Stephanie’s right hand was stuck inside the door of a baby blue Lexus. While she was in no pain—that would come later—she couldn’t wiggle her fingers. She worried they’d no longer be three-dimensional once the door opened again. In the front seat, the grownups talked with an easy camaraderie about pleasant things. Stephanie was ten, and no one had ever told her what to do in this situation. The beautiful car glided downtown to a special place. Behind its wheel was Mrs. Gwendolyn Conrad, her mother’s boss.
It was an act of largesse that she was a passenger in this car at all. Her mother cleaned Mrs. Conrad’s house every Tuesday and Thursday. Most of her mom’s employers expected her to make childcare arrangements during the summer months, but Mrs. Conrad said Stephanie was welcome in her home as long as she’d wait quietly in the library while her mother worked. This room reminded Stephanie of what Laurie Laurence’s library in Little Women must have looked like. The book-lined room in his grand home with statues and pictures that made Jo cry out: “What richness! Theodore Laurence, you ought to be the happiest boy in the world!”
All that summer, Stephanie spent two glorious days a week with her nose in a novel and the rest of her sunken deep inside a leather reading chair while her mother polished Mrs. Conrad’s antique furniture, vacuumed her Persian rugs and scrubbed all five of her garden bathtubs.
“Life is not fair,” Stephanie’s mom said with a hint of amusement in her voice when she found her daughter in a state of luxurious repose that first day in the library. “I’ve come to rescue you from all this richness, Steph.”
When Stephanie got out of Mrs. Conrad’s chair, the indentation her body left in its burgundy leather quickly disappeared. Carefully, she placed The Wind in the Willows back on the shelf, in alphabetical order by author, just as she’d found it. She didn’t want to leave anything inside the gold-embossed edition to mark her page. She wasn’t sure Mrs. Conrad would like that.
Page 82…page 82…page 82…she thought, determined to remember her place when she came back on Thursday.
Stephanie tried to wiggle her fingers again and failed. Despite the fancy seats that blew cool air all over her, a bead of sweat fell onto her upper lip. A scream rose up in her throat, but an ugly sound like that would have been out-of-place in this elegant car. She choked it back. Decided to bide her time until the ride ended, and the door opened, and she could be free.
She couldn’t believe it was her love of reading that got her into this predicament. Along with The Wind in the Willows, she’d devoured Aesop’s Fables, Heidi, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Peter Pan, The Secret Garden and seven Nancy Drew mysteries that summer. Mrs. Conrad often breezed in and out of her library while Stephanie read, and on the day before school began, just as she was trying to find something short enough to finish in a few hours, Mrs. Conrad entered the room.
“We are alike, you and I,” she said to Stephanie, who blinked and gaped at the tall lady in the belted summer dress who’d never said more than a polite “Hello,” and “How are you?” to her before that moment. “I’ve asked your mother if I could take you on a trip to the bookstore. You can pick anything, absolutely anything, that you’d like.”
The offer made Stephanie’s stomach quiver and hurt. Of course, her mother wouldn’t deny her a trip like this, but to pick anything? She’d have to be sure to check prices and not go much above ten dollars. She didn’t want to shame her mother by looking greedy. She would be careful. She would choose wisely. She would be grateful.
“So, you’d like to come,” Mrs. Conrad said.
It was more a statement than a question.
“Yes, please,” Stephanie nodded. “I’d like that. Very much.”
She followed Mrs. Conrad outside to the circular driveway where the two-door sports car sat gleaming on the cobblestones. Waiting inside the car, impatiently drumming her fingers on the dash, was Mrs. Conrad’s grownup daughter. She’d just come from getting her nails done, and now she needed some things at the bookstore before she began her senior year of college, Mrs. Conrad explained while opening the door and motioning for Stephanie to climb inside.
Stephanie had never seen a manicure like Mrs. Conrad’s daughter had up-close. Her nails were perfectly even and faintly rosy, and when the summer sunlight hit them, they shone. Their tips were blindingly white as if they’d never scoured a sink or washed a dirty dish and they never, ever would. As Stephanie climbed into the tiny backseat, she continued to stare at those immaculate fingernails as they drummed, drummed, drummed on the dash, and she decided that no matter what, she would grow up to be rich. She and her mom would have their nails painted like that every day, and they would ride around in a sporty car so blue it matched the sky.
As she was thinking this, and simultaneously trying to figure out how to position her legs, which had grown longer over the summer, and just beginning to sit down, the door slammed shut. Mrs. Conrad began to drive. Immediately, Stephanie knew she hadn’t been quick enough and that her fingers had been in-between outside and inside and were now squished inside the heavy door. The engine roared as the car left the neighborhood.
“Ouch!” she wanted to yell, but she controlled this impulse when she realized it didn’t exactly hurt. It was just miserably uncomfortable and embarrassing and confusing to be stuck. After a mile or two, her fingers were numb anyway. No reason to make a shameful fuss. No need at all. Only, it was her hand. Her hand. Why didn’t she think it mattered enough to say something? This troubled her almost as much as being trapped, and yet she remained silent and sweating and vaguely tearful in the cramped backseat.
At last, someone spoke to her, Mrs. Conrad’s daughter.
“I don’t think we’ve formally met. I’m Angela,” she said, looking over her shoulder and giving a bright flash of teeth, as white as the tips of her nails. “How old are you?”
Feeling faint, but willing herself to sound calm, Stephanie stated her name and age. But despite her best effort, her voice shook. Angela turned to look at her again.
“Mom? I think something’s wrong with her. She looks like she might puke!”
Stephanie felt as if she were falling down a hole. Down, down, down, like Alice. Mrs. Conrad’s voice sounded both alarmed and very far away.
“Stephanie! Shall I pull over? What’s wrong?”
“Yes…yes, please,” Stephanie managed.
“Of course! There’s a service station just ahead. We’ll be there in a minute. Please tell me what’s wrong!”
“My…my hand is stuck in your door,” she said at last. Her stomach clenched up again with dread at her confession and then relaxed in relief to have her secret out. It was an overwhelming sensation of opposites.
“Oh, dear God!” was the last thing Stephanie heard Mrs. Conrad say before she allowed herself to fall all the way down the hole, wondering if the White Rabbit might be waiting for her there, or maybe some other creature from her own imaginings. She was very fond of squirrels. Yes, she’d rather a talking squirrel than a rabbit, although what it would be doing deep underground she didn’t know. There was always some earthly logic, even in the most fantastical of stories. Rules that had to be followed. So she braced herself for the absence of squirrels, and from a great distance, Stephanie heard brakes squealing. The car jerked to a stop. Then the door flew open, and she hit the bottom at last, passing out on the tan leather seats.
When she woke up, she was on a cot in the ER. Her hand looked enormous. Her fingers were wrapped in gauze, and a cold bag filled with squishy blue gel was draped around them with even more gauze to hold it in place. She felt a faint throbbing in her purplish-looking fingertips but discovered she was able to wiggle them at last. She could hear Mrs. Conrad’s voice behind the thin curtain that separated her cot from the bustling room outside.
“The maid will be here shortly. What a mess.”
Stephanie realized that Mrs. Conrad was referring to her mother.
“Her name is Nicole,” she whispered. After Great Grandpa Nick who’d fought in Vietnam and taught her to like The Beatles but not The Stones (“Bunch of punks!” he always said) and who smelled like cinnamon because he chewed Big Red. Her mother’s name was Nicole. Then it also occurred to her that she was the mess. She closed her eyes again.
“No good deed, Mom. That’s what Dad always says,” came Angela’s voice from behind the curtain.
“Shhh…that’s unkind. I see something in that little girl. She has enough intelligence to rise above her station. Here comes her mother now.”
And with that, the curtain flew open, and she was in her mother’s arms. Nicole smelled like Pine-Sol and the jasmine perfume she wore every day. Stephanie breathed in her scent, but the peace she felt was soon disturbed by profuse apologies from Mrs. Conrad, offers of money and refusals. And so, in a confusing jumble of blankets and gauze and words, Stephanie was released from the ER.
“I’m so sorry, Mom. I was daydreaming. I wasn’t quick enough.”
They were back in their apartment, cozy together under a blanket on their sofa. A large box from Barnes & Noble sat in front of them. Inside was the entire Harry Potter collection, The Chronicles of Narnia, and a very fancy edition of Through the Looking Glass with a leather cover and gilded pages, an immense gift from Mrs. Conrad. Although they’d looked through the box, they hadn’t taken out the novels yet. For the time being, they were using the huge container as a footstool. Stephanie imagined devouring all those stories, one right after the other, but for now, she just wanted to sink into the deep comfort of her home and her mom. Nicole put her hands on Stephanie’s shoulders, and Stephanie felt a surge of excitement when she realized she had her busy mom’s full attention.
“Listen to me,” Nicole said. “You did nothing wrong. Do you hear me, Steph? Nothing. But tell me, baby, why didn’t you scream your head off?”
Despite her mother’s assurance that she wasn’t at fault, heat rose to her cheeks. Why couldn’t her mom see that she didn’t want to think about those pathetic moments? Not now. Not ever.
“I just couldn’t!” At her words, Stephanie noted the two creases that looked like the number eleven, making their appearance between her mother’s eyebrows. The surest sign that she was upset. And this made Stephanie upset.
“But why, Steph?“The crease between her mother’s eyebrows deepened. Stephanie threw off the blanket.
“I don’t know! The fancy car? The fancy ladies? The gift I was about to get? It would have been ugly to yell.”
Nicole took a deep breath, but it didn’t look like the calming kind to Stephanie. It looked more like the breath a person takes before she lets all the words she usually keeps simmering inside a secret pot to rage into a boil that spills over its sides.
“You think they’re not human?” Nicole got up. Stamped her foot. “That they’re better than you, somehow? Let me tell you something, Steph, I’ve never wanted you to do housecleaning, but now I’m thinking, when you’re old enough? You should try it one summer.”
“I’d be happy to help you, Mom.” Stephanie’s voice sounded robotic to her own ears, all the fight in her gone. Of course, she’d always help her hardworking mom. Of course.
Nicole shook her head. “Always my good girl.” And for the first time, Stephanie didn’t hear this as a compliment. There was a bitter edge to her mom’s voice. Stephanie felt her eyes widen, and she stared hard at her mother.
“But this isn’t about helping me.” Nicole sat back down next to her daughter. “It’s about you losing your awe of people who have more money than we do.” Her mother laughed then, without humor.
“Steph, there aren’t enough pedestals in the world for all the people who have more cash than the two of us.” She raised her eyebrows at Stephanie, and the worried-looking creases disappeared. “Listen, I make it a point of not talking about the people I work for….” Nicole’s voice trailed off as she gently patted Stephanie’s uninjured hand. “But today I’m making an exception.”
Stephanie, who over the summer had grown to love what words could do, to need them as much as she needed food and air and light, leaned into her mother’s voice. And into her story.
“You know how we’re at Mrs. Conrad’s an hour longer on Thursdays than on Tuesdays?”
Stephanie nodded. “You always said you were getting their house ready for the weekend.”
“That was me being discreet. The extra work always concerns her five bathtubs. Thursday is the day I scrub them all out. And believe me, she manages to use all five of them every week. She says it’s her ‘stress release.’ She has bottles of mineral salts that say “Stress Therapy” in each of her monster-sized bathrooms. That stuff that soothes her? Let me tell you, it makes cleaning a monumental bitch.”
Stephanie giggled. Her mom rarely swore in front of her or spoke so freely. It made her feel grownup. Important.
“See, the salts she soaks in leave all her white tubs green, and those stains are crazy stubborn. I looked at the ingredients on the bottle once—rosemary and spearmint oils. Oils, Steph. And you know oil and water don’t mix. The stuff just doesn’t rinse away. I don’t think she even tries. She knows I’m coming and just leaves it all for me to scrub and scrub and scrub. I think she likes to have so many tubs, so she never has to wipe them out. When one’s dirty, she just moves on to the next. Honest to God, baby, it looks like the Grinch bathes in her house with all those bright green rings.”
Stephanie started giggling again, imagining elegant Mrs. Conrad and her five Grinch-colored bathtub rings. Then she started chuckling deep inside her belly. Soon, tears began to stream from the corners of her eyes. Nicole laughed too, and then put her hand up like one of the crossing guards at Stephanie’s school to settle them both.
“Keep in mind, Stephanie, that Mrs. Conrad is still one of the best employers I’ve ever had. Overall, she’s kind. But she still has that thingI’ve noticed in so many people who’ve never had money struggles. She’s generous and thoughtless at the same time. It’s… perplexing.”
Stephanie was still giggling. Nicole caressed her cheek, smiled.
“You get that she’s just human, Steph? No better than you. No better than me.”
Stephanie dried her eyes on the gauze on the back of her hand and nodded.
“Good,” said Nicole. “Now I want you to practice with me.”
“Practice?” said Stephanie.
“Yes. We’re going to practice yelling. Repeat after me: “My hand is stuck in your door!”
Stephanie’s heart began to beat more quickly, and her fingers were starting to throb, but she felt more excited now than nervous or timid, and this distracted her from her pain.
“My hand is stuck in your door!” she repeated. She wasn’t exactly screaming, but she was getting close.
“Louder,” said Nicole.
“My hand is stuck in your door!” Her heart beat faster still.
“My hand is stuck in your door, Mrs. Conrad!” Her heart was now racing.
But Stephanie wasn’t finished. The words kept pouring out:
“You should have given me more than two seconds to sit down! I’m just a kid—you should’ve asked me if my seat belt was on! Then you would have seen what you’d done! But you just drove away! You think you’re more important than me, but you’re not! You’re not! Mrs. Conrad, open your door! Open up your door! I’m stuck!”
Stephanie’s heart now felt as if it were on the brink of exploding. She was screaming louder than she ever knew she could. Her laughing tears turned into crying ones. Her body shook with sobs and rage and fear and with a longing for so many things she hadn’t even known she was missing before today.
She felt her mother’s hand on her back, making small, soothing circles.
“That,” Nicole said, “was an excellent start.”