In Charge

Babysitting at age 14 is a lonely prospect so my friend Jess often joined me. We split the money but that was besides the point. We were there for the homes. The clothes. The refrigerators. It was all fair game to explore and fantasize in, once our charges were napping. We particularly loved the Nortons’ house: it was a grand Georgian manor overlooking the ocean. Mrs. Norton was the only woman at the country club who wore a bikini and Mr. Norton’s hair was just a little longer than the other fathers and their baby girl slept a lot. As soon as she went down we poured ourselves Diet Cokes and went page by page through Mrs. Norton’s Harpers Bazaar magazines, where headlines like “You!” Or “Bold” shined like spot lights into the fog of the summer boredom that locked us into our Waspy little sea side town and rarely lifted.

Too old for swim team but too young to do anything worth getting in trouble for, we made sure not to wear our retainers when Mr. Norton drove us home, mushing the other’s kneecap in delight when he turned his handsome face towards us to back out his long gravel driveway. One time at a red light he sniffed the air and happily remarked on how it smelled like gardenias. Jess had sprayed his wife’s Chanel perfume twice between her collarbones earlier while I had devoured Breyers mint ice cream straight from the carton and watched in awe.

Mrs. Norton had encouraged us to help ourselves to anything in the fridge but permission hadn’t included her shoe closet. But that didn’t deter Jess. As soon as the baby went down for the night, we headed straight up to the dressing area where Jess traded her grass stained tennis sneakers for Mrs. Norton’s strippy high heeled sandals. Their hallway was mirrored and when Jess paraded past me, now several inches taller, her forged grown up self was reflected over and over. That night as we lay parallel in twin beds in the dark, Jess told me about how her mother was really her step mother and how her real mother had died when she was very young. I thought of the plot of the soap opera we were addicted to, how that afternoon a mother had told her daughter that her father had been the gardener all along. I then thought of the Norton’s daughter in her crib, so trusting of whomever put her there. The next time we came to babysit the Nortons there was a rule list taped to the refrigerator and at the top in caps was the instruction to REMAIN DOWNSTAIRS!

So we stopped going. After I eventually got my own license, I would pass the Norton’s driveway entrance and long to go down it and see if they were all still there and how they had gotten older. Perhaps more children had come along or one of the parents had gone away or they had all moved on. It would’ve been so easy to do so but I never did. Jess went on to marry someone twice her age and move to California. I visited her once when I had work nearby. She lived in a small shaggy apartment on Manhattan Beach. Her husband kept his ties rolled up in little circles in a tired basket in the living room next to the sofa where I slept because their closet was so tight. On the coffee table were only golf magazines. As a hostess gift I had bought Jess a small bottle of Chanel perfume. When she opened it I gave her a knowing grin, hoping she would remember why. But she only looked away to watch her husband pick up the magazine and slowly start flipping through it. Then she got up to cook us dinner and that’s when I knew I’d never see her again.