Nella of the Glass Houses
For a second, as Jack fingered the keys in one hand while almost subconsciously touching the back of Grace’s forearm with the other, Nella wants to steal their rich lives, the ease with which Grace accepts his touch. Then she imagined what it would be like to be Grace, who sat there angular on the couch — too haughty, stick-like and starving for Nella to really want to be her with anything more than a momentary conviction. And Jack was so one-dimensional, all money and business and always wearing the right shoes.
The keys dangled from his hand, catching and dancing in the light like glass wind-chimes. Nella closed her hands around the cool metal to silence them, and slipped them into her purse and then those polished shoes were walking out the door, Grace’s expensive perfume a soft cloud dissolving behind them.
Nella waited for the door to close, the warm purr of the Lexus to subside. The chaise was a little uncomfortable – something to be touched and admired but not experienced. She sat perfect as a picture, dressed innocuously for the occasion in a navy skirt and non-descript white blouse, afraid to leave sweat-stained fingerprints on the buttercream leather. She held her breath, waiting for Grace and Jack to return for forgotten Gucci sunglasses or some other trinket. But why would they? If they forgot it, they’d just buy another. This open concept house left her vulnerable, exposed by glass for anyone to see, though the yard was so cloistered no one would. The kitchen blended with the living room with the front entry with the hallway and stretched on for miles. The furniture were small islands in a vast ocean of space. When you’re this rich, you don’t need walls. Nella listened for the moods of the house, the scratching and shifting of the floorboards, eventually peeling herself from the leather, standing and staring out the front window to make sure they weren’t coming back.
The image flashed red in her mind ‒ Grace flipping her neat auburn hair over her shoulders, discarding Nella with narrow, rich eyes. She’d do, as someone to look after the house, to fill space in their absence.
An open staircase led to a catwalk on the second floor and stretched across the expanse of the living room leading to apartment-sized bedrooms at each end and more staircases ascending to other levels, higher panes of existence.
The glass walls brought the moods of the mountains and the sky and sea swirling together inside the house. Everything was a rippling shade of aqua, reflecting infinitely in the mirrors.
The lesser bedroom was made up with clean grey satin sheets, the view of forests just for her. Not this time, she thought. At the other end was the master bedroom, the sparkle of the city dancing across the water, a massive king-size bed. Their room. Suddenly giddy, Nella ran and jumped on their bed, lay staring upwards, her eyes tracing the swirling white vines and acanthus leaves embossed on the ceiling, the pilasters guarding the corners of the room.
In the walk-in bathroom closet, she unfurled two sprawling white bath towels, found a white robe with ‘Grace’ embroidered in swirly burgundy. The robe was velvet in her hands; like nothing she had ever touched before. The warm water thundered into the cracked eggshell tub, and she opened the window, inviting the end-summer smell of dry leaves into the expansive room. On the floor, she shed the constraints of the navy skirt and white shirt like an exhausted skin; they were nothing to define her.
The water lapped over her as she submerged in the tub. Grace’s lavender bath bubbles expanded one on top of the other, rising over the edge. The bathroom was larger than her last apartment – so long ago she could barely remember it. After lounging for a half-hour or so, she turned on the Jacuzzi. The pounding amplified her thoughts about who she could be, in this place, where everything seemed to sparkle from the inside.
Dripping, she wrapped herself in Grace’s bathrobe and wandered through empty hallways. In their bedroom, a beautiful picture of Grace, 10 years younger, smiled radiantly out from their vanity chest. Nella picked it up and cradled it in her hand. Grace was taller and thinner, but with their milky olive skin colouring, their brooding brown eyes, they could be distant relatives. Especially because they have similar taste in clothes. Nella’s fingers caressed their way through grenadine silks, milky satins, cashmere sweaters, designer dresses made only to be worn once and then cast aside. From the closet, Nella could see the city before her. Who ever heard of a closet with a view? Here such things were possible.
Nella first saw Jack again at the West Vancouver yacht club, gin and tonic and crushed ice between his tan hand. It was less than a week after he left town with Grace and she wondered what he was doing there, if it was really him, and not a cousin of his or some other distant relative. Something in his ease, the way he seemed to occupy more than the space around him told her it was. From this distance, without Grace hanging off his arm scrutinizing, she could study him better, see him in his entirety.
Nella was still trying to decide if she should approach him, when he saw her. She didn’t think he would recognize her. She had changed a lot since she saw last him. He was standing up, zigzagging his way between mahogany tables towards her in country-club shorts.
But it wasn’t because he remembered her. He looked her up and down, lips turning up slightly, like he was hungry.
“You look like my wife,” said Jack.
“No, I don’t,” said Nella, smoothing her skirt.
“You’re wearing my wife’s dress.”
That might be true. Nella didn’t have the inclination to deny. The dress felt like a second skin. His wife may have bought it; but today it belonged to Nella. She shrugged.
“I know you, don’t I?” he said. “You look different though. You’re the housesitter.”
He circled her table, as though he was admiring a painting.
“Yes, something is different about you. You’ve changed your hair.”
He pulled out a chair without asking, sat down, leaned forward onto his elbows.
“I think I like it,” he said.
Then he slumped down into his high-backed mahogany chair.
“What are you doing here?” Nella said.
“I’m a member. And how about you?”
“I happen to be staying in the neighborhood,” she said. “You know that wasn’t what I was asking.”
“Business, you know.” His eyes traipsed around the room.
“What about Grace?”
“What about her?” he says, and then shrugs. “She likes it in Maui.” He chugged the last of his drink and waved for another.
He sat there for a few minutes but didn’t have anything else to say. Nella didn’t ask him the obvious question because she didn’t want the answer. She hadn’t seen him at the house, so she could only conclude that meant he was staying somewhere else. An itching niggled under her skin; she kind of wished he would leave. He seemed like less without Grace, as though she propped him up, gave him stature.
Nella wasn’t up to that kind of duty. She wasn’t capable of capitulating. She had their house. That was all she needed. When an acquaintance waved at Jack from across the room, Nella slipped out while his back was turned.
The next day was sweltering and Nella made sangria in their crystal pitcher. The hedge offered enough protection that she sat nude, let the bathrobe fall to the interlocking brick, as she stretched out under the burgundy umbrella in a white lounge-chair by the pool, skimming a romance from Grace’s collection.
A quarter of the way through the book and halfway through the pitcher she fell asleep. When she woke, a breeze had picked up, was fumbling with a few stray leaves in the backyard. Her limbs felt like dead weight from the booze, the heat. She stood up and let herself fall into the pool, sink to the bottom until she couldn’t stand it anymore. When at last she rushed up for air, she swam lap after lap until all she could see was bubbles. Finally exhausted she pushed herself dripping up to the edge, swaddled her limbs in the white towel, looked up and jumped.
Jack was leaning back in her chair in his black suit, silk tie loose around his neck.
“I’m glad to see you are making yourself comfortable,” he said, taking a sip of her sangria.
He pretended to avert his gaze as he stood up and handed her the bathrobe, “Thought you might like this,” he said. “I won’t stay long, I just stopped by to pick up a few things.” He gestured to the black duffle bag beside him and leaned back in the chair.
Nella quickly wrapped herself in the robe. It wasn’t that she had anything to hide, or any secrets, but Jack wasn’t making a real effort to look away. He continued to sit there, eyes semi-averted to her auburn toenails, as drops pooled at her feet. He didn’t seem to notice he’d taken the only chair, or he didn’t care.
She heard herself saying, “I think I’ll go get dressed.”
When she emerged from their bedroom half an hour later, in a velvety purple track suit of Grace’s that must have cost $500, she was hoping he’d left as silently as he came. But he was there on the couch, glass of whiskey in hand, and appeared to be settling in for the duration.
He gestured to the seat beside him, but Nella perched in the chaise, safe across the glass table.
Undeterred, he poured her a whiskey without even asking.
“Here, have a drink,” he said. She could hardly say no.
Nella admired the golden whiskey in the fish-bowl glass, took a sip. It went down easy, nothing like the moonshine to which she was accustomed.
“So what do you really do?” he stared right through her, and Nella began to get the inkling that maybe she should leave. Best to extrapolate now, before it got out of hand. But the house was so beautiful, so well-situated, impeccably decorated. And Jack could be managed with a certain amount of aplomb, or self-defence techniques, if it came to that.
“This is it,” she said. Not everyone was up to great achievements, being a businessman like Jack or a former model like Grace. Nella’s skill was her lack of skill – her ability to live lightly, leaving everything seemingly untouched. It was good to be talented, even if it was only as a stopgap who made sure the plants lived and the house survived their absentia in perfection.
Her life’s work.
“Nice gig if you can get it,” says Jack. “How did you fall into this line of work?”
“It started as a favour to a friend of a friend,” she said. The gig pulled Nella out of the darkness of a cramped basement suite on the unsavory side of town into the light of a medium-sized, ocean-view home on the peninsula. There, Nella felt her muscles releasing, her soul expanding. She petted the cat, mowed the lawn and they even paid her a small sum. A few weeks later a friend of theirs called and said they were going away for six months, and needed a dogsitter, was she interested?
She went on stress leave from her job as an administrative assistant and devoted herself full-time to the preservation of the house. She let her apartment go, shed her furniture – all scraps and miscellany scavenged from other people, anyway.
She felt lighter, more open this way, ready for anything that might come along, though more years had gone by than she cared to admit.
“I’m good at taking care of other people’s things,” she said.
“And wearing them too, I see,” he said. “Don’t worry I won’t tell Grace. It’ll be our secret.”
His lips curled in a conspiratorial half smile as he poured himself another glass, topped hers up too.
“Haven’t you had enough?” she said.
“I have a driver,” he said. “He’ll come back if I need to go anywhere. Why are you sitting so far away?”
Something about the tone, borderline pathetic, pulled at Nella. She dissected his features. The pointed green eyes, sharp nose, ruddy lips, solid body, a good size. Separately, there was much to redeem them, but together he wasn’t quite right, and he had a wife, too.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate,” said Nella. But when he moved so he was sitting down beside her she lingered, just to see what it would feel like, pretend a little.
“Fuck appropriate,” he said. “Forgive me, but you don’t strike me as the appropriate type.”
He slid his arm around her, kissed her neck. How interesting it felt, those ruddy, rough lips. She was testing the waters. The taste of him was alarming enough to make her push him away.
“No, no, this isn’t right. I’m your housesitter, not your escort service,” she said. “Besides, what about Grace?”
Grace, a fleeting sensation.
“I told you, Grace wouldn’t come with me. She was actually angry at me for interrupting our vacation. Like I had a choice about it.”
Nella could tell this was her cue, the moment where she is supposed to conjure up some sympathy for him, and the best she can do is: “It’s understandable, don’t you think? Maui or Vancouver, that’s a tough choice.”
“Am I a tough choice?”
His hand was on her leg. Even though he was a businessman, he still had dirt under his nails. That was enough to make her think, no.
“You’re a very attractive man,” she said, brushing his hand so gently from her leg, so it just hung there by his side. He stared at it and then her for a moment
She jumped to her feet.
“Are you hungry? We should get some food.”
Nella ordered a pizza with olives and anchovies and they sat eating it at opposite ends of the glass kitchen table on tiny barstools.
Afterwards, Jack drank a few more whiskies and passed out on the couch. Nella stood above him. Sleeping gave away all of his secrets. Seeing him there, mouth open, drooling slightly, he was only a fallible man.
The next morning he stood near the kitchen area, sheepishly chugging his coffee: “I’m sorry about that last night. I’ll get out of your hair here and try not to bug you anymore. Take care.”
His driver pulled up in a black limo and Jack was gone.
Thank God, Nella thought. Looking after the house was enough work without dealing with people. Though she speculated she could always try a sideline into husband-sitting and wondered what the going rate would be for that.
For the next two days, Nella busied herself listening to their CD collection, watching old movies on the giant screen TV, swimming laps on the pool, going to the yacht club and chatting up eligible rich, hopefully unmarried men, when she could find them, or when they found her.
Men like Seth, who after drinks and dinner and more drinks, came home with her. He was an executive of something, or at least that’s what he said he was. To Nella, his generous nature and his untarnished pretty-boy face made him seem so new like he’d just been born. But he wasn’t that innocent.
“So, this where you live,” he said, lifting her hair, kissing her ear.
“Uh-huh, do you like it?” she asked.
“Spiffy,” he said, tugging at Grace’s dress.
“Be careful, that dress is worth as much as your car,” Nella said.
“More,” he said, slipping the shoulder strap gently down her shoulder so he could kiss her there.
Someone flicked the lights on.
A woman’s shrill voice: “What are you doing?” A flash of blue spiralled towards them, a flung shoe with a spiked heel.
“Heads up,” Nella yelled, and ducked.
Seth was quick enough, only just, and the shoe left a dent in the wall above his head, before clattering to the white carpet.
His blue eyes burned. “What the fuck!?!” he said, as though it was Nella’s fault. He didn’t wait for an answer, instead grabbed his keys and ran out the door.
Nella stared up at the walkway and Grace’s flushed face peered down.
“Oh, it’s only you,” Grace said. “I thought he was my husband.”
She descended the stairs, straight-baked and serene as though she was on a catwalk.
“Wow, I sure scared him!” Grace laughed, closing the door Seth left open. “Have you seen my husband?” she asked.
Nella wasn’t sure what to say, if the truth would be easier than a lie. The sound of Seth’s motor died down. If her reflexes were better, she might have run out the door too.
“He left me alone in Maui,” Grace said. Up close, her hair was ratty, and her foundation caked with cracks in her skin. She was more mannequin than model now. “No doubt coming back here for some type of illicit rendezvous. Business, my ass. He doesn’t do business, that’s what our day trader is for. He came back here to do his business, screw some woman. Have you seen him?”
Nella wasn’t sure what the right answer was, she hadn’t seen him screw some woman, but whether he did or not, who’s to say. She searched for words that would cause the least amount of trouble for everyone, and help her get back to the job at hand.
“He stopped by to pick up some clothes,” she said.
“Did he hit on you?” Grace asked. Nella was too slow to answer.
“You’re the reason he came back,” said Grace. “He’s such a bastard, hitting on every goddamn woman we meet. I knew he would as soon as I saw you. Hey, what did you do to your hair?”
“You like it?” Nella asked.
“You look an awful lot like me,” she said. It was true. “You look good. That’s my dress.”
“It’s my dress,” Nella said. “We have the same one.”
“It is a great dress,” Grace echoed, but Nella could tell her mind was already wandering. “I don’t understand Jack. We’ve been planning this vacation for months and we are only there for three days when he takes off. Why can’t he just relax? We’re rich enough already. And he cheats. Oh, he does. Did you sleep with him?”
“No,” said Nella softly. She was surprised at the lack of conviction in her voice. She sounded guilty, and she hadn’t done anything. “I’m here to look after your house, not your husband.”
Grace circled around her slowly, and then grabbed Nella’s wrist.
“He asked you to, didn’t he? He’s such a slut, he’d ask anyone.”
The grip cut off her circulation, reddened her skin.
Nella suddenly, and she didn’t know why, there was no reason to lie, nothing she had to protect, said: “You’re talking nonsense.”
The words settled Grace down a little. She released her iron grip and started pacing larger circles around the room, her skinny legs blurring together before Nella’s eyes.
“I just don’t understand why he left me there only two days after we arrived,” said Grace.
“Didn’t he say he had business? Looks to me that’s why. Sometimes what you see is all there is.”
Grace’s eyes went murky, she collapsed down in the couch beside Nella, far enough away so their legs didn’t touch but close enough that Nella’s throat clenched on her perfume.
After a few minutes, Grace said, “Your stuff is in my room. I would appreciate it if you moved to the guest bedroom. I’ll be staying the night.”
Nella took the dismissal as an opportunity to go upstairs, move her things and lock the door. Even the second bedroom had its own en-suite bathroom, so there was no need to come out again until morning. Half of her was tempted to leave now and cut her losses, but couch surfing in a friend’s living room lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, and this still might work out. With just over two weeks left of their vacation, it was entirely possible they just might leave.
In Nella’s dream, Jack smashed the sangria pitcher on the diving board so the drink mingled like blood with water in the pool.
Even before Nella woke, she knew.
The moonlight in her room was a mere sheen on her skin. The voices clamoured. Nella opened her door a crack, and tip-toed to the walkway, as Grace hurled the crystal pitcher towards Jack. Her throw was weak and instead of hitting Jack it fell short on the glass table, shattering it and the pitcher into tiny little shards.
Jack lunged at Grace behind the couch, but the alcohol must have cut into his reflexes and he fell short, sprawling on the buttercream leather. Grace chucked a whiskey glass at his head, but it went hard and wide, puncturing a hole into the glass window behind the couch.
Jack was stunned: “The salesman said that glass was shatter-proof.”
“You said you came back here to do business!” yelled Grace.
There wasn’t anything else left to throw, so Grace fell upon him, hurling her fists at his face. He caught one tiny wrist, then the other.
Nella’s heart tripped over itself. She should call 9-1-1. She knew she should. But she didn’t want that kind of trouble. She slunk back to her room, as the shouting crescendoed. There was no phone. And the voices seemed quieter there. She lay on the bed, door locked, listening to their shouts rise and fall until they murmured off, or she fell asleep.
When she opened her eyes, even the moon was gone and all that remained was an uneasy quiet which pointed to all kinds of conclusions. She unlocked her door and stepped tremulously out unto the walkway in her sheer nightgown. Above her the stars twinkled with their secrets. Below on the couch she saw lifeless piles of limbs: the strewn body of Jack, limpid and half-clothed, intertwined with the stick legs and arms of what could only be Grace. Neither moved. Nella stepped closer, plotting her exit strategy while berating herself for falling asleep. She didn’t want to have to explain this if the cops got here; she was only the housesitter. There were limits to what she could reasonably be expected to do. She was halfway down the stairs when Jack groaned, shifting his weight slightly. They’re alive.
That was all she needed to know. She retreated upstairs, back into sleep.
Later, at a decent hour, she descended the stairs into sunshine. Windchime voices murmured in the kitchen. The morning seemed new. Nella wondered if she had been dreaming. There was no shattered glass on the carpet. The broken coffee table was gone. Only the hole in the window, the crisscrossing cracks in the glass, remained.
Grace looked 10 years younger in the kindness of morning light.
“Look who’s up!” she exclaimed, her brown eyes bright and relaxed, every hair in place. “Let me get you some coffee. And Jack’s making omelets, would you like one? Mushroom, spinach and feta, Jack’s specialty. Just try it.” She leaned back to kiss Jack before making a cappuccino and placing the steaming mug between Nella’s fingers.
When Jack turned to dish out the omelet, Grace saw a faint bruise on his face. She stared a second too long and caught Jack’s eye. Pleading, don’t say anything, don’t say a word.
“We’ll be out of your hair after breakfast,” said Jack. “We’re going back to Maui this afternoon.” He smiled too widely as though he was trying to expose all of his teeth, Grace beside him with fawning eyes.
Later, when Grace was upstairs packing, Jack handed Nella a blank check, and $200. In an undertone, he said: “Would you mind ordering us some new glass for the window? As you can see, I had a little accident last night. Here’s the number, and a cheque to pay them, plus a little bonus for you.”
After he passed Nella the cheque, his hand unmistakably brushed Nella’s ass. He didn’t say anything, and she almost was able to convince herself it was an accident.
She felt the paper between her hands. Amazing that something so thin and insubstantial could hold so many possibilities. She wanted to savour it, freeze this moment, that sensation that she had a ticket to paradise in her hand and anything was possible.
Kim Fehr's fiction has been published in the
Saranac Review, Descant, Room Magazine, Fieldstone Review, the Nashwaak
Review and the Toronto Quarterly. She also won first prize in the
Vancouver Courier 2008 fiction contest. Her novel, The Great Cubicle
Escape, will be self-published in 2014.