Authors: Nita Prose
“We all have problems,” I said.
“Oh really? What are yours?”
Another question for which I was not prepared. I remembered Gran’s advice—
Honesty is the best policy.
“Well,” I began. “I may not have a husband, but I did have a boyfriend for a while, and because of him, I now have money problems. My beau…he turned out to be…well, a bad egg.”
“A beau. A bad egg. You talk kind of funny, you know that?” She took a big gulp from her glass. “Like an old lady. Or the queen.”
“That’s because of my gran,” I said. “She raised me. She wasn’t very educated in the official sense—she never went beyond high school, and she cleaned houses all of her life, until she got sick. But she schooled herself. She was clever. She believed in the three E’s—Etiquette, Elocution, and Erudition. She taught me a lot. Everything, in fact.”
“Huh,” said Giselle.
“She believed in politeness and treating people with respect. It’s not your station in life that matters. It’s how you conduct yourself that counts.”
“Yeah. I get that. I think I would have liked your gran. And she taught you to talk like that? Like Eliza from
My Fair Lady
“I suppose she did, yes.”
She got up from the divan and stood right in front of me, her chin held high, taking me in.
“You have incredible skin. It’s like porcelain. I like you, Molly the Maid. You’re a bit weird, but I like you.” She then skipped off to the bedroom and returned with a brown men’s wallet in her hand. She rummaged through it and pulled out a new $100 bill. She put it in my hand.
“Here. For you,” she said.
“No, I couldn’t possibly—”
“He won’t even notice it’s gone. And even if he does, what’s he going to do about it, kill me?”
I looked down at the bill in my hand, crisp and feather-light. “Thank you,” I managed, my voice a hoarse whisper. It was the biggest tip I’d ever received.
“It’s nothing. Don’t mention it,” she replied.
That’s how it started, the friendship between Giselle and me. It continued and grew with each one of her extended stays. Over the course of a year, we became quite close. She would sometimes send me on errands so that she didn’t have to face the paparazzi that often waited right outside the hotel’s front door.
“Molly, I’ve had quite a day. Charles’s daughter called me a gold digger, and his ex-wife told me I have terrible taste in men. Will you slip out and buy me barbecue chips and a Coke? Charles hates it when I eat junk, but he’s out this afternoon. Here.” She’d pass me a $50 bill, and when I’d return with her treats, she’d always say the same thing. “You’re the best, Molly. Keep the change.”
She seemed to understand that I don’t always know the right way to behave or what to say. Once, I came at my usual time to clean the room, and Mr. Black was seated at the bureau by the door, perusing paperwork and smoking a filthy cigar.
“Sir. Is now a good time for me to return your suite to a state of perfection?” I inquired.
Mr. Black peered at me over his glasses. “What do
think?” he asked, then, like a dragon, exhaled smoke right in my face.
“I think it’s a good time,” I replied and turned on my vacuum.
Giselle rushed out of the bedroom. She put her arm around me and gestured for me to turn the machine off.
“Molly,” she said, “he’s trying to tell you it’s a really bad time. He’s trying to tell you to basically fuck off.”
I felt horrible, like a complete fool. “My apologies,” I said.
She grabbed my hand. “It’s okay,” she said quietly so Mr. Black wouldn’t hear. “You didn’t mean anything by it.” She saw me to the door and mouthed,
before holding it open so I could push my trolley and myself out of the suite.
Giselle is good like that. Instead of making me feel stupid, she helps
me understand things. “Molly, you stand too close to people, you know that? You have to back off a bit, not get right in people’s faces when you talk to them. Imagine your trolley is between you and the other person, even if it’s not really there.”
“Like this?” I asked, standing at what I thought was the correct distance.
“Yes! That’s perfect,” she said, and she grabbed both of my arms and squeezed. “Always stand that far away, unless it’s, like, me or another close friend.”
Another close friend. Little did she know, she was my one and only.
Some days while I was cleaning the suite, I got the sense that despite being married to Mr. Black, she felt lonely and craved my company as much as I craved hers.
“Molly!” she yelled one day, greeting me at the door in silk pajamas even though it was close to noon. “I’m so glad you’re here. Clean the rooms fast and then we’re doing a makeover.” She clapped her hands with joy.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“I’m going to teach you how to apply makeup. You’re really pretty, Molly, you know that? You have perfect skin. But your dark hair makes you look pale. And the problem is you don’t try very hard. You have to enhance what nature gave you.”
I cleaned the suite quickly, which is hard to do without cutting corners, but I managed. It was lunchtime, so I figured it was acceptable to take a break. Giselle seated me at the vanity in the hallway outside of the bathroom. She brought out her makeup case—I knew it well since I reorganized each of her cosmetics every day, putting the caps back on things she’d left open and placing each tube or container back in its proper slot.
She rolled up her pajama sleeves, put her warm hands on my shoulders, and looked at me in the mirror. It was a lovely feeling, her hands resting on my shoulders. It reminded me of Gran.
She picked up her hairbrush and started brushing my hair. “Your hair, it’s like silk,” she said. “Do you straighten it?”
“No,” I said. “But I wash it. Regularly and thoroughly. It’s quite clean.”
She giggled. “Of course it is,” she said.
“Are you laughing with me or at me?” I asked. “There’s a big difference, you know.”
“Oh, I know,” she said. “I’m the butt of many a joke. I’m laughing with you, Molly,” she said. “I’d never laugh at you.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I appreciate that. The receptionists downstairs were laughing at me today. Something about the new nickname they gave me. To be honest, I don’t fully understand it.”
“What did they call you?”
“Rumba,” I said. “Gran and I used to watch
Dancing with the Stars,
and the rumba is a very lively partner dance.”
Giselle winced. “I don’t think they meant the dance, Molly. I think they meant Roomba, as in the robotic vacuum cleaner.”
Finally, I understood. I looked down at my hands in my lap so Giselle wouldn’t notice the tears springing to my eyes. But it didn’t work.
She stopped brushing my hair and put her hands back on my shoulders. “Molly, don’t listen to them. They’re idiots.”
“Thank you,” I said.
I sat stiffly in the chair, staring at myself and Giselle in the mirror as she worked on my face. I was concerned that anyone could come in and find me sitting down with Giselle Black, having my makeup done. How to handle guests placing you in this exact situation had never been covered in Mr. Snow’s professional-development seminars.
“Close your eyes,” Giselle said. She wiped them, then dabbed cool foundation all over my face with a fresh makeup sponge.
“Tell me something, Molly,” she said. “You live alone, right? You’re all by yourself?”
“I am now,” I said. “My gran died a few months ago. Before that, it was just the two of us.”
She took a powder container and brush and was about to use it on my face, but I stopped her. “Is it clean?” I asked. “The brush?”
Giselle sighed. “Yes, Molly. It’s clean. You’re not the only person in the world who sanitizes things, you know.”
This pleased me immensely because it confirmed what I knew in my heart. Giselle and I are so different, and yet, fundamentally, we are very much alike.
She began using the brush on my face. It felt like my feather duster, but in miniature, like a little sparrow was dusting my cheeks.
“Is it hard, living alone like that? God, I’d never last. I don’t know how to make it on my own.”
It had been very hard. I still greeted Gran every time I came home, even though I knew she wasn’t there. I heard her voice in my head, heard her traipsing about the apartment every day. Most of the time, I wondered if that was normal or if I was going a bit soft in the head.
“It’s hard. But you adapt,” I said.
Giselle stopped working and met my eyes in the mirror. “I envy you,” she said. “To be able to move on like that, to have the guts to be fully independent and not care what anyone thinks. And to be able to just walk down a street without being accosted.”
She had no idea how I struggled, not the slightest clue. “It’s not all a bed of roses,” I said.
“Maybe not, but at least you don’t depend on anyone. Charles and I? It looks so glamorous from the outside, but sometimes…sometimes it’s not. And his kids hate me. They’re close to my age, which I admit is kind of weird. His ex-wife? She’s weirdly nice to me, which is worse than anything. She was here the other day. Do you know what she said to me the second Charles was out of earshot? She said, ‘Leave him while you still can.’ The worst part is I know she’s right. Sometimes I wonder if I made the right choice, you know?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” I said. I’d made my own wrong choice—Wilbur—something I still regretted every single day.
Molly picked up some eye shadow. “Close your eyes again.” I did so. Giselle continued to talk as she worked. “A few years ago, I had one goal and one goal only. I wanted to be swept off my feet by a rich man who would take care of me. And I met this girl—let’s call her my mentor. She showed me the ropes. I went to all the right places, bought a couple of the right outfits. ‘Believe and you will receive,’ she used to say. She’d
been married to three different men, divorced three times, taking each man for half his net worth. Isn’t that incredible? She was set. A house in Saint-Tropez and another in Venice Beach. She lived alone, with a maid, a chef, and a driver. No one telling her what to do. No one bossing her around. I’d kill for that life. Who wouldn’t?”
“Can I open my eyes now?” I asked.
“Not yet. Almost, though.” She switched to a thin brush that felt cool and tender on my eyelids.
“At least you don’t have a man telling you what to do, a man who’s a hypocrite. Charles cheats on me,” she said. “Did you know that? Gets jealous if I so much as glance at another man, but he has at least two mistresses in different cities. And those are just the ones I know about. He has one here too. I wanted to strangle him when I found out. He pays off the paparazzi so they don’t leak the truth about him. Meanwhile, I have to give him a full report on where I’m going every time I leave this room.”
I opened my eyes and sat up straight in my chair. I was most distressed to learn this about Mr. Black. “I detest cheaters,” I said. “I despise them. He shouldn’t do that to you. It’s not right, Giselle.”
Her hands were still close to my face. She’d rolled her pajama sleeves up well past her elbows. From that vantage point, I could make out bruises on her arms, and as she leaned forward and her top shifted, I saw a blue-and-yellow mark on her collarbone too.
“How did you get those?” I asked. There had to be a perfectly reasonable explanation.
She shrugged. “Like I said, things aren’t always great between Charles and me.”
I felt a familiar churn in my stomach, bitterness and anger frothing just below the surface, a volcano that I would not let erupt. Not yet.
“You deserve better treatment, Giselle,” I said. “You’re a good egg.”
“Meh,” she said. “I’m not that good. I try, but sometimes…sometimes it’s hard to be good. It’s hard to do the right thing.” She picked a blood-red shade of lipstick from her kit and began applying it to my lips.
“You’re right about one thing, though. I deserve better. I deserve a Prince Charming. And I’ll make that happen, eventually. I’m working on it. Believe and you will receive, right?” She put the lipstick down and picked up a large hourglass timer from the vanity. I’d seen it there often enough. I had polished its glass curves with ammonia and the brass with metal cleaner to bring it to a high shine. It was a beautiful object, classic and graceful, a pleasure to touch and to behold.
“You see this timer?” she said, holding it in front of me. “The woman I met, my mentor? It was a gift from her. It was empty when she gave it to me, and she told me to fill it with sand from my favorite beach. I said, ‘Are you crazy? I’ve never even seen the ocean. What makes you think I’m going to a beach anytime soon?’
“Turns out she was right. I’ve seen a lot of beaches these past few years. I was escorted to many of them even before I met Charles—the French Riviera, Polynesia, the Maldives, the Caymans. The Caymans are my favorite. I could live there forever. Charles owns a villa there, and the last time he took me, I filled this timer with sand from the beach. I turn it over sometimes and just watch the sand run through. Time, right? You gotta make things happen. Make what you want out of your life before it’s too late…. And done!” she said, stepping away so I could see my reflection in the mirror.
She stood behind me, hands on my shoulders again.
“See?” she said. “Just a bit of makeup, and suddenly you’re a hottie.”
I turned my head from side to side. I could barely see my old self anymore. I knew that I somehow looked “better,” or at least more like everyone else, but there was something very off-putting about the change.
“Do you like it? It’s like duckling to swan, like Cinderella at the ball.”
I knew the etiquette for this, which was a relief. When someone compliments you, you’re supposed to thank them. And when they do something kind for you—even if you didn’t want them to—you’re supposed to thank them.
“I appreciate your efforts,” I said.
“You’re welcome,” she replied. “And take this,” she said, picking up the beautiful timer. “It’s a gift. From me to you, Molly.”
She put the glowing object into my hands. It was the first gift I’d received since Gran died. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d been given a gift by someone other than Gran. “I love it,” I said. I meant it. This was something I valued much more than any makeover. I couldn’t believe it was now mine, to cherish and polish from this day forth. It was filled with sand from a far-off, exotic place that I would never see. And it was a generous gift from a friend.