Dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman, with poignant memories of watching the birds outside our kitchen window.
“Nice to meet you, David,” the young, pampered, cocky American man says to me, extending his hand.
I shake his hand and add, “Da-VEED”.
This isn't the way I needed to start my day, but it's had been happening ever since I arrived in this country. I’ve even begun putting the pronunciation beneath my name on letters. I mean, if everyone can go around with this gender stuff (he/him/his), why can’t I tell people how to pronounce my name?
One of the partners in the architectural firm I work for complained, but they always complain about me. Since they always complain, why change? It’s easier just to remain the firm’s jackass and do what I want. What are they going to do? I’m the best in the firm, can design just about anything and quickly. I bring in a lot of cash and get their name on a lot of building projects.
So, I start the day reminding everyone that I’m the thorn in their side, and then I get to work.
I work by myself in my large office every day. Standing desk for computer work. Large table for constructing models. I keep the phone ringer off and have a message that tells people to email me. I don’t want to be interrupted. Before I work, I set a timer to remind me to eat something for lunch. That’s when I answer emails, because I don’t want to spill lunch on my projects.
My housekeeper packs a lunch for me every day. Before that, I’d have the same Chinese meal ordered in every day, but the doctor told me I had to watch my diet.
Before that, I mean, before I had the housekeeper.
I never considered having a housekeeper. Not that I do any sort of housekeeping myself. I don’t. My place is expensive, full of expensive things, and not well kept. I mainly work. No, not mainly work, that’s all I do. When I don’t work, I pay bills, see if for some reason my two children remember me, go to sleep, and begin all over again.
The war in Ukraine and the refugees beginning to trickle into this country reminded me of my own family’s exodus from that country when the Soviet Union began to collapse. The Jews were the first to be welcomed OUT of the country, and my family gladly took the offer. We didn’t expect better treatment in the West, but at least we could earn a better living.
So, I know what it’s like to come somewhere completely new. Even the alphabet is different. Don’t think I have some sort of soft spot for humanity. I don’t have any soft spots, and I am completely aware of my selfishness. My contemplation of their plight gave me an idea of improving my own situation.
I contacted a refugee agency, explaining my own background, offering room and board and a small stipend to someone willing to be my housekeeper. That’s how Marta came to live in my house.
She has her own room and is in charge of all housekeeping, cooking, shopping, and yardwork.
She was a student in biology when the war broke out. Her mother was already dead. Her father and brother weren’t allowed to leave. She didn’t want to leave, but her father said she would honor all of them by saving her own life.
She knew enough English to buy groceries for me, well, and herself. I could speak Ukranian to her.
She had one suitcase. The first weekend she moved in, I took her to the mall for some clothes and the sort of essentials that females need. I hadn’t spent that much time with another human being since my marriage ended six years earlier. I hadn’t spoken Ukranian since my parents died when I was twenty.
How did I get on this? Oh, right, the homemade lunch by Marta the housekeeper.
I am glad not to have to wait for the Chinese food to be delivered and glad to have something healthy. Not that my life or health mean that much to me, but, if I can live long enough, I can pay for my two children's education. I never see them and almost never hear from them. But, I feel responsible.
In the bag is a container of cabbage salad and a thermos of beet soup and a bag of sliced apples.
Maybe I should be honest and say that it’s nice to eat something Ukranian.
So, this is my life. I work five days a week in the office. I usually take work home with me for the evenings and weekends. I eat and sleep and pay bills and try to read a little bit of news each day.
Marta has certainly made my life more civilized. My house is very tidy now.
She began working in my backyard in Spring, cutting back overgrown things, buying flowers and a bird bath. I paid for it. I don’t really know why. I don’t look back there. Kindness towards her? Respect for the neighbors who won’t have to look at a mess anymore? Maybe it was easier to say yes to her request than to think through the matter.
And I eat a healthy lunch and dinner every day that I don’t have to wait for.
I’ve got a thing about breakfast. Have to make it on my own, if I eat it at all. If I don’t eat it, I’m even more of a pain in the ass at work than I usually am. So, there’s the problem: have to make it on my own and always in a rush.
Marta solved the problem by making what she calls my “breakfast kit”: bowl and glass and utensils are laid out on the counter, along with cereal and half a banana, still in the skin. She makes tea the night before and puts it in a cup in the fridge for me to heat in the microwave. (Not coffee. Can you imagine someone like me drinking coffee?)
Now I can come downstairs, make my breakfast in five minutes, eat it while checking my phone, and rush out the door for the office.
Time goes by, and my life’s rhythm is the same. Marta began taking English classes a month after she arrived, and she practices sentences with me. I don’t know what this all means: is she staying? Does she want to become independent enough to leave? Will she go back home?
I don’t ask the question because I don’t want to know the answer. She’s upgraded my life. I’m healthier; my home looks like a home. I like the food she makes, and it takes the worry of my keeling over from a stroke before my kids get through college off my plate.
Sometimes I wonder – briefly, very briefly – if I like having someone in the house. I try not to look at her. My marriage was a disaster. I definitely can’t risk having more children. And, honestly, I can’t stand the shame of my selfishness. It's horrible to watch another person wither because I have no capacity or resources to respond to another person in any appreciable way.
So, it’s Sunday today which doesn’t mean a lot. I bring work home over the weekend. I’ve even been known to build models on the dining room table. I never use it.
So, it’s Sunday. I come down to the kitchen and find my breakfast kit set out on the counter. Marta is cooking something at the stove for later in the day. She tells me it will be a nice day for gardening, so she wants to get her cooking done early.
While my tea is heating up in the microwave, I check the news headlines on my phone like I always do. It isn’t because I care that much about what’s going on in the world, but what is going on affects my work. And being able to make small talk is a useful skill when dealing with clients.
The first story that comes up is Father’s Day. All sorts of pictures of children of all ages with their fathers.
I slam my phone down and scream, “Father’s Day!”
Marta looks up from what she’s stirring. She's heard my exclamations before and seems to take them in stride.
“Father’s Day!” I scream again and begin pouring my cereal into the bowl. My hands are shaking, and the cereal is almost gone. Enough to eat, but there are all these crumbs in the bottom of the bag.
“What the hell do I do with these crumbs?” I scream and am aware that people usually don’t scream about cereal crumbs.
“Marta, why aren’t you answering me?”
She looked up from the stove and, in Ukrainian, asked why I was screaming.
I answered in English, “Because it’s Father’s Day, and because I’m a father, and believe me, no one is ever going to take a picture of this jackass with his children who barely know he’s alive. All I’m good for is working. Because it’s Father's Day, and I’m barely a human being, more or less a father. And I’ve known enough poverty in my early life to know you don’t waste food, and there are these cereal crumbs,” screaming it all in English and holding up the cereal bag.
I don’t know if she understands me. She turns off the stove and looks out the kitchen window to the garden.
“Let’s go spend a few minutes with the birds,” she says in Ukranian, “Bring the cereal bag along. Birds like crumbs.”
She takes my hand, and we go out to the garden. Then she takes the bag out of my hand and casts the crumbs about the garden.
“Just stand quietly, very still,” she instructs.
She takes my hand again, and we stand there. I’m standing in the garden in the morning, holding the hand of my housekeeper, waiting for birds. Slowly, the birds begin to come, fluttering around and then landing, pecking at the crumbs.
Marta puts her arms around my waist.
“This is a nice way to start the day, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I say, remembering for a moment what it means to be alive, having a whiff of an ancient part of myself long buried beneath pain and shame and work.