Unlike other people, whom admittedly I’m insanely jealous of, as a divorced woman and mother of two children, I have to “find” myself in Reston, Virginia, of all places, and it has taken me more than a year. Maybe forty-three. It possibly hasn’t happened yet, but I’m getting closer. If I were anywhere but Reston, I’d be self-actualized by now. If I were in Sardinia, the Fjords, or Budapest the revelations would be accumulating on me like dust on a ceiling fan. If only I could have found a way to get a publisher to send me, my two boys, my boyfriend, and my dog to Stockholm, I could write a monthly installment from small fishing villages chock full of cleaning tips. Heck, I’d even leave my dog at my mom’s and buy it an automatic pet feeder – if a publisher magically appeared. Everyone knows the Swedes know how to keep house; they’re up there with the Germans. This hasn’t happened; God likes to keep me guessing, lest I become what I’m naturally suited for—leisure.
Reston, Virginia is a model in its own right. I live in the older section referred to as “old Reston,” which is the best-known planned community in the nation. Developed in 1965, by a visionary named Robert E. Simon, this city’s population has grown to roughly sixty thousand people. Simon’s idea was to develop several town centers that mimicked little downtowns where people could live, shop and gather. Everything is on a walking scale. There are miles of wooded paths, farmer’s markets and town hall meetings. For some reason it was deemed that the houses should be brooding and dark, contemporary floor plans that were unsightly from the road, but imaginative and light-filled on the inside. Brown is big in Reston. Concrete is big in Reston. Feet are big in Reston. Birkenstock isn’t just a shoe, but a preventative measure to a foot disorder. Old Reston is a model of how life should be—a place that would never refer to “The Grateful Dead” as “The Grateful Dead,” but as how the real fans knew them, “The Warlocks.” And then new Reston came along.
New Reston has five fake lakes, fifteen swimming pools and over fifty-five miles of paved trails, but even on its best day it doesn’t resemble an ashram and lacks the authenticity of a real city. The newer section has a glut of fabulous grocery stores, plenty of shade and swimming pools on every corner. A swimming pool is no substitute for the seashore; nobody’s writing their story about how a summer at the swim club shed light on their personal struggles. New Reston is homogenized, sanitized and resembles a square state. The town center is filled with chain restaurants and well-known stores. High-rise condo buildings line the main street like sentries. There’s an ice rink, a fountain and those Campari sun umbrellas twisted into tables outside recognizable cafes. I liked it better when everything didn’t match and the Christmas decorations were a little bit more garish, like they are in second-rate London hotels. I like a few stray dogs.
Still Reston is the place I’ve chosen to raise my kids. It is part of my story because it’s the first chapter of my life as Paul’s wife and the first chapter of my life as a divorced mother of two. It’s where I took off my training wheels and crashed my bike against a soft furry hill that doubles as James. Reston lacks glamour and has a shortage of sexy accents but it has an advantage that other places don’t have—it’s where I live. That counts for something.
When James and I first started dating, we attended a black tie event in Washington, DC, at the Folger Shakespeare Theater. He was on the board of directors, so he was required to sit with the other board members and I was put at a table that had an open seat. I’m typically social, but something happens to me in these literary crowds, despite an MFA in Fiction—I get stupid. The only meaningful conversations I have take place in the ladies’ room, usually with the attendant who is handing me a towel. That night my tablemates were an eclectic group—big supporters of the arts, i.e. people with serious money. I’m not one to think much about money except when I don’t have it, but I recognized I was in a different league. Across from me sat a major radio personality; lovely with her perfectly coiffed head of hair, ability to remember everyone’s name, and her birdlike appetite. She left untouched on her plate an entire king salmon, that I found myself conversing with after a few glasses of wine. On my left, was a prominent lawyer somehow affiliated with tobacco that sung the praises of Roald Dahl whose books I’ve always adored. How I won the lottery on that seat placement I’ll never know. By the end of the evening though, I’d exhausted my memory of “James and the Giant Peach.” On my right, there was a gossip columnist for a Washington newspaper, a pale, thin wisp of a man with an affected accent and literally brimming with wit. I was savvy enough to be terrified of him, if for no other reason than he took an unusual interest in me.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder. “Why don’t I know you?” I could see the Rolodex of his mind flipping wildly to all the latest charity events.
“Robyn,” I said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Should I know you?”
“No one knows me.”
“Where are you from?” he said, taking a sip of red wine. “You look familiar. Are you affiliated with the Washington Ballet?”
“Reston,” I said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Reston,” I said again.
“My God, someone from Reston! I’ve been to London more times than I’ve been to Reston.”
In this crowd, you might as well have said that you lived in Nebraska–once you’d crossed over the Key Bridge into Virginia it was all just a matter of frequent flyer miles. But his reaction was liberating, begging for a follow-up. If he found it astonishing that I lived in the most famous planned community, just wait until he heard what I did for a living. I timed it perfectly—right before he took another well-deserved sip of wine, and I had consumed close to twenty.
“Yeah, Reston, and I clean houses.”
James used to get annoyed when I talked about cleaning houses at these functions. He’s not a snob, but he thought I underplayed my role in my own company.
“You own the business, Robyn,” he said. “You do more than clean. Not everybody can do what you do. And you’re a writer.”
Oh the naïveté! Didn’t he understand that everyone could do what I did? I was a writer, but was afraid to claim it, as I’d only published in literary journals. Now I just say I’m a cleaner, who happens to be writing a novel. This is my revelation. This is my truth. This is my Reston. I am a cleaning lady in Northern Virginia. There is honor in my work. I use my hands–this is a wonderful thing, to use your hands and to be physically tired after a day’s work. There is something honest in exhaustion. My job has a beginning and an end. There is always a tangible result for my efforts. I’ve learned that my work is not a little dream, but a simple one. There’s a big difference. The mundane task of washing a floor when done with a giving heart is a love offering. I can commit to this.
This is what I respond to when James and I go to fancy parties downtown. This is why I feel something well up inside me when I see the humblest of jobs being performed with dignity. I haven’t succeeded in rising to the level of having chauffeurs and cooks. If I throw a dinner party, it’s me who serves drinks and grills steaks. On the occasions that I attend a catered meal in Washington, I’m drawn to the help so much so, that James has said, you know some of the guests have interesting stories too. But I’ve learned what every kid has learned who has graduated from the kid table to the grown-up table on Thanksgiving—it’s a hell of a lot more fun at the kid’s table.
“What country are you from?” I ask, as the appetizer tray floats by; that simple question opens the door to so many adventures. I end up talking shop with the waiters, cooks and an honest-to-God butler. I scribble notes in the bathroom for my book. The help balks when I try to clean the buffet, but I feel at home stirring soup, dispensing cocktail napkins and taking coats. By the end of the night I know some of their heartaches. Most have families they are supporting in their own countries. A lot have come here illegally. They tell me this in wait of judgment, but all I feel is sadness. The issue of immigration is something far more complicated than Minute Men, fences, and closed borders. And though I don’t pretend to know anything about immigration policies and what’s best for the American economy, I do consider myself an expert on the human heart. When you have no opportunity, no chance to feed your child, you will swim any ocean, cross any desert, die in any trunk of a car. This is the nature of love.
I’ve asked my employees whether they would have tried to re-enter the States if they had been caught at the border all those years ago. There wasn’t one that said no. Nothing was a deterrent—not deportation, starvation, snakebite or heatstroke. A chance, an opportunity should be one of the fundamentals of life. Without that, there is nothing. I am lucky, unbelievably lucky. I’ve seen America through the immigrant’s eyes—it’s a place where you find $10 bills on the streets, where if you work hard, you can get ahead and maybe own a home. There is food for the poor and medicine for the sick. It is enormously large and generous. America is one big Texas. We are cowboys and oil and J.R. Ewing and straight teeth and eighty different kinds of cereal. We have too many choices, too many brands of jeans, too many ideas of what we deserve in the face of such need. This is my birthright. This is my privilege. America is a limited resource but until we help other nations discover theirs we will always be the destination. We are the great magicians—putting rabbits in hats and pulling out ponies.
When I was a girl my father traveled around the world, bringing me home dolls from every country he visited—each of them clad in their traditional costumes. Holland wore clogs and a smart white kerchief; Peru had big feet and intricately woven sandals; China was a sad face with perfectly red lips. But my favorite was Mexico with her looped braids and basket of fruit. Each doll felt like a mystery—like opening a jewelry box and finding the dancing ballerina inside. Airports, train stations, letters on flimsy paper became associated with something elusive and wonderful; there was a world out there I didn’t know about, but in time would invent. These dolls were the first foreigners to cross my borders. I loved them because they weren’t Barbie’s—they were more industrious, more earnest, they had to work for a living. Barbie just caroused around in her convertible in Malibu and went home to her luxury townhouse. Rosa from Chile had a different story to tell and all these years later she’s still telling it.
I don’t want to ever lose touch with the person who pushes a broom. I don’t want to forget what it’s like to chop my own onions. I don’t want to live in a world that forgets the real stories are happening at the minimum wage level. They are better than stories. They are the truth. They are soaked in bacon fat, cleaning solvents and turpentine. They almost always tell a tale of sacrifice, loss and babies. My life is peppered with immigrants. Their stories have become my own. I have navigated Social services with a pregnant thirteen-year-old, prayed for guidance, begged for a miracle, hired lawyers, celebrated births and mourned deaths. I have scrubbed a floor next to a woman who hadn’t seen her daughter in twelve years–a woman who, after her rent is paid and money sent home, has $85 to live on. She is El Salvador—dark-eyed and chaffed skinned. I have developed relationships with employees from places I’ve never seen nor probably will. When I go to parties’ downtown and meet the butler, the cook, and coat taker, we discuss Manila as if it were my own hometown. I didn’t get to go to Santiago or Lima or Rio to find myself, but these cities have come to me. I’m very lucky. I’ve been all around the world, and the world has made me a writer.
Robyn Goodwin received her MFA from George Mason University where she was recipient of the Heritage Writing Award. Her story “Watershed” was selected by Sherman Alexie to appear in Scribner’s, The Best of the Writing Workshops. Other works have appeared in various literary journals. She’s currently finishing her memoir, Sweeping Beauty, Cleaning Messes, Marriages and Me. She’s the mother of two delicious boys, and lives in Manassas, VA.