[Hello — This story has been in the works forever, and I was very pleased to try this new approach of POV].

The boulanger has come to expect you every weekday morning. You breathe in the sweet smell of his shop as you descend from your chambre de bonne, winding down the worn wooden stairs. You save him the stamps on your letters from abroad. The most interesting ones wait in a Chinese finger bowl on the mahogany sideboard in the dining room.
You take out soft white Petit Bateau underpants and camisole from the girl’s walnut armoire. You washed these, as you have all the girl’s clothing. You launder all of Madame’s things, too, her panty hose, her huge bras and her blouses. You do the ironing, including Madame’s cotton underthings. You’re good at ironing, it’s how you earned your allowance at home. You carefully steam the distorted waistbands of Madame’s pleated skirts, which are all from Céline. You steam them until the folds refuse to relax, then you take them to the dry cleaner down the street. Madame says that someday you will make a wonderful wife.
You lay the set of underclothes at the foot of the girl’s bed. You call her name and shake her shoulder lightly. She wakes easily, but sometimes pretends to sleep. By now she knows you get cross easily in the morning, so she is usually cooperative, unlike in the afternoon at school pick up.
Then, she plays to her friends and taunts you by pretending not to know you’re there. Once you threw away her goutêr, the dark slab of chocolate tucked into a baguette that you’d stuffed into your coat pocket. You dare her to tell her mother why.
“Lève-toi, lève-toi,” you say, softly at first. You rock the brass bed frame a little. Madame is just across the hall, and you both know waking her would be a mistake.
You make her bed and hang up her nightgown while she goes down the hall to pee. When you arrive she is washing her hands. Madame is such a light sleeper, she has asked you to keep the door to the WC closed. As you must monitor the girl’s morning toilette, you step in and close the door, which traps you in the smell of fresh piss.
She holds up her hands for you to inspect. You squeeze Mustela cream into her pale pink palm. She rubs the cream into her face and neck, watching herself solemnly as she wipes it off with a ball of cotton. You rub a little Mustela between your fingers, then sniff them.
You remember when the boy you met in Rome came to visit. He asked to watch you piss into the tiny sink in your room, then cleaned it out with Ajax. The chiotte is close by to your room, but the steps are usually stained with shit, so you avoid it.
You have already mashed a banana into a bowl, squeezed one fresh orange and poured the juice over the banana, Madame’s mandatory breakfast for the girl. You quickly make hot chocolate, turn off the gas and cover the pot, while you dash across the street for fresh croissants.
The girl is sitting at the table, her hair brushed and school uniform on, waiting for her hot chocolate, when you return. She has finished her banana juice.
You sit down, you eat and you drink, staring past each other. Sometimes you read a few pages of a book and flakes from the croissants stain the margins.
Madame does not come out of her bedroom in the mornings. The girl loiters by her door but does not knock. You smell Madame’s first cigarette as you close the front door.
One afternoon you discover that you will not be able to give the boulanger the stamps after all. The girl has snipped them all into tiny pieces.

8 Comments

  1. Sarah Freligh

    I love how the second person point of view is working here, Suzanne, how it underscores the au pere’s anonymity to the family, especially to the little girl, who basically treats her like an accessory. And Madam’s “Someday you will make a wonderful wife,” is so good. It comes across here as damned by faint praise or a left-handed compliment. Gauche, oui?

    The trick here, I think, is to describe the grind of her early morning without being falling into the grind. A good guideline for revision to interrogating the actions/details that are significant, that show something about the characters and their relationships to one another. Keep those and trim away those that don’t or are redundant.

    Thinking, too, that you have to get her from boulangerie back to to the house/apartment so maybe start both those sentences with “Every weekday morning,” thus establishing the grind of the routine. The anaphora might work in other places, too, try it on!

    This is on its way! Brava, Suzanne!

    • Suzanne van de Velde

      Sarah, this is very helpful as I try to work on centering the entrenchment and resentment among these three. Like the suggestion of using the anaphora. Thanks!

  2. Catherine Parnell

    The details in this piece are sure to resonate with readers, and the arc of the story is present. As Sara suggested, trim extraneous detail and focus on the relationships and routine so that the emotional complexity found in the conclusion is amplified. Lovely!

  3. MaxieJane Frazier

    Suzanne, as a lifelong Francophile (at least for the language and gouter), I love the way that the undercurrents of unrest leach slowly into this narrative: don’t wake Madame, the smell of piss, staring past one another. I was surprised and found myself wanting more with the boyfriend from Rome who asks to watch her piss then he cleans it with Ajax. Madame allowed the boyfriend anywhere near that home? Or is this small apartment not connected with their home? A few grounding details along with Catherine and Sarah’s excellent suggestions seem as if they would be helpful. I pictured all of this in the paint colors of a French country kitchen–surely not as soft-focused as all that, right?

  4. Suzanne van de Velde

    Maxie — thanks for your close reading, your comments are really helpful, There’s lots to fix here, and much to clarify — for one thing the physical architecture. Just to explain, although you may know this, since you love Paris…This particular au pair has a living space completely separate to the family’s apartment. It’s in one of those huge old buildings which used to be single-family mansions, with a cobbled central courtyard for carriages. Now they are split into apartments. Oftentimes the very top floor, essentially the garret, is a string of rooms formerly for staff, This is what she’s in: literally, a maid’s room several floors above the family’s residence, reached by shared, narrow back stairs which run the height of the building. Since her guests never go near the family quarters, she never has to divulge her off-duty movements to Madame. (Which is why she accepted the job with this family, little realizing how her psyche would be invaded by them in other ways).

  5. Kathryn Kulpa

    Suzanne, I found your background info about the living situation very helpful, because I was wondering why the family (seemingly) did not let the au pair use their bathroom, and thinking that she had to use a public toilet and how awful that would be. (Actually, it still sounds pretty awful! But at least knowing that she has her own private space, however small and bare-bones, relieves some of the claustrophobia of her being in that house with the distant, passive-aggressively hostile mother and the openly hostile daughter. This is such a rich, vivid setting that I’d love to see more of it.

    And, while this may not fit into a micro, I would also like a little hint of who the main character is outside of this job. There’s a feeling of oppression to her situation, as if she’s a servant and has no other options, but I know most au pairs choose the job as a way to travel and live abroad, so there’s also the possibility of this being an adventure for her–a kind of freedom she would not experience if she were living at home with her parents.

    I wasn’t sure about the line “Once you threw away her goutêr, the dark slab of chocolate tucked into a baguette that you’d stuffed into your coat pocket.” Is it a typo, and should this be “her” coat pocket? It feels like the au pair and her charge act more like warring siblings than nanny and child, which adds to the feeling of being trapped in someone else’s dysfunctional family.

    • Suzanne van de Velde

      Thanks for your comments and questions, Kathryn, very helpful to focus my thinking. She can use the girl’s bathroom (Madame has her own) but she’d have to come down the back stairs, so she does need to plan ahead. When she’s been out at night, she comes through the family apartment, and takes care of her nighttime toilette and then goes up the back stairs to her room. Morning is reverse.

      She makes the snack for the girl, and then stashes it in her own pocket, ready to give it to her charge when she picks her up at school. Yes, that’s the problem with these situations, and what I really want to look at: inevitably some sort of family-esque dynamic, toxic or otherwise, is set in motion by the proximity and enforced intimacy, compounded by the implicit imbalance of power. In my case, I did have a bit more power than most, as I’d learned French as a child (and it thankfully returned). As parents wouldn’t have to struggle with communication, I was a sought-after hire, which is why I could hold out for a private space. But one can still be quite isolated and at the parents’ mercy.

      Being an au pair does offer many opportunities. Looking after children is simply a means to an end for the girls (which is why, as I found out myself, years later, parents need to be wary about whom they hire). But the pay is very meager — it was less than $25/week then, so unless you are independently funded, you can’t do a lot of gallivanting about. (I managed to get a job with a small French publisher, so that helped).

      thanks again!

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