Chloe Caldwell

My Heart Was Still Beating

There are days when I prefer the boys I baby-sit to the adult boys in my life.
To be a babysitter is to be part actor, part therapist, part housekeeper, part friend, part playmate, part athlete, part mom, part dad, part chef, part chauffeur, part waiter, and part saint, which I am not.
There’s Caleb—the seven-year-old compulsive pizza eater. “What do you want to do?” I asked him at the onset of our babysitting session.
“Read,” he said.
“Read what,” I asked.
“Stephen King,” he said.
Sweet, I thought. His mom is an avid reader with a basement full of books. I read Nick Hornby and he read Stephen King in silence, his cat was between us. A bowl of frozen peas rested on the ottoman. He loves those NOW CDs filled with the top ten hits of the month so we were listening to Lady Gaga.
He lifted his round blue eyes, lowered his book, and broke the silence with:

“Do you even know who Stephen King is?”
“…Yes,” I said.
“Oh.”
“Why?”
“You just don’t seem like a person that would know who Stephen King is.”

Are you kidding me? I wanted to strangle his little neck, but he was right. I mean, how many Stephen King books have I actually finished? One.
I’m used to it. I get it all the time:

“Do you collect Pokemon?” No.
“Do you know what Bionicles are?” Nope.
“Are you good at drawing robots?” Definitely not.
“Have you seen Star Wars?” No.
“Did you read the Harry Potter books?” Hell no.
“You don’t know a lot of stuff.”
“I know.”
“Why?”
“Why what?”
“Why do you know?”
“Why do I know what?”
“Why do you know that you don’t know a lot of stuff?”
“I’m very aware of my strengths and weaknesses.”
“You’re not very good at football.”

Then Caleb asked me how many pieces of pizza I was going to eat, and I said one, and he said do you promise, and I said no, and he said can you please promise to only have one because I want to eat as much of it as I can.

So I ate one slice of pizza, and he ate four and got a stomachache while we watched School of Rock on television. When the movie was over he asked me if I could draw him a peace sign poster. I said yes I could, if he would go to bed right afterward. We went upstairs and I hung the peace poster on his door and we crawled into the bunk beds—him on top and me on bottom. We read more, which was great, but he is so competitive, and he kept asking me what page I was on, how much have I read, and when I told him, he smirked. When I heard his breathing get heavy and steady I went downstairs to masturbate and read.

I am an awful nanny, really. I go to the bathroom when I don’t even have to go to the bathroom to kill time. I am distracted. I am sarcastic. I do not listen. I am uptight. I am selfish. I am tense. I text while I drive. I make promises I don’t keep. My chocolate chip cookies are spongy. I am impatient. I over explain. I am existential. I try to tell them nothing matters. I tell them about cremation. I ask them where they want to be cremated. The toy store. They want to be cremated at the toy store. I tell them they can’t do that. It has to be outside. The Toy Store parking lot, they decide.

But somehow they like me. I make them laugh. I have always been able to make boys laugh. I am blunt. I make jokes. I will get on the floor. I play along. I play tag. I buy them ice cream. I bring them gum. I try to remember their birthdays. I laugh a lot. I let them win. I let it slide when they say the words: crap, freaking, sexy.

Regardless of the competitive pizza eating and reading, Caleb and I do get along. He has long bleach blonde hair and gets mistaken for a girl often. He’s chubby from all of the pizza and he plays soccer and football. He’s constantly trying to make money whether he’s selling lemonade or making bracelets. Or he’ll have some master plan—like to have bake sale for Haiti but to keep most of the profits.

We were driving to the beach with the windows open last summer and listening to Carole King’s “Where You Lead.”

“Hey Chloe?”

“Yeah?”

“Last night I had a dream you died.”

I glanced in the rearview mirror. He was staring out the window.

“You did?”

“Yeah. It was weird.”

“Did you wake up sad?”

“I don’t know. My heart was still beating.”

“Well, that’s good.”

“Yeah. People don’t die until they’re really old, right?”

“Usually.”

“Chloe?

“Yeah?”

“My mom has cancer.”

“I heard. I am so sorry.”

“I want the cancer to die. DIE, cancer DIE!”

“Me too, Caleb.”

“Do you think it would have been better for me to be a baby when she got cancer or now?”

“I think it would be hard either way. But maybe now; because you are smart and can understand it.”

“I’m not that smart. Actually, yes I am.”

Caleb’s mom describes her son as a bull in a china store and says she can’t believe I can get along with him. “My son loves you,” she told me. “He said to me, ‘mom, I told Chloe something and she laughed so hard she put her hands on the table and threw her head back.’” I love him too. It’s true that he is the most argumentative boy I have, but I’m okay with argumentative. It feels like hanging out with my own mom. He is also the oldest boy I have—he’s eight—so he is the most helpful. I have been lost with him on highways for hours at a time, supposed to be taking him to the Museum Of Flight, and he always figures how to get to I5-S if we are on I5-N before I can and for that, I am grateful.

I slept over at Caleb’s house for three nights in a row in September. His parents went on a trip to Canada. Caleb woke up at six in the morning and came into the bedroom I was sleeping in and asked if he could go watch TV. Yes, go, I said. At six thirty he came back into my room and asked if he could have pizza for breakfast, and I wanted to say, yes, heat it up in the microwave, but instead I got up and made us cheese omelets and lemon tea with milk and sugar and he flipped back and forth from Scooby-Doo and the history channel.

That night after Caleb went to bed, I was walking back through the living room to watch The Real Housewives of New York City and I saw his lunchbox on the counter. I walked right by it but I knew that I was working, and that I should empty it out, clean it and pack his new lunch. I didn’t want to. The thought of it exhausted me. Bored me. But then I pretended he was my son, and I got sort of excited. I think if I have son I will become obsessed with him. I will want him to experience love. I always wanted a son. My mom used to laugh because I would go to her classroom where she worked and I preferred the boys to the girls. I have always preferred boys to girls. I opened his lunch and examined it. I saw that he did not eat his peanut butter sandwich and that he only had a few bites of his apple. I feel bad for the son I might have. I decided that I would be like Anne Lamott, constantly writing about him.

The next night Caleb and I went out to dinner and split nachos and chicken tenders. I told him I needed a beer. I don’t usually get up at six thirty and I needed to take the edge off. This is why Caleb is great, he was like, oh, do you like hops? My dad drinks the Super goose IPA because it’s really hoppy. You should get that.

And I did. God bless Caleb.

We both love the same radio station, The Mountain, and while we cruised home through downtown Seattle, we were happy. “Jammin” came on and he said, “I know this song! Turn it up! I know this song! Do you?”

“Yep. It’s Bob Marley, dude. Everyone knows this song.”

“But do you even know where Bob Marley is from?”

“NO. WHERE?”

“Jamaica! He’s from Jamaica, mon!”

And we cracked up and I turned the music up and we sang loudly together and for once I did not get us lost.

**

Things are not always that easy. Babysitter is a vague word, an obscure job. I am starting to think it is as real as a job can get—taking care of another human being. When I lived with Caleb for those three days, he had a soccer game I took him to. Afterward he was fooling around with his friends and the ball hit him in the face, hard and fast, getting his nose cartilage and he cried like a baby in my arms while his nose turned blue. Another time, his little brother was really sick and I was instructed over the phone by his mom to get a stool sample from him, which I did, and then I had to drive the two crying and arguing boys to the emergency room with a plastic container of shit in my hand. And once I forgot to pick Caleb up at school. Enough said. He was good-natured and readily forgave me though and later I was not surprised when he was voted class humanitarian of the first grade. I hugged him tight and apologized one hundred times and he hugged me back but rolled his eyes and said, “You don’t have to hug me, jeez.”

Then there are the moms.

I love the moms. The moms give me whole-wheat rolls, mangoes, chicken, homemade Indian food, weights, jump ropes, toilet paper and cardio DVDs. One mom gave me three hundred dollars for a bike. One mom gave me an Ikea bed frame. The moms count calories and pawn junk food off on me. The moms come home drunk and can’t find their checkbooks. One mom came home, laid down on the floor, and told me she was wasted. She asked me about myself. “You moved here from New York? You’re so adaptable!” she said. “You’ve done more than I’ve done in my whole life! Do you blog about it?” The moms tell me they were in my position not too long ago. The moms tell me that babysitting is the best birth control in the world. They tell me they remember what it was like to have roommates. They tell me I can borrow any of their Anne Lamott and Pema Chödrön books and stay at their houses when they are away and watch On Demand TV. The moms usually overpay me. The mom’s have thousand dollar laundry chutes.

Here’s the thing about kids: they do not care if you have to go to the bathroom. They do not care if your head hurts. They do not care if you need to make a phone call, if you are starving, if you can’t find your wallet or your keys or if you are hung over. They do not care if you are experiencing the worst menstrual cramps of your life. They do not care if you are speeding and there is a cop behind you. You must be there for them. They are not there to be there for you.

It’s hard for me to have my shit together for the kids all the time.

The other boy I baby-sit on a regular basis is an energetic brown haired boy named Bradley. The first time I met him I said, hi Bradley, it’s nice to meet you.

“Hi,” he said, “I just got my hair cut, and she did not do what I asked her too, I’m gonna sue her.”

“Let me see.”

He whipped his hat off and he looked like John Travolta.

“It’s not that bad,” I told him.

“I asked for bangs and she did not give me bangs.”

“She just didn’t style it right. You gotta mess it up a little.”

“Mess it up? You’re a maniac!” he told me.

We were playing Star Wars one night and while crouched behind the couch, Nerf guns in hand, he looked at me and whispered, in earnest:

“I’m a cancer survivor.”

“You mean in the game?”

“No, in real life. I’m a cancer survivor.”

Later I spoke to his mom about it and she told me he was born with leukemia. Then she told me, “Bradley thinks you are more of a buddy then an authoritarian.” She didn’t sound happy about that.

Bradley and I are close. He was the only person to give me flowers for my birthday. He made me necklaces and gave me stones that he calls “gems.” We danced around to his Alvin and the Chipmunks CD, made up a secret handshake, and rode our bikes into town to get smoothies and play at the water park. His favorite toy were these things called bionicles, (which I’m still confused about—I guess they are a form of a robot created by LEGO.) I admired his creative mind—he could make up interesting games of pretend all day. But in every game, he would “win” out of no where, because he had an invisible gun, or I was standing in hot lava, or the ball was actually a bomb and it exploded while I was holding it. It’s grating after a while. The boys always want to win. If I didn’t let them win they’d get tears in their eyes: “It’s not fair!”

One spring afternoon Bradley told me he was in a force field and that it was impossible for me to “get him,” no matter what I did. He said this with complete pride, mockery.

“Then what am I supposed to do?” I asked, standing by the fence. I felt helpless.

“Well you still gotta try to get me. But remember—you’re part Godzilla, part zombie and part baby.”

“Okay.”

“So be it.”

“How?”

“Make grrrrr-ing noises and stuff.”

“Okay.”

I hated my job at that moment. It’s easier with the younger ones. I can give them candy or a piece of gum and boom, they are high on life. But the seven year olds are intense and it takes more effort. It takes being good at acting part Godzilla, part zombie, and part baby.

Eventually the game ended, and I think I’ve done well: I’ve made him laugh by growling and moaning and falling down and throwing rocks at the ground, walking with my arms out like a zombie and saying “goo-goo gah-gah.”

After dinner we went outside to have a pogo stick competition. All kids are narcissists, which makes my job easier, because all I have to do to get them excited is tell them that I will make a video of them, or take a picture of them on my phone, and that kills time pretty well. I can’t usually get more than three consecutive jumps on the pogo stick. He can get six.

“Can you make me a fruit and cheese plate?” he asked, in a good mood, because he won.

“Sure!”

Bradley and I sat on the couch and watched Tom and Jerry and ate cheddar cheese, apples and clementines. He moved close to me so that half of his body was on top of mine and during the funny parts he looked at me to make sure I laughed.

The boys never want to brush their teeth. Often they all say the same thing: “Imagine if I brushed my butt with this! Dare me? Dare me!” (The girls I baby-sit have mechanical toothbrushes that play a tune every few seconds—reminding you to brush your front teeth, then the side teeth, then the back teeth. They like to explain their toothbrushes to me. Show me them. Ask me what mine looks like. If it’s electric. It’s not. The disappointment is obvious.)

After he “brushed” his teeth, we went into his bedroom and he got all weird and self-conscious about his penis. He changed into his pajamas and I waited in the hall.

“Don’t look!”

“I am not looking.”

“Okay, fine, you can look.”

“I am not looking.”

To abide by his parents rule, we have to read two books, one each. He read If You Give A Pig A Pancake and I had to read Star Wars. I hate Star Wars so much. I just don’t understand it. There I said it. But that’s what he always chooses and I get so bored reading it. As though I am not even hearing myself when I read. But my mind is not anywhere else either. Just going through the motions. It’s weird.

My point is: I am so bored reading it, so I use the same tactic I do when I am bored reading anything, to entertain myself. I pretend I am on stage. So I start reading really theatrically, and he loves it. I mean he falls over himself laughing. The thing is, since I did that once, I now have to do it every time. “Can you do it in that funny way?” he’ll ask.

When I’d been babysitting Bradley for just under a year, we stopped getting along so well. It was a lot my fault. I got depressed, distracted, disengaged, the way I have in other relationships. When he wanted to play something, I made excuses, and when I did play, I half-assed it.

“You’re no fun anymore!”

It broke my heart.

One night at dinner he was acting particularly out of character—really rude and whiny.
“What is your problem lately?” I snapped from the sink.
“You have no idea how hard my life is!”

I walked over and pulled up a chair.

“What do you mean?”

“I have to clean up all the time. I have to vacuum after every meal. I have to buy my own LEGO sets. You don’t know what my mom is really like. If you lived with me, you would see what it’s like when you’re not here. My mom thinks I’m dumb. When I do some stuff, she doesn’t love me.”

“Your mom always loves you. I think maybe you are sick of being home with your mom all the time. School is starting soon, and you’ll have fun in second grade. I did.”

“I hate school. I just want to stay home all day and play with LEGOS and watch TV.”

I reminded him that he liked writing stories. He was always writing them in notebooks. I suggested he get a journal and write down his feelings about his mom in it, and he seemed satisfied with that.

I felt horrible for the kid. That image of him so distraught with tears falling into his plate of cold chicken nuggets stuck with me for days. I couldn’t believe how the relationship had changed and I remembered what it was like when I’d first started babysitting, the previous October. He liked me to lie with him until he could fall asleep.

“Can we talk?” he’d whisper, his head on my shoulder.

“For a minute,” I’d say, and he’d go into long detailed play-by-plays of what he’d seen on America’s Funniest Home Videos.

“What are you afraid of?” he asked me one night and then waited, listening.

The question hung for a minute, because I was trying to figure out how to be honest but also not scare him. All I could think of though, were extremes.

I didn’t want to tell him I am scared of a rapist or a murderer jumping out of an alley way and killing me each night, so I walk with my keys with one in between each finger and I feel safer that way, knowing I could punch them in the eye, though I don’t ever want to have to. I didn’t tell him that I’d just read The Highly Sensitive Person In Love and found out that I have a fear of engulfment. I didn’t tell him I’m scared of being poor forever. I didn’t tell him that every day when I ride my bike I am sure I am going to get hit. I didn’t tell him how afraid I am of my parents dying and how even though they are both relatively healthy, tears well to my eyes at the strangest of moments, while I am on the elliptical, making coffee or walking to the post office, and I envision myself having to fly home to my father’s funeral and it makes me want to crawl into a closet and bawl.

“Dogs,” I decided to say, half whispering. “I’m a little bit afraid of dogs.”

But he was off the subject already, propped up on his elbows saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” And he was talking about LEGOS in a language I’d never understand.

We lied there a little longer and his skinny leg was flung over my leg and as he was on his way to dreamland he mumbled, “You know what?”

“What?”

“I’m a little bit afraid of dogs too.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I really am.”

When his breaths deepened, I gently pried his head off of my shoulder and tried to sneak out of the bed in one swift yet quiet motion. I picked up my shoes and tiptoed down the hall.

The next morning I arrived for work at nine. Bradley answered the door, averted his eyes and said, “Hey man, what’s up?” acting like nothing happened—like we didn’t just lie together in a dark room telling one another our fears.

Just like a man would do.

A year later, I found myself telling Bradley I’d be moving back to New York. We were sharing a cup of strawberry gelato at an outdoor café.

“Why?”

“New York is where my family and friends are, and I miss them.”

“Fine. But you lied. You said you would stay in Seattle for a long time.”

I told him I was sorry if I said that and that sometimes things change. I told him we could write each other letters.

We walked home without talking. Bradley wanted to watch Animal Planet. The TV wasn’t working and he went behind it and started messing with the wires.

“Can you get out from there, please? You could get electrocuted.”

“Why do you always have to think of the worst thing that could happen?”

“Good point, I don’t know. I guess because you are not my kid, and I don’t want to tell your mom that you got electrocuted. Also, if you got electrocuted, I would die.”

“No you wouldn’t.”

“Well, my life would be over in a lot of ways.”

“Yeah. I’d miss me too,” he said, smiling.

At nine I told Bradley it was time for bed.

“Can I write?” He asked. “I keep a secret diary now, like you told me to. It’s so awesome. I have to write in it every night. I hide it from my mom. I keep it under the mattress on the bottom bunk. ”

I was touched, and told him that of course he could write, that I used to hide my diary from my mom under my mattress too, and to call me if he needed me.

An hour later, he yelled for me.

I went in.

“Remember how I told you I wanted to stay home and play LEGOS and watch TV all day?”

His eyes were glazed over, overtired and excited.

“Yeah.”

“I actually want to force my dad to make me a tree house, and I want to write stories and comics in it all day.”

“I think that sounds like a great idea. Listen, I’m not going to tell you to stop writing, but it’s ten at night and your parents are going to be home soon. So when they’re home shut off that light and pretend you’re sleeping.”

“I’m just going to write a few comics now.”

“Okay.”

“I might call you back up to show them to you.”

“Okay.”

But he didn’t. And at close to midnight I walked upstairs to peek in his room. Fast asleep. I was nervous as I lifted the mattress up a little and reached for his black diary with a brass lock that was not locked. I opened it and giggled at pictures he’d drawn of robots and aliens. Then I saw this:

The zoo and acwaream

After scool one time I went with my babysiter to the zoo it had cracadils. And snaks too. Evin a fuyuw zebras too. Than we went to the acwareum too. Had sharks. I lauv sharks a lat. And a lat of fish. I thot this might be a good goodby preysent. Il miss having her because I had a lot of fun with her. I hope she has a nice day at Nuwuawrk.

I put my hand over my mouth and almost started to cry. Then I tore the piece of paper from the diary, folded it in four, put it in my back jeans pocket and quietly walked downstairs to eat ice cream.

______________________
CHLOE CALDWELL’s collection of personal essays, Legs Get Led Astray, will be published by Future Tense Books in 2012. She’s most recently been published in PANK, Connotation Press and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. Her story, “That Was Called Love” was nominated for a 2010 Pushcart Prize and 2011 storySouth Million Award. She lives in upstate New York.