Monday, February 25, 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!)

Chapter 5: First Contact
The phone rings five times before Sydney answers.
“Blake?” She sets down the phone and groans. “It’s six in the morning!”
“Yeah, sorry, I don’t set United’s schedule,” I mutter. I’m not exactly happy to be awake at six in the morning either, but United’s cheapest flight to D.C. departs at 6:30. Despite the early hour, the flight proves popular. Over a hundred other passengers share the waiting area with me, most of them also lost in their own worlds of Internet browsing or cell phone conversations.
Sydney yawns twice more before she’s ready to resume the conversation. “So. What’s up?”
“Me. Pretty soon at least.”
“Yeah, cute. Seriously. It’s not like you to call so early in the morning just for the hell of it.”
Have to love Sydney—always to the point. “Can’t a guy just call his best friend to chat?” I ask, feigning offense.
“The only time you ever call is when you’re in deep shit or upset about something. If you just wanted to chat, we’d be sitting at Starbucks.” Sydney’s tone is sharp but not unkind.
“Touché.” Sydney has an uncanny ability to call me on my BS. “I guess it’s just that I’m sitting here, leaving home, and it feels totally surreal. Yesterday it was like it’s all going to be an adventure. Now the reality’s starting to really set in.”
“That’s normal, I think. If it helps, pretty much everyone’s probably feeling the same way right about now, or will be soon at least. Everyone’s going their own way now, doing different things.” By everyone, Sydney means our other graduating classmates.
“Yeah, that’s true. But most people aren’t moving across the country to take a job they never imagined working six months ago.”
“You’d be surprised,” Sydney says. She pauses, but then quickly adds, “But I get what you’re saying.”
“Thanks.” It’s nice that somebody understands.
“Still, it’s something you’re excited about, isn’t it?”
“Sure, I’m excited about it. Though I also have to admit that I’m a bit nervous. I don’t completely know what to expect.” Truth be told, I’m more than a little nervous. I never told Sydney about how Mrs. Jensen ambushed me at her party, though, so I don’t want to show how anxious I’m really feeling. If I let that slip, Sydney would be sure to find a way to pull the whole story out of me.
A moment of silence lingers between us before Sydney fills it. “Does anyone ever completely know what to expect with a new job? You’ll pull through. You know I respect what you’re doing, but in the end, keeping a few kids out of trouble can’t be that hard, can it?”
I snicker. “I guess you’re right. I just need to relax and have some fun with this.”
“Exactly! That’s the spirit.” A vision of Sydney as my life coach fills my mind. Banishing the image, I decide to wrap up the conversation. Sydney is right. It seems like every time I call her I either need something or I’m being needy.
“Listen, I gotta go. They’re starting to board. I promise I’ll call sometime soon. And it’ll just be to talk!”
Sydney laughs. I’ve always loved that laugh. For some reason, the sound of her laughter reminds me of a fairy tale’s happily-ever-after ending. “Okay,” she says. “I’ll hold you to that. You take care. And don’t forget to smile.”
“Thanks, I will. Bye.”
The plane isn’t really boarding, but it will be in a few minutes. Within a half hour, I’ll be on the way to the nation’s capital to start my new life.
The house on Magnolia Lane looks just like the website pictures I remember from the spring. Actually, the column-supported, limestone portico impresses me as even more elegant in real life. And the slate roof tiles glow in the sun with a multihued shimmer that could never be fully captured by photography. I can hardly believe that this is my new home. Or, more correctly, the house to which my home is attached.  
I step out of my cramped, two-door rental car and approach the house. From past experience, I know better than to expect Mrs. Jensen to answer the door, but I still manage to be surprised by the lady who responds to the doorbell.
“Good afternoon, sir,” she says. It sounds more like, “Gude af-ter-a-noon, sir.” Immediately, I recognize the staccato accent. It reminds of someone I know.
A panicky sensation grips me as I briefly consider that the lady before me is Hea, only three shades paler than normal. The notion of a vampiric Hea shakes me to the core. But no, this woman isn’t Hea—though she does look eerily similar. Her features mark her as an Asian woman (similar in proportion to Hea’s unforgiving heft and girth) and, in the manner of Hea, her hair is pulled back and tied in a tight, compact knot.  Beware the stray hair that would try to escape that knot. I briefly consider her extraordinarily pale pallor, wondering if she might be ill, but I decide she’s not. There’s really nothing unhealthy about this woman’s pallor; she simply looks like she belongs to some unknown race.
The housekeeper squints at me. “You look like manny. Blake, yes?” The name sounds unfamiliar on her tongue.
I nod numbly. What does she mean, I look like manny? The Jensens never took any pictures of me as far as I recall. Could she mean that I somehow have a manny look about me? Have I already begun the process of domestication? I glance down at my collarless polo shirt and Dockers, suddenly insecure.
The housekeeper opens the door wide and waits for me to enter—only, I don’t. The house is so immaculately white that I’m almost afraid to step foot inside. There’s no doormat, and I’m sure my shoes are dusty. What’s more, the room before me screams, “Neat, clean, and perfect!” so loudly that I’m afraid a hidden butler might drop from the cathedral ceiling and accost me with a linen brush as I soon as I step foot in the house.
“Come, come. Come in,” the housekeeper urges. She sounds inviting at first, but when I don’t move, she asserts herself more forcefully. “Come in now. AC is on.”
Not daring to defy the steely hardness of her tone, I shuffle inside. My feet slide slightly on the slick, glistening marble floor tiles. The floor strikes me an E.R. visit waiting to happen for anyone in stocking feet. I make a mental note to never allow Bryce to run through here in just socks. My next thought is that I hope Mrs. Jensen doesn’t object to the vulgarity of bare boy feet on her pristine, umpteen thousand dollar floor.
After overcoming my initial shock, I offer the housekeeper my hand. “I’m sorry, I don’t know your name…”
She peers at the hand, one brow arching upward before she shakes it. The calluses on her palm surprise me, and her grip is far firmer than I expect. “Hee-sook,” she states.
Hee-sook gives me the once-over as I shake her hand. Her sour expression indicates to me that she doesn’t approve of what she sees. The intensity of it makes me feel like a sullen schoolboy awaiting chastisement by the principal.
“You sit,” He-sook says, still peering at me. “You no look too good. I call Mrs. Jensen.”
I offer no objection as she toddles away. Spotting an almost blindingly white leather sofa across the room, I decide to make myself comfortable there as I wait for Mrs. Jensen, who enters minutes later, tethered to her Blackberry. She has the device jammed between her ear and shoulder while frantically scribbling something down on a writing pad. Without a word, or even a gesture, she sits down next to me and continues her conversation.
“Really . . . She is . . . I never would’ve guessed . . . I thought she was from a much more modest upbringing . . . 703—you mean she lives in Virginia? . . . McLean? I could never make it out there. You know how terrible Chain Bridge is . . . Oh, she was the Appropriation Chairman’s favorite? . . . I see . . . I guess I will have to make the trek then . . . All right. Talk to you later.”
I try my best not to imagine what Mrs. Jensen might be talking about, or to whom.
“Blake!” She finally sets down her phone. “Thank God you’re here. I’m supposed to be on vacation, but the week’s just been absolutely crazy.”
Despite Mrs. Jensen’s proclaimed harriedness, her appearance bears no such suggestion. She’s dressed in a wrinkle-free white-and-blue pantsuit and sports blindingly bright fuchsia nails and matching lipstick. Her hair, pressed and curled, barely moves when she turns her head.
“I’m sorry to hear you’ve been so busy.” I don’t know what else to say.
She accepts my sympathy as a matter of course. She is holding her Blackberry again, and she can’t quite seem to tear her gaze away from it while speaking to me. “Hmm…” she murmurs more to herself than to me. “This afternoon and tomorrow are booked.” She makes eye contact, then sighs dramatically. “Three lunches tomorrow! That’s two hours on the Stairmaster.”
I cup my hands together and try to appear sympathetic.
“Anyway,” she continues. “Enough about me. I’m sure you need some time to unpack and settle in.” She glances at her watch. “I know we discussed you not starting until next week, but I’m really overwhelmed.” She fixes me with a look that would be perfect for a Desperate Housewives advertisement. I wonder if she knows how completely pathetic she looks.
She straightens on the couch and leans toward me, her Blackberry forgotten. As she does so, her knee brushes against mine. I jerk back at the small but definite shock that courses through me. “Is there any way you could start early?” she asks.
Almost stammering, I say, “Um… I guess. I don’t have any plans,”
“Really?” Mrs. Jensen lets out a relieved breath. “Thank you so much.” Her eyes travel to her watch again. “It’s 3:30 now. Would 6:30 be all right?”
I nearly choke, all tension banished by Mrs. Jensen’s unexpected request. “Today?” I ask. She can’t mean today, can she?
Mrs. Jensen confirms my fear with a tiny nod.  
There’s really nothing to do but agree. At the end of the day, making Mrs. Jensen’s pampered life more downy soft is what I’ve been hired to do. After all, who could imagine the horror of a day’s work consisting of three expensive lunches, paid for by someone else?
“You’re such a lifesaver!” Mrs. Jensen reaches out and clasps my hand. “Thank you. He-sook has to leave early today, and I was so worried I wouldn’t be able to find anyone to cover.”
“No problem at all,” I murmur.
“All you have to do tonight is make sure Addison gets dinner and then hang around in case she needs anything. The boys are gone at a sleepover and won’t be back until tomorrow afternoon after camp.” A sleepover? I could see Oliver doing a sleepover, but Bryce seemed awfully young for one. I didn’t start doing sleepovers until I was nine or ten.
“That shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Great. I’ll see you later then!” Mrs. Jensen is gone almost as soon as she finishes speaking.
Her departure leaves me in a vacuum. What do I do now? I look around, examining the room, and draw little comfort from what I see. The living room’s décor—expensive paintings (all originals), antique clocks, and crystal statuettes—leads me to believe that I’ll be spending most of the summer rescuing fragile valuables from near certain destruction at the hands of two restless boys.
A nasal wheezing sound distracts me from my musings. It’s Hee-sook. She stands in front of me, holding something shiny. “This your key,” she says, holding it up in her right hand. In her other hand, she holds up something else. “And this your keychain with garage opener. Make sure you attach together.”
I dutifully take them and try to convey my genuine gratitude. “Thank you.”
She nods curtly. “Make sure you no lose. I no have extras.”
“Of course. I promise I’ll take care of them.”
“Mrs. Jensen left you package on desk in library. You should go look.”
“Thanks, I will.”
He-sook watches me silently before declaring. “I go make Addison’s dinner now.” She starts to leave but pauses and turns back to face me. “You want snack?” she asks.
“I’d love a snack,” I say, surprised to find myself smiling.
He-sook eyes me warily but says nothing before retiring to the kitchen. So she has a soft side after all. Huh.
The package in the in the library actually consists of two boxes and a two-inch binder. In the first box is a brand new iPhone, already activated, and the second holds a set of keys emblazoned with the Volkswagen logo. Despite my fear of disturbing He-sook, I let out a brief whoop. Mrs. Jensen might be a demanding employer, but at least she follows through on her promises. Now what could the binder be? There’s a sticky note from Mrs. Jensen stuck on the first page.
Dear Blake,
I wanted to be sure you could hit the ground running, so I left this for you. Hope you enjoy the phone! The car is in the shop getting its first service done, but it should be here soon. It’s VW Jetta. Couldn’t get a Prius, but it runs on biodiesel!
A Volkswagen Jetta—and a TDI clean diesel at that! Who would’ve thought I’d own a car like that right out of college? I do wonder, though, how she knows I’m a treehugger at heart. We must have talked about it during our interview, I figure. Although, I don’t recall mentioning it.
I dispose of the sticky note and begin flipping through the binder, curious about its contents. But my curiosity rapidly diminishes. The binder lays out each child’s entire summer.
The extensiveness of their schedules is breathtaking. Take Oliver, for example:
June 16 – June 22
Sidwell Friends Day Camp – 8:30-12:00
Headfirst Lacrosse (St. Albans) – 12:30-3:30
Tutoring with Alicia (home) – 4:00-5:00 (Tue/Thurs)
Baseball Practice (Capital View) – 4:00-5:30 (Mon/Wed)
Piano Lessons (home) 5:00-6:00 (Thurs)
French Club (Four Seasons) 5:00-6:00 (Fri)
Bullis Lacrosse Clinic – 8:00-11:00 (Sat)
Club Swimming Lessons – 1:00-1:45 (Sat)
Club Golf Lessons – 2:00-2:45 (Sat)
Tutoring with Sandy (home) – 11:30-1:00 (Sun)
Baseball Games (varies) – Sat/Sun PM (see schedule)
The poor kid spends more time in scheduled activities than the typical adult does working. And what’s with all the tutoring? I haven’t spent a whole lot of time around Oliver, but he impresses me as a rather intelligent boy. A quick scan of the other two children’s schedules confirms that they’re both equally booked.
On a whim, I power up my new iPhone and decide to try estimating the cost of one week of Oliver’s activities. I spend a few minutes familiarizing myself with the iPhone’s web browser and then start Googling. One week of Sidwell Friends Day Camp: $375. One week of Headfirst Lacrosse: $355. A bit more searching and calculating gives me $80 for BCC travel baseball, about $250 for three and a half hours of tutoring, $50 for French Club, $65 for the lacrosse clinic, and $50 each for the swimming, golf, and piano lessons. That’s $1,325 for one week—or over $13,000 to keep Oliver busy for the entire summer.  
My phone starts vibrating, and a picture of Mrs. Jensen’s smiling face replaces my web browser. She must have already programmed the phone! I try answering the phone, but the vibration signals a new text message: Hey Blake if u get this call me. Num is in phone.
I thumb through my contacts list and sure enough, Mrs. Jensen’s number is there—along with a dozen other entries.
Mrs. Jensen answers my call after the first ring. “Blake! So good to hear from you. Do you like your phone?”
“Yeah, it’s great!” The phone preprogramming does freak me out a bit, though.
“Wonderful. I wanted to talk to you more about today and tomorrow. I’m going to be getting in late and leaving early, so we might not get a chance to talk until tomorrow afternoon.”
“Addison’s going on a retreat with her dance troop tomorrow, so you’ll just have the boys. They’ll be back by 4:00. He-sook will have snack and dinner, so you just need to make sure they don’t kill each other!”
“Wait… doesn’t Oliver have French Club on Fridays?” I ask, proud of myself for already checking and remembering his schedule.
“You’ve looked at the binder already? Impressive. But no, Madam Moiselle de Poncié has a frog in her throat—that’s Oliver’s joke—and she’s hard enough to understand as it is.”
“Oh, I see. Okay. So all I have to do is make sure the boys don’t kill each other.”
“Right! And I’ll see you for dinner.”
“Okay. Bye.”         
After Mrs. Jensen hangs up, the clock on my iPhone reminds me that I only have a couple of hours before Addison gets home. I’d better start unpacking.
By time I finish moving my bags into the carriage house and putting away some clothes, it’s already time to start work. I perform a quick survey of the house and sigh. The place might not be much, but I don’t even have time to explore what little there is before having to report for duty. Checking my watch—4:56—I hurry across the fifteen-foot strip of manicured lawn that separates my little nook from the rest of the sprawling Jensen estate. The compact, vinyl-sided box that I call home offers a stark contrast to the Jensens’ three-story stone manor.
Two minutes after I stake a position in the Jensens’ living room, the front door flies open. It’s Addison, laden with bags and shouldering her way in. She’s dressed in an exceedingly steep v-neck t-shirt and a pale yellow skirt that doesn’t even reach mid-thigh. A Prada duffel bag is slung over one shoulder and a purse and backpack filled to bursting hang from the other. (I only recognize the Prada bag because I’ve seen the now-familiar upside down triangle on several of Mrs. Jensen’s accessories.) Addison sees me and nods in acknowledgement but says nothing.
“Heya, Addison,” I offer in greeting. She nods again but still doesn’t say anything.
“Where were you with all of those bags?” I’m particularly curious about where she was, dressed like that.
“Camp,” she answers as she heads to the kitchen. I rise to my feet and follow. She sets her bag down in front of the kitchen’s island and bends down to ruffle through its contents, right in front of me. I stumble backwards and try to find somewhere else to focus my attention.
“Is that the camp uniform or something?” I find it hard to believe that someone would cavort around in the woods dressed as Addison is.
“It’s a dance camp,” she says, emphasizing “dance.”
“Oh.” I pause while I consider what else to say. “I guess that makes sense then.”
Addison spins to face me, her head angled to the side, and flashes me wide but toothless smile. “Yeah, it does” she states flatly, effectively ending our conversation.
I decide to try my hand at a more practical conversation. “He-sook made dinner. It’s in the refrigerator.” Unfortunately, He-sook never mentioned what dinner was. Which is a shame. If I knew, I’d have a few more words to add to the conversation.
“Yeah, thanks,” Addison says without facing me. After an eternity of digging through the refrigerator, Addison pulls out a Saran-wrapped plate. Its contents are a broccoli sprout, two baby carrots, three snap pea pods, and a medicine cup-sized dollop of humus.
“That’s dinner?” I ask, trying my best not to come across as critical.
“Yeah,” Addison answers. She holds up the plate. “Want some?”
I’m not sure it’s wise to starve the girl of any more calories than those she’s already restricted herself to, but I decide to accept the offer. Fifteen calories either way isn’t going to make a difference to her, and it might jumpstart some rapport with her.
“Okay,” I say, joining her by the island.
Addison dips a carrot in the humus and twists it slowly, around and around. She holds it front of her and speaks. “Close your eyes.” Her voice is low and soft. I’m not entirely sure what Addison’s up to, but I decide now’s the time to play it cool and humor her. I close my eyes.
“Okay, now keep them closed.” Moments later, the carrot’s tip rubs against my bottom lip. “Keep them closed,” Addison urges again. I do, thinking she’s being silly or clumsy. The carrot stays put, though, and slowly slides along my bottom lip and then up to the top of my mouth.
I jerk away and stare at Addison. She blinks and coyly raises her right shoulder up to her ear. “What? I was just playing.”
My brows climb up my forehead. “Yeah… I can see that.” I look from her to the carrot and back away. “You can keep the carrot.”
“Whatever,” Addison mumbles. She holds the carrot in front of her mouth for a moment and then bites off the tip of it. “Mmmmm…” she coos. She puts the rest of the carrot back and pushes the plate toward me. “You can have the rest. I have to go practice my routine for tomorrow.” Before I can respond, she strolls out of the room, leaving her thousand dollar bag sitting on the kitchen floor. I guess dinner’s done.
My single duty for the evening accomplished, I head back to the guest house and collapse into my bed. I’ve worked all of about fifteen minutes, and I’m already exhausted. As I lie in bed, my thoughts turn to Addison. There must be something I can do about her, some way to put appropriate boundaries in place and establish some sort of mutually respectful relationship. Right now, there’s a distinct lack of anything resembling boundaries or respect. I can’t help but imagine Addison as a sadistic cat playing with its prey. And I’m her prey.
Tomorrow should be better, at least. Tomorrow I just have the boys for the afternoon. I can handle boys.