She arrived earlier than she should have. I led her in through the back door, where she had been waiting for a half hour, and took her into the kitchen.
“Would you like coffee?”
“Please, sit here.”
She sat down on the seat opposite mine. I drank coffee as she settled her bags beneath the table.
“Remind me your name again?”
“Frida,” she said. Frida wore two pearl earrings, a silver necklace, and red lipstick; her hair, gray and short, was tucked behind her ears; her nails were long and violet. She straightened her back.
“Ms. Frida—how are you?”
“Tired. There was no one around here to ask for directions.” She paused to breath. “And it was raining. Does it rain a lot here?”
“Are you sure you don’t want any coffee?”
“I don’t drink coffee.”
“Well that’s not a problem. I have all sorts of things—tea, juice, water, milk, just plain milk. Or chocolate milk. I love chocolate milk.”
“I don’t need anything.”
I leaned back in the chair and sighed. The coffee was bitter. I stood to add another spoonful and a half of sugar.
“Have you been a housekeeper for long?”
“No. This would be my first job.”
“What did you do before?”
“I owned a boutique at my home country. But I moved here recently, with my husband and granddaughter.”
“What are you looking for in this job?”
“I think that is quite clear.”
“And you are satisfied with the payment?”
The hallway in the entrance and the stairs creaked. Then a door slammed shut upstairs.
“You never mentioned there were other people living here.”
“Oh no. That’s just the ghost. Don’t worry about it.”
Frida tapped her hands on the table, and the long nails made a drumming sound.
“I don’t need to go into too much detail, do I? You know what I need you to do—cook, clean, wash, change, stock, tidy, water. I may occasionally ask you to go into the city for this or that. And of course, Sunday you are free to rest. Is there anything I should know about you?”
“No.” She tapped her hands on the table again.
“There is no Internet or service here. The only source of communication is through the house phone, which you are free to use at any time because I never make calls. Just don’t give the phone number to anyone. Oh, and you will also answer any calls that come in…but these should be infrequent. And don’t ever tell me who called or why they called. I don’t need to know.”
Frida nodded as I spoke.
“You should also know that the previous housekeeper left because she didn’t like the…isolation. If this is something that you dislike—and it will be a problem if you dislike isolation—then I suggest you search for another job.”
“I’ve read the advertisement very thoroughly. I’ve thought it through and have no problem with anything you’ve mentioned now or in the advertisement.”
“You can start right away, then.”
I showed her around the house and then took her to her room in the attic. She had already brought the things she needed with her so she set the duffel bag at the end of the bed and started to organize her things.
I left her and went down to my room on the first floor. The windows were covered with paintings because I did not like to see the outside and the bedroom light was dim because I did not like bright lighting. By the bed there was a door into the library. The walls of this room were covered with books—it was quite claustrophobic. I went in and searched for something to read; then I went back into the bedroom and lay on my bed reading Siddhartha for what might have been an eternity before Frida knocked on the door for lunch.
For the first few months of her employment I had to correct her constantly. With the food, the onion was never sliced evenly; the meals were always too salty or too greasy; the pasta was always too cooked; the soups were always either too thin or too thick. She also nearly killed several of my plants, which was devastating for me since they were not accustomed to bad treatment.
The telephone never rang, but she used it often to speak with her husband and granddaughter. I always knew who she was talking to because with her granddaughter she used a sugary, patronizing voice, while with her husband she sounded worn and drained. On Sundays, Frida always went to see them and when she got back she told me about what they had done. Usually they met in front of the fountain on Long Street and did many things: they went to see exhibits at the art history museum, to try new restaurants, to eat ice cream or pastries, to walk along the water, or to take hikes in the valley. I let her leave to the train station between five and six on Saturday night to make the trip less inconvenient for her, especially considering the difficulties she faced at her age with the rain and the trees and the distance.
On one occasion Frida caught a flu that lasted nearly two weeks. The walk to the train station was too far for her unfortunate condition but I was aware that she needed to see her family, so I invited them to come as often as they could so that they could spend time with her. It was uncomfortable to have visitors in the house, since only my previous housekeeper and Frida had ever been inside, but I did not doubt that I had made the right choice by iniviting them.
Her husband was altruistic and chatty, and I disliked these qualities; but her granddaughter, Monica, was smart and sweet and I got to know her while Frida and her husband talked about adult matters. Usually I gave her advice on school and friends, or helped her with homeworks and projects. At first she was frightened by the ghost but I explained that he was harmless and that all he did was storm about, and she immediately took a liking to him. The only problem that I had with Monica was that she asked too many questions; once she asked me why I lived so far from the city and from everybody else, and another time she asked me why I was not married yet. I felt extremely interrogated so I told her not to ask rude questions and tried to forget the conversation.
A few days later I brought it up to Frida, while her family was not there.
“I actually have the same questions.” She was eating on the bed; I had made her a Portuguese soup with kale and sausage and a camomile tea. She was considerably better but her face was still pale and thin and there were deep purple bags beneath her eyes.
“You should teach her not to ask those kinds of questions. They’re unnecessary.”
“Are they unnecessary because you have a secret or because the answer is obvious and it bothers you that someone would ask a question with such an obvious answer?”
“Because the answer is obvious!”
She ate another spoonful of soup. “You are so young and so beautiful, really. I don’t know why you’re such a recluse.”
“Eat your soup.”
“But why do you even bother to hire a housekeeper if you are so good at maintaing the house yourself? You prefer your way of cooking, your way of cleaning, your way of watering the plants. Why do you have a housekeeper? I mean, I wouldn’t want to lose my job or anything; I really like it here. The rain and the marshiness and the herons…I like it, really, I do. But I just don’t understand your motives. If you want to be alone, why do you need someone else around?”
I sighed. Frida and I did not talk about anything related to my isolation for years, until one day the telephone rang. She called me down to answer because the speaker had said it was an urgent matter, and I assumed it was something related to my sister, who I had not talked to in years. When Frida asked who had called I explained that he had been an old friend that I did not speak to anymore. She did not need to know the rest.
Even after Frida had recovered from her illness I let her family visit often. Monica and Frida’s husband—whose name I could never remember—started coming for dinner a few times a month; on those nights I liked to cook and have them over as guests, despite the fact that Frida lived there six days a week and eleven months a year. Frida sometimes informed me of the outside world, although I asked that she never tell me anything that she had read on the newspaper, because politics and society overwhelmed me. Instead, she told me about the parks, the jazz festivals, and the newest bookstores. When she noticed that I had finished reading all of my books she began bringing me new ones back from every trip she made into the city—I enjoyed most of them. She also brought back other things that she thought I might be interested in trying: dragon fruit, black sesame ice cream, purple lipstick.
We even got into the habit of taking walks around the marsh. I started to go by myself too, when she was away on Sundays. A lot of the time the ghost went with me on these solitary trips, and together we watched the sun between the somber trees, looked for little animals in the bushes, and fed bread to the snowy egrets in front of the house. I had never noticed how the sky, clementine, reflected over the water in front of the house in the evening, and I liked to sit on the doorsteps everyday to watch the sunset. At this hour Frida was usually making dinner; but when she had a moment, she would sit with me to tell me about her concerns with her husband’s failing health, her granddaughter’s worsening grades, and her daughter’s continued absence.
A few days after the unexpected phone call he showed up at the house, but I asked Frida not to open the door.
He came back at nine.
“It was impossible to find you,” he said.
“That is how I intended it. Do you want coffee?”
I heated the milk in a separate pan with the cinnamon as the coffee brewed. He did not say anything or sit anywhere; then we went into the living room and drank the coffee, tight-lipped.
“You’ve changed very little,” he said. “Your skin is lighter and your eyes are darker but you’ve changed very little.”
“You’ve changed a lot.” His hair had grown over his forehead and his eyes were spent. I looked down at the ring on my left thumb. “Why are you here?”
“You wouldn’t mind if I slept here tonight, would you? I don’t really have anywhere to go…you know, I’m still getting myself together…after everything.”
“I guess not. You’ll have to sleep on the couch, though.”
“What have you been doing all these years?”
“Mostly reading, writing, and avoiding. I’m writing a novel.”
“No, of course not. I’m a really bad poet.”
“You know, they’re going to catch you too.” He tilted his head and nailed his dark eyes in mine.
“Yes, well.” I laughed.
“You should really take me seriously. You’ll be in for years. Longer than me, at least.”
“It’s been seven years. I forgive you for leaving me there.”
“I don’t care whether you forgive me or not. I’m here, and I didn’t get caught. Do you want your share? I can give it to you. I have it and I didn’t spend a dime.”
“You’ll get caught. You need to leave this place.”
“Really, why are you here?”
“I thought you wanted to use the money from your share to build that school. You were going to do a good thing. Now you’re just here, using it up in this cave, selfishly. What are you doing?”
“You know what? You can’t stay tonight. Please leave, and don’t say what you came here to say.”
He stood, put his coat on, and left. Then Frida came and sat with me on the sofa and said nothing. I knew she had been listening.
I stretched my arms. “He’s an old friend.”
“Yes I can see that you know each other.”
I sighed. “We robbed Tiffany.”
“In New York?”
“Yes, well, yes.”
“I don’t know what to say. That was all over the news.” Frida widened her eyes and leaned back on the sofa. “But what happened?”
“Well, they caught him, but I was able to escape. With the jewels, of course.”
“How did they catch him?”
“It was either him or me…and well, I fled.”
“You left him there?”
“Now he’s out of jail. But it’s only been seven years. He should have been in longer.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think he made a deal and turned me in.”
She shook her head. “Didn't he come to warn you?”
“Well, he was desperate. He turned me in because he knew they were still looking for me. So they let him out early. Now I think he feels guilty and that’s why he told me. I don’t know.”
Frida sat there. “Are they going to catch you?”
“Aren’t you going to hide?”
I laughed. Frida made breakfast.