Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Split-Level Life { Excerpt} Sleepwalking

It is noon before I realize the phone receiver spent the night trapped in the kitchen drawer. As always, Rona manages to be the first to get through to me.

“Well, aren’t you the little chatterbox today,” she says, with an acidic hint of possessiveness that signals: it is time for me to make new friends.

“No, I completely forgot I took the phone off the hook. I’ve been in the bathroom all morning. It must’ve been the chopped meat. The girls and Donny ate pasta and they’re fine.”

“Are you saying it was the chopped chuck from Fernando’s?”

“Ah-huh, probably that order we split of frozen patties.”

“Oh crap, Alex, I just read in Family Circle that you can die from bacteria in spoiled meat.”

I hear doors opening and closing, a frantic shuffle coming through the phone wires as Rona begins emptying her freezer. Like a seasoned cashier, she tabulates aloud: “that’s six filet mignons for $48 bucks, eight shoulder chops equals $ 25, two prime ribs $ 35 and a five pound package of hamburger patties for $15… in zee gar-bage.”

“But it might only be a little virus,” I say. I don’t know whether to laugh, cry or come clean, telling her I’d eaten some scrambled eggs, coffee, had a toke and pretty good sex against the bathroom wall.

“I’m not taking any chances,” Rona says. “Hey, do you feel well enough to come over? I’ll fix you something light to eat…tea, toast, and some scrambled eggs. I’d pick you up, but Hy brought the car in this morning for the 5000 mile check-up. So, I really need you to drive me there later so I can get the car. That’s if you’re up to it.”

It serves me right. I’m full up on eggs, but agree to lunch in half an hour. Without going into details, over the telephone, I mention the lovely babysitter, Colleen Byrnes, saying she is no longer under my employment. Rona gasps with the identical intensity she demonstrated over the possibility of food poisoning.


The Karl’s home is an immaculate split-level, on the north side of town, "done" in muted tones of beige and mocha— reminiscent of a Danish modern furniture showroom or what is best described as dentist sterile. I often picture Rona and Hy sitting down to a Pillsbury-perfect dinner with their young son Ethan, a sweet nervous boy forbidden to tumble and soil his clothes. As their forks and spoons lift in unison, they appear futuristic and comically robotic. As part of her vows, I bet, Rona has included a policy promising no crumbs, spilled milk, or indelible stains. Yet secretly I envy her strict dedication to order. She would have been the model daughter for my mother the one she would have chosen had she been able to foretell the future. “Oh, Alex, how’s that darling friend of yours?” My mother never fails to ask when she calls weekly from Florida, her question reminding me that I, too, was raised in a home where the pursuit for perfection was revered.

"I thought you and Donny loved your babysitter," Rona says, wiping the tuna salad from the corners of her mouth. I’d love a bite of her tuna, but I’m stuck with the dry rye toast and eggs. She stares me down with her thick, mascara-ed brown lashes. Here in Rona’s spotless Formica kitchen, there is no place to hide. I pretend to look for an old dry cleaning receipt in my bag, stalling to collect my thoughts.

"Yes, we both liked her a lot (my voice breaks on both) and she was great with the girls, but there’s this new boyfriend… someone she met this summer. She's just not as dependable as she was, so"

"Hmm, I'm not surprised she has boyfriends. That kid is drop-dead gorgeous."

"You really think so? Personally, I think she's too damn skinny." Heat wraps around my collarbone. My teeth rip through a piece of dry toast.

"Well, maybe she is a bit too thin, but I'd kill for her hair."

"But it's red, Rona! How would you, of all people, manage all that wild, red hair?"

"Relax, take a breath. I can see you’re upset. You'll find another sitter soon. There are zillions of homely teenage girls hanging out at the new mall with nothing to do on Saturday night."

"That’s depressing." I drain the tea-cup. “I hate having to look for someone all over again.” Tears spring to my eyes. I’m on the brink of spilling the beans.

“Hey, we are talking about a few hours on a Saturday night, and an afternoon here and there. Not a big deal.”

“You know, you’re probably right. I’ll find someone new, maybe more competent and reliable.” I sit up straight and finish my slice of rye. The soggy scrambled eggs are buried underneath my napkin.

“So you’re feeling better already, right?” Rona asks, picking at her molars with a wooden toothpick.

“Yes, I think so. Thanks. Thanks for lunch.”

Rona glances at the chrome clock above her stove. “Come on, we’ve still got some time. Let’s get some shopping done while our little monsters are still in camp, and then you can drop me at the car dealer.”

She stands, and in seconds, loads the dishwasher, freshens her lipstick, grabs her handbag, and is ready to go. I stare at her amazed, at how easily she analyzes any crisis, minor or major, produces a solution, and then ties it up like a bundle of old, worn-out clothes to dump in the Goodwill bin. There is not a trace of sentimentality in deciding to let go. Finished. Done. Next. Rona and I live, not only, on the opposite sides of town; we live on opposite poles of the earth. Still, since moving to Wheatley Heights, I am drawn to her like a piglet to teats, searching for any semblance of nourishment.

Truth is; it’s less lonely to sleepwalk alongside her.

Later that afternoon at her suggestion, I place an ad in the North Shore Tattler. By the following week, I have ten teenage girls scheduled for interviews. One of them is a fourteen-year-old named Agnes who lives half a mile away. She is ebullient in spite of severe acne and the silver fences imprisoning her teeth. I hire her on the spot.


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