She had a name, of course, but it didn’t fit her, didn’t fit how I related to her. Too mundane, too concrete. For me she was and remained the woman of the park. Almost every day she came to us, the woman from the park. She brought fruits, vegetables to make soup from, flowers. You must eat enough, she said, you must always have flowers in the house. At noon she sent me to bed for a nap, after which a superbly halved and peeled grapefruit was waiting for me. She sang songs to my daughter, Yiddish songs she learned from her Jewish grandmother, Az der rebbe sings, sing ale khasidim. She massaged my shoulders, not only took out the garbage but, for God’s sake, remembered which day it was allowed to be taken out.
When I put it that way, it sounds like she was employed by me. It didn’t feel that way, in a weird way it was the other way around: it was she who set our rhythm, fed us, comforted, corrected, praised. She was the boss, the Mother Superior, the Great Helmsman. My daughter noticed right away. In her arms she suddenly stopped whining, roaring, or whatever she was doing. She looked at her with wide, surprised eyes, only to close them abruptly, body limp, lashes trembling, one last sigh of surrender.
No, she said, she’d just practiced a lot on babies. After a few aborted studies, she had worked as an au pair for years. Sydney, Beijing, Vancouver, Cannes. The rich, she said, gave up their children as quickly as possible. The richer, the sooner. She had once traveled to a private clinic, where she had waited for the baby in the hallway next to the delivery room. She gave him his first bottle two hours after he was born.
The secret to a successful au pair, she said, is that she expresses her indispensability sporadically but effectively. That the employer is lost without her should be present in his consciousness as a mildly desperate, wordless feeling. That way he eats out of your hand, you see, instead of the other way around.
I didn’t ask her exactly how this would work. Just as I also failed to ask myself what she was actually looking for in us. She had once made a lot of money as a lawyer and shareholder in a payment platform, but that was all a long time ago. She had loved ones on occasion. No parents, no children. She spent the preseason on the Isola San Clemente in the bay of Venice. Monks had once lived there, then it had been an asylum for women for almost a century and a half. Now there was a hotel.
Of course she invited us to travel with her, but that seemed more like form to me. In a little less than three weeks she would be going there, by train. Her departure would mean the temporary, and perhaps permanent, end of a brief, intense friendship. I thought then.
Next week: this was not her street.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of 21 July 2021