Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Manny Journals, continued. 

(If this is new to you, please scroll down to the bottom of the page and start with chapter 1. Where I also explain what The Manny Journals are and why I'm posting these chapters!) For those of you following along:  I'm finally pretty well settled in my new house, and back to working. (Yay!) Two more (old) chapters to edit, then I will decide if I'm going to keep writing new chapters. I'd love to hear what you think, if anybody out there is following along!
Chapter 4: Just a Few Friends
I glance at the clock: 9:51 pm. It’s been six hours, and I’m still working on this god-forsaken PowerPoint presentation. The afternoon has been one of interruptions.
First, my mom calls me to ask about graduation tickets. I only reluctantly agree to send her the seven tickets she requests. Second, right before dinner, my roommate stumbles into the room, bleeding all over the place. (He fell off his bike. I helped him clean his cuts in hard-to-reach places.) Third, my sister texts me to demand that I call her—why she just didn’t call me, I’ll never know—because Mom and Dad are upset about how terribly I’ve been treating them. It turns out that they expect me to crawl home and grovel for their forgiveness, which they’ll only then reluctantly grant.
I’m in far from the best of moods when my cell phone begins playing the opening bars of “Viva La Vida”—the ringtone for people not in my contacts. I almost don’t answer, but then I notice the number. A 650 area code; that’s Palo Alto.
I flip open the phone. “Hello, this is Blake,” I answer, trying to sound chipper.
“Blake! It’s Leslie Jensen. I’m so sorry to be calling this late, but I just got home—”
She just got home? It’s almost 10:00 on a school night.
“And I realized that it’s already Wednesday. I have no idea where the week’s gone.” She places a hand over the phone, and hollers something about finishing homework. Hopefully, she’s talking to Addison.
“Sorry about that. Anyway, I know it is late notice, but I was wondering if you were free this Friday. We’re having a little get-together. It’d be a wonderful chance for you to meet everyone.”
My weekend plans consist of studying for tests and finishing heretofore procrastinated-on projects, but that might have to change.  My employment contract, signed and sealed, still hasn’t been sent. It’s not that I’ve been avoiding the issue. I just haven’t gotten around to it. I suppose I can look at this dinner as a final interview, one last chance to make sure I’m doing the right thing. Besides, waiting one more day to tackle the work I should’ve started last month isn’t anything new to me.
I make a decision. “Sure, I’m free.”
“Great. We’re having dinner catered at our house. Just a few of William’s and my closest friends and colleagues. And the kids, of course. I’m not sure when we’ll actually sit down for dinner, but everyone’s coming straight from work. You should be safe getting here by 7:30.”
“Should I wear anything in particular?”
“A couple of guys will probably still be in suits from work, but something casual is fine. A button down shirt and slacks work. A jacket if you want.”
Mrs. Jensen’s hand slips over the phone’s mouthpiece again. This time she yells about not eating after brushing your teeth. Now I suspect that she may indeed be talking to Oliver.
“Sorry. I’m trying to corral the kids. Oliver’s just finishing up his homework.”
“Ah, right. I’m actually doing the same thing,” I say, chuckling weakly.
Mrs. Jensen’s tinkling laughter joins my chuckle. “Well, then I’m sure you can relate! By the way, I’ll hire a taxi to pick you up for dinner. William has some great bottles of wine he’s been saving. Shoot me an e-mail with where to send the cab.”
I’ve never had someone offer to hire a cab to pick me up for a party. If this is what mannying for the rich and powerful will be like, I could get used to it real fast.
I swallow my surprise. “Okay, great.”
“Super.” There’s a slight pause, and then she says, “I’m sorry. Bryce won’t stop calling me. I have to run and tuck him in. See you Friday!”
“All right. Thanks.”
She has to tuck Bryce in? Ten o’clock seems like an awfully late bedtime for a four-year-old. But then, maybe he only does afternoon session at preschool. One of parenting articles I read recently said that toddlers and preschoolers can have awfully odd sleeping patterns. Worse than even teenagers, sometimes.
I set aside the phone and turn back to my PowerPoint presentation. I can’t wait until I’m done with all of the papers and projects and out playing in the park with the Jensen kids. The occasional catered dinner won’t hurt, either.
The taxi drops me off at the Jensens’ place at 7:26 pm. I walk up the path to the house and ring the doorbell, expecting to be greeted by a smiling Mrs. Jensen. Instead, a stocky Asian woman answers the door.
“Good evening, sir.” She punctuates each syllable of every word. Evening becomes Eve-in-ning. “Please, please. Come in.” She steps back and makes a sweeping gesture.
I offer a polite hello and tentatively walk through the door. The living and dining rooms have been transformed. The wood molding on the walls positively glows, and the faintest aroma of lemon oil furniture polish lingers in the air. Two long tables with white tablecloths boast large trays of food with silver domed covers. Three servers staff each table. The modest dining room table that I remember has been replaced, or perhaps extended. A dozen high-backed wooden chairs now surround it with room to spare. I find myself wondering what “just a few friends” means.
I turn to the Asian woman and try to hide the nervousness from my smile. “Sorry, I didn’t catch your name. I’m Blake.”
The woman’s head bobs. “Yes, Blake. The…” She pauses to find the right word. “The manny, yes. Mrs. Jensen said you be here early. I’m Hea. I clean house.”
I stiffen when she mentions my being here early. Hadn’t Mrs. Jensen said 7:30?
She eyes me curiously and says, “The children, they in their rooms. Doing homework.” She smiles proudly.
“Even Bryce?” I ask, my voice rising in pitch.
“Yes, yes. Bryce has special work so he no bother sister and brother.”
“I see. Where are their rooms?”
“Bedrooms? Upstairs.” She points to the right, toward a sleek spiral staircase.
Perhaps Mrs. Jensen invited me to come early so that I could spend a bit of one-on-one time with the kids, but I wonder why she didn’t mention anything about. She was rather distracted with bedtime and homework, though, so maybe she just forgot.
As I wend my way to the top of the spiral staircase, a sprinting figure rounds the corner and crashes into me. I step back to steady myself and nearly tumble down the stairs.
In front of me stands a young woman who is a mirror of Mrs. Jensen. Or, more accurately, what she must have looked like in a mirror thirty years ago. The girl’s black workout pants and tight pink t-shirt seem engineered to highlight her curves. Faint perspiration coats her forehead, and her chest heaves from some recent exertion. The girl looks like a college track star, but she must be Addison. I avert my gaze, feeling heat rising in my cheeks.
“Sorry,” I stammer. “Are you all right?”   
She nods, still catching her breath. “I’m fine,” she says, placing a hand on her chest. “I just finished with my workout. I’m a bit winded.”
“No problem. You’re Addison, right?”
She nods. “You’re Blake?” Her eyes roam deliberately over me before settling on my face.
“Yeah, I’m Blake.” I shift from one side to the other and fold my hands in front of me. I’m unused to such intense scrutiny from a fourteen-year-old.
“The new nanny,” she observes with a slow wink.
“Yeah.” I don’t know what else to say. In fact, I don’t really want to say anything. What I want to do is find somewhere else to be as soon as possible.
“I have to grab a shower.” Addison turns away but looks back to flash me a smile over her shoulder. “See you later.” She raises her hand and waves with just her fingers.
I stare at my feet until I’m certain she’s gone. When I look up, I notice Hea standing behind me. I scan her face for any sign that she witnessed the exchange between Addison and me, but I see none.
“Mrs. Jensen say you to come downstairs. She would like talk before the guests arrive.”
“All right,” I say. 
Mrs. Jensen is waiting for me at the bottom of the staircase. I can’t help but do a double take when I see her. The woman before me bears only a passing resemblance to the one I met last week. In fact, she looks more like Addison than the forty-year-old- plus professional I remember. She’s dressed in what I could politely describe as snug clothing—a frilly white blouse and and above-the-knees shimmering black skirt. A strand of pearls hangs from her neck, and she wears matching pearl earrings. She hardly looks like a mother of three children—one of them fourteen—but I know she’s at least in her early forties. She must have spent hours—or a fortune—on make-up.
“So nice to see you, Blake. Did you get a chance to spend some time with the children?”
I pull my eyes away from her and focus on her words. “Not much.”
“Oh, that’s all right. There will be plenty of time later.” She walks over to a coffee table and gestures for me to follow. “There’s something I want to show you before everyone arrives.” She picks up a black, high-gloss folder and hands it to me.
I take the folder and glance at it.
“Go ahead.  Look inside,” she says encouragingly.
I do. It appears to be a series of short, biographical sketches. Nine individuals are detailed. Each profile includes a paragraph of narrative, along with job title, areas of influence, and important relationships. I look up from the folder in confusion.
“Those are tonight’s guests,” Mrs. Jensen explains. “I didn’t want you to feel uncomfortable, so I thought a bit of intelligence might help.” She winks as she says the word intelligence. “You can go ahead and read through those. I have to get ready. Grab a glass of wine and make yourself at home.”
Get ready? What more does she have to do to get ready?
Mrs. Jensen turns and glides down a hallway before I have time to say anything further, leaving me with a dossier of high-powered politicos and fundraisers.
Shortly after Mrs. Jensen leaves, a tuxedoed server materializes before me. “Red or white?” he asks, holding up a silver tray with two generous glasses of wine.
“Oh. Hi.” I don’t quite feel comfortable being catered to like this. “What is the red?”
“It’s a 2003 Williams Selyem Russian River Valley Pinot Noir,” he recites precisely.
“Is it good?”
Without making eye contact, the man continues with his almost robotic speech. “The Selyem line is well regarded. The gentleman can likely smell its exotic aromas of black cherry, blackberry, herb, and toast. The wine also carries flavors of raspberry, vanilla, boysenberry, and licorice backed by acidity and a plush mouth feel.”
I have no idea what the man just said, but the bit about licorice flavors intrigues me. Still, I try to press further, imagining that there must be some shred of humanity buried behind this man’s veil of formality. I try to strike a wry tone. “So, does the gentleman like it?”
A tiny smile suggests that the server’s façade might be cracking, but he deftly recovers with a light clearing of his throat. “The flavors are well balanced,” he says. Whatever that means.
Giving up, I pluck the glass of pinot noir from the tray and find the nearest couch. I barely notice the flash of indignation that crosses the server’s face. In the back of my mind, I realize that I should have let the man present his tray to me, but I don’t dwell on this. Instead, Mrs. Jensen’s dossier begs for my attention. Broderick Christensen tops the list of guests. He is a former legislative director for the sitting junior senator from California and serves as the director of a banking PAC responsible for over $3.7 million in political contributions in the last election cycle.
Each guest in the dossier seems more powerful and important than the last. There’s Eli Kaplan, CEO of Solar Systems, Inc. and venture capitalist, and Mark Richards, a former hedge fund manager and banking lobbyist. My favorite is Vivian Lee, a retired model and founder of a Hollywood hair products company who fancies herself a political matchmaker.
When Mrs. Jensen appears a half hour later, I immediately realize what she meant by “get ready.” She has traded her sharp, businesslike outfit for something far more social. Her jewelry is what first seizes my attention. Anchoring her outfit are a matching necklace and bracelet of polished platinum, inlaid with turquoise and coral. Her silk vest and palazzo pants perfectly match the jewelry and the cream silk chiffon of her scarf and blouse contrast nicely with the rest of her outfit. Standing as she is near the track lighting, she positively glows.
A man I don’t recognize slides beside Mrs. Jensen and wraps his arm around her waist. He sports a pressed business suit, probably Brioni or Armani or some other exclusive brand by the looks of it.
“You must be Blake.” His voice is a rich baritone. He offers me his hand as I stand. “William Jensen,” he says, shaking my hand. His grip hurts.
I start to respond but my voice catches. This is the man who thinks I’m gay. A brief panic grips me before I force myself to breathe and remind myself that there’s no reason why I can’t speak normally.
“Blake Carlisle,” I reply, my voice only slightly tighter than normal. “It’s so nice to finally meet you. You have such an adorable family.” I figure there’s nothing wrong with buttering the man up a bit, and hopefully the excessive use of superlatives won’t give him any reason to question my sexual identity.
“Thank you. I am a lucky man.” He leans forward and tenderly kisses Mrs. Jensen on the lips. I avert my gaze, unsure of the appropriate response in such a situation.
Mrs. Jensen pats his cheek and whispers, “People should start arriving any minute now.” She takes a calming breath and then turns to me. “Blake, why don’t you join us for cocktails? Hea has dinner going in the kitchen for the kids. You can check in with them when it’s ready.”
I blink. It dawns on me that I haven’t been invited tonight because of my social graces or to bond with the family. No, I’ve been asked here for one reason only: childcare. My compensation is fine wine and a chance to ogle the elite.   
The doorbell—a coupling of deep organ chords—rings a moment later. Hea waits until Mr. and Mrs. Jensen have seated themselves comfortably on a loveseat to answer the door. A man and a woman both dressed in business suits enter. The woman hands Hea her sage green handbag but otherwise ignore her. The bag strikes me as possibly being one of those outrageously expensive crocodile skin handbags. It does look a bit reptilian.
Mrs. Jensen remains seated until the guests have taken half-dozen steps into the foyer. Then she stands and approaches them. “Mitch! Michelle!” The names burst forth effusively from her lips. The two ladies embrace and exchange kisses, and Mitch gracefully takes Mrs. Jensen’s hand and plants a kiss on it.
Mitch looks up, smiling. “Your bracelet is beautiful.”
His wife nods her agreement. “I can’t believe how well the turquoise matches your outfit. It’s absolutely perfectly!”
Mr. Jensen joins his wife and greets the two, leaving me as a lone observer on the couch. I long for my dossier, but I think I remember this couple. Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell Connelly II. Mr. Connelly runs a private equity firm notorious for advocating less stringent financial regulations, and his wife plans fundraising events for a variety of causes throughout the Bay area. Mitch’s brother is a commissioner on the Securities and Exchange Committee, and he’s helped a number of Congressmen get elected. I can’t quite recall the exact number, but I do remember that their combined political contributions for the last year were in the six figures. Their profligate campaign contributions cause me to wonder how we can still have so many homeless right in San Francisco living on the streets.
The Connellys are followed by the rapid arrival of the rest of the evening’s guests. Each lady surrenders an expensive, boldly colored handbag to Hea, while the men all but ignore the hired help. Servers quickly descend on the guests, pushing upon them their fill of expensive wine and hors d’oeuvres—radishes stuffed with goat cheese, steak tartare (the horsemeat variety), chicken liver kebabs with juniper, and crab-stuffed portabello mushrooms for the non-meat eaters. Like wraiths, the servers flit among the guests, all but ignored. 
Down the hall, Hea is struggling with something outside a closet. Everyone else ignores her, so I rush over to help. A veritable mountain of handbags bulges from the closet’s upper shelf.
 “Here, let me help you,” I offer, stepping closer. I lean down to pick up the sage green handbag I noticed earlier and feel a slap on my arm.
“Hand off!” Hea chastises me. “That a Yves Saint Laurent Muse!” She eyes me suspiciously. “And you no wash hands, I bet.”
I back away and hold up my hands—just washed—defensively. “Sorry, I didn’t know.” I decide that a “Yves Saint Laurent Muse” must indeed be one of those outrageously expensive crocodile skin handbags. Hea redoubles her efforts to fit all of the bags into one closet, and I head back over to where the cocktails are.
After the guests have all had at least one glass of wine, Mrs. Jensen introduces me to each of them in much the same way: “This is my new assistant, Blake Carlisle. He’s making the move with us to Washington.” Several guests seem somewhat interested in me when I mention my affiliation with Stanford, but they otherwise exchange a few bland pleasantries with me and then turn their attention to the other guests catalogued in the dossier.
A sudden fear grips me: Is it possible that Mrs. Jensen has also made a profile of me and included it in a set of dossiers distributed to all the other guests? I promptly dismiss the concern as a conflation of my standard ego and current social insecurity. As invisible as I feel, there’s no way I’ve been featured on anyone’s social cheat sheet.
For the most part, I feel lost as everyone else in the room converses quite naturally about politics and regulatory policy. I do overhear one conversation that somewhat disturbs me, though. It’s an exchange between Mrs. Jensen and a banking lobbyist.
“We’re really targeting H.R. 27.” Mrs. Jensen says. “We want to trade greater transparency in our disclosures for less regulation of our offshore activity.”
“That’d be quite the coup,” the other lobbyist notes, raising his glass as if in toast.
“Yes,” Mrs. Jensen agrees. “Right now we have about $20 billion in transactions going through offshore havens. We’re hoping to double that by next year.”   
“What kind of tax savings are you looking at?”
“Oh, probably at least $5 billion,” Mrs. Jensen answers.
Another conversation revolves around the administration’s proposal to expand the federal food stamp program to the working poor.
“I don’t see the point in giving families $25 more a month for food,” Mr. Connelly remarks.
“It might be the difference for some families between microwave dinners and fresh produce,” counters Mr. Kaplan. He heads an alternative energy startup and leans far to the left.
After some hesitation, I venture into the discussion. “For some families, it might even make the difference between dinner and going to bed hungry.”
A new entrant to the conversation walks up behind me and lays a hand on my shoulder. “Putting food on the table doesn’t help the economy recover,” the man lectures. “What we need are increased manufacturing production and an infusion of investment capital.”
Mr. Connelly adds his agreement. “What we’re facing is a macroeconomic issue. Targeting aid to individuals and families isn’t going to make a difference.”
The man with the hand on my shoulder removes it. “Indeed. Everyone managed to make it through the 1930’s without food stamps. People will figure out a way to get by today, too.”
I barely suppress an urge to yell at these men. Don’t they understand that most Americans couldn’t care less about increased manufacturing production and an infusion of investment capital? As I consider how to respond, an attendant rescues me from making a further fool of myself by appearing beside me. The guests continue talking but subtly drift away from us. “Sir,” the attendant whispers, “you are needed in the kitchen.”
The sights and smells of a grand feast greet me in the kitchen. I don’t dare take the lids off any plates, but I do scan an extra menu sitting next to a tray. The night’s salad consists of mushrooms, black olive purée, artichoke hearts, baby corn, and hearts of palm topped with a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and basil, with freshly ground pepper optional. For the main entrée, the menu reads, “Ravioli of lobster and salmon, lemongrass and coconut bisque with chargrilled spring vegetables, pine nut pesto, and creamed pearl barley.” Dessert is a cold Valrhona chocolate fondant with banana and passion fruit sorbet. I hadn’t felt envious of the Jensens’ guests until now.
Banging pots and pans distract me from examining dinner. Hea waves me over to the stove range and points at a tall pot. “Spaghetti,” she says. “Make sure it no boil over. I go get kids.” She hands me a thick wooden mixing spoon and waddles out of the kitchen.
I’m still stirring the spaghetti when Bryce and Oliver bound into the kitchen.
“Hey, Blake!” Oliver says as soon as he spots me.
Bryce runs up to me and tugs at my belt. “Guess what?”
“Me and Oliver are making a love potion!” Bryce stands there, beaming proudly, but Oliver has quite pointedly found something on the counter to interest himself with.
“Oh yeah?” I try to maintain the conversation as I sift through a cabinet, looking for a colander for the spaghetti. “Who’s the love potion for?”
Bryce looks around carefully and then lowers his voice. “Don’t tell anyone, but we’re gonna give it to Addy.”
“Addison?” I drop the pot lid and almost choke. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“Uh huh,” Bryce says. “Addy says all the boys at school are too stupid for her.”
“Where is Addison?” I ask, doing my best to suggest nothing more than idle curiosity.
Bryce shrugs, but Oliver answers. “She never eats dinner. That’s why she’s so skinny.” A picture of Addison begins to solidify in my mind as an aloof, anorexic teenager with a hankering for older guys. 
The boys and I try to ignore the hustle and bustle of wait staff coming in and out of the kitchen as we dine on whole grain spaghetti, diced tomatoes, and reheated soy balls. (Bryce calls them meatballs, but Oliver sternly corrects him.) Our meal, while healthy, is a far cry from what’s being served the next room over.   
 “What’s that stringy stuff in the s’ghetti?” Bryce asks.
“Umm…” I’m not sure.
Oliver pokes at some of the substance with a fork as he rests his chin on his free hand. “It’s probably leftover unchicken,” he mumbles.
Bryce picks up a long fiber of “meat,” peers at it, then drops it in his mouth with a shrug. Unchicken? Could Oliver be serious? It’s probably better that I not ask.
I try striking up a conversation about their day, but getting more than a word or two at a time out of them is about as easy as convincing my old retriever that he shouldn’t chase squirrels. To make matters worse, both boys bear signs of exhaustion. Oliver frequently rubs at the bags under his eyes, and Bryce can’t stop yawning into his fist. At one point, I fear that he might get his hand stuck in his mouth.
Once I manage to pry a few details about the day from out of the boys, I decide it’s no small wonder that they’re even awake. Oliver had two tests in school, a haircut, soccer practice, piano lessons, and almost two hours of homework. Bryce’s day was much the same, except he had voice lessons instead of piano and also met with his Spanish tutor.
Once the boys finish eating, Hea reasserts her control and promptly shoos them upstairs for bed. With the boys gone, I’m not sure what to do with myself, so I ask Hea if she’d mind if I help with the dishes. She regards me for an uncomfortably long stretch of time before speaking. “Go ahead. Use soap.”
“Umm, right,” I respond. I roll up my sleeves and begin rinsing the boys’ plates. As I scrub at a spot of crusted marinara sauce with a withered scratch pad, I can’t help but wonder what I’m getting myself into.
It’s past 11:00 by time all the guests leave. Mr. Jensen has already gone to bed when Mrs. Jensen finishes with her follow-up phone conversations. From the sound of it, she’s individually calling several of the guests and their associates and forcefully lobbying them on the various issues raised during dinner. I take the time to sit down on a sofa and relax. The evening’s wine makes it hard for me to think clearly.     
At 11:30, Mrs. Jensen sets down her Blackberry and approaches me. “Blake, I can’t believe how great you were tonight! You’ve been so patient. I didn’t think things would go so late.” She lays a hand on my shoulder to balance herself as she takes off her heels. She has already discarded her vest and scarf. All that’s left are her sleeveless blouse and palazzo pants.
Mrs. Jensen’s hand surprises me, but I lightly take hold of her elbow and help her balance. “It’s no problem,” I say. “All of your guests were so interesting, and the kids were great.” I’m not being entirely truthful, but I do have to admit enjoying the glimpse, however brief, into the life of the rich and powerful.
“Well, you were wonderful.” Mrs. Jensen finishes with her heels and steps back. “Everyone just loved you.”
I suspect that she’s overstating the impression I made on people, but I bow my head nonetheless, trying to appear gracious. “In any case, it’s getting late.” I yawn and gesture to the clock. “I might turn into a pumpkin.”
Mrs. Jensen takes my hand and squeezes it gently. “Thanks so much for being here tonight, Blake. We’ll have to do it again sometime soon.”
No, I think to myself, this is definitely not something I intend to do again soon.
We drift toward the door and stop in front of it. “I know it’s late,” Mrs. Jensen begins tentatively, “But I was wondering: Have you decided on the contract yet?”
“Oh, yeah,” I say. “I’ve got it signed and sealed, actually. I just keep forgetting to send it.” Tonight’s experience may have me questioning the wisdom of my decision to seek employment as a manny—and whether I’d ever actually send in the contract—but at least I wasn’t lying about having signed it.
 “Don’t worry about it one bit,” Mrs. Jensen assures me, waving her hand lazily through the air. “I have another one right here. You can sign it now.” She takes a step over to the end table by the door and picks up a pen and envelope lying there. “Here you go.”
Somehow, the contract finds its way into my hands. The envelope falls to the floor, but Mrs. Jensen tells me not to worry and picks it up herself. The words on the contract swim before my eyes as I try to focus on them through the wine-induced fog clouding my mind. A voice in my head shouts to drop the contract and run, but the part of me that seeks to avoid confrontation like the plague wins over. Besides, I figure, I’ve already signed the contract anyway, haven’t I?
I hold onto the pen without feeling it and scribble my signature. I struggle to keep my voice level as I hand the paper back to Mrs. Jensen. “Thanks, for everything.”
“This is going to be great. We can’t wait for you to join us in D.C.” She pats me on the cheek and sets the now-signed contract back on the end table. “Good night now. The taxi’s in the driveway.” She steps up onto her tiptoes and gives me a quick hug. “You take care.”
“You, too,” I say. I take one last, longing look at the contract before leaving.
I’ve officially signed my life over to the Jensen family.