THIS ONE IS JUST RIGHT
by Janice Erlbaum
Who called the girls home for a babysitter? That’s what never made sense to me. All these parents on the Upper West Side, with their gigantic apartments and their overdressed kids—how’d they get the idea to call the local group home to ask if any of the residents wanted to make six bucks an hour on a Friday night? Wouldn’t that be the last place you’d call, an institution for girls without homes? What if we came to your home and never wanted to leave?
I was on probation that night. I’d been busted cutting school and was facing an entire weekend indoors, fifty-six hours with no chance of parole, unless Delilah, the counselor on duty, ran out of cigarettes and let me run downstairs to the bodega for her. All my roommates were either out or on their way out, as I would have been on a normal summer Friday night, lining my eyes with black pencil and my lips with brick, on my way to meet everybody down at the old piers, where we’d smoke and drink and threaten to push each other into the river.
So when the counselors’ phone rang with a call from someone looking for a last-minute babysitter, and Delilah shouted for anybody who might want the job to get into her office before she told the lady no, I was the only one to respond. Delilah saw me in the doorway and she frowned, shaking her head—Come on now, baby, you know you’re not allowed to leave the house—but I put on my most strenuous please-oh-please face and squeezed my palms together, and she relented. Hang on, she said into the phone, I think I might have somebody.
Delilah put me on the phone with the caller, a woman with one of those warm, confidential voices that immediately enlists you to her side, as though there were some larger force like “society” or “children” that we were battling together. Her babysitter had cancelled last minute, she said, and would I do them the favor of sitting for little Jason, eight years old, an only child rattling around ten rooms plus maid’s quarters and pantry? I didn’t really like being around children; I didn’t know what to talk about with them, and you never knew what they were going to say. They were little truth detectors, which made them dangerous. Then again, here was a chance to leave the house, to go somewhere where I would be the reigning authority, where I might get an hour or two after the kid went to bed to be alone, quiet, and unobserved. Yeah, I said to the woman. Sure, great, okay.
I had to leave pretty much right away, but not before Delilah warned me: You go straight there, you hear? And you come right back afterwards. I don’t want to hear about any trouble, you understand? I agreed, and I meant it. I was grateful. If it had been Maddy or Susannah on duty, I wouldn’t have been allowed to babysit. I’d have been stuck at home, watching the first two-thirds of the 8 o’clock movie until TV time was over and I had to shut it off before I could even find out what happened.
I walked the block and a half to the address I’d been given, and waited in the lobby while the doorman called upstairs to announce me. The elevator was panelled in dark wood with a brass gate, and their doorbell, when I reached it, was a thick black button that went bink. A woman opened the door, a pair of heels in her hand—Hi there!, she said, smiling. Please, come on in. There was a bronze sculpture of a nymph or something on the foyer table behind her, the track lights’ orange and white circles on the cream-colored walls, the enveloping smell of cleanliness.
Thank you so much for saving us, she said. Oh, sure, no problem, I said. She was wearing diamond earrings and a sleeveless black dress, which is what adult women wore when they went to cocktail parties. I could never tell how old adults were—it always surprised me that Maddy, for instance, was almost ten years younger than my mom, while being ten times as grown-up—but this woman was around thirty-five, I’d have guessed, and slender, with smooth, shoulder-length dark brown hair and sympathetic eyes. Without her heels on, she was my height, five foot two. Let me show you around, she said.
She took me through the apartment, showing me where everything was, touching me lightly on the arm to steer me from room to room. Here’s the emergency numbers, and here’s the number of the restaurant where we’ll be. The kitchen, with the suctioned door of the fridge opening like a sigh, closing like a kiss. Attached ice maker. Little Jason had already eaten dinner, and he was due dessert at some point, but he was to have no more than one small bowl of ice cream, because if you let him have more, he’d eat until his stomach ached. Okay, I agreed. Marble countertops, glossy black laminate cabinets. It was a little bougie, but I wouldn’t have minded a place like that someday. A lot to take care of, though, especially when you filled it with furniture that needed to be dusted, polished, have its fabric smoothed with a hand so the nap lay in only one direction. More stuff, more problems.
Meanwhile, the father paced between rooms, fussing and grumbling, his shoes chirping against the parquet floor. The dads in these situations barely registered to me. They were not viable; they weren’t allowed to find me sexually attractive and I did not find any of them remotely sexually attractive. They were soft pink men, not the hard boys I knew and loved; they were adult babies, needing help with their cufflinks and ties—even the eight-year-old kid could dress himself, I bet, but the father needed help, peevish: Hon, where’s the tie bar—the tie bar! The one I left on the—oh. Never mind.
The mom smiled conspiratorily at me, like, Husbands, am I right? Why was this woman so nice to me? So many assumptions she made about me: that I was trustworthy, that I could handle an emergency. That I wasn’t going to steal the silverware. Didn’t she know the assumptions everyone else made about me? She treated me like I belonged there, and in some ways I did: my mother’s apartment, the one I’d run away from a year before, was a ten-room pre-war dinosaur like this one; of course, it was also on a crack-riddled corner on Underhill Avenue in Brooklyn. This mom made me feel like a member of the family: a cousin, or a neighbor’s daughter. Of course: I lived upstairs in a richly appointed apartment, with some kind of…parent, I guessed? And I went to whatever school, Dalton, or wherever I was supposed to go in the life that ran parallel to mine (or not parallel, as my life veered everywhere), and I knew how to ski. But instead I’m this kid with dead yellow hair from being bleached in the sink, asymmetrical in length from where the sides I’d shaved were growing back. I was wearing a skirt made out of a sweater and a sweater pulled out of the 1940s, and not in a good way. And plastic shoes.
The mom must not have noticed anything amiss; she kept gliding around like a good fairy. What must it be like to have a mother like this, I wondered: serene, self-contained, pleased by everything around her? Assuming I was an ally, certain that I wanted everything she did, delighted for me that I was going to get to experience a piece of her life for a few hours from the inside? The way she spoke, so measured, without pauses or tics, the balletic swing of one arm as she indicated the half-bath off the den. It had to be at least a little bit of an act, didn’t it?
I’d always suspected so, when I saw moms like this on the street with their kids, their exaggerated voices and their ostentatious patience and their satisfied chuckles; it looked like they were laying it on pretty thick in their performance of the role of Mommy. That’s who they were when the kid was around: Mommy, with a clear purpose and a necessary identity. But when Mommy wasn’t around the child who defined her, was there anything to her? Or was she the lone pepper shaker, listing on the table for want of her salt? I would’ve thought a mom would want to have a private life of her own, even if it consisted solely of the moments she spent on the toilet, which seemed to me to be the moments in which I was most mentally present as myself, probably because that was the only time I was alone behind a shut door, but maybe that wasn’t enough time to switch from Super Mom to whatever she was inside and back again, so she just stayed Super Mom, even while shitting, and that made me sad. Didn’t she want to be selfish and do things that didn’t take her kid and husband into account? I would never stop wanting things selfishly; I would never not be compelled to go toward them with all my will no matter what else was going on.
She ushered me to the kid’s bedroom, where a messy-haired boy sat on the carpet wearing pajamas with baseball players on them. He looked up from the catastrophic pile-up of Matchbox cars at his feet and squinted at me. Jason, this is Janice. She’s going to stay with you tonight, okay? I gave him a wave and a smile. Hi, Jas-on, I said, a little singsong, the way you were supposed to talk to kids. Hi, Ja-nice, he said, a little sarcastic.
She’d told me the kid was eight years old, but this kid was at least sixty if he was a day. He was what my father used to call a pisher. A real wisenheimer. He wasn’t sweet and smiling and open-faced, like kids ideally should be. He had a look on his face like, Show me something good, sweetheart; let’s see what you got. Jason’s really interested in space, said his mom. A mobile of the solar system hung from the light fixture, paper mache planets on a wire hanger. Anything that moved, I wanted to touch; it was tempting to give the universe a spin. This was more of what I coveted: not the diamond earrings or the marble countertops, but the toys and the half-eaten pack of Pop-Tarts on the bed. There was plenty to play with in his room, too: a mid-sized Casio keyboard, several plastic playsets, a basketball hoop for beanbags, affixed to the back of the door. Maybe we’d throw some beanbags for a while, then I’d let him watch TV.
He was dismissive of her—Yeah, Mom, okay, okay—the same way all of us were in front of our friends. Showing off for company. The dad called to her from the foyer—Hon?—and she bent down to kiss the kid on the top of his head. He cringed, shoulders up around his ears. Be good, she told him. Janice, you know how to reach us if you need to. You two have fun!
The front door really shut when it shut, the aftershock ringing throughout the apartment. So, I said. What do you want to do? What do you want to do?, he asked in reply. Part curious, part challenging. He had more of an innate sense of my lack of social status than his mom did. Whether she told him I’d come from the Bad Girls Home or not, he’d somehow gleaned it, or something close to it. I didn’t look right; I literally had rough edges, where the hem of my homemade skirt had been hacked with a dull scissor. My bony red elbows and knees. And he squinted at me like, What’s your story? Why are you stuck catering to me, an eight year old boy? The way men ask prostituted women how nice girls like them wound up in places like those. Because you hired me, dumbass.
I sat on the floor with him and looked around his bedroom, the dearth of stuffed animals a sign of his lack of empathy and nurturing instincts. Want to play a game?, I asked. Maybe beanbag toss? No, he said, that’s boring. Really? It looks like it could be fun, here—and I went to grab some of the beanbags from around the room, but he said NO, I don’t want to play that, and when I took the opportunity to loft a few at the target, he was offended, like I was using up his beanbags and there wouldn’t be any left over for him to use. Funny, how kids think of things like that as finite. So I’m like, okay, you want to play checkers? Or cards, maybe? And he’s like, maybe. But he clearly has something else in mind.
You should show me your underpants, he said, and I’ll show you mine. He pulled the waistband of his white cotton shorts up from under his pajamas. I turned away and waved my arm at him. I don’t want to see your underpants. But I want to see yours, he said. I showed you mine, now you should show me yours. No, I said firmly. But I want to see-ee. Well, you’re not going to. But I want to. I was reclining on my side on the floor, propped up by one elbow, and I tucked my knees against each other a little more firmly. No, I said. Not even a chance. Come on, let’s play tic tac toe. Let’s play Simon.
But I want to see your underpants, he said. You could show me. There was reproach in his voice. I was just being mean. Little did he know how mean I could be. If I had to smack the kid off me, I would have no problem doing so. Years ago I’d been fired from a babysitting job for smacking the kid on the hand after he deliberately broke one of his crayons, because I thought that’s what you were supposed to do with children, smack them when they were assholes. I’d since learned that this was not always parents’ preferred protocol.
The kid feinted towards me, like he was going to reach for my skirt, looking in my eyes all the while. There was a “you know you want to” quality about his gaze that was appalling but also made me want to laugh. Where did this kid get his moves? Certainly not from the putzy dad, with the high hairline and the shiny shoes. No, I said, now stop it, or I will lock you in the bathroom and not let you come out. You can’t tell me what to do, he said. I can certainly tell you what to do, I said. No, he countered, you have to do what I say, or I’ll tell my mom you were mean to me and then she won’t pay you. I laughed at him: Uh, okay. Oh kid, I thought; you think your parents will always take your side and believe you and stick up for you? How sad. You think they’re going to take your word over a stranger’s? Sorry. I’m older and better at lying. I have less to lose. They only have to believe me for ten seconds, you have to be believable all the livelong day.
We sussed each other out. I was bigger and stronger, he was smaller and wily and determined. Would I actually use force on him? How much, and for how long? Would I hurt him more than necessary to make a point? He tilted his head to the side, staring at my pubic region. Enough. Now it was getting insulting. He tossed out a few more threats: I’m going to tell my parents you were mean to me. Janice. I’m going to tell them. I stood up, knockkneed, and extended a hand to him. Come on, I said. Let’s go eat ice cream and then watch TV.
He pushed ahead of me and led the way to the kitchen. I perched on a stool in front of a marble countertop, and he climbed up onto the stool next to me, leaning over the side and peering at my legs. I can almost see up your skirt. No you can’t. Yes I can. Just stop it. Stop it or what? Or I will lock you in the bathroom for the rest of the night, and when your parents get home, I’ll tell them that you were a little jerk and they should punish you. This he liked, almost. Nuh-uh. Uh huh! Nuh-uh. Uh huh! Don’t test me, I warned him. But he did, he slid off his stool and kind of came at me, and I pushed him by his little shoulder, almost hard enough to make him fall backwards. Ow! he whined, You hurt me! Just cut it out, I told him.
I doled out his one bowl of ice cream, thinking I might like a bowl too, but I never really knew people’s policies on eating food from their fridge unless they made it clear that I was welcome to help myself, which nobody’d ever made clear. The kid could tell I wanted some ice cream, and he turned his torment in that direction. This ice cream is soooo gooood, he said, waving each spoonful in front of me before popping it in his mouth. Don’t you wish you could have some? I could have some if I wanted, I said. Nuh-uh, because my parents bought it, they paid for it, and they didn’t say you could have it, so if you have some it’s stealing.
Despite how horrible the kid was, I didn’t totally hate him. Part of me was amused. He knew what he wanted. He wasn’t a pushover. He was wise beyond his years, as I liked to think I was too. If I played chess, we could have had a good game. I’m finished, he announced, sliding off his stool and away toward the TV, leaving his sticky bowl and spoon for me to attend to.
We sat in front of the TV, him squirming all over the couch, me pretty much ignoring him by this point. I was just running down the clock, twenty minutes until bedtime. He persisted in trying to get a rise out of me, pushing at me with his feet, but I was impervious. I dealt with bigger creeps than him all the time. Janice, he said. Jan-ass. Jan-ass! Jan-ass! If he thought this was original, he was mistaken. He whined and scowled and writhed; I ignored, sticking out the occasional arm to push him away. You’re no fun, he said. Yeah, I said, I know.
Of course he didn’t want to go to bed when it was time. But I let him skip brushing his teeth, which was a victory for him, and I agreed to read to him in bed for a few minutes while he rested his head on my arm, trying to brush up against my breast. The light was off, my voice low and regular, and soon his head grew heavier, his breathing even. Sleepiness made the kid almost likeable. I felt a moment of tenderness for him as he looked up at me with drooping eyes.
I can see down your shirt, he murmured. Okay, goodnight, I said, closing the book. Then I left the room and shut the door behind me.
Stillness. Motes in the air. The feeling of knowing someone’s asleep in the house, and you are awake to protect them. I let out a sigh of self-congratulation. I had the next hour and a half to be essentially alone, unwatched, not even watching myself from overhead as usual, protected from my own self-criticizing by the lack of any possibility of criticism from others.
This never happened at the group home; there was never any solitude. We were not allowed to be at home without supervision; at least one counselor was on duty at all times. You never walked in to an empty apartment and yelled Hello? and had nobody reply, listened to your echo die, leaving it quieter than before you spoke. There was no solitude, and there was no peace, either: not only were we never left alone in the apartment, we were never left alone in the apartment. There was always something you were supposed to be doing, or something you were doing wrong, or something somebody wanted to argue about with you. It drove me crazy. I’d been a latchkey kid since fifth grade, taking the bus home from school to an empty apartment and doing whatever I felt like doing, watching Tom and Jerry beat the living crap out of each other with mop handles and spiked clubs. Waiting alone for the few hours until my mom came home from work. Now, whether I was at school, or work, or home, I was in someone’s presence at all times. Hearing their eating noises, the little whistle they made as they breathed through one congested nostril, Almitra humming the same two lines of a song: I wonder if you take me home/will you still be in love, baby?
I walked from the livingroom to the kitchen, back through the foyer, into the TV room, securing the perimiter. The apartment was theirs, but I slipped into it like a loaned coat, felt its soothing weight as it settled against me. Not a bad fit. I peed in their brightly tiled bathroom—how did they keep their grout so white? Even Ajax and a scrub brush couldn’t lift the dinge off our bathroom floors. No dust on the dressers in the bedroom, the comforter on the master bed parabolic with down. It was tempting to lie down on it, but how would I restore its fluff when I was done? I kept drifting, light as mist.
I could have snooped, if I had the urge, but I didn’t. I knew I wasn’t going to find anything interesting or pertinent to me. And I certainly wasn’t about to steal anything, not even a few quarters from the change jar on the dresser, because I wasn’t an idiot; I only stole when there was a chance of getting away with it. I could have, though; I could have gone through everything they owned, tried on all the clothes and jewelry, opened up the medicine cabinet and filched one or two interesting pills. Kind of arrogant of them to think I wouldn’t. Kind of optimistic, kind of blithe—the kind of people who could stand, perhaps, to learn a lesson about life, that lesson being: things aren’t always going to be peachy, you know, just because you want them to. Lucky for everyone, I didn’t want what they had. I wanted my own.
These people—all the families I babysat for—they were pretend people, and they didn’t even know it! Real people knew real things about the real world. Real people were mostly unhappy, but the unhappiness forced them to become resourceful and interesting.
Fuck these pretend people, I wasn’t interested in them. I was interested in me, and me was interested mostly in food, especially junk food, anything fried, salty, or sweet. Me wanted to raid the kitchen, then sit down somewhere and be still, listening to the small furtive noises the old apartment made.
I went to the kitchen, ducked into the pantry, and started digging around in the dark. Pantries were usually good for dried fruits—dates, raisins, prunes. Also nuts. An index finger’s worth of peanut butter, two or three Stoned Wheat Thins, handfuls of cereal, one from each box. Sometimes I found something esoteric like a box of ice cream cones, and I’d slide one off the stack to eat over my upturned palm so I could catch and eat the crumbs. I thought I’d hit gold with a broken-up bar of baker’s chocolate, but it turned out to be some kind of horrible, bitter practical joke.
At a certain point, I felt safe enough to open the freezer and take out the ice cream and stand there shielded by the door spooning it right into my mouth. Stereotypical babysitter shit. Hurrying; expecting at any moment to see the kid’s tubby, venal shadow in the kitchen entryway, backlit like the poster for a horror movie. I could have easily killed the pint, but I put it back before I ate enough to incriminate myself, gritting my teeth against the instant agony exploding behind my eyes. (Worth it.)
What did I do the rest of the time? Just was. Existed. I lay down on my back on the master bedroom floor: knees bent, legs crossed at the thigh, one calf swinging atop the other in a rhythm of its own. The sweep of my arm left a darkened arc on the monochrome carpet and then erased it, the wing of a carpet angel. This was actually better than lying on the bed—being on the floor kept me farther away from the ceiling. Flatter, more uniform. I nodded at the idea, but in a mocking way; I thought I was ridiculous and that anybody who saw me would agree. And yet I didn’t want to get up.
God, how I loved to be alone. I’d felt lonely for lack of friends when I was younger, but that had changed. Now I felt lonely around people. Being alone was a singular joy, no matter where or for how long; lying in Domenic’s dad’s bed while Domenic went to the bathroom gave me a full minute to exult, to wrap my arms around myself and squeeze, reveling in my own private joke, which was that nobody knew who I really was or what I was really thinking. Hee hee! Boredom, too, had changed in quality since I was a kid; boredom used to mean an empty afternoon, reruns I’d already seen, records I’d played a thousand times, no new books, nobody to call on the phone. Boredom was lack of something to do. Now boredom was watching the same people do and say the same things every goddamn day. I could be bored in a crowd just as easily as I could be lonely in one.
I didn’t feel bored or lonely tonight. I felt full. I looked at the off-white paint on the irregular surface of the ceiling, layers of old plaster like foreign continents in bas relief. Breathing deliberately, in, out, in, out, then letting the breath take over and breathe through me. All the drapes and bed pillows and carpeting killed the noise from the traffic below, the same traffic that passed our window a block away. So tranquil, so entrancing. I kept staring at the ceiling until my eyes lost focus and I wasn’t seeing it anymore.
The more I concentrated on the stillness, the stiller it became. I wasn’t tired, but I felt so peaceful that I closed my eyes and started to drift. Not quite asleep, just at the point where you kind of forget your surroundings for a few seconds at a time, and then a noise or a breeze reminds you that you live in a world full of objects and activity. It’s going on all the time, and you take it for granted, until a moment of drowsing makes it all strange. Like peek-a-boo with the world—you shut your eyes and where’d everything go? Eyes closed, you could almost convince yourself the world didn’t exist. Then you open your eyes again, and there you are! There’s the Matisse print over the dresser; there’s the baseboard radiator running along the wall. This is not my house, this is not even where I live, but this is where I am at this moment, right where I left myself. So this is where I’m supposed to be. I knew I’d never babysit here again, and that would be fine. I was here tonight. Right temperature, right slice of city sky through the window, right night to be indoors and calm, to know what was going to happen over the next few hours, as opposed to most Friday nights, when I went out deliberately looking to challenge the status quo of my entire life, hoping that by the time the night ended, I’d be in some much other place.
The hour of the parents’ return was nigh. I sat up feeling dizzy and unmoored. Spent a minute recalibrating, hugging my knees, then stood and yawned. I went to reset myself on the couch in the TV room, took out a book for school, pretended I hadn’t been…doing nothing. Lying on the floor. I hadn’t done anything untoward, but the parents didn’t know that, and they might be suspicious. I knew I would be. I started pleading my innocence in my head, preparing huffy defenses against accusations that hadn’t been made—after I’d been so protective on their behalf, too! But wasn’t that always the way it went? And now they were going to swoop back in like they owned the place.
The key in the lock, the squeak of the father’s shoes against the floor. Hello?, the mother called quietly. Hi, I said, jumping off the couch, going to meet them in the foyer. Hi! Was everything okay?, she asked. I nodded. She had her heels in her hand, tiptoeing towards the kid’s room. I’m just going to peek in on him. She placed one hand on his bedroom door, biting her lip with the effort of her stealth, turned the knob like a safecracker and slipped inside.
Did she muss his hair? Did she call him Tiger? Or did she just stand there looking over her sleeping son, safe in his bed, a stranger even to her? The dad took a wad of bills from his pocket and thumbed through them, peeling off a few for me. I had to hand over half of it to Delilah to put in my savings account, that was the rule. How was he?, the dad asked. Fine, no problems, I said. What was I going to tell him, the truth? Your son is a power-hungry little cretin, and it’s unsettling? It wasn’t that I cared about being hired again, because I didn’t. It was just that nobody needed the truth from me. I didn’t even know how to tell it anymore. I was probably more emotionally honest and direct with the kid than I’d been in the vast majority of my interpersonal interactions that year. We’d had our showdown, that was enough.
And for all the warmth in the apartment, and the complex, layered smell of well-groomed people, and the plushness of the rugs, for a place that was so packed with emotion, desire, and conflict, the second the door opened, and I felt the hallway air seep over me, and I crossed to the other side—it was like a vacuum, when the door closed behind me, taking all of that back inside, like it never existed. And then I’m alone in the elevator, the door closes, and I go down.
Janice Erlbaum is the author of Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir (Villard ’06), Have You Found Her: A Memoir (Villard, ’08), and the forthcoming novel I, Liar. She can be found at www.girlbomb.com.