Paula Whitacre and Sheri Leseberg

Sheri Leseberg
Inspiration piece

By Paula Whitacre


Her: Madame de Simoneau. Thin-necked, tall, aristocratic. A young widow whose husband was killed in a motorboat accident when they lived in the States. A woman who speaks English fluently but never uses it. A woman who does not smile.

Them: Her two daughters, Delphine and Isabel, who go to dance class and wear smocks over their dresses at all-girls Catholic school. Isabel, age 7, with a face that promises beauty as a woman. Delphine, age 9, wearing a patch to correct a lazy eye, but already more observant in life than Isabel or her mother.

L’Americaine: At home, verbal, energetic, profane. With her and them, sulky, lonely, and not very competent au pair.

Where: An apartment in the 6th arrondissement, where the girls sleep in the bedroom and Madame sleeps on a couch in the living/dining/cooking room. White carpet and large pillows from India, no view outside.

A second where: The small room tucked into the eaves of the apartment building where the au pair lives, six flights up. A twin bed, bureau, and cold-water sink, shared toilet down the hall. The room where the au pair retreats every evening and cries.

Why: From 7:30 to 8:30 in the morning, the au pair wakes up sleepy girls, makes their breakfast, supervises dressing and teeth-cleaning, brushes their hair, makes their beds, walks them to school, they cannot be late, says Madame! Dutiful kiss on the cheek, have a good day. From 4:30 to 8 in the evening, picks the girls up from school, takes them to the park, to dance class, oversees homework, gives baths, prepares dinner for the girls, cleans up, vacuums the white carpet, washes and irons smocks, polishes shoes, picks out clothes for the next day, gets girls ready for bed, all in not very good French (which she thought was good before arriving in France).

Reason: Paris! Adventure! Romance! That was the lure. Not trying to get ink stains out of white smock collars.

Consolation: The apartment during the day, where the au pair is allowed to take a shower. Which she does, but also plays the piano, snacks, reads, writes long letters bemoaning her fate to her friends, reminding herself she has friends, someplace. So far, she has only met a middle-aged Egyptian journalist, and some friends of friends who live outside the city.

Confrontation: The au pair is sprawled in a beanbag chair, reading, hair still wet. She hears the door open. Mon dieu! She snatches up her droppings around the apartment, the wet towel, the coffee cup, the family’s magazines. Madame walks into the living room with a man. Mumbled apologies, skirting along the wall to leave. A hiss from Madame, laughter from the man. Apartment declared off-limits except for brief showers.

Choice: Stay or go? Stay in misery? But go? Where? And having to tell Madame—in French?

Decision: “Madame, I cannot stay. I am quitting. I’m sorry. Yes, I will stay until you find someone else. A week? A month? Yes, Madame.” Groveling, but relieved.

Final day (as it turned out): Horrid girls. Burned potatoes. Weather cold. Madame home around 7, slips her heels off her narrow feet, eats a yoghurt with a tiny spoon. The girls buzz around her. When they go into their bedroom, she turns, how fâché she is, taken advantage of by the ungrateful au pair. And, oh, she found a replacement. The au pair must leave tomorrow morning.

Panic: Now where?

Aftermath: The au pair packs up her suitcases, leaves no forwarding address nor is asked for one. She flails, then she finds her way.

Never answered: What happened to Delphine and Isabel? Did Madame ever smile?


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One Comment

  1. Posted April 10, 2010 at 4:50 pm | #

    Very strong painting and poem. I can see Paris and Madam.