Last week I drove Elliot the 5-year-old boy I nanny for, and his friend Thomas to kindergarten. A country song was on the radio about a guy who swears this one girl knew how sexy her jean shorts were when she cut them like that. He absolutely has to get to know her, even though he knows she knows she's seducing him.
Pop country lyrics depict the quality of life I dream of having -- cherry cokes, salacious kissing, monogamous carpenters -- and do not. I listen to it only in secret but will include Elliot because when he asks what we're listening to I say Elvis, or The Tame Impala. He does't know the difference, but if he ever decides to tell his parents what we listen to -- for whatever aimless reasons kids decide to tell people anything -- then his parents won't have to consider firing me.
As the verse crept back out from the chorus I could hear the two boys talking, two little bodies buckled into car seats, carving out the beginning of the worlds for themselves. Thomas asked a declarative question, 'Don't you hate all babysitters?'
Elliot, perhaps under the spell of a voice he'd understood to be Neil Young's, replied 'No, I love her.'
He loves me? Is he sure?
Being a professional nanny is a kind of ridiculous satire for a girl raised by a single dad who provided annual showings of Lord of the Flies for his children ages 7-12, treating it as a 'what not to do' manual for when he would eventually give us steak knives during fights with each other.
'Go ahead, kill each other' he'd say. Reddened with impatience, hoping we'd recall how alone Ralph felt at the end of the movie.
Continuing our way to school, I wondered why Elliot didn't chalk me up as just a person who doesn't let him cheat at Stratego. At my best I offer him a game of frisbee or tell a story pretending to be a clumsy bird or sudden gust of wind that comes by and knocks him from the couch. After a beat for timing I ask why he's on the floor.
'You pushed me down here,' and then, 'do it again.'
Some days I hug him, and any feelings of affection are interfered by my biggest concern which is whether it looks natural or not.
Yesterday I worked in the evening for a routine that includes preparing dinner, bathtime and putting Elliot and his almost 3 year old sister Lucy to bed. When I walked in Elliot asked what was on my shirt. I looked down -- it was Iron Maiden's insignia with a zombie in a straight jacket and chains around his ankles, blood pouring from where the top of his skull had been taken off.
'Well, it's a zombie in a mental hospital.'
Later Lucy asked if on the back of my shirt was a picture of a salad. I swapped her attention, asking what was on her own t-shirt which, without question, was a polar bear confirmed by the word 'Alaska'. I got home later unsurprised to find, not a salad, but a human brain on a platter of vegetables with two swords laid across.
Lucy's favorite game is where she presses her tongue to the side of her mouth, impersonating a defunct lizard. Clutching the heels of her feet with one hand, I drag her across the hardwood floors and sorely mutter that I can't remember where the graveyard is. We do our best to stay in character, and I secretly collect her giggles like coins.
Having a job that's effectiveness is measured basically in maternal aptitude, the most integral component of femininity, asked me to examine my own fraudulent sense of womanhood.
In 1995 my period came. Within days, the confidence that I wasn't dying in my underwear finally began to mount. I learned to start using the bathroom at my neighbor's and fill my pockets with her mom's maxi pads. Asking my dad to buy them wasn't even considered as an option. It would have been less uncomfortable to say that my development had reversed and I started needing to wear diapers again.
At 17 I had my driver's license, which thankfully meant having my own feminine protection, and I worked at the beach as an ice cream scooper. Four days a week I made a decision -- to quit my job, or to show up and listen to my co-workers talk about their vaginas. The word 'orgasm' would issue from their mouths with gross entitlement. Subtly, I'd curl in toward my lap, my face strained with casualness. As if what was inside my shorts, actually, was an electric saw.
These days, as an adult, one enters my apartment and find its decoration tender and ladylike. And eventually it becomes very obvious the touch is not necessarily that of a woman but rather anyone who's seen episodes of Little House on the Prairie where they spend time in Nellie's bedroom. The truth is, my apartment is where I come home, take off my pants and hang them on my wall from a hook.
Last night I settled beside Elliot in the green chair next to his bed. Lucy fell asleep with her head resting on the ill-starred zombie, and California peeled itself away from the sun once again, in a path just barely different from the one it had taken the night before.
I read a book called Dogs in the Dead of Night from one of Elliot's favorite series', where Jack and Annie rescue a dog in the Swiss Alps named Barry by becoming St. Bernards. At the end of the book, when the magic is through and Annie has to say goodbye to Barry, I began to cry. Elliot looked up at the new, halting sounds of the words. My eyes shifted, sweeping tears back behind them.
'Dana, it's ok to be sad' he said, with a voice that was infinite.
Yes, he was right. That is love.