Vera has seen so much film noir that sometimes, if she squints and holds her breath, she can make daytime dark and indistinct, see the image of a shadowy man on the building across the street. The Illusion is unlike any theater she has ever been to before. Its one small projection room is crowded with worn velvet loveseats and chairs, and sometimes, if she arrives too late, she has to sit pressed close to a stranger.
But almost as much as the theater at night, Vera loves the nearly empty café downstairs during the day. The café reminds her just a little of pictures she saw once of the Crystal Palace in London. The front wall is all windows and fringed drapes, accented by overgrown ferns in cracked pots. In the evening, the café fills with artist types and Vera feels too shy to sit down by herself, but during the day she has read entire books here, the baby asleep beside her.
She’s never met another baby like this one, and she’s cared for other people’s babies since she was twelve, even helped to raise her younger siblings when she was just a child herself. The baby’s name is Raffi. He has black hair and dark blue eyes that are so clear they remind her of the glass eyes of a doll. When she picks up Raffi, it’s as if she has lifted serenity, peace in a soft blue wrap. Raffi is so calm she fears for him.
There are cafes like this in London, or at least in the London of Vera’s imagination. She has never been to the city, only to Heathrow for her flight to the States for her first au pair position five years ago. She grew up in a suburb of a suburb of Manchester. Now she lives in Minneapolis. The word still trips on her tongue. At the café, she sits in a summer frock and feels the velvet of the couch against the back of her knees. Raffi has begun to fuss, but even his fussing is quiet. He sucks his bottom lip in and out, stretches two thin fingers and clasps them again. Vera strokes her hand over his eyes and forehead and he falls back to sleep. She moves her leg and feels the not unpleasant coldness of copper grommets. She will not read today. The book, one of Raffi’s mother’s paperbacks, does not hold her attention.
She gazes at the movie posters on the wall. The placket beside them says they are lithographs for Polish films that were banned under Communism. They are beautiful with their crisp edges and geometrical shapes. She would like a flat someday with artwork like this. She knows exactly what she will wear when she has this flat—gabardine skirt, wide-shouldered silk blouse. She can imagine the man who will live with her there; he will be as suave as the man in the third poster; he will wear a dented hat and a slouchy dark suit.
She carries Raffi into the loo with her. She loves the loo best, for it has never been remodeled. On one side of the room is an ornate vanity table with marquee lights. The vanity is bare except for an antique pearl comb and brush set, and one perfume bottle with a blush-red atomizer. Raffi likes the bright, spotty light. His eyes drift from bulb to bulb and he reaches his arms upward. Vera has spent as long as half an hour here. The first time she stayed so long, she worried someone would be waiting outside, or that the barista would say something, but no one even noticed.
She sits at the dressing table and stares at her reflection. She is twenty-four, has dull brown hair that curls in the summer heat. Her teeth are spaced too far apart, but she has grown accustomed to her face and daydreams that her shadowy man will tell her he adores her teeth. She does not have clear eyes like Raffi. When she leans close to the mirror, she sees a yellowish tinge. Her irises are a yellow-brown and her left eye is half-blue. She has never minded the half-blue eye. Has she grown older since coming to America? She cannot tell. She hasn’t gotten fat like her mother predicted. And she won’t be coming back either, not alone, and not “with a bun in the oven.” She squints and looks sidelong into the mirror. The marquee lights spiral and she imagines herself cut by vertical lines of shadow and light. She casts her eyes down to Raffi and pretends he is Bogart’s Marlowe. “So you’re a private detective,” she says, and she repeats the line again, this time in a husky voice. “So you’re a private detective. I didn’t know they existed, except in books …” Raffi coos and she crouches down from her little stool and smiles into his face. “Silly Vera,” she says to Raffi. “Silly, silly, Vera.”
She is about to pick up Raffi and leave her little room when she notices a drawer in the vanity. It strikes her as odd that she has never noticed this before. She slides it out slowly, unable to guess what might be inside. But there is nothing inside, just a lining of moth-eaten purple velvet and a gaping emptiness. The room returns to its former façade. Vera is in a café restroom; a baby that is not her own is beside her in a basinet.
Out in the café, she picks up her book and tucks it into the pocket behind the blue and white checked pram. They call prams “strollers” here. Vera is experienced enough now to know that this stroller is worth nearly her month’s pay. Raffi’s mother buys only the best. The Fullers have an enormous house and Mrs. Fuller jokes that she has paid for it with her blood, sweat and boredom. She is a corporate tax lawyer and works long hours and often comes home after Raffi is already in bed. Vera moved in with the Fullers while Mrs. Fuller was still pregnant, and it was Mrs. Fuller who took her to her first film at The Illusion, a silent one called The Sealed Room. Mrs. Fuller shouted and booed with the audience when the evil king sealed up the queen and her lover in her secret room. She grabbed Vera’s knee and whispered to her that she wouldn’t mind a sealed room of her own, just for a day or two. Vera didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing at all, and shook her head when Mrs. Fuller passed her popcorn and Red Vines even though Vera wanted to devour them. Later, over tea in the café, Mrs. Fuller took Vera’s hand and told her that she needn’t be so polite. “You’re so young,” she said. “Live a little, my god.” Now, Mrs. Fuller doubts that any young woman could go to the movies so often. She looks at Vera like she’s one of her clients, like Vera has something to hide.
Vera pushes the stroller ten blocks, from the rougher neighborhood of the café into the quiet lakeside community where she lives, before she decides she will write a note and place it in the dressing table drawer. She does not know what she will write in the note, but the secrecy of her plan excites her and all that evening she annoys Mrs. Fuller with her discreet smile, her scattered attention. “Hello, earth to Vera,” Mrs. Fuller says, during dinner. Later that evening, Vera overhears Mrs. Fuller tell Mr. Fuller that Vera has been acting strange. “Eight months,” she says. “Eight months and not even one friend. She still won’t call me Paula. Mrs. Fuller. Gives me the chills.”
But Vera has made a few friends. On Wednesdays, she visits with the cleaning woman, Rose, and sometimes in the neighborhood park she meets another au pair, a Canadian named Maribeth who has four children in her charge and is always in trouble for the mess they make. The last time Vera saw Maribeth she looked as if she had aged ten years. She always asks Vera to buy her chocolates when Vera goes to shows or out on walks, and when Vera brings them to her, Maribeth does not ask her inside, only whispers “thank you” and quietly closes the door.
Vera fills the plastic tub for Raffi and soaps him up. He doesn’t like water and shakes like a little epileptic when she pours a handful of suds over his belly. Months ago she removed his shriveled umbilical cord and put it into a plastic envelope in his baby book. She is not sure if Mrs. Fuller will appreciate this. It occurs to Vera that a navel is really a scar and she rubs her own and wishes she could remember what it was like to be so connected to her own mother. She likes to tickle Raffi there. In the last few months he has fattened up, and the small rolls of fat under his knees makes her laugh. “You chunky little panda,” she calls him and he splays his tiny fingers; he gurgles and blows bubbles. She lifts him from the tub and dries his legs. His face squeezes into a grimace and turns red. He should howl any minute, but he breaks into smile and Vera presses him to her chest. He is wet and fat and squishy, and she buries her nose in his wet skin.
All morning it has thundered. On her way out, Mrs. Fuller tells Vera not to take Raffi outside today, but Vera only hears “… don’t forget to unload the dishwasher.” In her head, she has written her note. She steals into Mrs. Fuller’s study and finds some ivory notepaper with matching envelopes. The paper has the faint smell of vanilla and a watermark that Vera holds to the light. She ruins two pages using the wrong pen, but then finds the perfect thin fountain pen with black, almost purple ink. Her handwriting has never looked so fluid. She notices that her cursive is no longer proper however. She mixes in printed letters. She cannot remember how to make a proper “b.” Without lines, her words slant downward like they are diving off the page, and she can almost see them, her letters in black bathing suits slipping off the edge. She crumples the paper and hides it in a pocket to toss out in a stranger’s rubbish during her walk, then she finds a piece of lined paper, puts it under the good notepaper and begins again.
Raffi is crying. It must be the weather. She bounces him on her knee. She gives him more milk, waits an hour and changes him again. She doesn’t want to forget where she left off on the letter. “Shh…. Shh… Be good now. We’ll go to the café. You like the café.”
It is still raining, but not unlike an English rain. Where she comes from people go out in worse weather. She will put the top up on the pram. She will swaddle Raffi with extra blankets. She puts the note in the inside pocket of her raincoat. She has fastened a gold seal on the back and tied it with a magenta ribbon from Mrs. Fuller’s gift-wrapping box.
Bobbly, bobbly, bobbly go the wheels of the stroller. She bumps it over potholes and cracks, through puddles. The clouds have billowed in darker. The sky rumbles. The drops are larger now and hammer the stroller hood. Raffi likes to be strolled. He is singing to himself. Vera opens her umbrella and holds it over the stroller, although there is no need. It is a tented room, the stroller, and Raffi is snug.
The café is busy today. Several people stand in a queue for coffee, and at one of the tables three German men drink espresso and discuss film. She can make out that word, “film,” but little else. They look as if they have visited the same barber, and she imagines that they smell of the same shaving lotion. They do not take notice of Vera or the baby. She waits at the counter for her coffee. “Quite the weather,” she says to the barista. She feels almost loquacious. The note is pressed inside her coat like a conversation and goads her on. “Coffee and steamed milk?” the barista asks. “Yes, please,” she answers. She fancies herself almost American now, drinking coffee instead of tea. “It’s coming down in buckets,” she says. The barista only nods. Vera wants to tell her about the strange gold cast to the gray, how for a few minutes the raindrops turned to prisms and everything shimmered.
She takes her coffee to the velvet couch and sits. The German men leave their cups on the table and stand around talking. Vera thinks of Bogart and Bacall, of the time they were all held hostage during a storm in Key Largo. She wishes that the Midwest had hurricanes and that they would all have to huddle together. She would play a concerned, beautiful mother, and the barista could be a tired vamp. She watches the barista clear the table and try to talk to the men in broken German. She is an attractive girl, in a punk rocker way. She has short bleached blond hair and a pierced eyebrow. The men flirt with her. Vera has a note in her pocket. A note she will leave for a stranger. She smiles at the girl and the men. She stands and lifts Raffi out of the stroller. He is cold and sweaty. His clear eyes look even more like glass. She bounces him on her knee, but he does not smile. He starts to cry. The German men saunter out of the café and the barista looks over at Vera. “You need a cracker or something?”
“No,” says Vera. “He’s never like this. He’ll be fine.” She clasps Raffi against her shoulder, feels warm drool on her neck. More people rush in and line up behind the counter. Two women go into the bathroom together to towel off from the rain. One whispers to the other, a secret Vera can’t overhear. Raffi has begun to cry again. Vera does not like the sound of this cry. Something is not right. The women do not come out of the bathroom. Are they sitting at the vanity? Are they brushing their hair? She waits a few more minutes, and by then it seems as if everyone in the café is staring. She carries Raffi outside under the pitched roof. “Look, look at the rain,” she whispers.
She sings “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” A man walks from across the parking lot to the café. He takes long strides, jumps almost, as if he will stay dry that way. He reminds Vera of a cat, his legs are thin and graceful in his oversized trousers, his shoulders relaxed. He pauses by the door and takes a peek at Raffi. Most assume that she is his mother, and she likes to play along. If she tells them she is the nanny, they go away, even twitch their mouths in disdain.
“Better take him inside,” says the man. “It’s not fit for vegetable or beast out here.”
Vera rocks Raffi back and forth. She wonders what Lauren Bacall would say back to the man. Something clever and brash, no doubt. “We won’t melt,” she says. It’s not clever, but she is still surprised. Her cheeks burn and she hides her face in Raffi’s, whispers, “shh…, shh…”
“Really, bring the little wailer inside,” the man says. “Clear the place out for me.” The man gives her a silly grin and ducks inside. She turns and watches his silhouette through the window.
Raffi has quieted. No, he has cried himself to sleep. She must get him home. She feels this now in her gut. Her note will have to wait.
But the man is sitting down on the couch beside the stroller, and she makes herself sit down too, her breath quaking in her chest, Raffi heavy in her arms. Why is it babies are always so much heavier asleep? The man lowers his newspaper and asks her about Raffi. She tells him that she is only watching the child for a few hours for a friend. She only lies a little and the man doesn’t leave. He is handsome, in a roguish way. He has short whiskers and there are two bare spots at either side of his lips. There is something old-fashioned about him, about the way he crosses his legs, the way he wears his cap so it casts a shadow over his face.
“You have two different colored eyes,” he says.
She doesn’t say anything. Usually, people notice her eye, but then look away.
“How unusual,” he says and she believes that he is quite taken.
The man wants to hear all about England. “I’ve never been,” he says. She tells him she grew up in Manchester, which is almost the truth. She tells him about the factories there, how hip the city has become in recent years. He thinks it is ironic that so many industrial cities that could never afford to tear down their warehouses are now art centers. “What was that dance place that was so popular in the 90s, you know, the electronica place?”
“The Hacienda,” she says. The club closed down when she was just a teenager. She does not tell him that she never danced there. Instead, she tells him about raves in huge warehouses that she never went to, about an art exhibit she has heard about from Mrs. Fuller. She doesn’t tell him that she did not go to university, or that she became an au pair at nineteen.
“What a fascinating life you have had,” the man says. He uncrosses his legs and then lounges back into the couch, his jacket slouched about his shoulders, a lazy smile on his face. He seems both nervous and at ease. He looks at her so intently. She has never made a man nervous before.
Raffi’s eyes open and he starts to cry just a little. She rocks him gently. He tenses his arms and legs, and reddens. She presses him against her shoulder, but she can feel his stomach begin to quake.
“Excuse me,” she says. “I better get him back.”
The man holds out his arms. “Here, let me.” How soothing his voice is. He stands and bends down and picks up Raffi like he has held lots of babies before, like he is not afraid, even attracted to a woman’s world. He tucks the blanket under Raffi’s chin. “Cute little fellow,” he says. He eases back into the couch and soon Raffi falls back to sleep. The man asks her to continue telling him about her fascinating life.
Vera smiles and has the thought that the note inside her pocket has brought her this sudden luck. She can feel its gold seal emitting an aura about her. She is attractive. She notices it in the stares from others in the café today, even from the barista, who has warmed her milk and coffee, although Vera never asked.
“And what about you?” she asks. “Did you grow up here?”
“Yes and no,” says the man. “So what’s the little guy’s name?”
“Raffi.” She stands up and glances at the bathroom. “Pardon me,” she says to the man. She must put her note in the drawer now. She must complete the charm.
“I’ll just be a minute,” she says, reaching for Raffi.
“He’s almost asleep.” The man notices her hesitation and laughs. “I promise, if he starts to howl again, I’ll bang on the door.”
Vera smiles. Raffi has wrapped his fingers around the man’s finger. The barista straightens the newspapers on the coffee table and peeks in on Raffi. “What a sweetheart,” she says, tiptoeing back toward the counter.
“I’ll only be a minute,” Vera repeats. She turns and can feel the man stare at her behind. She tries to walk slowly, to not hurry away. How handsome he is. How handsome and she has not even asked his name, although he knows hers, and he knows Raffi’s too. Inside the bathroom, she presses against the door, pushes the lock in and breathes. And she almost stayed at home!
She sits down at the dressing table. She picks up the pearl-handled brush and runs it against her hair, careful not to make it frizz. Her hair has turned into a curled mess from the rain and a long tendril springs from the top of her head. She is beautiful. She sees it now. She has one eye that is unlike the other. So unusual. Her lips are childlike, not so severe as her face. She takes the note from her pocket. The ribbon has gotten wet and stained the paper pink. She presses the paper to her nose, not so much like vanilla now. It smells like her; it smells like rain. She opens the top drawer. She tucks the note to the very back, where the velvet is still pristine, imagines that everything one puts into the drawer magically finds its object.
She smiles to the mirror. How funny and secret she is. She must move out into the world, not converse with a drawer! She sees now that she has imagined her secret correspondent as her shadowy man, the one whom she would meet someday. She imagined he would find the note days or years from now and learn everything about her, all her desires and dreams, how she came to America, how an uncle once took her to the zoo when she was a child, all by herself, without her sisters or her brothers, how he bought her a double ice cream cone and they sat in front of the jaguar cage, watching it stalk back and forth, how she told her uncle she was going to be an American movie star and learn to move just like that, how her uncle told her mother, and her mother began to call her Little-Miss-Thinks-She’s-a-Movie-Star.
And, there is a man outside, a handsome man and he will perhaps take her out, or maybe he will meet her at the café again. Her life will begin. It will begin! She stands up and attempts to flatten the creases that have dried into her raincoat. She opens the door. She sees the velvet couch. She sees the empty pram. She sees her cup and the carafe of steamed milk on the coffee table.
“Excuse me,” Vera calls. Her voice barely rasps from her throat. She stands just inches outside the bathroom door and looks across the café to the barista. Her ankles are jelly. “My baby,” she says.
The barista stops wiping the counter. She mirrors back the shock in Vera’s face. “I thought he was your husband!” She runs out the door. Vera can see her through the window, in front of the café turning in every direction, pulling a cell phone from her pocket. The rain comes down in sheaves. The barista is getting drenched. The people in the café turn to look at Vera, to look outside to the barista. “We’ll find him,” a boy, barely a man, says. “I saw him drive away,” and he and his friends race out to their car.
“Here, come and sit down. Who can we call for you?” another woman says. She must be a mother because she has that stricken look that mothers get when any baby has been lost. She leads Vera to a chair and Vera grips the wood. She sees the café in black and white, in shadows and slats of dizzying light. “It’s going to be all right,” the woman says. “They’ll find your baby. They’ll put out an alert.”
Vera grabs the stroller. She pushes it out the door, past the barista who says, “Wait. I called the police.” She circles the block with the empty pram, looking for the shadowy man. The rain has stopped. The sun is out. The pram bounces on the broken sidewalk, past a boarded up pawn shop and an empty lot. She turns around and walks back towards the café and then down another street. A police car stops and a policeman gets out and coaxes her into the back. “Leave that,” he says about the pram, and she watches him struggle to fold it up and put it into the trunk. She does not want to see the Fullers. “I only left him for a minute,” she says through the grill between their leather seats, but she can see by the way he glances at her in the rearview mirror, that he thinks she’s one of them, those bad nannies who leave their children alone or shake them to death.
How much like Northern England the Midwest looks from the plane with its dull brown and bright green squares. She has gotten a window seat, although she requested the aisle. Up, up, they go. The businessman next to her clutches both arms of his chair and there is nowhere for Vera to put her hands. She clasps them in her lap. She feels her stomach loop. Clouds, clouds, layers of clouds, as if the sky were made of sheets of rice paper, gradually becoming more and more opaque. So many questions. One detective after another, family friends, Mr. Fuller’s mother. The Fullers weathered Vera’s presence while they canvassed the city with flyers and waited by the phone. Then Mrs. Fuller crept into Vera’s room in the middle of the night and sat at the edge of her bed. In her fist, she clutched the crumpled note from the pocket of Vera’s raincoat that Vera forgot to toss in the neighbor’s trash. “If you had something to do with this Vera…” Her voice trembled. She tugged the covers off Vera and Vera lay very still. Mrs. Fuller pulled her up by the shoulders and shook her. “If you planned this with that man, so help me god.” Then Mr. Fuller came and pulled Mrs. Fuller away. Vera heard the door to their room close. Mrs. Fuller did not leave her room after that. A few weeks later Mr. Fuller bought Vera a plane ticket home. “Don’t think this is over,” he told her as she rolled her bags out to the cab.
She peers out the window again. They are high above the clouds now, the sky an unnatural blue, the clouds below rippled like dunes. Look, Raffi, she says in her mind. See how the clouds are rippled like dunes.
She feels a tug in her navel, a string to the ground. He is down there somewhere, and he will come home. She is certain because she left him two notes in the bureau of the cinema café. The last one, on her way to the airport. It was so difficult to get away. She burned the ribbon-stained note and stuffed the new notes to the back of the drawer. Everything one puts into the drawer magically finds its object. She knows this. She has seen it happen. In one of the notes, she has written their last day backwards, hers and Raffi’s, from the moment just before she put him in the stranger’s arms to the moment he stretched his arms out to her from his crib that rainy morning. Be well, Raffi, she has written, in pages and pages, over and over again. Be well, Raffi. Come home.