The night of Karen Kleiner’s 40th-birthday party, the sky was a silky blue and the cold lid was finally lifting off the city. I wore no tights under a dress that Karen had given me — a gauzy sack that she had purchased on final sale and we couldn’t send back. It was unclear whether I was meant to ring the bell or use my key, so I stopped a few houses short and inspected my shoe until a couple started up the Kleiners’ steps.
Karen came to the door looking like a magical butterfly in her jade jumpsuit with wing sleeves. She took her time greeting the other people first.
“You made it,” she addressed me in a funny tone, and I wondered if she’d been expecting me to arrive early. I handed over the tiny pink cactus I’d brought as a gift.
“It reminded me of Louise,” I told her.
Karen cupped the pot in her palm and blinked as if she were having trouble computing something, then motioned for us all to come inside.
The place was filled with a different kind of chaos than I was used to when I arrived in the mornings. Colorful piñatas and delicate paper flowers hung from every corner, and a duo in matching red striped sailor shirts was over by the loveseat performing Mexican folk songs. Karen and Jonathan used to live together in Puebla before they had kids. That was their thing: Mexico.
Out on the patio, the crowd swarmed around tiki torches. Notes from disparate perfumes dotted the night air. Somebody had fastened a rope across the top of the iron stairs, confining the party to the Kleiners’ deck, which jutted out of the townhouse like a metal tongue. The land below was a patchwork of overgrowth and bald spots. I’d helped Karen fill the patio’s perimeter of planters with tall grasses to obscure the sight of this space that nobody ever used, just the downstairs dog when the neighbors let him out to pee.
The guy manning the bar was your standard Boston hipster with rounded shoulders and black skinny jeans. He was sniffing me out with his eyes, and I sensed he’d detected my in-between status.
“Lana?” It spooked me to hear him say my name. Then I noticed the gold stamp on the cocktail napkins and realized we must have overlapped at the restaurant. Jonathan owned an upscale Oaxacan place in the South End, and I’d worked there as a hostess the summer after I graduated music school. That’s where Karen had found me.
“Mona,” I corrected him.
“Sorry. I’m better at faces.” There was a loaded pause, which I was probably supposed to fill. “Russell,” he said at last. There was something cocky about his delivery, like he was not going to let the fact that I didn’t remember him come between us. “You had that hickey.”
I raised my fingers to the spot below my left ear where I used to rest my violin six hours a day. Now I spent my musical energy singing about inchworms and fire trucks with Max and Louise.
“It’s gone,” I told him. “I’m here full time, as the nanny.”
Russell’s lips twitched, as if my ending up with the Kleiners and not at Boston Symphony Hall were some grand travesty. At least I wasn’t muddling limes for a living.
“I’ll have mine with salt,” I said, savoring the fact that only one of us was allowed to drink at Karen’s party. My privileges didn’t just apply tonight; I’d started having wine with the Kleiners whenever I stayed for dinner. Only one glass, but still. Russell took an irritating amount of care with my margarita, shaving jalapenos with an X-Acto blade. When he finally handed it over I took it down in four gulps and left the empty glass on the table.
I cut through the crowd, avoiding linking eyes with anyone but Karen, who held her delicate body at an angle away from me. Upstairs, I found the kids in their jammies, watching an episode of vintage *Sesame Street* on the iPad. “Mac and Cheese,” I said. My nickname for the kids immediately evaporated. Their focus was outstanding.
I sat down on the edge of the bed. Louise smelled sweet and dirty, like palm sweat and peanut butter.
“Do you guys want to go downstairs and say hi to the grown-ups?” I asked. Max raised a finger and told me to give them two minutes, which we both knew meant until the show was over. I kicked off my shoes and checked my phone. There wasn’t much to look at, just some Tinder garbage, and one of my sister Amelia’s passive-aggressive emails. “Your niece misses you!” she wrote above a picture of her Maine coon, Gloria. The poor cat was wearing a headband with Easter bunny ears. I wondered if Amelia would take her to the church service again this year.
I must have sat there with the kids for twenty minutes, admiring Louise’s wild curls and half-watching the show along with them. I didn’t mind. If my musical training had been good for anything, it was teaching me to be stronger than my boredom.
When we came back down, the crowd had migrated indoors and steam clung to the front windows. I spotted my cactus sitting on the console, dwarfed by all the wine bottles other guests had brought. The children let go of my hands and ran over to their mother.
“Yo-Mo Ma,” said a male voice. I looked up and found Eli, Jonathan’s younger brother, giving me his hungry little grin. Last time I had seen Eli, it was from the back row of a Bieber versus Jagger class he was teaching at the Copley Square SoulCycle studio. He’d had on a tank top with armholes down to his waist that showed his full-body tattoo art, including an enormous peace sign that clamped around the left side of his torso. Now he was sporting a tweedy blazer and an unfortunate neck rash. Eli was by all measures repulsive. I found him weirdly hot.
“How’s the body?” he asked me in his nasal voice. I’d met Eli enough times to know this was just trainer talk for “How are you?” Still, I felt my cheeks burn.
“Super,” I mustered, forcing myself not to cross my arms over my sizable breasts and let him see how itchy I felt around him. Inches away, one of the fathers from Max’s school was telling another guy about a golf course in Montenegro. A couple of women by the fireplace were squealing over a game of pin the tail on the donkey. I looked back up at Eli and wondered if he had this effect on anybody else, or everybody else.
“My brother had better be paying you handsomely for being here on a Saturday night,” Eli said.
I saw Karen cut a look at us and mutter something to her husband. It was like she could read my thoughts, and I felt a twist of shame.
“Everything OK over here?” Jonathan asked us when he sidled over. He appeared anything but interested in his task, his gaze flicking around the crowd.
“*Fiesta muy buena*,” Eli teased his brother, seemingly unaware of what Jonathan was really asking. “I dig the vibe. All you need is a mariachi band.”
“They’re coming in a bit,” Jonathan replied, and I couldn’t tell if he was kidding. My gaze drifted back to Karen, and my heart gave a nervous flutter. She was now chatting with an older man, or rather nodding while he moved his mouth.
Karen helped run a foundation that did something with immigrant rights, and a big part of her job was going out at night and rubbing shoulders with potential donors. Karen had once referred to herself as a highly paid conversational prostitute, back when she and I used to joke around with each other. She’d been acting stiffer lately. And I’d been giving every little interaction too much thought, all of which only served to put a greater strain on things between us.
My roommate, Seung, accused me of having mommy issues. She’d said it a while ago and hadn’t been talking about Karen but about my maestro, Rorianne, a regular on the international violin circuit. I’d been Rorianne’s favorite student, which was not to say her most talented one. Once I graduated, she began embroiling me in hour-long phone calls about her career insecurities and had me trek out to Jamaica Plain and water her plants when she went out of town. We’d gotten into a massive fight a year ago, when I blew off an audition she’d set up for me for a highly sought after Montreal composer’s chamber piece. It was a part that I’d known I had no chance of getting, and I’d stayed out the night before with a heartless man twice my age. I should have just told Rorianne the truth — that I’d been waylaid by self-disgust and a hangover. Instead, I made up a story about a family emergency.
Karen and Jonathan knew hardly anything of what was going on back home, just that my mother lived with my older sister and that I used to play in the variety show at the Magic Kingdom. I didn’t tell them how my during junior year of high school, my mother had gotten Lyme disease and decided she was too sick to do anything except lie on the couch with the curtains drawn. I could barely stand to go down to visit, even for a weekend. When I heard my family talking about vitamins and inconclusive results and healers, I almost wished my mom would go back to bothering me about my weight.
I met Karen two years ago at Jonathan’s restaurant. She was so pretty, with her pale eyes and lips that stretched across her face like a steamed hot-dog bun. When she asked to see Jonathan, I said she could leave her résumé, which seemed to greatly amuse her.
“I’m his wife,” Karen said, and asked me if I’d watch the stroller while she used the bathroom. When she came back out, Karen managed to get more out of me in those few minutes than any of the waiters had in an entire month — Mona, central Florida, electric violin. Louise was still a legitimate baby, and she stayed asleep the whole time. Karen called the restaurant the next day and asked if I had any experience with diapers. “Changing them,” she was quick to clarify, and we laughed.
I started out as the night sitter. Karen would have me show up half an hour earlier than she planned to leave. This was to create an overlap that made the transition easier for Max and Louise, she explained. I’d hang out in the living room with the kids and Karen would bring her makeup bag downstairs and apply her mascara and perfume in the tiny bathroom with the door open. We’d alternate between going over the kids’ dinner plan and gossiping. She complained a little about the characters in her life — the tight-fisted donors, the kids’ regular nanny, Rosa, who’d gotten pregnant and was considering moving to Chicago to be close to her sister. She also asked all about me. I’d tell her about gigs that paid in pitchers of beer and riding the T out to Cambridge to teach violin lessons to faculty kids who were interested only in my ability to hook them up with weed. She’d throw her head back and laugh and tell me to enjoy it while I could.
Lately Karen didn’t seem to be enjoying much of anything. She was going on insanely long runs and had started inserting “Now that I’m 40” into any available sentence. She was working from home more often, too, sitting at the kitchen table in front of her computer, her folders spread out around her like the control panels in a cockpit. The other nannies I knew hated when their bosses stayed home and they had to tiptoe around them. But I liked the days Karen was around and I could feel the warm invisible strings connecting us through the floorboards.
Karen must have sensed me watching her across the room — she caught my eye and mouthed something I couldn’t make out. I felt prickles of heat under my arms. She didn’t appear to be happy, and I could tell what she wanted before I was close enough to hear her.
“I’ll find them,” I said, and darted through the home as fast as I could. It wasn’t the kids’ well-being I was worried about. I just needed Karen to ease up on me, to take me back in.
The only people upstairs were a couple hovering over the edge of Karen and Jonathan’s bed, arguing in clipped whispers. “It’s not the same,” I heard the man say.
That’s when Louise’s yowl ripped through the air. I ran downstairs and found her in the kitchen, by the back door. Her face was mottled, the way it instantly got whenever she cried. Karen was down on her knees, running her hands up and down her daughter’s bare legs, her party tights and underwear bunched around her ankles. A little wave of pride passed over me as I recalled how I’d potty-trained Louise. Karen’s arms were moving about jaggedly, a little desperately. One of the guests, a woman who looked like Andy Warhol, asked about vaccination records in a low, fluty voice.
“What happened?” I asked.
“He bit me!” Louise was barely capable of breathing.
I looked at her brother in disbelief. “You what?”
Max shook his head. “The dog,” he said. “It wasn’t a bite. It was just a lick.”
“Are you sure?” Karen sounded shaky. Max nodded, and his mother sighed and pulled back. There was nothing on Louise’s legs, just a scrape from a tumble we’d had in the playground the other day.
“She’s just scared of dogs,” I added. “It’s OK, honey.”
Karen’s expression turned to disappointment when she looked up at me. “They went down to the garden while you were talking to Eli,” she said.
“I thought they were safe in the house.” Shame spread through my body. “Come on, Cheese, let’s get you and your brother ready for bed.”
“I’ll do it,” Karen said sharply. “You can go home. Or go out, I guess.” She wrapped her arms around her children and added, in an even tone, “We should speak tomorrow.”
I understood what would come next. Karen would call me and say what we both knew: this wasn’t working out. She would go back to the first kind of nanny, a woman like Rosa who knew how to do her job, who wasn’t one of us girls with creative spirits that were supposed to rub off on the children but who weren’t worth the inexperience and poor judgment that we brought to the job.
I took my jean jacket down from the hook by the front door and worked at inserting my arms into the sleeves. They were too small, my body too big and clumsy. The entryway felt strangely empty without the delivery boxes that came most days. I’d break them down for Karen and put them in front of other people’s houses down the street, so Jonathan didn’t give her a hard time about all her online shopping. I advanced toward the door and then thought better of it and slipped into a shadow.
“You’re still here,” Karen said when she creaked down the stairs. She didn’t raise her voice, but I could feel something coming with my entire body, the way I sensed storms when I was back home.
“I wanted to say I’m sorry.”
“Let’s do this later.”
“I should have been paying better attention to the kids. I can do that.”
Karen let off a tiny sigh and reached for the doorknob. “Everything’s fine! We’ll talk later.”
“Why do I always feel like I’m in trouble? Or, like we’re in trouble?” It came out sounding weirder than I’d meant, and Karen buried her face in her hands, the way she did when she was working and getting tired at the end of the day. “Come,” she said, looking over her shoulder.
Outside, the air felt cold on my legs. “Please don’t fire me,” I said desperately.
“That’s not it,” she said. “It’s time for you to move on.”
“I can’t … move on to what?”
“There you go again, asking me another one of your inappropriate questions.”
My lower lip trembled. “What questions?”
“‘Have you ever dated a significantly older man?’ ‘How do you think having children affects your marriage?’ ‘Do you think Eli’s drug problem impacted Jonathan?’”
“You’re the one who told me all about Eli in the first place,” I said. “Karen, I lost track of the kids and one of them got licked by a dog. Inside your house!”
“It was outside,” she corrected me. “This is all too much. I thought you could use some money while you worked on your music. But you’re not even playing anymore.”
“It’s just a break,” I told her, looking down the stoop and onto the street. “Boston’s brutal. Everyone here would be considered a prodigy anywhere else.”
“Then why do you have to be in Boston?” Her words robbed me of something vital, and I felt as if I were at equal risk of tipping over the railing or simply floating away. “I’m sorry,” Karen said. “It’s probably my fault for asking you to commit to this. That wasn’t fair.”
I glanced into the parlor-floor window. Behind Eli’s bobbing head, I could make out the bookshelves that were crammed with worldly artifacts and framed snapshots. I’d committed them to memory while Louise napped: There was one of young Karen and Jonathan next to a beach hut on their honeymoon, and a recent one of the gang dressed up for Jonathan’s parents’ wedding anniversary on Cape Cod. I’d gone out there with the Kleiners over Labor Day weekend when Jonathan had had to stay in the city for a party at the restaurant. The four of us had gone swimming in Duck Pond, and the light had been so brilliant, the sky had been like a big halo.
“But I like this,” I said quietly.
“But it’s not yours,” Karen said, offering a smile. “You’ll thank me later, Mona.”
The door clicked open, and Jonathan’s head poked out like a mangy hand puppet.
“We’re waiting for her Lyft,” Karen told her husband. She pivoted her torso toward the blur of traffic on Gloucester Street, as if a car that neither of us had ordered might materialize. Standing there, all I could do was try to stop the hurt that was pouring in. Soon enough, the Kleiner kids would have somebody else to snack on organic mango strips and make collages with. My head went hot and filled with a vision of my sister’s cat, her amber eyes flashing like warning lights.
“Cake time,” Jonathan said in his clueless way. “You sure you don’t want to stay, Mo?”
I shook my head and watched Jonathan place his hand on the small of Karen’s back and guide her through the door. “I’ll call you soon,” she said with a quick look over the shoulder.
I dug my hands deep in my pockets and wrapped my fist around the Kleiners’ keys, squeezing until I could feel welts forming on my palm. The next time Karen and I spoke, it would be about references and visitation rights. From now on, I was going to watch Max and Louise grow up in staggered bursts. These were things I knew yet could not absorb. I started down the stoop, my eyes still adjusting to the dark.
*Lauren Mechling’s debut novel is forthcoming from Viking.*