In my last year of high school and the summer after, I babysat for the couple next door, Ivan Winters and Amelie. It’s around then I’m coming to a theory about names, that it’s as lucky to be born with a good one as to be born in a body you happen to like, to be born in a family with money, et cetera. My theory on Amelies is that they all luxuriate in the taste of those vowels, that honey dripping off the front of the tongue. Amelies. Amelies get away with translucent shirts. Amelies have high tits small enough for stylish bras. Amelies breastfeed in public.
And who would dare stop them? The Amelies are gynecologists, architects, travel bloggers with advertisers and backup advertisers. They are married to economists and attorneys and state senators. Because the Amelies are so well-read, they know pressure points to knock you cold and which common flowers are poisonous enough to be deadly.
This is all that summer before I move three hours away, though I’ll drop from college after just a couple semesters. German and physics and soil studies, hardly any of it will stick. In my thirties, facts will return to me—the name, for example, of an iron-rich rock formed at great depths, the speed at which a falling object will likely combust—with hardly a thought to where this knowledge originated. Much of my memory, later, will pool here, in the little bedroom on the east end of the top floor of the duplex I share with my father, my sloping roof and pinned fairy lights and the little trunk pulled to the window like a bench. Mostly I’m just up there thinking, reading moldy secondhand copies of Nietzsche, masturbating to GIF sets I’ve saved to a private folder on my phone. A lot of sleeping, that summer. A lot of staring from the window.
Which is to say I’m not watching for them so much as I happen to catch them: the slam of a car door, or a wayward shout in a recognizable pitch, and then the flash of an arm, the hitch of a bag, and the culprit—Amelie or Ivan, one or both children, sometimes all of them—in the car and off around the corner. The dozen quiet stones from driveway to front door. The house, cool, empty of Winters and locked off from the world. All this I can see if I lean my forehead against the glass, nose to sash bar.
The Winters, for their part, love me, not least because I live directly next door and am perpetually available. They get in the habit of calling with hardly any notice. I’m in the works, that summer, on a theory of how patterns rot over time, how people demand more and more and more of each other. Always I say I’d love to come, always I appear five minutes early. I ring the doorbell with my right index finger, feel it buzz under my fingerprint, vibrate straight up my arm.
Ivan almost always answers. All careful beard and pompadour, Ivan could model for carpentry magazines, or high-end mixology books. Perhaps I shouldn’t yet know much of mixology; I’m still a month shy of eighteen, and haven’t yet tried alcohol. (I have not been, in high school, what you might call connected. The few friends I keep, all of them too well-behaved, packed off for camps and bridge programs the week after graduation. My father at this point has been north of a decade sober.) And yet. Ivan opens the door with cocktail in hand about fifty percent of the time. I haven’t yet been able to pin down the variables—under which circumstances he tends to drink, under which he tends not to, that sort of thing. He cracks the door just enough, and shuts it behind me before the cat escapes.
Their living room is one of curated light; Ivan teaches art history at State, loves the geometrics of the nineteen thirties and has hung prints in conspicuous positions on the walls. The whole house is a picture of maturity: an entire career made of studying art, choosing prints for walls one could light with lamps one owns. Not to mention the spouse, the children, those things that come later. Mostly I admit being caught up by the material means—prints, lamps, a velvet settee—which posit that adulthood means control over the things with which we surround ourselves. At this point in my life I have decided that being grown will be mostly centered on the act of curating.
In the Winters’ living room, I wait with Ivan for Amelie. Sometimes the kids are still up, and they rocket around on the wheeled ottoman. To demonstrate my babysitting acumen—I am always looking for such opportunities—I help propel them, not too fast, catching rogue boys as they careen toward the furniture. Toddy, the youngest, is especially fond of this.
But sometimes he and Booker are already asleep. These tend to be the nights when Amelie is latest to join us; whole minutes pass, uncomfortable, while Ivan struggles to ask questions of me, like have I picked a major yet? He’s asked me this before, and I think he knows it, or else I’m so unimportant that he really has forgotten.
“I’m taking the year to decide.”
“That’s right,” he says. “That’s right, and you know, it’s a smart move. Kids— people—who take their time end up better prepared, more mature. Found a job out there yet?”
I’d like to say yes. I’d like to say I’ll intern for an undertaker, and moonlight as a murderer to keep myself in business. I want to look more frustrated, but around the Winters—Ivan and Amelie both—I have to fight to keep a weird, inappropriate smile off my lips. They curl without permission. I busy myself slipping off my sneakers in the corner, and I turn back around only when I’m sure I’m no longer making a strange face.
Ivan seems to realize he’s misstepped. “I’m sure everyone asks you. Don’t let me pile on.” He rubs a scuff in his jacket, an attractive brown leather.
From around the corner we finally hear Amelie. She hops in the door frame, slipping on her second shoe. You can tell she takes yoga, how she doesn’t fall over, how her shoulders draw upward from the center of her gravity. Tonight her hair is in a topknot; her dress slits open at the back into a sexy cape-thing. So it would seem, Amelies pull off capes. Once, while I was in my bedroom, she wandered past her own open window in just her underwear. I would say she could pull off just about anything.
“We’ll just have to keep you on retainer, solve two problems in one.” Ivan winks at me and hands Amelie the last of an abandoned martini from the coffee table, which she downs in a single go. They tell me: they’ll be home no later than midnight. Help myself to the fridge; hell, help myself to the beer.
Amelie squeezes me in a two-arm hug. Her muscles are un-fucking-real. “Thanks You’re my favorite person.” And then they’re outside. Feet crunching on gravel. Car rumbling to life.
A lot of the draw, I’ve been telling myself, is the quiet in this house. Even on early evenings, even when the first hours see Toddy and Booker awake, this house stays quieter than mine ever does. I help Toddy into footie pajamas. Booker’s bedtime reading explores silent underwater landscapes, where even the gaping mouths of prehistoric fish exude unnerving patience. When I tuck them in, the boys’ mattresses are plush and unsqueaking. The padded floors don’t budge under my weight. Once the boys are to bed I wander shoeless, tracing myself through each open section of the house, unable to hear my own footfalls. I search for tracks and find no evidence of myself. In this house full of others’ adult decisions—their decor, their children—I can come to think of myself as a ghost. I could untether and dematerialize, and I’m not sure anyone would know. Who would have record I was here?
All that ties me to earth is the camera in the corner of the Winters’ playroom bookshelf, between two horror novels and a book on poison in the jazz age. I’m not sure when, over the course of this summer, I first noticed the camera. But it grows impossible not to spot: from most positions on the couch, the floor lamp casts a glare off its tiny lens.
In the beginning it’s a gentle reminder: check on the children more often, be cleanly, get off our phone. You might be recorded slacking off.
But it becomes proof that I’m here, even if the house makes no sound to acknowledge me. It says: this house may make record of your appearance and movement. You will be produced and reproduced, first upside down, then righted on a digital screen in the pockets of Ivan and Amelie, maybe, or some little monitor elsewhere hidden.
I spend all summer wondering which one of them checks it.
The same night Ivan mentions keeping me on retainer, Booker wakes past ten and comes to find me. He’s wearing red piped pants and has lost a sock. He’s developed a fear of the dark, claims to have had an awful dream.
“You don’t understand these dinosaurs,” he’s saying. He’s been hooked on prehistory, the fossil records. You might call it a paleontology bender.
“What don’t I understand about them?”
“No, you can’t understand them. Not like I can teach you, like it can never happen. They have these giant teeth and on each tooth is two microphones and all the microphones go at once, and their mouth is so black, like a black hole, like a magic black made of supermagnets.”
“Okay,” I say. He seems to accept that I believe him—that I can never understand these dinosaurs whose huge mouths haunt his dreams. That I myself have never fallen into a hungry darkness and feared I would never resurface.
I run on autopilot, babysitting; I don’t remember asking for the talent. I’m naturally good at children. My friends, who at this time are all off for summer programming, they say they’ll never have kids, and when they say it I’ve always nodded and stayed quiet, though I never could imagine a future without them. Those friends will stay about half true to their teenage declarations—two of four, as far as I’ll be able to keep tabs, will in the end have offspring—and I, too, will keep true to mine, and be a mother. Here, this summer, I’m so far away from all that.
I pull a few titles from the basket near the couch and invite Booker into my lap. He’s old enough that most of the time he says no, but this dream has shaken him; he pokes a knee in my hip as he settles. His head’s so tall it gets in the way of my seeing the pages.
“What is a better dream than the one you had?”
Booker watches the carpet while he thinks it over.
“Red worms,” he says finally. “They would live in my bedroom and make a worm castle, a big upside-down worm castle, like how ant hills can be thousands of miles deep in the ground. They’re for the dinosaurs to eat, the good ones like the Stegosaurus and the Minmi.”
I’m pretty sure he made that second one up. “That’s an ambitious dream. I hope you have it tonight. Faster you go back to sleep, the faster we’ll know.”
He’s nestled enough that I brave my palm over his hair—normally I’d be afraid he’d flinch away, given his age. His hair is like Amelie’s, silky and blonde and full.
He takes a book and a half to fall asleep again. Both are poor choices: dense, brainy picture books on fossil records. They’re long reads, and I fumble half the scientific names. These were not blessed with names like Amelie; there’s the Indosuchus and the Nemegtosaurus, the Poekilopleuron and the Suchomimus. He did not, I learn, make up the name Minmi. Booker’s old enough to have several of these memorized, probably, and secretly I worry he’ll correct me. I imagine Ivan’s professorial pronunciation. I imagine what exuberance Amelie emits while reading. How she probably does voices.
But Booker never speaks, his eyelids fluttering shut.
He’s honestly too big to sleep in my lap. But I can’t, even then, resist that too hot feel of a child fallen asleep on me. That pleasant mugginess. I can smell his freshly-laundered pajamas. Under that, bubble gum toothpaste.
He begins to snore, his little chest expanding and collapsing against my belly. I’m growing too warm, and with the off-kilter weight of us, my pants and shirt part company, exposing my back. This summer is before all those years I’ll spend fighting my body, but certainly there are notes of it now: the way I wonder, for example, whether the downy hairs in the hollow of my back are dark enough to see if you’re not looking closely.
My eye flicks to the camera; Amelie and Ivan will be happy to see me comforting Booker, letting him sleep on me for so long. I would look patient and loyal. They must know how their son, asleep, heats up like he might combust.
And then the air conditioner kicks on, an answered prayer. The house has been so quiet that the moan of air startles me. The exposed triangle of my back cools. Amelie’s body would never find itself in wadded clothes, stuck under a child. I wonder what I look like from the angle of the camera.
The Winters come home at ten past. I’ve already carried Booker to bed and spent the last hour dragging circles in the den—no camera there as far as I can tell—nose in my copy of The Joyful Wisdom.
My phone lights up with a notification of what Amelie’s just paid me.
“Got it.” I lift my phone. “Thanks ”
“Thank you,” Ivan says, a little drunk.
“Yes, a bunch!” Amelie leans from the door molding near the kitchen. “Baby, come look at the boys. They’re in Bee’s room together!”
Toddy must have moved rooms after I helped Booker back to bed. I shiver, realizing I never heard him.
Ivan tells Amelie he’s coming. He opens the door for me. “Really, thanks again. Want us to walk you home?”
“I’m just right there.” The wind picks up behind me, clinging to my sweat from earlier.
Amelie wags her fingers. “See you soon, I’m sure!”
I smile, and so does she, and so does Ivan, and he shuts the door.
The next time they call me over with little more than an hour’s notice. I’m keeping track, now, of their shrinking lead. They apologize over text, something about last-minute tickets, but by the time I walk over—five minutes early, right index finger on the buzzer—they’re clearly half-drunk already.
This time it’s Amelie at the door. She flings it wide and the cat almost gets out, but I stop him as he crosses the threshold. Amelie takes him from me, combs her nails through the fur between his ears.
“What will we do when you move away?” she despairs, half-joking.
She falls, cat in arms, into the settee. Behind her one of the lamps is on, and casts a sharp yellow umbra across her hair. It is extraordinarily flattering, though I’m disturbed to see her so easily cast off-balance. I will later learn, in an intense bout of insomniac research, that she takes up acting in the years to follow, becomes something of a hit in local theatre. Pictures of her in period costuming, tangled in sheets, sporting leather jackets and glittering bras. She has abs in many of those pictures, which all this summer I’ve theorized she must have, too, the way her clothes fall concave around her midsection.
I shrug, looking around for the boys. In the direction of their rooms I hear them murmuring. Ivan’s voice is back there with them. If the air were on I wouldn’t hear them at all. Little else to distract me, I take my time with my shoes, place them with my book in the same corner as always.
“No, I really mean it now.” This to my back—but the tone has changed, gone a little more sober. The chair railing along the wall looks brilliantly clean in a way I’ve never noticed before. When I turn she’s got the cat under the armpits, staring into his nose as though the question she was pondering was very grave indeed, and she needed somewhere gentle to look so she could say it.
“I think,” she says, and she turns the cat a little in the light, and the cat struggles, and she lets him go, “I think I would really like to beg you to stay in town.”
What I am not asking, now, what has not yet occurred to me to ask her, what has not even occurred to me to wonder, is what role I play from their perspective, what kind of peacekeeping a babysitter serves. In memory I can’t recall a time when they aren’t this light, laughing, a little drunk and hanging on each other. But also I know these things can take an audience, how quickly a façade can drop when no one’s around to watch. How easy that switch can be, how semi-conscious.
In the moment, I mutter something noncommittal. By then Ivan’s coming in, saying, “No! Don’t discourage her.” He says I’m off to great things. He says they would never hold me back from what I want.
Except I don’t know what I want, I just feel drawn around in circles, like one of Booker’s supermagnets, toward things I can imagine myself wanting.
Amelie reclines her head, so that more of it takes on the lamplight. Today she’s wearing a blue shift, loose, low under the arms.
“Okay,” she says. Just like that she’s been convinced.
I watch them leave; I contain the cat. The gravel crunches. Their car groans away.
Both children are sleeping and I, for some reason, am too wired to read. The sink drips on a few unwashed dishes and a pot crusted from a meal they fed the boys. I get it in my head that I will make them miss me acutely, so I clear the whole sink. I spread a clean towel on the counter and leave the dishes to dry upside down.
I am useful, I tell myself. I tell myself: in a house that I own, I will purchase a dish drying rack. I will keep a lamp right here, on the counter, in the little spot of shadow under the cabinet nearest the fridge. I tell myself that it will be a small lamp. Tassels on the shade.
The fridge, when I open it, feels so cold on my collarbone, exposed because I’ve worn a sports bra and camisole. I reach, aware of my hand in the cold, for one of the beers they’ve invited me to drink so many times now. I wonder if they really meant it. After minutes of foolish rifling for an opener, I realize the cap screws off.
The taste is horrible, savory, very unlike whatever it is I must have been expecting. Still, I opened the thing and even now am a determined person, frustrated by waste.
I take it to the couch in the playroom; it’s the place in the house where I’m most comfortable navigating the television and streaming apps, and where the boys know to find me. What they would say about the beer if they crept in—so quietly, as Toddy must have done the other night, as surely they’ve done before, with me unknowing. How I would hardly be able to tell if an intruder entered, except that I would lose track of the cat. What Ivan might say if he saw, through the video feed, that I’ve decided after all to drink. What Amelie might say. Whether they will notice one fewer bottle in the refrigerator, which I took, as always, with consideration for leaving as little trace as possible behind. I will bury this bottle in the bottom of a trash can.
Whatever’s playing on the television is some program I don’t recognize; a ghost, obscured in a floral bedsheet, creeps ever closer to a woman who will be dead by the end of the episode. By the time she spots its shape in a darkened window, I’m halfway down the bottle. I think, replacing the bottle exactly in the condensation ring it had already left on the coaster, about how often the smart women die first on television. In the episode’s climax, she checks her reflection in a compact mirror—the ghost is right behind her, and hungry—and the mirror glances off a set light and, for a moment, blinds the camera.
There has never been, I realize, any red blinking light, anything at all, to indicate the camera on the bookshelf has been turned on; I have no reason to believe that Ivan or Amelie either one is ever prone to check it, other than the fact of its existence on the shelf. How long has it been there? Is it plugged in? I’m in no mood to inspect it, which might look unduly incriminating. But nonetheless I feel braver, now, and am starting to wonder how drunk I might be (of course I’m not, though I have no way to gauge it until later, in my twenties, drinking to tilted gracelessness in a series of dim, bad bars) to consider playing the game I am about to play. I am playing against myself, or maybe against, or maybe with, whoever might pick up their phone and tune into the video feed.
I tug my shorts higher, so they cover the stomach roll from when I sit and don’t pay attention. Think of yoga and straighten my posture. Peel the camisole up past my midriff, over my sports bra, to my shoulders, above my head. I fold it and lay it on the couch beside me. I’m still fairly covered, all things considered, and it’s a hot night, and the air hasn’t kicked on in too long. Still, I’m trembling. The couch feels like the barbed tongue of a cat under my trailing fingers.
So close—this close—to redressing before anyone notices.
But I’m warm, and my skin feels trampoline taut, and I wonder if I’m drunk, and I upend the bottle between my lips—it’s no good warm, but the taste, this far through, is already more bearable—to drain the last. The bottle clinks hollowly back to the coaster, and before I can dissuade myself, I slip my shorts down, too. These I fold and place atop the camisole.
I walk slowly, deliberately, across the playroom to dispose of the bottle. At every step my thighs catch, without shorts as a barrier between them. The floor makes no noise at all under my socked feet, a fact for which I am more grateful than ever. I am shivering with the question of whether the camera is on, what I look like, whether one could see the rosette pattern on my underwear from such a distance, on such a miniature screen.
The trashcan is half full of dry paper and what looks like tissue from a gift bag. I submerge the bottle under the topmost layer and cover it over.
When I’m almost back to the couch, straining to hear the mumbling television, the air clicks on with what feels like preternatural timing. I think of Booker, his possible prehistoric nightmares. Of Toddy, his silent appearances in rooms where he should not be. The playroom has no door to shut, and that, I guess, is part of why I’ve done this in the first place, but nonetheless I wish there were some last guard between the boys and me. I turn the volume up a couple of clicks, and sit, in my underwear, to watch it. Amelie will or will not see me. This is or is not a gesture that does or does not mean anything. The camera is watching or it is not.
In some version of this, I fall asleep and am discovered: by a bleary-eyed boy who startles me awake asking for water, or by a crying boy who again fell into timeless dreams so dark and hungry they swallowed him whole, or by a returned Ivan so shocked that he pretends he hasn’t seen me, or by an Amelie who covers me in a throw to keep me warm, who texts my father to say I’ve fallen asleep and will come back in the morning.
Or by an Amelie who wakes me, gently, at the ankle, who smiles at me, who, still tipsy, knows that what she said earlier in the night is still true: that she will miss me when I am gone. Who realizes I am valuable and more grown than I am often credited for, this summer before I move away, when it is still convenient for many adults to pretend as though I am not about to join them. Amelies are not so thoughtless as to consider me still some kind of child.
Or only the camera sees me, whether it is on or not. Whether it is playing in anyone’s pockets, whether anyone is checking. Whether there ever will have been a record of this.
But I don’t fall asleep. I am too awake with possibilities, buzzing with what I think, at the time, is the single beer, but was never the beer at all. The woman in the TV episode dies off-screen. The Winters, Ivan and Amelie, come home. By then I’ve redressed.
They pay me and I leave. They hire me again.
And again I come, though never do I drink their beer, or strip in front of their bookshelf camera, which I never bother—cannot bear—to inspect for working order. No one mentions it, verbally, otherwise, and for the remainder of the summer I think about appearance, disappearing. And if they do know, if she saw me, they are very fine actors indeed.
(winner of the Editors’ Prize in Prose for issue 35)