Authors: Celeste Ng
For now, she peeled the wrapper from the gum and put it between her lips and felt the mint bloom on her tongue. “Thanks.”
Despite Pearl's insistence that her mother wouldn't mind, Mia minded her lateness very much. When Pearl finally came upstairsâsmelling of smoke and alcohol and something Mia was fairly certain was weedâshe had not known what to say. “Go to bed,” she had finally managed. “We'll talk about it in the morning.” Morning had come, Pearl had slept in, and even when she finally emerged near noon, disheveled and sandy eyed, Mia still hadn't known what to say. You wanted Pearl to have a more normal life, she reminded herself; well, this is what teens do. Part of her felt she should be more involvedâthat she needed to know what Pearl was up to, what Lexie was up to, what all of them were up toâbut what was she to do? Tag along to their parties and hockey games? Forbid Pearl to go out at all? She'd ended up saying nothing, and Pearl had consumed a bowl of cereal in silence and returned to bed.
Soon, however, an opportunity presented itself. The Tuesday after the Halloween party, Mrs. Richardson stopped by the duplex on Winslow Road. “To see if you need anything now that you're all settled in,” she said, but Mia watched her gaze roam around the kitchen and into the living room. She was familiar with these visits, despite what leases said about
limited rights of entry
, and she stepped back to let Mrs. Richardson get a better view. After nearly four months, there was still little furniture. In the kitchen, two mismatched chairs and a gateleg table missing one leaf, all salvaged from the curbside; in Pearl's room, the twin bed and a three-drawer dresser; in Mia's room still only a mattress on the floor and stacks of clothing in the closet. A row of cushions on the living room floor, draped in a bright flowered tablecloth. But the kitchen linoleum
was scrubbed and the stove and fridge were clean, the carpet was spotless, Mia's mattress bed was made with crisp striped sheets. Despite the lack of furniture, the apartment did not feel empty. “May we paint?” Mia had asked when they'd moved in, and Mrs. Richardson hesitated before saying, “As long as it's not too dark.” She had meant, at the time, no black, no navy, no oxblood, though the next day it had occurred to her that perhaps Mia had meant a muralâshe was an artist, after allâand you might end up with Diego Rivera, or you might end up with glorified graffiti. But there were no murals. Each room had been painted a different colorâthe kitchen a sunny yellow, the living room a deep cantaloupe, the bedrooms a warm peachâand the overall effect was of stepping into a box of sunlight, even on a cloudy day. All over the apartment hung photographs, unframed and tacked up with poster gum, but striking nonetheless.
There were studies of shadows against a faded brick wall, photographs of feathers clotting the shoreline of Shaker Lake, experiments Mia was conducting with printing photographs on different surfaces: vellum, aluminum foil, newspapers. One series stretched across an entire wall, photographs taken week by week of a nearby construction site. At first, there was nothing but a brown hill in front of a brown expanse. Slowly, frame by frame, the mound turned green with weeds, covered in brushy grass and scrub and, eventually, a small shrub clinging to its peak. Behind it, a three-story tan house slowly arose, like a great beast climbing out of the earth. Front loaders and trucks flitted in and out of the scene like ghosts caught unawares. In the last photograph, a bulldozer razed the dirt to even the terrain, flattening the landscape like a popped bubble.
“My goodness,” Mrs. Richardson said. “Are these all yours?”
“Sometimes I need to see them up on the wall for a while, before I know whether I've got something. Before I know which ones I like.” Mia
looked around at the photographs, as if they were old friends and she was reminding herself of their faces.
Mrs. Richardson peered closely at a photo of a sullen young girl in a cowgirl outfit. Mia had snapped it at a parade they'd passed on the way into Ohio. “You have such a gift for portraiture,” she said. “Look at the way you've captured this little girl. You can almost see right down into her soul.”
Mia said nothing but nodded in a way Mrs. Richardson decided was modesty.
“You should consider taking portraits professionally,” Mrs. Richardson suggested. She paused. “Not that you're not a professional already, of course. But in a studio, maybe. Or for weddings and engagements. You'd be very highly sought after.” She waved a hand at the photographs on the wall, as if they could articulate what she meant. “In fact, perhaps you could take portraits of our family. I'd pay you, of course.”
“Perhaps,” Mia said. “But the thing about portraits is, you need to show people the way they want to be seen. And I prefer to show people as
see them. So in the end I'd probably just frustrate us both.” She smiled placidly, and Mrs. Richardson fumbled for a response.
“Is any of your work for sale?” she asked.
“I have a friend in New York who runs a gallery, and she's sold some of my prints.” Mia ran a finger along one photograph, tracing the curve of a rusted bridge.
“Well, I'd love to buy one,” Mrs. Richardson said. “In fact, I insist. If we don't support our artists, how can they create great work?”
“That's very generous of you.” Mia's eyes slid toward the window briefly, and Mrs. Richardson felt a twinge of irritation at this lukewarm response to her philanthropy.
“Do you sell enough to get by?” she asked.
Mia correctly interpreted this as a question about rent and her ability to pay it. “We've always gotten by,” she said, “one way or another.”
“But surely there must be times when photographs don't sell. Through no fault of your own, of course. And how much does a photograph typically sell for?”
“We've always gotten by,” Mia said again. “I take side jobs when I need to. Housecleaning, or cooking. Things like that. I'm working part time at Lucky Palace now, that Chinese restaurant over on Warrensville. I've never had a debt I didn't pay.”
“Oh, of course I wasn't implying that,” Mrs. Richardson protested. She turned her attention to the largest print, which had been stuck up alone over the mantelpiece. It was a photograph of a woman, back to the camera, in mid-dance. The film caught her in blurred motionâarms everywhere, stretched high, to her sides, curved to her waistâa tangle of limbs that, Mrs. Richardson realized with a shock, made her resemble an enormous spider, surrounded by a haze of web. It perturbed and perplexed her, but she could not turn away.Â “I never thought of making a woman into a spider,” she said truthfully. Artists, she reminded herself, didn't think like normal people, and at last she turned to Mia with curiosity. She had never before met anyone like her.
Mrs. Richardson had, her entire existence, lived an orderly and regimented life. She weighed herself once per week, and although her weight did not fluctuate more than the three pounds her doctor assured her was normal, she took pains to maintain herself. Each morning she measured exactly one half cup of Cheerios, the serving size indicated on the box, using the flowered plastic measuring cup she'd gotten from Higbee's as a new bride. Each evening, at dinner, she allowed herself one glass of wineâred, which the news said was most beneficial for your heartâa
faint scratch in the wineglass marking the right level to pour. Three times weekly she took an aerobics class, checking her watch throughout to be sure her heart rate had exceeded one hundred and twenty beats per minute. She had been brought up to follow rules, to believe that the proper functioning of the world depended upon her compliance, and follow themâand believeâshe did. She had had a plan, from girlhood on, and had followed it scrupulously: high school, college, boyfriend, marriage, job, mortgage, children. A sedan with air bags and automatic seat belts. A lawn mower and a snowblower. A matching washer and dryer. She had, in short, done everything right and she had built a good life, the kind of life she wanted, the kind of life everyone wanted. Now here was this Mia, a completely different kind of woman leading a completely different life, who seemed to make her own rules with no apologies. Like the photograph of the spider-dancer, Mrs. Richardson found this perturbing but strangely compelling. A part of her wanted to study Mia like an anthropologist, to understand whyâand howâshe did what she did. Another part of herâthough she was only vaguely aware of it at the momentâwas uneasy, wanted to keep an eye on Mia, as you might keep your eye on a dangerous beast.
“You keep everything so clean,” she said at last, running a finger along the mantelpiece. “I should hire you to come to our house.” She laughed and Mia echoed it politely, but she could see the seed of an idea cracking and sprouting in Mrs. Richardson's mind. “Wouldn't that be perfect,” Mrs. Richardson said. “You could come just for a few hours a day and do a little light housekeeping. I'd pay you for your time, of course. And then you'd have all the rest of your day to take pictures.” Mia began searching for the right, delicate words to uproot this idea, but it was too late. Mrs. Richardson had already latched on to it with vigor. “Now, really. Why don't you come and work for us? We had a woman who came
to clean and do some dinner prep before, but she went back home to Atlanta in the spring, and I could certainly use the help. You'd be doing me a favor, really.” She turned around to face Mia squarely. “In fact, I insist. You must have time for your art.”
Mia could see there was no point in protesting, that protesting, in fact, would only make things worse and lead to ill will. She had learned that when people were bent on doing something they believed was a good deed, it was usually impossible to dissuade them. She thought with dismay of the Richardsons, of the vast and gleaming Richardson house, of Pearl's face when her mother dared set foot on this precious soil. And then she imagined herself safely installed in the Richardsons' kingdom, half obscured in the background, keeping watch over her daughter. Reasserting her presence in her daughter's life.
“Thank you,” she said. “That's so very generous of you to offer. How could I refuse?” And Mrs. Richardson beamed.
he arrangements were soon settled: in exchange for three hundred dollars a month, Mia would vacuum, dust, and tidy the Richardson house three times a week and prepare dinner nightly. It seemed an excellent dealâjust a few hours of work per day for the equivalent of their rentâbut Pearl was displeased. “Why did she ask
?” she demanded with a groan, and Mia bit her tongue and reminded herself that her daughter was, after all, fifteen. “Because she's trying to be nice to us,” she retorted, and thankfully, Pearl let the subject drop. But inside she was furious at the thought of Mia invading what she thought of as
spaceâthe Richardson house. Her mother would be just a few yards away in the kitchen, hearing everything, observing everything. The afternoons on the couch, the joking she'd come to feel a part of, even the ridiculous ritual of watching Jerry Springerâeverything would be ruined. Just days before, she'd worked up the courage to swat Trip's hand when he'd made a joke about her pantsâ
Why so many pockets,
what are you
hiding in there?
First he'd patted the pockets at the sides of her knees, then those at her hips, then, when he'd reached for the ones on her rear, she'd smacked him, and to her smitten delight he'd said, “Don't be mad, you know I love you,” and put his arm around her shoulder. With her
mother there, though, she would never dare such a thing, and neither, she suspected, would Trip.
Mr. Richardson, too, found the new arrangements awkward. It was one thing, he thought, to hire a housekeeper; it was another to hire someone they already knew, the mother of one of their children's friends. But Mrs. Richardson, he could see, felt it was a generous gesture, so instead of arguing, he made a point of speaking to Mia on her first morning in the house.
“We're very grateful for your help,” he told her, as she pulled the bucket of cleaning supplies from under the sink. “It's a huge, huge help to us.” Mia smiled and reached for a bottle of Windex and said nothing, and Mr. Richardson cast about for something else to say. “How do you like Shaker?”
“It's quite a place.” Mia sprayed the counter and swept the sponge across it, corralling crumbs into the sink. “Did you grow up in Shaker, too?”
“No, just Elena.” Mr. Richardson shook his head. “I'd never even heard of Shaker Heights before I met her.” Their first week at Denison, he had fallen for the ardent young woman collecting signatures around campus to end the draft. By the time they graduated, he had fallen for Shaker Heights as well, the way Elena described it: the first planned community, the most progressive community, the perfect place for young idealists. In his own little hometown, they'd been suspicious of ideas: he'd grown up surrounded by a kind of resigned cynicism, though he'd been sure the world could be better. It was why he'd been so eager to leave, and why he'd been smitten as soon as they'd met. Northwestern had been his first choice; he'd been turned down, had settled for the only school that let him leave the state, but once he'd met Elena it had seemed, to him, like fate intervening. Elena was determined to return to her hometown after school,
and the more she told him about it, the more willing he was. It seemed only natural to him that such a place would have formed his principled fiancÃ©e, who always strove for perfection, and he gladly followed her back to Shaker Heights after graduation.
Now, almost two decades later, well settled in their careers and their family and their lives, as he filled up his BMW with premium gas, or cleaned his golf clubs, or signed a permission form for his children to go skiing, those college days seemed fuzzy and distant as old Polaroids. Elena, too, had mellowed: of course she still donated to charity and voted Democrat, but so many years of comfortable suburban living had changed both of them. Neither of them had ever been radicalâeven at a time of protests, sit-ins, marches, riotsâbut now they owned two houses, four cars, a small boat they docked at the marina downtown. They had someone to plow the snow in the winter and mow the lawn in the summer. And of course they'd had a housekeeper for years, a long string of them, and now here was the newest, this young woman in his kitchen, waiting for him to leave so she could clean his house.
He recollected himself, smiled bashfully, picked up his briefcase. At the doorway to the garage, he paused. “If working here ever stops suiting your needs, please let me know. There will be no hard feelings, I promise.”
Mia soon settled into a schedule: she arrived in the morning at eight thirty, soon after everyone had gone off to work or school, and would be finished by ten. Then she would go home to her camera, returning at five o'clock to cook. “There's no need to make two trips,” Mrs. Richardson had pointed out, but Mia had insisted midday was the best time for her photography. The truth was that she wanted to study the Richardsons both when they were there and when they weren't. Every day, it seemed, Pearl absorbed something new from the Richardson family: a turn of phrase (“I was
dying”), a gesture (a flick of the hair, an eye roll).
She was a teen, Mia told herself over and over; she was trying on new skins, like all teenagers did, but privately she stayed wary of the changes she saw. Now, every afternoon, she would be there to check on Pearl, to observe these Richardsons who fascinated her daughter so. Every morning she would be free to investigate on her own.
In the course of her cleaning, Mia began to observe carefully. She knew when Trip had failed a math test by the shredded scraps in his trash bin, when Moody had been writing songs by the crumpled wads of paper in his. She knew that no one in the Richardson family ate the crust of the pizza or brown-spotted bananas, that Lexie had a weakness for gossip magazines andâbased on her bookshelfâCharles Dickens, that Mr. Richardson liked to eat those cream-filled caramel bull's-eyes by the bagful while he worked in his study at night. By the time she finished an hour and a half later, the house tidy, she had a very good sense of what each member of the family was doing.
This was how, a week into her new duties, Mia came to be in the Richardson kitchen when Izzy wandered downstairs at nine thirty in the morning.
The day before, Izzy had startled, but not surprised, her family by being suspended from school. In the middle of orchestra, she had, according to the freshmen vice principal, broken the teacher's bow over her knee and thrown the pieces in the teacher's face. Despite repeated questionings and stern talking-tos both at school and at home, she had refused to say anything about what had caused this outburst. It was, as Lexie put it, vintage Izzy: freak out for no reason, do something crazy, learn nothing from it. Consequently, after a hasty meeting with her mother, the principal, and the aggrieved orchestra teacher, she had been suspended from school for three days. Mia was cleaning the stove when Izzy stomped
inâsomehow clomping in bare feet as loudly as she did in her Doc Martensâand stopped.
“Oh,” she said. “It's you. The indentured servant. I mean, the tenant-slash-cleaning lady.”
Mia had heard a thirdhand version of events from Pearl the day before. “I'm Mia,” she said. “I'm guessing you're Izzy.”
Izzy settled herself onto a bar stool. “The crazy one.”
Mia wiped the counter carefully. “No one's said anything like that to me.” She rinsed the sponge and set it in its holder to dry.
Izzy lapsed into silence and Mia began to scour the sink. When she had finished, she turned on the broiler. Then she took a piece of bread from the loaf in the bread box, spread it with butter and sprinkled it thickly with sugar, and set it in the oven until the sugar had melted to a bubbling, golden caramel. She set another piece of bread on top, cut the sandwich in two, and set it in front of Izzyâa suggestion, not a command. It was something she did sometimes for Pearl, when she was having what Mia called “a low day.” Izzy, who had been watching silently but with interest, said nothing but pulled the plate toward her. In her experience, when someone tried to do something for her, it came from either pity or distrust, but this simple gesture felt like what it was: a small kindness, with no strings attached. When she had finished the last bite of sandwich, she licked butter from her fingers and looked up.
“So you want to hear what happened?” she asked, and the whole story emerged.
The orchestra teacher, Mrs. Peters, was widely disliked by everyone. She was a tall, painfully thin woman with hair dyed an unnatural flaxen and
cropped in a manner reminiscent of Dorothy Hamill. According to Izzy, she was
useless as a conductor
and everyone knew to just watch Kerri Schulman, the first-chair violin, for the tempo. A persistent rumorâafter some years, calcified as factâinsisted that Mrs. Peters had a drinking problem. Izzy hadn't entirely believed it, until Mrs. Peters had borrowed her violin one morning to demonstrate a bowing; when she'd handed it back, the chin rest damp with sweat, it had smelled unmistakably of whiskey. When she brought her big camping thermos of coffee, people said, you knew Mrs. Peters had been on a bender the night before. Moreover, she was often bitingly sarcastic, especially to the second violins,
the ones whoâas one of the cellos put it drilyâwere “pigmentally blessed.” Stories about her had filtered down to Izzy even in middle school.
Izzy, who had been playing violin since she was four, and had been assigned second chair even though she was a freshman, should have had nothing to fear. “You'll be fine,” the cello had told her, eyeing Izzy's frizzy golden hairâthe dandelion fro, Lexie liked to call it. Had Izzy kept her head down, Mrs. Peters would likely have ignored her. But Izzy was not the type to keep her head down.
The morning of her suspension, Izzy had been in her seat, practicing a tricky fingering on the E string for the Saint-SaÃ«ns piece she'd been working on in her private lessons. Around her the hum of violas and cellos tuning up grew quiet as Mrs. Peters stormed in, thermos in hand. It was clear from the start that she was in an extraordinarily foul mood. She snapped at Shanita Grimes to spit out her gum. She barked at Jessie Leibovitz, who had just broken her A string and was fishing in her case for a replacement. “Hangover,” Kerri Schulman mouthed to Izzy, who nodded gravely. She had only a general sense of what this meantâa few times Trip had come home from hockey parties and had seemed, she thought, extra dense and
groggy in the morning, even for Tripâbut she knew it involved headaches and ill temper. She tapped the tip of her bow against her boots.
At the podium, Mrs. Peters took a long swig from her mug of coffee. “Offenbach,” she barked, raising her right hand. Around the room students riffled through their sheet music.
Twelve bars into
Mrs. Peters waved her arms.
“Someone's off.” She pointed her bow at Deja Johnson, who was at the back of the second violins. “Deja. Play from measure six.”
Deja, who everyone knew was painfully shy, glanced up with the look of a frightened rabbit. She began to play, and everyone could hear the slight tremor from her shaking hand. Mrs. Peters shook her head and rapped her bow on her stand. “Wrong bowing. Down, up-up, down, up. Again.” Deja stumbled through the piece again. The room simmered with resentment, but no one said anything.
Mrs. Peters took a long slurp of coffee. “Stand up, Deja. Nice and loud now, so everyone can hear what they're
supposed to be doing.” The edges of Deja's mouth wobbled, as if she were going to cry, but she set her bow to string and began once more. Mrs. Peters shook her head again, her voice shrill over the single violin. “Deja. Down, up-up, down, up. Did you not understand me? You need me to speak in Ebonics?”
It was at this point that Izzy had jumped from her seat and grabbed Mrs. Peters's bow.
She could not say, even when telling Mia the story, why she had reacted so strongly. It was partly that Deja Johnson always had the anxious face of someone expecting the worst. Everyone knew that her mother was an RN; in fact, she worked with Serena Wong's mother down at the Cleveland Clinic, and her father managed a warehouse on the West Side. There weren't many black kids in the orchestra, though, and when her parents showed up for concerts, they sat in the last row, by themselves;
they never chitchatted with the other parents about skiing or remodeling or plans for spring break. They had lived all of Deja's life in a comfortable little house at the south end of Shaker, and she had gone from kindergarten all the way up to high school withoutâas people jokedâsaying more than ten words a year.
But unlike many of the other violinistsâwho resented Izzy for making second chair her first yearâDeja never joined in the snide comments, or called her “the freshman.” In the first week of school, Deja, as they'd filed out of the orchestra room, had leaned over to zip an unfastened pocket on Izzy's bookbag, concealing her exposed gym clothes. A few weeks later, Izzy had been digging through her bag, desperately looking for a tampon, when Deja had discreetly leaned across the aisle and extended a folded hand. “Here,” she'd said, and Izzy had known what it was before she even felt the crinkle of the plastic wrapper in her palm.