In a new short story titled ‘Janelle Asked to the Bedroom’ published in the New York Times Style Magazine, which she recently featured in as one of “The Greats”, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie focuses on the first family again.
Janelle was surprised when the butler asked her to come up to the bedroom. He looked disapproving, stiffly leading the way upstairs, as though he thought her unworthy to be allowed anywhere farther than the lowest floor where the gym was.
Janelle followed him through the apartment; there was gold everywhere, on the floors and armchairs and edges of walls, that gave the décor a sallow ugliness. It felt to Janelle like an oblivious person’s idea of a wealthy home. She knew the butler expected her to be impressed — he had the sly arrogance of a blindly loyal servant — and for a moment she wanted to burst into laughter. She would not live here if she were paid to. Imagine waking everyday to such crass cheerlessness.
With a sigh in his manner, clearly wishing Mrs. T had not made this unusual request, he knocked on the bedroom door. It, too, was edged in gold. He waited to hear “come in” before ushering Janelle in, and then he lingered a moment, as if he might need to protect Mrs. T.
But Mrs. T waved him away. She was propped against a hundred pillows cradling her laptop.
“Hi Janelle, sit down here,” she said, patting the bed, and Janelle knew right away that something was off.
Mrs. T had changed after her husband won the election. A great lonely sadness had settled on her, stiffening her shoulders and spine. Her Pilates suffered. Simple moves she had fluidly done before failed her: Her back would not flatten doing the hundreds, her legs would not point to the sky. Week after week, Janelle saw the heaviness of her spirit, the purplish bags under her eyes, the way her English worsened and slurred from fatigue.
But today was different. Mrs. T had, until now, never let go of that carefulness that seemed to Janelle a product of being the wrong kind of European, a knowingness, a determination never to be found out. Which perhaps was why she hardly drank and why she spoke of drugs with disdain. But today she looked disheveled, her manner distracted. Was she on something? Had she cracked and taken pills? She seemed like a ravaged flightless bird, and the bed’s carved gold headboard part of an open cage that she inexplicably could not leave.
“Is everything O.K.?” Janelle asked, still standing, her professional face pleasantly blank, her voice even. “If you don’t feel up to it today, we can reschedule for tomorrow.”
“Please sit down,” Mrs. T said.
Janelle remained standing. Of course she had noticed Mrs. T’s overtures over the past months, the lost longing in Mrs. T’s eyes, the tentative invitations. Would you like a glass of juice, Janelle? Do you know a person good in massage, Janelle? You are always in a rush to leave, Janelle. But they had happened less and less since her husband won, as though her sadness had overpowered her longing. And Janelle wasn’t sure what this was about, being asked into this room with its dense carpet and wide bed, but she would entertain no crap.
“I don’t feel comfortable sitting down,” she said. “Is everything O.K.?”
“Please sit down,” Mrs. T said. “Please.”
Her voice was shaky. Janelle walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. How was it that these white people were so powerful and yet she often felt sorry for them?
“This weekend I was by myself and I was thinking about many things,” Mrs. T said.
Janelle said nothing.
“How was your weekend?” Mrs. T asked.
“It was good, thanks.”
“You do anything?”
“No, not really. It was quiet.” Janelle had in fact been at a rally on Saturday, holding a placard her son had made for her, pale blue cardboard, edges sealed with tape, bold words colored in: HEALTH CARE = HUMAN RIGHT.
“Look, I am watching this,” Mrs. T said, and turned her laptop around. A YouTube video of Michelle Obama visiting a class. Even from her quick glance, Janelle noticed the elegant ease of her manner, the glow of her beautiful brown legs.
“We all miss her,” Janelle said, and only after the words had left her mouth did she wish she could take them back. It had come so quickly, those words that she and everyone she knew said whenever Michelle Obama came up, that she had forgotten to whom she was speaking. But Mrs. T seemed not to have heard. She gestured to Janelle to come closer.
“Look at this. I always look at them for the inspiration.”
She clicked on a folder and launched a series of photos of Michelle Obama, each filling the screen, from the early years of her high-placed belt, to the later years of the subtly swingy weave. Mrs. T watched with concentration, as though seeing them for the first time. Minutes passed. Mrs. T seemed to expect Janelle to get into this strange photo-viewing exercise.
“That’s a lot of pictures,” Janelle said.
Mrs. T pushed the laptop away. Her silk robe fell open to reveal the delicate beige lace of her nightdress.
“Today I feel that I cannot do Pilates.”
“That’s okay. We can reschedule,” Janelle said and got up.
“Stay, stay please. Do you know that feeling that somebody hates you but also he wants you?”
Janelle stopped, curious. “Yes, I think so. Why?”
“There is somebody in my husband’s administration who is like this.”
“Who?” Janelle asked.
Mrs. T ran a hand through her hair, a gesture that Janelle had never before seen her do. Her eyes darted around unnaturally. She seemed as if she forgot things almost as soon as they came to her mind.
“Sometimes you have this dream and you get this dream and then one day… one day everything changes and it can never again be the same. It changes forever!” She said and abruptly clapped her hands, a gesture that might have been forceful had it not been so limp. Her cellphone rang and she looked at it and her gloom briefly lifted. “Barron,” she said. She spoke Slovenian, the words mellifluous in Janelle’s ears. Sometimes Barron came down to the gym during their sessions, sweetly shy and polite, dependent on his mother for his sense of self. There was a delicacy about him that reminded Janelle of her son.
“Janelle, do you have children?” Mrs. T asked after the call.
“Yes, I have a son,” Janelle said. She would not have done so before, but because of the fleeting intimacy of this moment in this room with this woman whose sadness and strangeness had loosened in Janelle something usually tightly bound, she said, “He’s going to Harvard this fall.” And she remembered again the blinding pride of the day the letter came, her son delighted by her screaming, but telling he still wanted to consider the other acceptances from Williams and Yale. And later, she and Marvin had held each other and reminisced about the difficult years, the moving for better schools, the scraping to go private, the dreams and fears they had for their dark, tall, muscular son, so intelligent, so earnest, so sensitive.
“Harvard?” Mrs. T said. “The school?”
Janelle’s body tensed. “Yes, Harvard the school.”
“He got scholarship to go?” Mrs. T said, more statement than question.
How automatic, this assumption of a scholarship, and Janelle knew she meant a scholarship not of smarts but of skin.
The sudden force of Janelle’s rage shook her. She stood up from the bed and faced Mrs. T.
“People like you think we never earn anything, we never achieve anything,” Janelle said.
Mrs. T looked confused. “I am sorry. I think you misunderstand me.”
“You never finished college but you kept lying about it.”
Now there were tears in Mrs. T’s eyes. “I am sorry, this is not what I mean. Please do not go.”
Janelle disliked losing control. She so rarely did, and wished she had been able to rein it in today, as she did so often when her clients, both private and those at the studio classes, when they let loose their words that stung even more for being well meaning. She took the slow breaths she had long used for control. Mrs. T was trying to get up, her face pale and gaunt. Janelle had never seen a face so utterly joyless and in her anger, she felt also a pitying contempt and a contemptuous pity.
“If you would like to reschedule please text and let me know. And I’ll meet you in the home gym downstairs.”
She walked to the door and opened it.