The Cleaning Lady

Photo by  turismotorino.org (copied from Flickr)

Photo by turismotorino.org (copied from Flickr)

For a short time growing up, we had a Polish cleaning lady to help around the house. She came on Tuesdays. I was only eight, but I remember sneaking behind the ribbed oak banister and watching her change out of her blue maid scrubs.

The enormity of her breasts, hidden neatly behind her thick white bra, gave me purpose. It was a strange voyeurism because it always felt invited – to change right out in the living room where she knew I could watch.

I could only guess at their texture and weight, similar perhaps to holding balled-up cats – they might squirm out of my hands at the slightest touch. In a way, I wasn’t that far off.

After viewing her, I’d sneak into the upstairs bathroom and take three small papaya pills from my mother’s medicine cabinet. They tasted good and she’d said to chew them when my stomach felt funny. I couldn’t remember the maid’s name or her face now, which I was sure wouldn’t have been up to my present day standards. But in memory she remained immaculate.

There was a certain fanaticism that stayed with me from that period, the hope that at any time, I could stumble upon a depraved miracle.

I thought about the cleaning lady as I sat on the M79 bus riding cross-town to see a girl. She was a dancer and I hadn’t seen her in two weeks because she’d booked a gig right after our first date. I wasn’t sure if it was true or not. I assumed it wasn’t, but then she called me so maybe it was.

The first time around we kissed, and she straddled me. Her breasts weren’t like the maid’s, but dancer’s breasts rarely are. She had underwear that I felt but didn’t see, and for two weeks I was wondering why it was even worth wearing something so insignificant. It made me hope she’d be wearing the same pair.

On Park, a dog got on. He was brown. I stood up front, and he parked himself next to me. I looked around to see if he belonged to anyone, but he didn’t. He was just a dog on a bus.

I leaned in to the bus driver. “Is this dog by himself?”

He took a wide right, checking me in the mirror. “It comes on the bus every day. It’s quiet, so I don’t ask questions.”

“Where does he go?”

“It gets off at York,” said the driver.

“And you don’t know where he goes after that?”

The driver pulled over and lowered the bus. It hissed down and a few elderly women gingerly boarded. “You’re asking me if I know the ultimate destination of a dog who rides my bus every day?”

I looked down at the dog. He seemed to be listening to the conversation, perhaps aware that it pertained to him. “When you say it like that it makes the question sound stupid.”

“Does it?”

The driver closed the doors and pulled away. I realized I missed my stop. At 2nd Avenue I patted the dog on the head and got off. I was supposed to meet the dancer for drinks at 6:00 and it was 6:20, so I hurried into the little wine bar.

The dancer was already there. She had these perfect, unmistakable legs that glimmered like the desks on late night talk shows. She set them off to the side of the table as if withholding them. Her hair was wavy, which I liked. And she had a distinct mole above her eyebrow that she could have hidden, but didn’t.

“Sorry,” I said, “there was this dog on the bus.”

“That happens.”

“No, he was alone. It’s like seeing a child alone. You make inquiries.”

“Is it?” She held her palm over the candle in the middle of the table. It flickered and almost went out.

“You and the driver would have gotten along. How was your show?”

“My – oh I made that up.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, I didn’t think I wanted to see you again, but then I said, ‘Why not?’”

“But why would you tell me that?”

“Because I’m honest.”

“Not really though because –”

The waitress interrupted, “What can I get you two?”

“Malbec,” I said.

“Pinot,” said the dancer.

After that, we talked about her dancing on Saturday Night Live and how neither of us is a fast reader. A few glasses later, we went back to her apartment because it was close. We kissed for a while then I took off her top and kissed her small breasts. The blinds were open but she didn’t seem to care. I started to unbutton her jeans, but she said I shouldn’t and that she had to go to a club to meet friends anyway.

“You should come,” she said.

I tried to look down into her half-opened jeans, but I couldn’t see much, just a black elastic band below her flat belly and a triangle of shadow. “Have fun with your friends. Maybe dinner this week.”

“This week’s tough for me,” she said.

I didn’t believe her. I scooped up my jacket that she’d tossed on the floor and headed to leave. “Let me know when you’re free, I guess.”

***

The next day while eating a meatball hero, I couldn’t stop thinking about the dog. I wondered if he was lonely, but I envied his independence.

Around a quarter to five, I hopped on the M79 and took it cross town again even though I had no reason to be on the East side. Certainly not to see the dancer. At Park, the dog stepped on, and I got excited.

“Where are you going?” I whispered to him in a sort of baby prattle.

He looked up at me with happy eyes and licked his jaw. Maybe that meant something.

We rode for a little while and got off together at York. I wondered what he’d lead me to and if his life was more interesting than mine. We didn’t walk all that far and arrived at a brownstone on a little side street. He waited patiently in front of the door for five or so minutes. I considered the fact that I was waiting on a dog in an alley, and perhaps I’d taken things too far.

As I was beginning to falter, a woman in her fifties with died black hair and a bit of a belly opened the door. The dog began to wag his tail, and she put out a food dish for him. She wore green slippers and seemed startled that I was standing there.

“Excuse me, is this your dog?”

“I just feed him.” She began to close the door.

“Wait – please.” She held the door open a little, enough so that she could close it quickly. “Does he belong to someone in the building?”

She looked me over pretty good before answering. I looked pretty normal, and my hair wasn’t as messy as usual, so I figured she’d answer.

“He did. She passed a couple months back. Now he comes here, and there’s no one else to feed him, so I do it.”

“Did you know he rides the bus every day?”

“I wasn’t aware of that.” She seemed to relax a little and opened the door slightly wider. “That’s funny. She used to take the bus to work.”

“The owner? What did she do – do you know?”

“She was a cleaning person over on the Upper West. She worked for a couple families there. I’m sorry. I have to start dinner. My husband gets ornery.” She patted the dog on the head, but he was busy eating, so he didn’t notice. “If you want, you should take him with you. He doesn’t have any place to go, and I have cats.” She shut the door.

He finished and stared up at me. I imagined my face in black and white. I thought of how having a dog would affect me. I couldn’t come home at four anymore, fooling with dancers’ breasts and sifting through lies. I liked the idea that perhaps this could have been my cleaning lady and there was some symmetry to things.

I felt overwhelmed for a moment. The dog settled down next to some garbage. Maybe that’s where he slept. I sat next to him, and he put his head in my lap. I wanted to ask him what she’d been like and if she wore thick white bras. I wanted this to be more than coincidence, to find order, to catch the scent of her perfume, find her picture – experience that ecstatic depravity I’d stumbled across all those years ago; but in my heart I knew that none of us was connected, that she’d cleaned my countertops and the dancer had someone else to open her jeans, and he was just a dog on a bus sleeping on a man sitting amongst garbage.

Matthew Di Paoli

About Matthew Di Paoli

Matthew Di Paoli received his BA at Boston College where he won the Dever Fellowship and the Cardinal Cushing Award for Creative Writing. He also earned his MFA in Fiction at Columbia University. He has been published in Neon, Litro, Squalorly, Carte Blanche, Black Denim Lit, Blue Penny Quarterly, Poydras Review, Pithead Chapel, Gigantic, FictionWeek, Newport Review, and Post Road literary magazines among others. Currently he's publishing a novel entitled Killstanbul with El Balazo Press, shopping a novel entitled Holliday, and is teaching Writing and Literature at Monroe College.

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