An Understanding

Something is floating in the pool, the Missus realizes on Tuesday, as she sips the coffee Concepción always brews for her when she starts work. (Fresh coffee is not worth the shame of having to ask for it brewed around noon.) She can’t make out the shape from the kitchen window, but a quick inspection reveals it to be a dead fawn, lying on its side, its front hooves idly playing in the jet of a water filter. “It would be good if they could pick it up before my husband comes home,” she tells Concepción. But when Concepción calls Animal Control, the rude voice that answers, put off by an accent she can’t identify, tells her to call back in the afternoon when a Spanish-speaking operator will be on duty, and so Concepción decides to wash every single one of his shirts instead and leaves the deer in the capable hands of God.

She winds her way through the big house, kneeling periodically to gather clothes strewn in the hallways and across the floors of rooms. Seen from above, her little figure could be that of a penitent monk as he winds his way through a cloister, stopping periodically to touch the ground and mumble a few words of self-abnegation. It’s difficult to keep track of what she has and hasn’t done, in this house. There are so many rooms, and when the husband isn’t home—which is most weekdays and even some weekends at this point—the Missus somehow manages to spread her waking and sleeping hours, her dressing, eating, and undressing, evenly throughout the rooms, so that no room is ever unused. Concepción doubts she’d get a reprimand if she missed one. But her conscience won’t permit her to be like her friend Gloria, who sometimes runs the same load of laundry three times to look busy, and spends most of her workday standing in the kitchen watching soap operas and adding hot water to the cubes of instant mocha that she brings from home.

Each room is very, very elaborately decorated, but Concepción, with her girlhood spent in QuezÓn, can’t see a meaningful difference between the Baroque Revival moldings in the third guest bedroom and the rococo panelling in the ground-floor study. She does have a special fondness for the delicate curves in the gleaming wallpaper of the Art Nouveau room, although she couldn’t tell you why. Today there is a mess in what she doesn’t know is the Victorian room. The sheets on the wrought-iron Murphy bed are in disarray, and a bottle of Pastek that had been sitting open on the floor has been overturned. The whitish, viscous substance oozes across the floor in a two-foot-long slick.

 Only a professional-grade solvent, or paint thinner, will remove the Pastek from the floor, but Concepción can’t drive and doesn’t want to walk to the hardware store in the midday heat. Still, feeling compelled to do something, she fills a bucket with wood soap and water and scrubs meditatively at the stain for the next hour. She knows her efforts will not be rewarded; this is not the first time she’s had to clean up a spilled bottle of this paste. The new wallpaper—an ugly paper, she thinks, imported from a heritage manufacturer in Britain, printed with big fat cabbage roses spilling across a pink and green background—still smells like the store-room and the packages it was shipped in. The shadows of branches and the early afternoon light play across it, and out the window Concepción can see the Missus sitting by the pool, staring out across the lawn and drinking something out of her coffee mug with a straw, while the deer bobs gently in the pool next to her.

Although Concepción is paid a good bit more than Gloria, and probably much more than the other women in her carpool, she sometimes daydreams about leaving this job because the house is so lonely during the day. Other women have houses with children, sometimes little children who don’t go to school yet and need to be fed and bathed. She has a green card, is young and pretty, and could probably find other work. She might even be able to marry an American. The reason she stays is something obscure relating to the Missus. There is something about her mania for decorating that makes Concepción uneasy, and she wonders if the poor woman can’t have children.

If Concepción had the consciousness to ask the right questions, she might also ask why her employer isn’t working, despite a prestigious Ph.D. that hangs on the wall of the third-floor study next to an equally prestigious B.A. When the Missus is in a black mood, she likes to berate herself by telling herself she’s lazy. (She esteems herself too highly to call herself stupid.) The half-written manuscript of her first and last monograph has been locked in her 19th-century Shaker writing desk since she bought it online six months ago. When she isn’t torturing herself by thinking up possible extensions of the book’s argument—which are always of ambiguous value and which she therefore never makes—she puts her art history background to use. She has planned the interior décor of her house, sourced materials from American and European antique dealers, rearranged and altered furniture, and generally wasted time. She realizes sometimes, with a laugh, that she is worse than one of the future wives she used to make fun of in college.

One came to her senior tutorial and announced, “My boyfriend and I are engaged. We leave for Paris on Friday.” Another, who used to wear her right ring finger the largest emerald the Missus has ever seen on, never spoke but always spent the whole two hours braiding and rebraiding her long golden hair. On warm days these long-legged beauties spilled across the portico and steps of the department’s Italianate building, swapping sticks of gum, painting their nails, and sunning themselves. The professors were grumpy old men with hair coming out of their ears. She wrote a thesis subtly insinuating that one of the most prominent of them was sexist and racist and was awarded summa cum laude. When she went to New York for her Ph.D., she fell in love with a very tall and broad-shouldered young associate who swore and talked very loudly and had a habit in conversation of slapping nearby surfaces for emphasis. They saw each other on weekends and went for walks in Prospect Park and then to the bar next to her building to get drunk. In her second year, after each was deeply in the other’s confidence, he told her that he had been seeing a dancer—a man—behind his wife’s back, and that, in celebration of their first anniversary, they were going to look at summer shares in Montauk together. When, six months later, she told him she was suspending her studies to marry and move to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., he asked her to explain herself. When she wouldn’t, he got angry and called her a mercenary. You think you’re so fucking clever, he told her, but if you leave one day you’ll find yourself knee-deep in shitty diapers and you’ll be so deeply fucked that you’ll wish you were dead. She called him a coward, a fag, and a misogynist loud enough for the people in the adjacent offices to hear her.

Their friendship—probably the deepest she has ever had—was an unfortunate mistake and she doesn’t like to think about it. Most days, while she sits by the pool drinking her coffee, she remembers all of the tricks (intellectual and social) that she learned in her six years in higher education. She thinks about the apartment she shared with three other female grad students, all of whom were starved for sexual attention and coped with it by dieting perpetually, denying themselves food so they could forget they were being denied the other thing. She used to pick up men sometimes at the bar next to her building and take them to her room. When they came to the next day they would see the shelves full of books with names like Representation and Suppression and WHO SPEAKS? and the nude photographs of local women—found at her neighborhood flea market—that she had pasted above her bed. More than one of them pulled up his pants and snuck out of the room as quietly as he could. She would have a good laugh later recounting her night to the roommates, who were always nonplussed by the vulgarity she employed but secretly fiercely jealous and also a little cranky from hunger.

Concepción is more or less the only woman she has had regular contact with in her two years since moving to Potomac. The Missus likes to tease her by asking her about her men, and Concepción evades her by blushing and acting as if she doesn’t completely understand the question, even though the Missus knows she didn’t use an interpreter when she was interviewing for her green card and has been picked up several times in the afternoon by a boy in a pickup truck.

 

Later that summer, when Concepción visits her family in the Philippines, she will be kidnapped along with an aunt when they are walking in the street in Lucena City. The kidnappers are three day laborers, one of whom has a pregnant wife and one of whom wants to replace his Geo van (where they will be held until nightfall) with a flashy yellow sports car. As the kidnappers hustle them down to the humid basement where they will pass the final 36 hours of their captivity, Concepción slips on the stairs and loses the baby she has been carrying for the past ten weeks. She won’t have known she is pregnant, and as a small trickle of blood collects at the hem of her skirt, she will only fret for herself and for the green silk dress she has borrowed from the Missus without asking. After her extended family has scraped together the money for the ransom and the kidnappers have delivered her back to the two-story cinderblock building where they live, she will tear the rich garment to shreds in a fit of anger, supposing it the reason that the kidnappers plucked her and her aunt off the street.

Was it the pills she is using? They’re an herbal fertility aid that you can find in drugstores in the Philippines. The married women in her family have taken them for decades. Before that, they would make a tea from the same plants. Concepción isn’t married, at least not yet, but she would like to have a baby. Some mornings, when she’s the only one awake in the house, and she looks out the kitchen window to see the lawn with its pool so empty, and there isn’t a sound to be heard and no one who could possibly observe her, she crushes up one of these pills to slip into the Missus’s morning coffee, where it dissolves over the hours, its peculiar herbal bitterness dissolving into the bitterness of the coffee, and by the time the Missus finally rouses herself and comes down to the kitchen, she could not possibly suspect that the mug she holds contains a sweet loam, a sprinkling of tropical soil.

 

On Tuesday night, Concepción dreams that she is sitting cross-legged in a field as the fawn decomposes in her lap. When she comes to work the next morning, it is gone. The Missus has brewed her own coffee. There’s a mess of grounds scattered across the countertop, but Concepción feels obscurely proud of her anyway. She puts some pretzels on a plate, and cuts up some nice cheese to go with it, and brings it down to the pool, where the Missus reclines in a deck chair in her pink robe and sunglasses reading Architectural Digest.

“Good morning, mam. Did the town come and pick it up?”

“I called Animal Control first thing in the morning,” says the Missus.

“I’m sorry, mam. I called them yesterday when it happened!”

“Oh, they had a record of your call,” says the Missus. “You have nothing to apologize for—they were rude to you. Someone will be calling for you around 11, go ahead and pick up the phone yourself.”

“Thank you, mam! I brought you some food, mam. It’s early. You never eat breakfast because you always wake up at lunch time!” In Concepción’s warm throat there is a rising feeling of devotion to this funny woman-child who treats the work of making her home like a game but always looks so horribly sad.

While she is waiting, she sees the Missus take off her sunglasses and then stand up and slide off her bathrobe. She is wearing a floppy pink bikini that can barely cover the jiggling of her firm little breasts. A deep voice calls her name. She squints up at the third floor of the house and waves slowly, broadly, as if she’s waving at a passenger on the deck of a departing ship.

Later that night, when the Missus searches frantically in the chest of drawers in her bathroom for the diaphragm that her husband doesn’t know she wears, it will be rattling around the floor of Gloria’s car in its pink plastic case. They are coming back from a dance in Virgina along MacArthur Boulevard in Gloria’s RAV4. Concepción reclines against the floral neoprene seat cover and watches the passing day laborers fish in the polluted waters of the Potomac. They do it at night with flashlights so the police won’t see them.

The diaphragm is wet and floppy like a rubber jellyfish, and this makes her think of an old fertility ritual that her grandmother once explained to her. When they get to the Chain Bridge she tells Gloria to pull over. They get out of the car and walk partway across the bridge. “What’s that?” Gloria asks. Concepción opens the pink case to show her the glistening dome. “It’s a giant condom!”

“It’s for women, you put it into your vagina and it seals it up so the sperm can’t get in.”

Gloria makes a vulgar joke and they laugh. “Where did you get it?”

A secret smile spreads across Concepción’s face and she doesn’t answer Gloria’s question. Instead she hurls the diaphragm, case and all, into the river. It bobs on the surface for a moment, propelled by the surf hitting its concavity, and is swept downstream onto the waiting hooks of the fishermen.