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goodbye strangers [narrative]

an ode to (some of) the kids i used to babysit

Victoria

Today I was on Instagram, and I saw a post from a girl named Victoria, whom I babysat from when I was in eighth grade all the way through high school. She was 10 when I first met her. I used to drive her to lacrosse practice and help her pick out the colors of her braces. I taught her how to play Egyptian Ratscrew and took her to Starbucks for pink drinks even though she wasn't allowed to have sugar. I gave her advice on her friend drama and helped her with her French projects and sat within eyesight in the hallway outside her door at night so that she could fall asleep. 

In the Instagram post, Victoria was dressed up for a school dance, wearing a tight, light purple dress. She had blonde highlights and high heels and a lip-glossy white smile, and I realized with a jolt that she's 16 now, which made me feel sentimental, and then made me wonder whether I'm allowed to be sentimental about a little girl I was paid to hang out with. I decided that I am. 

Ed

Ed was a year-and-a-half old. He had a tuft of bright red hair and skin that was so pale it was almost blue, except his cheeks, which were splotchy and pink. He and I had much in common: We both loved applesauce pouches and peanut butter banana toast and this show on Netflix called Spirit Riding Free, which was an animated DreamWorks production about a girl named Lucky who goes on adventures with her horse, Spirit. 

Ed was a plump, smiley kid, and I would have done anything to make him laugh. So I did. His favorite thing was when I would get on all fours and pretend to be a horse, and then keel over dead on my side. He would laugh like crazy, climb on top of my dead horse body, and jump up and down, which was not particularly comfortable, but I would do it again and again because he was so damn cute. And because I was getting paid $20 an hour. 

Theo

Theo was a seven-year-old with shaggy blonde hair that was always covering his eyes. His mom thought it was cute when it was long, but his dad thought it needed to be cut. His mom also thought he had Type 1 diabetes because he was always asking her for water, but I think he was just really thirsty. He was stick-thin, all elbows and knees, with a little swollen belly. He was missing his two front teeth, and wanted to be a professional football player.

Theo was known for saying things he shouldn't say. One time, I saw a friend of mine when I took him to the pool. As soon as my friend walked away, Theo giggled. "He's ugly," he said. Later that summer, I took him to get ice cream. He refused to get in the car when I was driving, so he ran all the way there—over a mile—while I drove slowly next to him. "You have big thighs," he told me as we sat next to each other on the painted bench outside the shop. "Are mine going to look like that when I'm older, too? I hope not." 

Lizzie

Lizzie was only four years younger than me. I babysat her when she was 13, so she probably didn't need anyone supervising her, but I think Lizzie’s mom just didn't want her to be lonely while she and her husband went out to dinner. 

Lizzie was a dancer, and she walked on her tip-toes all the time. She liked to show me her dance routines, leaping and twirling to various ‘00s pop songs streaming off of YouTube on her rose gold iPad. She practiced an eyeliner style on me that she had seen in a James Charles video. Once, she curled my hair, and the iron was so hot I could smell my hair burning; I dug my fingernails into my palms as she moved the iron closer to my ears. We watched Hallmark romance movies together and talked about her eighth grade school crush, Alex. When her parents came home, her dad would hand me a crisp $100 bill. He insisted on walking me home even though I lived four houses down, and their fat, cataractous chihuahua always yapped at me as I started down the street.

Mason and Charlotte

Mason and Charlotte were twin babies, both a year old. When I arrived at their house, their mom gave me some brief, casual instructions about how to work the TV remote and how small to cut strawberries so that the babies wouldn't choke. She carried one child in each arm—they sat poised and calm, regarding me emotionlessly behind matching pacifiers. 

It was hot outside, and as soon as their mother left, I carried Charlotte and Mason outside to play on the swing in their backyard. I brought two red popsicles, one for each of them. The sun melted the popsicles all over their chins, staining their white clothes, painting bright droplets all over the stone patio. We went back inside to clean up and I attempted to pick them both up at once, as I had seen their mother do with such ease just an hour before, but they squirmed and kicked, so I let them totter along next to me instead. 

Later in the afternoon, they both took a keen interest in Play-Doh (specifically, squeezing the dough into long tubes and trying to shove it into my mouth). As fun as this game was—for them—I had to pause to change Mason's diaper. I left Charlotte for a moment in the living room; she had abandoned her Play-Doh and was now busy trying to put her tiny feet into my sandals and waddle across the wood floor. I successfully changed Mason's diaper (after three tries on my part and a significant amount of screaming on his part). When I returned downstairs, I found Charlotte sitting on the carpet, straddling a fifth of tequila. 

I put Mason down and he immediately wrapped himself around my ankle like a sloth, and so I limp-galloped over to Charlotte to extract the bottle from her (very) firm grasp. I desperately scanned the room for the source of the liquor (a high shelf above the couch, somehow) and then, blood coursing with adrenaline, scoured the room for a baby monitor camera. There wasn't one, thank God, or else I'd have been swiftly and decisively blacklisted from the Nextdoor Denver babysitters' community. 

I put Charlotte and Mason down for an afternoon nap and when their mom returned, I got in my car, turned on the engine, turned it back off again, put my head against the steering wheel, and cried, silently vowing never to have children.

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