Topic: First Chapter
In this excerpt, Ellen offers to help teach English to Marisol, the young Dominican woman who cleans for her weekly. Far from home and alone, Marisol welcomes Ellen's kindnesses and the two women soon find themselves in a mutually beneficial arrangement. Mostly, however, Ellen maternal instincts are fueled by her relationship with Marisol. When Marisol leaves, Ellen is bereft.
Marisol was recommended to Ellen by one of the buyers in her office. Although quite young, Marisol was reliable and hardworking. She had been cleaning since she left home in the Dominican Republic two years earlier at seventeen, often working seven days a week to save enough money to go to school. She wanted to learn to read and write English fluently since she was practically illiterate in Spanish. Her father had denied all his daughters any formal education, claiming that learning to read and write would only enable them to exchange love notes with boys. And everyone knew that boys were only interested in one thing. Marisol giggled behind her hand when she told this to Ellen, and Ellen surprised herself by giggling along. It was hard to resist Marisol's expansive nature. Every Monday she came to clean the apartment, and every Monday Ellen was newly struck by Marisol's beauty. She braided her curls into a single plait that hung down her narrow back almost to her waist. Her only jewelry was a pair of small gold hoop earrings and a gold cross on a gold chain that nestled in the hollow at the base of her throat. A starched white blouse and ironed jeans were her unofficial uniform. Her sneakers were always clean, and her unpolished nails noticeably manicured. What really struck Ellen, however, was that Marisol always wore makeup. It seemed odd at first that she would wear lipstick, eye shadow and a light touch of mascara. At first, this meticulous grooming effort to clean for six hours worried Ellen, and she expected to be disappointed in Marisol's performance. However, not only did Marisol's work surpass Ellen's expectations, but Marisol won Ellen's heart. The gentle grace of this young girl was humbling. Soon Ellen understood that Marisol's preparations gave her work dignity. She might have been illiterate, but she had a job and was sought after because of her efficiency. Several months after Marisol had been working for them, Ellen offered to give her English lessons. For a moment, Ellen thought she might have offended Marisol. She hung her head and stared, motionless, at the floor. Concerned, Ellen touched her arm and said her name very softly. In excruciating slow motion, Marisol lifted her head. The perfectly smooth dark skin on her cheeks was streaked with tears. She clasped her folded hands to her chest and mumbled in Spanish, a prayer it seemed. With her usual dignity, she offered to pay Ellen who thanked her but refused, saying that it would be good for her own soul to do something for someone other than herself. Marisol shook her head vehemently, adding that Miss Ellen was a wonderful and kind person. Pleased, Ellen impulsively hugged Marisol who seemed desperate to be held. It was a telling moment. Marisol so clearly longed for her mother, any mother really at that moment, and Ellen so clearly longed to offer a mother's comfort.
Bill, of course, disapproved. He maintained that Ellen would be crossing a line that would have dire consequences. Ellen regarded him with cool disdain. Dire consequences? She thought good deeds brought spiritual reward, not the wrath of the Almighty. They sparred in this manner for weeks until Bill finally withdrew. It was evident that Ellen's mind was made up. She searched the Internet for appropriate materials, pored over educational catalogues, and visited several bookstores until she was satisfied that she had enough to begin Marisol's lessons. Ellen planned for the first lesson as though she were planning a party. She bought marble composition books, pencils and index cards. Although it was prematurely optimistic, Ellen bought several easy readers to tempt Marisol once her confidence was firmly established. Their first lessons went extremely well; so well, in fact, that Ellen found she had underestimated Marisol's determination and ability. In no time at all, Marisol was combining sounds and forming words, moving from basic primers to more complex exercises. She grappled with grammatical constructions, wondered over how little phonetics governed the rules of English spelling and was elated when she met success. Ellen matched Marisol's excitement and pleasure with heady enthusiasm. There was something about the sight of Marisol poring over a blank page in her composition book and filling it with words and then full sentences that made Ellen feel she had finally accomplished something worthwhile.
Every Monday Ellen timed her arrival home to coincide with the end of Marisol's workday. Ellen quickly changed out of her business clothes, and fixed them sandwiches. Marisol especially liked it when Ellen placed a few potato chips alongside the sandwich. The first time Ellen did this Marisol clapped her hands and said it was fancy, just like in the diner. The flush of pleasure that this gave Ellen was even more touching than Marisol's delight. Such a small gesture, and yet it was one of the countless niceties that Ellen had imagined she would have performed as a mother. A note in a lunch box, a book of poetry with favorites checked in the index, homemade marshmallows on a wintry afternoon, tiny foil hearts spread over a red tablecloth on Valentine's Day. Ellen knew they were silly fantasies, but she could not escape them. The idea of her own little girl, doing homework at the kitchen table, chattering about her day while Ellen prepared their dinner was an image that she had permanently etched into her consciousness. The evenings Ellen spent with Marisol did not make up for what had been lost, but they allowed Ellen to practice the maternal feelings she so longed to share.
The day that Ellen had been alternately working toward and dreading finally came. She knew it would. Marisol shyly announced that she had started taking a class at the local community college. "Oh?" Ellen said in her best surprised voice. Marisol wanted to learn to read and write in Spanish, and Ellen spoke only enough Spanish to say hello, goodbye and thank you. The boy's name was Carlos. He was twenty-two, and he had a Green Card and a job. He planned to go to college and become an accountant. Marisol said he was very smart. And handsome. When Marisol said that her father had been right after all, she giggled. She and Carlos passed each other notes in class, and now they were in love. Ellen said how wonderful that was, and gave Marisol a congratulatory hug. Wonderful. Ellen wished her all the best. Really. Marisol and Carlos were getting married next month and moving to New Jersey. He had family there. She was so grateful to Miss Ellen. Really. The next time Marisol came would be the last. There was so much to do before the wedding. Ellen gave her an envelope with an extra one hundred dollar bill and pretended that she was really, really happy though once again, she felt that terrible emptiness that comes with an irreplaceable loss. Bill could not believe what he heard. Irreplaceable? There were millions of young illegal girls out there looking to clean for cash. And Ellen said that, of course, that was true. How foolish of her. Later that night, after Bill's snores signaled a deep sleep, she got up and sat at the dining room table, arranging and rearranging the pencils, pens, index cards and miscellaneous school supplies she had kept in a blue plastic box marked Marisol.