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Woman No. 17: A Novel

Author: Edan Lepucki

Narrator: Phoebe Strole

Unabridged: 11 hr 40 min

Format: Digital Audiobook

Publisher: Random House Audio

Published: 05/09/2017

Genre: Fiction - Contemporary Women

Synopsis

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2017 Edan Lepucki

LADY

Chapter 1

It was the end of summer, the heat had arrived harsh and bright, bleaching the sidewalks and choking the flowers before they had a chance to wilt. The freeways shimmered, any hotter and they might crack, might explode, and the poor cars would confetti into the air. People were complaining, they were moving slowly. They were swarming the beaches like tiny bugs upon the backs of dead animals. I preferred to stay home: ice cubes in the dog bowl, Riesling in the freezer. The air conditioner was broken. I had taken to sitting in the living room with the curtains drawn, my body edged with sweat like frosting on a cake, daring to see how hot it could get. I ate salad for dinner every night and had almost checked myself and the boys into a hotel. I’d refrained because of the babysitter search. What would applicants think if I requested they meet me poolside at the Roosevelt? Instead I waited. It didn’t take long for the job hunters to come calling.

The doorbell rang eight minutes ahead of schedule and I jumped. This was the first interview. I’d been fluffing and re-fluffing the couch pillows, adjusting my ponytail.

When I opened the front door, a gust of gritty air came rushing at me and I felt its particulates dirtying my lungs. A young woman stood on the welcome mat, smiling so wide I could see where her gums webbed into her mouth.

I’d expected her to be pretty, almost all young women in L.A. are, especially those raised here, the beauty’s in the tap water, but she was plain-looking, her wide, hazel eyes too far apart, her dark blond hair thin and flat.

“Esther?” I finally said.

I knew she didn’t go by her full name, but “S” felt so pretentious, as if she’d rebranded herself at sleep-away camp.

“Please,” she said. “Call me S.”

I admired her assertiveness. “S it is then. Come in.”

She was wearing a cheap floral-print dress and leather sandals. The dress was loose where it should have been fitted and it accentuated her wide hips. As my mother might have said, the poor girl doesn’t know how to dress her own body. Know thy size and shape. Being female is a lifelong lesson that starts with how to wipe (front to back), and ends only with death, graceless always. Clearly, this young woman hadn’t been properly instructed.

With another gummy smile she stepped into the house. There was no hesitation.

“Sorry it’s so stuffy in here,” I said. “The air conditioning isn’t working—something’s wrong with the ventilation system. It needs to be completely rehabbed. I keep hoping the heat will break, but it just gets hotter and hotter. I’m sure there’s a wildfire or two in our future. Maybe the whole city will just burst into flames. That might be kind of fun, actually.”

I realized I was babbling and shut my mouth. S still hadn’t said any- thing, she was too busy taking in the high-beamed ceiling of the living room and the framed prints on the wall: the antique circus poster, the black-and-white photograph of a Pizza Hut that my sister-in-law Kit had taken and given to me and Karl as a wedding gift. I wondered if she’d ask for it back.

S walked closer to the photo and I recalled that she had graduated with a minor (a minor!) in art. In an email she’d written that she loved the Pre-Raphaelites.

“Was there traffic coming up the hill?” I said.

“Not too bad,” she replied, not looking away from the photo. And then, “This is rad.”

When she finally turned back to me with her big, pretty eyes I said, “Thank you,” as if I’d taken it.

 

S looked so young standing there. She was young, she couldn’t have been older than twenty-two. I remembered myself at that age: my pure, unlined face; my brain-dead roommates and our giant glass ashtray; my potential—that feeling I could apply to graduate school whenever I was ready and all would be solved. I’d been beautiful. The past tense was like a shove to the chest.

“Did you study photography in any of your classes?” I asked. “Nah. Mostly your standard paintings by Dead Guys.”

In the photograph a man leaned sullenly against the glass doors of the Pizza Hut. Big clouds ballooned across the sky.

S finally turned from the picture. Beyond the ghost of gloss on her lips she wasn’t wearing any makeup. She hadn’t even put on mascara for this interview.

“My mom calls it Pizza Slut,” she said, and laughed.

I laughed too, mostly out of confusion. S didn’t seem nervous enough—or at all. Maybe she didn’t really want the job.

“Shall we go into the kitchen to talk?” I asked. “We can discuss your qualifications.”

She nodded and smiled again. “Sure thing.”

“Devin’s asleep,” I said as I led her through the dining room. “In case you’re wondering.”

“I was, actually.” She widened her eyes, goofy. “What if you’d lied about having a kid? What if you were really a murderer? Wasn’t there a Craigslist killer?”

This time I laughed for real. Who was this girl?

“Don’t worry,” I said. “Killers don’t post for nannies. They want personal assistants, and they would definitely ask to see a photo first.”

S looked down at herself. “So much for that,” she said.

I laughed again. She was so easy with me, as if we’d met dozens of times before. Of course, I’d never heard of her until she answered my ad, live in nanny wanted for bright and adorable toddler (Hollywood hills adjacent), with a sweet email that ad- vised me to “please peruse the attached curriculum vitae.” Her mother must have ghostwritten that.

“Dev should wake in about fifteen minutes,” I said.

I’d planned it this way. I had to make sure S wasn’t a weirdo before introducing her to my child. But I knew she’d be normal. She was a recent Berkeley grad, for God’s sake, and had been raised right down the hill. She may have dabbled in the Pre-Raphaelites but her senior honors thesis was on early childhood education.

We walked into the kitchen, which Karl and I had redone. The sink was wide as a pig’s trough and the chrome fridge hummed. Milk- shake, our old Maltese, lay in the corner, panting.

“He didn’t come running when the bell rang?” S asked, bending down to pet him.

“He’s so old he’s forgotten how to be a dog,” I said. “Would you like some water, or maybe some iced tea?”

I expected her to say no, but she took me up on the iced tea. I watched as she drank it down in one long gulp.

“The AC in the Camry’s busted,” she said when the glass was empty, as if we were sharing the car. She wiped her mouth with the back of her arm.

Karl, who had moved out just a few weeks before, would have said that S lacked self-awareness, but that wasn’t it. It wasn’t a deficit. S was comfortable with herself, with her average looks, her unflatter- ing clothing, her interest in art. Take it or leave it, she seemed to say. I only wished I had that kind of confidence. The bravado of someone younger, twenty years younger, cuts deep. And yet, I didn’t resent S. In fact, I liked her.

“You said you’re living with your mother?” I asked. “Staying, not living,” she replied. “On the couch.”

All this time I’d been imagining her mother in a condo in West- wood. She’d keep the treadmill in the guest room, next to a bed outfit- ted with brocade shams, and, in the corner, a big bag of wrapping-paper supplies. But apparently there was no guest room.

S held up her glass and gestured with her chin to the sink. She wanted to wash it, I realized.

“Go for it,” I said.

“I’m looking to get my own place as soon as possible,” she said, turning on the water. “It’s why this position is ideal. I also love the age Devin is—two, three years old is when a kid’s imagination really soars. If you take language development into consideration, you’re—”

“What did you say your thesis was on again?” I passed her a towel and we sat at the kitchen’s center island. Her résumé—her curriculum vitae—was printed out on the counter.

“Thesis is too strong a word,” she said. “It was my senior project. I wrote about the benefits of play for children aged eighteen months to four. How they use it to make sense of the world and themselves, to test limits and face their fears. It’s incredible, really.”

I nodded. This was the poised, studious S.

“Have you ever given Devin a big cardboard box to play with?” “I put him in one when he’s been bad,” I said.

She squinted at me. “I’m kidding.”

“Oh. Ha. Sorry. I’ve just read about stuff like that happening.” “Between that and the Internet murderers—what are you reading?”

“Mostly erotica.”

This time, I squinted.

“Kidding.” She smiled. “Anyway, if you give Devin a big empty cardboard box you’d be amazed by the things he comes up with. In two minutes it’ll be a car, or a spaceship.”

“Or a coffin.”

“Are you sure you’re a mother?” she said. “Maybe, maybe not.” I winked. “Follow me.”

On the back deck, the sun was so strong I closed my eyes. Even my lids were perspiring. A bead of sweat slid between my breasts. The sounds of wood sanders, buzz saws, and jackhammers rang out across the hill. Someone was always knocking down something old to build something new.

I opened my eyes and led S down the deck stairs.

“Devin still sleeps for over two hours every afternoon, thank goodness,” I was explaining. “And when he wakes up I try to get him to use the potty, even though he usually refuses.”

S was looking at the pool, glittering in the sunlight and circled with a border of Astroturf. (Karl’s idea—the drought and all that). Behind it towered a steep wall of canyon landscaped with chaparral and sage scrub. A line of houses looked down on us from above: one dilapidated shack, a couple of tasteful mansions, and a modern thing, all concrete, like a parking garage. Karl called these houses the Eavesdroppers.

“I didn’t mention the pool in the ad.” “Freeloaders need not apply?”

“Exactly. I also didn’t mention that I’m separated from Devin’s dad.”

S nodded.

“And . . .” I turned around and pointed at Seth’s window on the second floor. “I have another son, from a previous relationship. He’s eighteen. Seth. That’s his room.”

It had only taken me twenty minutes to come clean: Seth was holed up in his room, and Devin was asleep in his new big-boy bed, and I was a soon-to-be divorcee like so many other women in the neighbor- hood. That my sons were fathered by two different men, almost two decades apart, made me slightly more interesting. That was my theory anyway. Before this interview, I thought my situation might impress or intimidate a young woman who wanted a job in childcare. At the very least, it might give me an excuse to offer her less money. But it all seemed so silly now. S couldn’t be ruffled.

“He’s nonverbal,” I said finally. “Who?”

“Seth. He doesn’t speak, never has.” “Has he—”

“Is he autistic? No. Is that what you were going to ask? He’s also not deaf.” I lowered my voice. “And he isn’t a genius either.”

This was what I always said to people. My script. My shtick. It made it easier.

“No,” she said. “I was going to ask if he’d ever done speech therapy. I’ve read about children with language disabilities.”

She’d read about them?

“He was treated by quite a few doctors when he was younger,” I said.

We were steps from the pool and I imagined pushing S into the deep end. Her horrible dress would bunch around her waist and I’d see her blurry cream-cheese-white thighs. I was diligent about cleaning the pool every morning, for myself and for the Eavesdroppers, and so there’d be no plant debris or floating bees to wreck my view of a sub- merged S. She most definitely wore sensible underwear.

Instead I said, “I couldn’t send him to speech therapy because he couldn’t speak.”

“I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to offend you,” she said. For a second I’d shaken her up. But if she was worried that the interview had gone south, she didn’t show it. She seemed concerned only for my feelings.

I smiled at her and put a hand on her arm. Just a nudge and she’d be in the pool. “It’s totally fine,” I said. I cocked my ear. “I think Devin’s awake.”

As we headed into the house, I wondered whether she was still thinking about Seth. People were always curious about him. Eager, even, as though he were a rare animal you could pet.

I thought of the Hottentot Venus. Seth and I had read about her: sold into slavery over two centuries earlier and made into an attraction, to be ogled and inspected, laughed and gasped at. It was no doubt what the Man in the Yellow Hat had initially planned to do with Curious George: lock him up, make money off of him. That was Devin’s hero—the man, not the monkey. Just the other day, Seth had typed to me on his iPad: Doesn’t he know the guy’s an animal poacher? I told him to give Devin a break, he wasn’t even three yet.

For his final high school paper, Seth had written about the Hottentot Venus. I’ve forgotten her real name, though I’m sure Seth re- members it.

“Mommy! Mommy!” Devin yelled from his room. He’d say it until I came to rescue him.

He was sitting up in his little toddler bed when we got to his room, and when he saw we had a visitor he grinned and then covered his face with Bucky, his stuffed rabbit.

“Did you sleep well, baby?” I asked.

I took his hand and helped him out of bed. S was already kneeling down to his level.

After I’d introduced them, I stepped back. Devin didn’t care where I was; he wanted to show S his truck collection. I watched from the doorway as they pushed them back and forth across the rug, talking about the colors, both of them making engine noises with their mouths. When Devin moved to sit on her lap, S didn’t make note of it, as another adult might. She taught him a song about fish, and together they sang it, my son’s big blue eyes widening with delight. His cheeks were still pillow-creased from his nap, and his hair, knot- ted and sweaty, stuck up in tufts. Placed thusly in this nanny tableau, Devin looked perfect.

He was perfect. A billion traumas would be upon him someday. But not yet. And if they didn’t come to him, he’d seek them out. We all do—look for pain I mean. Until then, my baby was a beloved fool, not a mark on him.

Then Devin did the unthinkable. He looked up at S and said, “I need water.”

I gasped, I couldn’t help it.

S looked up at me, puzzled.

“The prince usually doesn’t let anyone else but me wait on him.” S bowed her head to Devin. “I’d be honored to be your servant.” “Uh-oh,” I told her, “now you’re in trouble. He’s very literal.” “Please?” Devin said. “Please!”

I hired her. Someone else, someone like Karl, would have checked S’s references first, but the thought only flitted across my brain before I dismissed it. Devin had chosen this girl, in his way, and I liked her too. I could fictionalize a background check for Karl. If I said, “I had a good feeling about her,” he’d insist on vetting S himself, and that would take forever.

She would move into the Cottage the following Monday. She’d work four days and one evening a week.

When I handed her the key, she hugged me and Devin, who was slung on my hip. S really came in for a squeeze, and as she pulled away, a sharp hint of body odor, metallic and musky, took root in my nos- trils. I wanted to remember it.

As soon as S had driven away in “the Camry,” Devin and I went upstairs to find Seth. I knocked on his door twice, and then, together, Devin and I counted slowly to ten. Only after that did I turn the knob. I’d done this ever since Seth was thirteen and I’d accidentally walked in on him naked.

“Seth?”

He was sitting at his computer wearing only swim trunks and a Lakers jersey. The room, as usual, smelled dank. Today Seth had lugged the fan from my bedroom so that he had two going, their heads rotating back and forth like land surveyors. He sat between them and every few seconds his hair lifted in the breeze. He was playing a video game. I hated the video games, but Karl had argued on their behalf, saying I shouldn’t be suspicious of new forms of storytelling. As if a stupid New York Times article could possibly justify the Fallout mara- thons he and Seth played, but I’d let it go. Before Karl moved out, Seth and I referred to him as “College Boy,” because he dropped big words in his emails and referenced articles from the Times Literary Supplement to bank tellers, and got up before sunrise the day the Booker Prize nominees were announced, even though he wasn’t British or a writer. He was a television producer.

Seth glanced up and I smiled; for once he wasn’t rolling his eyes. He hadn’t cut me any slack since Karl had moved out.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

Seth looked more and more like Marco as he got older: black hair, olive skin, long eyelashes. Swarthy as a swashbuckler. He hadn’t been a cute kid; he’d been too skinny, too haunted-seeming, his nose too big and adult for his face. But he was growing into his looks. Karl had joked that, pretty soon, women would start lining up. “The strong, silent type,” he’d quipped.

Seth paused his game and gave Devin a high five. To some strangers, Seth’s silence was awkward and difficult to handle, a barrier they couldn’t surmount. But if you knew him, Seth was just Seth. To Devin, Seth was his amazing big brother.

“Seff! Seff!” Devin yelled. “Inside voice, baby.”

“Seff! I have a new friend.”

“The nanny came,” I said. “S. She’s moving in Monday, so you need to vacuum the Cottage for her. You promised.”

I waited for Seth to grab his iPad and type out a message. It had taken years for me to expect, to demand, some response, even if it was merely a shake of his head. I hated waiting and waiting and getting nothing from him.

“Seth,” I said again.

This time, he nodded at the computer screen. On it, an image of a castle, shot from above, was cloaked in mist. For all I knew, it was sup- posed to be from a dragon’s perspective.

“Only one more hour,” I said. “I mean it. And no more snarky tweets about the gazpacho I made, okay?”

Every day I checked his account, @sethconscious. His tweets were clever and wise, and the #GazpachoFail series had been retweeted two dozen times at least. I just looked at his feed, I didn’t have my own ac- count. Seth said I couldn’t, and Karl said it was like dancing at a wed- ding. “If you really want to, go ahead,” he’d said, “but you’ll regret those moves the next morning.”

Now, Seth made one of our old signs: You got it, Ninja Mama.

Thanks, Burrito Flower, I signed. Love times a million, he signed. “What him doing?” Devin asked.

“Seth’s playing video games. You know that’s for bigger kids, right?”

Devin shook his head violently. “With his hands! What him doing?”

Seth grinned. He held his two hands in a prayer position and then clapped the lower halves together three times. That was our sign for Mambo time, which meant, basically: You’re busted!

“It’s just something Seth and I do,” I explained. Devin had learned a little ASL, but none of the special signs. “Instead of talking. You know that.”

Devin sucked on a finger contemplatively and Seth crossed his eyes until his brother laughed.

“Come on, Devy-Dev,” I said, hitching him higher onto my waist. “Let’s go draw a picture for S. Isn’t she the best?”

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