by Alexis Nelson
Picture me at fourteen: a small, blonde girl with chubby cheeks and braces and skin that isn’t the best, but also isn’t the worst. I am The Babysitter. I am not especially good at my job. I don’t have the endless patience for children’s games that other girls my age seem to possess. I can’t intuit the baby’s wants when he cries. I let the girl stay up late watching videos until she falls asleep. Sometimes I let her pick the videos, and sometimes I don’t. I have no patience for Barney. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White—all those fairytales in which the princess always gets her prince—these we watch again and again.
Nonetheless, the father pays me extremely well. He is especially generous on Wednesday nights, when he and the mother return from their “appointment” looking weary and tense. The mother’s face is pinched, her movements jerky and quick, like a frightened rabbit. She bolts upstairs to check on the children while the father walks me home. Unlike the mother, he is heavy and slow—more like a moose that’s been drugged. At my door, he slides an extra twenty into my fist as a tip. Ed is his name. The mother is Susan. Ed’s eyes are red-rimmed; he could use a shave. Even as I thank him, I begin to think of all the things I might buy.
I do love the children, in a way. The girl, Hannah, is spoiled and bossy. She owns more clothes and shoes than I do, though she is only four; all of them are pink. When she doesn’t get her way, she screams. But she has big green eyes and a glossy brown bob and chubby pink cheeks, like a doll. And the baby, Zachary, is mellow and sweet. He sits slumped on the black leather couch, smiling and burbling, at peace with the world.
I never have a boy over after the children go to sleep, but I would like to. Late at night, I flip through the channels, hoping to catch a sex scene. One channel comes in fuzzy, but through the Technicolor snow I can trace the outlines of bodies, of men and women moving together. Beneath the whirring static, I can hear them moan. I watch this channel on mute, with my hand on the clicker, just in case the parents come home early from their appointment.
What does sex have to do with love? What do fairytales have to do with real life? And where do Ed and Susan go on Wednesday nights? I would like to know the answers to these questions, and to so many others I have barely begun to form.
One night, I am rocking Zack in his room, trying to get him to go back to sleep, when I have a peculiar urge. I rest the baby in my lap as I pull my shirt off over my head. The lights in the nursery are off, but pearly moonlight streams in through the window. I lean Zachary’s little head against my bare chest and stare down at him and at me in wonder. He rests, his dark hair silky-soft against my skin, his smell like sweetened milk. I am a woman, I think. I could have a baby of my own right now, if I wanted to. I would hold it close, like this, feed it out of my own body.
But what if I am no better at being a mother than I am at being a babysitter? What if my children bore me as these other people’s children often do? Will some big secret be revealed to me, once I have a baby of my own? Will I suddenly become better, stronger, wiser, less afraid? Or will all my shortcomings and failures be not just my burden to bear, but also my children’s?
Zachary has fallen asleep. I lay him down in his crib and then quickly put my shirt back on. I feel moved by the sight of him, lying there so peacefully, his tiny hands bunched up into tiny fists. But I also feel bewildered by myself—which is how I feel most of the time, these days. Worse, I have no reason to believe this feeling of bewilderment will ever go away. Which it won’t, not entirely.
Before I finish high school, Ed and Susan and Hannah and Zachary move away. I am no longer The Babysitter. I go to college. I fall in love, get my heart broken, fall in love again. Eventually, I become engaged. My future husband and I talk dreamily of our future babies. I don’t think about Hannah or Zach or their parents. Why would I?
Then one day, my mother calls and says that she has seen Ed at the grocery store. She tells me that Zachary—you remember, she says, the baby—didn’t develop right, that he turned out to have “problems.” And then she says that the mother, Susan—this you won’t believe—has hung herself.
Hung herself, she repeats, can you imagine?
Can I? I think of all the things I felt back then but didn’t understand. I think of Ed smoking a cigarette on his front porch, staring up at the stars as he waited for me to get my coat on so he could walk me home. I think of Susan’s nervous movements and frightened eyes, her wiry brown legs sticking out of her nylon jogging shorts as she ran the children around and around the old neighborhood in their bright yellow buggy. And I think of little Zach—to whom I am, if anything, merely a flicker now—leaning against my bare, adolescent chest, as the moon shone and his sister slept and his parents, somewhere, tried to find a way to make it through this life together.
After that conversation with my mother, I dreamed of Ed. In the dream, he looked at me silently with large, doleful eyes. Then he handed me his baby to take care of. Only after he’d disappeared, I saw that it was not a baby at all, but a fish. It was grey and slippery with a flat, unblinking stare. It squirmed and flopped and struggled to breathe, as you’d expect. And I just tried to hold it tenderly, this being from another world, though I knew I was not fit to care for it.
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Alexis Nelson was born and raised in San Francisco, later lived in Hungary and France, and now resides in Portland, Oregon. Among other odd jobs, she teaches creative writing classes at Portland State University and co-writes an educational soap opera for English language learners worldwide. Her work has appeared in various publications including Tin House, The Iowa Review, and Manoa. She is currently toiling over her first book, a memoir.