion, rather than, say after I’d gotten a good report card. I feel a fresh compassion for Mommy. Thank you, Mrs. Pattershall.

Sometimes I worry about myself. I fear that I’ve lost who I am; I fear that when I have a dog to pet again, a boy to kiss, and my own place, will I, the me I’ve lost, return? I tell myself, “Trzmaj sie. Hold on.” But then I realize that in this place, I am meeting new aspects of my most prized self that I never would have encountered, had I not come here.

I put Mrs. Pattershall to bed. My hand is on the light as she volunteers something that surprises me. “You know, dear, Professor Dundes has high hopes for you. He says you have it. Of all the students he has this year, he says that you have it. Never forget that, dear.”

I blush. I smile. I put out the light. “Good night, Mrs. Pattershall.” I still have some time to read Preface to Plato before I go to sleep.

Danusha Goska is a New Jersey teacher and writer. Her work has appeared in anthologies including The Impossible Will Take a Little While. Her new book, Save Send Delete, tells the true story of a debate about God and a love affair she shared with a celebrity atheist.