by David Galef
“My sweater is broken,” said Natasha.
“You mean torn?”
“Maybe.” She made a face.
We were seated at one of those pinhead-sized tables at the No Name Café, which barely fit two mugs and Natasha’s elbows. She was wearing a man’s navy-blue button-down shirt—mine, in fact—tucked sloppily into a pair of low-cost jeans. No make-up on her high cheekbones, the Tatar angles that some models would covet, only on Natasha the effect was of a louche doll, with Oriental-cut auburn hair. She’d have been taller than me if she hadn’t slouched. Now she looked let down or disappointed.
Crestfallen was the word. She was often that way when she made a stab at the right term but ended up cutting herself. Vulnerable, adorable. I patiently explained the difference between items that can be broken versus materials that rip. Vases and chairs. Paper and fabric. She nodded and made a note in a small spiral-bound pad that she carried in her sack of a purse. She half-frowned as she wrote, her mouth straight as a pin. Her faces were a specialty: puzzled, her violet eyes turned round; exasperated, nose twitching; or absorbed, when she was poring over a tome with a Cyrillic title like a series of broken columns. I tried to get her to read more newspapers, but she said she’d had enough news for this decade.
It was early afternoon, and half the customers were reading books, thick ones and not all in English. This was not a cell phone and laptop kind of place with triple skinny lattes. The main event here was still black coffee. The owner, a stocky middle-aged man, looked like a barrel in a turtleneck as he moved from counter to table, nodding sympathetically. He’d come from Romania fifteen years ago and was supportive of the immigrant experience. He let people run up tabs and had been known to float loans. He also encouraged what I’d call a polyglot atmosphere. At almost any time of day, you could sit at the No Name Café and catch four or five different languages from people carrying on what sounded like intelligent arguments.
Natasha was a pretty puzzle. It was never entirely clear where she came from—some Eastern Baltic state like Estonia or Latvia, only whichever one I suggested was never right. Had she been fleeing a dictatorship or an abusive boyfriend? Was she a physical therapist or someone in need of therapy?
What’s obvious was that she didn’t have her green card, a subject that came up often. She was working as an apartment cleaner, which is how I met her. On the piebald cork bulletin board in the café, she’d tacked up a sign about “making apartment good as news.” I’m a professional pedant, which is to say that I’m an English teacher, and I like correcting people. Natasha caught me with a red pen one afternoon, deleting the s from “news.”
“What do you do?” She stood there with her hands on her hips as if pushing herself upward.
“I—I’m just fixing your sign.” I hadn’t expected to be caught. “It’s, well, it’s off a little.”
“Off? No, on. On board there.”
Natasha’s English got better quickly, but at the time it was seriously flawed, sometimes comical. Here was someone I could do something with, mold her into something finer. Call me Pygmalion or just an interferer. I explained what “off” meant in this context, and for the first time heard her laugh—a red, throaty sound like joy regurgitated. I went on to show why the expression was “good as new,” that news was recent information, like what one got from reading the newspaper—“only sometimes the news is old.”
That laugh again. “You are native speaker, no?”
“Okay, I trust you, maybe.”
“Good.” I asked if I could buy her a cup of coffee, and she said probably. In those days, she was tentative about many things: her English, what to eat for lunch, how to pay her rent, her future in America. Perhaps I could help, I implied. She was attractive in an odd way, tall and manly, except for her full breasts, which looked out of place on her square frame. Double-chested, as she might have said. She was wearing black jeans and a tattered vest over a T-shirt that read, inexplicably, “HERE AND NOW.”
Once we were seated and sipping coffee, I asked her what the T-shirt meant.
She shrugged, which called attention to that chest. “I don’t know. Someone on street sell it to me, three dollars.”
I explained “here and now.” She said that here and now in America was stupid. God, it was a thrill talking to someone else who wasn’t a part of the system. We started arguing about the U.S. government, though it turned out we weren’t really at cross-purposes. Stupid versus moronic, those were our contrasting views. But that led to a question.
“Then why are you here?”
“I hear . . . America is land of opportunity.”
“It can be.” I thought of my opportunities and what I had done with them. “If you’re willing to work hard.”
“I am.” She flexed her right arm like a body builder. She looked at me appraisingly, though with a different sort of appraisal than I was giving her. “You want me clean your apartment?”
I hesitated, not because I couldn’t really afford it—only that the apartment was in such a state I’d have to straighten up just so she could get to the surfaces. I had mounds of unfolded clothing around the bed, books slanting all over the dining area, and an unsuccessfully disinfected bathroom that smelled of something dank when the door was closed. I didn’t have dishes piled up in the kitchenette sink, but that was only because they were elsewhere—on the counter, under the table, or back in the cupboard without the benefit of a good scouring. It had been that way for over two years, since the last time I’d made a real effort. I kept meaning to put everything away but figured I should get my life in order first. I pondered that for a moment. I also thought about how nice it would be to have her at my place.
She read my pause as a bargaining ploy.
“Okay.” She nodded slowly. “I make it twenty-five. But you help me with English, maybe. Can do?”
“Can do.” I’d never heard my language spoken quite this way. I was enchanted and gave her my widest grin. “I’d be happy to.”
That Thursday morning, I was patrolling my apartment in my underwear, which didn’t take long. It was a studio space as big as a bunch of walk-in closets joined together, renting for something just this side of reasonable. In the bed area I started folding the clothes, which looked like a scattering of dead birds, but ended up cramming them into the closet. The rest went into the already stuffed dresser, a three-tiered dwarf that I’d had since high school. The books got stacked in a corner, the dishes put in the sink. I wanted her to think well of me, an American male in his prime. I swabbed here and there a bit with a wet bath towel. It was one of my days off from work, and Natasha had said she’d come at 2:00.
Precisely at 1:53, the buzzer rang. Damn. I pressed the button and stood in my doorway like a sentinel, in a pair of almost-clean jeans and a red polo shirt I’d rescued from one of the mounds. “You’re early,” I told Natasha as she came up the stairs.
“No, on time. Your clock must be retarded.” She had a cardboard box under one arm, which she set down with a thump on the floor. In it was a bulgy bottle of cleaning fluid, a mop head that had suffered a bad haircut, and some rags of rags. She looked around the apartment curiously. She shook her head. “Mess.” She pronounced this word as if it were a diagnosis.
Then she got to work. It took her over an hour and a half to clean my small place, with me mostly hanging around and trying to look busy, though all I had to do that day was go food shopping. She dusted with a shredded rag and a strong flick of her wrist. She borrowed my vacuum cleaner and pushed it up and down the throw rug. She mopped the floor and even got under my bed, where a parade of dust mice lived. As she cleaned, I carried on a desultory conversation with her about job possibilities, fixing an error here (“this take time”) and an imprecision there (“I correct dirt”). The contrast between what she had and what she wanted, a menial job versus some kind of gig with a band, was poignant. Watching her scour my toilet was a bit embarrassing, but when she bent down, she revealed a sexy crescent of lower back between her jeans and her thin sweater.
She liked me. At least I think she did. She smiled more or less in my direction from time to time. And she listened. We talked until she finished, with a flourish of a rag like a military surrender. Then I had an idea. “Look,” I said, “I’ve got some clothes I never wear that would fit you just fine.” At first she protested, but I yanked out a yellow shirt and a pair of brown slacks from my dresser and shoved them into her arms. “Go ahead, try them on.” I steered her toward the bathroom, and even though she may have suspected a trick, she had a practical streak. She went inside, locked the door with a click, and came out a few minutes later wearing what I’d given her. I’d been right: the fit was good. In fact, she looked a lot better than me in that same outfit. Somehow the shirt had assumed the proportions of a blouse, and the pants clung like a dream.
She turned to look in my bedroom mirror and seemed doubtful. “Looking good?”
I nodded, counting out twenty-five precious dollars into her callused palm. I wanted to prolong the moment but suddenly couldn’t think of what to say. All I could come up with was, “Same time next month?”
“Sure.” She showed her tantalizingly brief smile. “Four weeks okay? Why not?” Then she piled her cast-off clothes into her cleaning box, hoisted it onto her shoulder, and clomped out of my apartment. From my one window, I watched her cross the street, turn left, and disappear down the block. For a while, I stared at the spot on the sidewalk where I’d last seen her, as if she might reappear any moment. She did, but only in my imagination.
The next day I tried calling her, but all I got was her voice mail: “I cannot be reached. Leave one message.” I left a few, then gave up. I went back to the No Name Café several times—all right, more than several—but had no luck. In my mind, I talked to her, corrected her funny expressions, and stared into those violet eyes until I saw something stir. But I didn’t really see her till four Thursday afternoons later at precisely 2:00 (I’d reset my clock). Once again, I was off from work. This time, she had a larger array of cleaning implements, including some brushes and a real mop. She was wearing my shirt and pants, which touched me but was also slightly annoying: they’d probably get ruined that way. In any event, I complimented her on her appearance, and she nodded uncertainly. That lack of confidence, so seductive in certain women! Once again, as she went from bed to sink, we talked—at first about my job, then I turned the subject back to her work. At this point she had ten apartments to clean, “each many bigger than you.”
I gently corrected her, and she said something about making all ends meet, so I set her straight on that expression too, and we went back and forth like that for the single hour it took her. Maybe the first cleaning had cleared the way for this one, or else she’d grown more efficient. The sway of her breasts when she attacked the floor inspired me to write a poem I never finished. At the end of her stint, I presented her with another cast-off shirt, which she accepted without much comment. Her other clients probably paid her more. She left that afternoon, humming an odd but catchy tune with occasional snatches of lyrics I couldn’t understand.
That Tuesday, when I had a free afternoon, I happened by the No Name Café, where I finally got lucky. I found her sitting in the back and frowning over a notebook. That was the day she claimed her sweater was broken. I gave her a little talk on the right verb for the job, from ripping and tearing to breaking and crumbling, and she nodded, but she still wanted to show me her sweater. She extracted it from her bag, neatly rolled up to avoid creasing. She was right: the zipper was broken, missing two teeth near the bottom.
When I explained the difference to her, she laughed triumphantly and poked me in the ribs. “Broken like I said.” She held out the two edges of the zipper. “But can you fix?”
“Sorry, no can do.” I sighed. “There’s a lot of things I can’t fix.”
We sat and talked for a while longer, Natasha asking most of the questions—about America, about me. She asked about the gap between the rich and the poor in this country, about my job and why I was free on certain weekday afternoons. I mumbled something about a flexible schedule and night classes. When she excused herself to use the bathroom, I stole a look at her notebook. It seemed like half journal, half English lesson, though a lot of it was written in a language that looked Russian. One word was underlined twice, alongside a tiny doodle of someone in bed. In one place, the English phrase “half-cooked thought” was crossed out and replaced by “half-baked idea.” What odd mistakes. Why wasn’t she focusing more on basics?—yet how diligent she was. My hard-working woman. I tried to recall the last time I’d been that way about something, but couldn’t.
Eight weeks passed. Her English was definitely improving. Never mind how many times I tried to contact her in between cleaning sessions. Once I asked her why she didn’t return calls. She said she’d switched phones, but the new number was equally unresponsive. This particular Thursday, she either cleaned faster or more dexterously, because she cut five minutes from her record of one hour. Somehow she looked bigger, or maybe I’d just shrunk a bit into myself. She’d also prepared some questions, rather than just talking and having me correct her. Where was a bank friendly to low balances [“good for small change”]? How much was a cheap car? Some I couldn’t answer, like the average American income or the latest U.S. weaponry. And all this time she was mopping and dusting like a six-armed goddess, with me retreating so as not to be cut down by the windmill. She was wearing a scoop-necked sleeveless blouse (maybe other clients also gave her clothes), and whenever she reached for something, I could see her armpits, with damp little tufts of auburn hair. I wanted to fit into those arms, nuzzle against that broad, forgiving bosom, teach her what to do with me.
At the end of the job, she stood up straight. “I work hardly, no?”
That puzzled me for a moment, but then I laughed. “You mean, ‘I work hard.’”
Her face collapsed—or broke, or ripped. She picked up the broom and whacked her thigh. “I never get it right!”
“Hey, you’re learning.” I laid my hand on her solid shoulder and patted her a few times. She let me do that until the pats turned into an attempt at a caress, at which point she shrugged me off, and I ended up stroking the broom.
“Sorry,” I muttered.
“Is okay. I understand.” She slapped my shoulder as if returning a kindness. “But I’m—what? Not buying right now.” She pinched my cheek and started to pack up.
I can’t describe how I felt. All right, I’ll describe it. Bereft. Speechless. After she left, I stared hard at the last place she’d cleaned, the kitchenette sink, and recalled how she looked, the line of force extending from her back through her outstretched hand. When I half-closed my eyes, I could still see her there. I didn’t move for almost half an hour, just communing with her cleaning spirit. Then I made myself either a late lunch or an early dinner, which is to say I popped a frozen mini-pizza into the microwave. I checked my e-mail to see whether anyone had contacted me, but all I found were three spam messages advertising prescription drugs. For a while, I surfed the web, then read a chapter from a P. D. James mystery I’d taken out from the public library. I was in bed by 10:00, staring at the ceiling that always looked as if someone had thrown cottage cheese at it. At least now the floor and the surrounding surfaces were clean.
I suffered, but survived. I missed some work but missed Natasha a lot more. Surprisingly, or maybe not so much, she came back the next time as scheduled. Before starting to clean, she peeled off her long-sleeved shirt to reveal a cerise tank top. I was in bed, still looking for a reason to get up. I’d arisen only to buzz her in but then slid under the covers again after unlocking the door. She clapped her hands once. “Out,” she commanded. “You know what time it is?”
She flexed her arms, showing the wires under her skin, and looked hard at me. “So?”
“So you must get out.”
I yawned. “You mean ‘get up.’”
“Yes, this you must do.”
I stretched in a Y. “Make me.”
Without a pause, she marched to the bed and yanked at my feet. I laughed, but that just made her angry. Clamping her arms around me, she heaved upward. Her breasts mashed against my chest, our lips almost matching, her breath smelling vaguely of cinnamon. I wanted to pull her horizontal, but she was too strong. She hauled me off the bed—or out of it—and sat me on the floor. I was in my underwear as she loomed over me. “Now you must get up and out. So I can clean.”
What else could I do? Declare my infatuation? I dressed quickly and left the apartment, unsure where I was headed. I ended up at the No Name Café, nursing a black pool of coffee and looking around, maybe for another someone like Natasha, only of course there wasn’t one. Instead, a dyspeptic-looking man with a cliff of a forehead was taking furious notes on a yellow legal pad as he crowded one of the tables by himself. The other customers at this hour were mostly take-out: places to be, jobs to do.
After almost an hour away, I slunk back home. Natasha was just scouring the kitchenette sink, the final step of her routine. So much activity in such a small space (a healthy mind in a clean apartment, muttered some part of me, ignored by some other part). Natasha’s face was flushed the color of a peach from her exertions. I apologized profusely for my laziness, as I put it. She seemed to accept what I said. Yet as I paid her, I felt the same thrill as always: this active, sensual woman was working for me. I was about to usher her out when something occurred to me. “Hey, what about your English lesson?”
“Oh, that.” She shook her head. “Is—it’s okay. Maybe some other time.” She came forward to hug me, crushingly hard, letting go almost as soon as she squeezed. Then she hoisted her large cleaning rucksack (that’s what she had now) onto her shoulders and exited my place. This time when I watched her leave the building, she went straight instead of turning and, if I wasn’t imagining it, walked with a more purposeful step. She didn’t look back to see the mock wave I gave her.
I turned back to my empty room. This time, a fine edge of dust flanked the carpet, and the surfaces didn’t look as spotless as after her last visit. I began to look around like a jealous lover. When I went over to my desk, really more of a shelf, I saw that some of my books and papers had been disarranged. Nothing was missing, as far as I could see. Maybe she always shuffled things around to clean underneath, but it rattled me.
On top and to the left was a battered Roget’s Thesaurus and a Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition. Beside the books rested a sheaf of papers sort of sorted into IN, OUT, and LIMBO. The IN stack contained forms I should have filled out a while ago, including some insurance company follow-ups, slightly beside the point because my coverage had expired a few years ago. Overlapping those were some teaching materials I had yet to go through, something to do with if-then sentences and the proper use of the subjunctive. But many of my ESL students could barely get the hang of would, let alone its proper syntactical use. LIMBO was a far thicker pile: anything I didn’t want to deal with, from my 2006 tax return to a long letter from my mother, accompanied by the latest check (long cashed) and asking me to come home for Christmas. The OUT stack was nonexistent.
Or it usually was. Resting like a feather in an empty nest was a scrap of paper with Natasha’s boxy, Eastern European script. I picked it up and read it once, twice.
“YOU I PITY,” she’d written, in pale purple ink like the dried blood of some rare animal. I crumpled it and tossed it toward the wastebasket, but missed and let it sit there on the carpet for someone else to clean up. There was no work that week for me—none of the regulars was sick—so I mostly stayed in the apartment and puttered.
I waited a long time. The days passed like a pack of worn-out cards shuffled and re-dealt without much skill. Natasha didn’t come back the next month, though I was there punctually at 2:00 on Thursday afternoon. I had prepared a short speech, explaining why I do what I do, and where I intended to be in five years’ time. When by 3:30 no one had come by, I delivered my speech to the far wall, where a copy of a Hopper painting hung crookedly. It was the one called Nighthawks, where a trio of diner patrons wait for who knows what.
That evening, I decided to search for Natasha at the No Name Café, but the place was full of no-Natasha. Her cleaning-service sign had been taken down, leaving a pale patch. I don’t know what came over me, but I started to sniffle and then to weep, and soon I had to leave.
I thought of writing her but never got around to it. And even if I had, where would I have sent a letter? Her latest phone number was—out of service. Over the next few months, my apartment grew more and more disordered. I lost my job. By April, I’d heard from someone at the Café that Natasha had joined a band in New York, moved to Seattle, gone back to wherever she’d come from, or d) none of the above. It made me feel lost, and I’m still recovering. I could have helped her, I’m sure of it.
Some nights I dream of her whisking her broom around my prone body as if she were purging me of dust. I want to grab hold of her and say, “Sweep me into your arms, okay?”
She expands till she bumps against my ceiling, pushing at the ragged contours of my dream. She tilts her head back, and I can see a word emerging from between those taut lips. “Nokay,” she replies.
David Galef is professor of English at Montclair State University and the author of a dozen books. His latest publication is A Man of Ideas and Other Stories. (9/2008)