The Babysitter by Andrew Borneman
Andrew Borneman’s “The Babysitter” is the second-place winner of the 2023 CRAFT Hybrid Writing Contest, guest judged by Nicole McCarthy.
A breath held—an identity held back. Through sweeping year markers, “The Babysitter” moves us through time and explores the beauty and boundaries of female friendship, the complex growing pains of coming of age, and what being family actually means. Growing up, we are often shaped by what we witness and by those who take care of us, hopefully (but not always) with unquestionable love and acceptance. The narrator illuminates the experience of being accepted and supported by a mother-like figure, but not the actual mother, redefining what motherhood means and how it is accomplished. The heartbreaking divide of family builds through each section with skill as the narrator attempts to launch into an out and honest adulthood. At the end of the day, our truths remain things we hold close, but the family, as we ourselves define it, we hold closer. —Nicole McCarthy
“My memory serves me far too well.”
I’ve heard the story a hundred times.
Fourteen phone call attempts before my mother snagged my brother’s first babysitter, Sarah, a quick-witted high school sophomore. She showed up from marching band practice at age fifteen, already driving her mother’s Datsun, a two-door misshapen diesel that talked back to the driver: “key is in the ignition” or “lights are on.” As a toddler, my brother, Mark, greeted people over and over, and trussed a ropey yellow blanket around his body when he slept. If he slept. His frenetic energy matched Sarah’s. Their bond was immediate.
Before Martha and David returned on their first evening out without their first kid, Sarah tells me she ate all the ice cream, tried on my mother’s hard contact lenses, and pranked her neighbors, the Bullocks, a nearby family who walked around the house nude with the drapes open. In later months, she would have her boyfriend, Jeff, over to have sex on the floor of my parents’ bedroom. But Mark loved Sarah and she loved babysitting my brother. More than anything, though, Sarah loved my mother.
Sarah and my mother both owned add-a-bead necklaces and enjoyed the show Knots Landing. Sarah was taken with my mother’s wide perma-white smile. My mother never could help her ebullience, real or artificial. When Martha was five years old, she began to talk herself into photo opportunities. She likes to tell people who claim shyness that she chose extroversion and sweetness. My high school friend once fantasized a picture of my mother running out in the yard with a sunbonnet and a plate of cookies. My mother is the kind of woman who only ever shoplifted and smoked grass once. And she regrets both. Sarah might say she went back and back again to babysit, but really it was to see my mother more than my brother, and later, me.
My dad played endless golf when I was growing up and the clip-clop of his golf spikes is the most pressing memory, that and his wheel-skirted Oldsmobile tank. My brother and I didn’t have to wear seatbelts in that black steel beast, so we fought over who would squeeze in the small space above the back seat and next to the rear window.
What I remember more about my house growing up is the dust in sunlight that shattered across the floor in the morning. The quietness of no one speaking on days when resentment lingered like the smell of burnt food.
As Mark grew into a toddler and Martha dressed him in white Lacoste shirts and blue velcro Zips, Sarah spent more free time on Dorner Avenue, sometimes bringing over her brother Paul and their rottweiler, Schultz. By this time, Sarah felt Martha’s low-slung, pregnant belly and whispered to me in utero. Her boyfriend, Jeff, lived in a trailer in nearby working-class Euclid with his thirty-four-year-old mother, Ellen, still a child herself. Ellen bought Jeff and his friends stubby bottles of Red Dog and Barclay cigarettes. The teenagers partied, took quaaludes and black mollies. They skinny-dipped and listened to Heart. “Barracuda” and “Straight On.” Sarah confided in my mother and her parents came to resent the relationship between the two. In the months before she went off to Hanover College, Sarah spent all her time at our house babysitting and gazing upward at a giggling Martha.
My mother was always so gracious about sharing me with my babysitter once I was born.
Martha and Sarah lounged in our backyard late on Sunday afternoons drinking white wine while I slept in a bassinet as a newborn. Mark played in the flowers in one-piece rompers. Sarah loved us as her own. My dad golfed on Sundays, drank beer on the golf course, and played with Mark when he came home, still buzzed from having chiefed a few cigars. Like glossy pictures in family albums, a slow malaise emerged from block party cake walks, condensation on drinks with umbrellas, under broken lawn chairs, swerving tandem bikes, crashing Big Wheels, kids playing doctor in the shallow woods, and neighbors whispering behind low-spraying sprinklers over crooked hedges. These were imperfect games. Children on the verge of desperation like my brother and I, caught in the middle of a childhood fraught with slow-moving minutes.
Our basement flooded from an overflowing sink while my bottle heated on the stove. When my parents came home everyone worked together to staunch the wounds in the floors and ceilings where the water poured through to the basement. These kinds of stories endeared Sarah to everyone. Her nickname was Miss Piggy after the picture on her graphic T-shirt and her penchant for eating all the Graeter’s ice cream. Sarah and my mother grew closer, Martha teaching Sarah about the joys of paperbacks: The Drifters, Five Smooth Stones, and The Fountainhead.
For fun one Saturday, Sarah painted Mark’s fingernails. They fingerpainted paper. And then each other.
Sarah traded speed for acid at Hanover College. She treasured her heightened sensory moments, squeezing a soft and luscious green kiwi while considering the cold rigidity of a knife. Late on a summer day with liquid light, she and her roommate Andrea lay on a dock and played with angels that came swooping out of holes in the ether.
Gravitating toward adults as a child, I hoped to disappear in the darkness of the long evening shadows cast by angular bodies. I fought off the terror of solitude, yelling “no” when anyone spoke to me. Scary falling feelings inside. I carried a blue satchel full of treasures I called my “gold”: Matchbox cars, sticks, action figures, pyrite, and loose change. I wore a different hat each day from a costume trunk. A chameleon, I shapeshifted from cop to fireman to detective to boat captain and back again. I covered my head like I was hiding from the sky.
I was impatient to crawl out of my mother’s 1978 green Datsun station wagon, up the back steps and into the house. So impatient was I, in fact, that I relished the irony of the simple refusal ever to move in the first place. It seems like a long journey that might go on forever. I just sat there, slouching forward like a half-eaten muffin, still in my seatbelt. My mother yanked my left arm. “Come on, turtle,” she said, using my parents’ nickname for my slowness. I flailed and flapped to the left.
I was next on the living room floor, picking up the bruised, blue skin of my left arm with two pinching fingers of my right hand. The ER doctor concluded my mother, in her haste, unintentionally dislocated my elbow. I fell asleep on the X-ray table while she rubbed my head. I know Martha felt horrible, as though she were some kind of abusive mother.
So impatient for projects to end I never started them in the first place, so impatient for toys to get put away, I refused to clean them up. Impatient to clean up blocks, I picked one up at a time, knowing my brother or mom would swoop in and finish the task. They were their own kind of impatient.
Projects remain unstarted, projects that might never otherwise get finished. Lego piles insurmountable, candy uncollected on Halloween, friends unmade. I swung from trees fearing the ground I never fell on and people that never laughed at jokes I never told, laughs that never cracked the stillness of chilly air that didn’t bite my ears outside. Years later: Jobs I never applied to. Words unformed from a tongue, flat and unmoving. Lips sealed, breath held.
I slouched forward on a porch holding my mother’s hand while Sarah gave me a haircut in the August sun. U2 thumped in the background. My mother posed for pictures in a red striped apron. The clouds and the trees pressed upon us and I only noticed both women’s smiles, their perfect teeth. I wish I had reached down inside myself and seen that no one judged a child. The frenetic stove-top panic boiling over inside, pouring outward with staggered breaths.
The year my grandfather, Ben, died from a heart attack is also the year Sarah’s brother died from a quaalude seizure in Florida. I find these men in the past, in shadows, black corridors of memory, in dreams, in flooded sinks, antique metal toys, backyards of barking labradors, and in pant legs that created shadows for me to hide in. I recall Paul, his Roman nose, swept-back hair, army jacket, and contemplative sideways glances. I thought Ben would crawl out of his coffin at his funeral and bellow at me for not talking to him. One shoe propped on a Formica table to tie a shoe, ketchup on his eggs. Paul’s sparse, thoughtful words.
Later that year, Sarah became my godmother. She cut her hair short in mourning for her brother and wore all white at my belated baptism. I had red plaid shorts and grasped my mother’s hands above my head. As I stood on stage in the church, I repeated, “I will with God’s help.” In my company were other babies ready for the sacrament. The sleeping infants lay limp like sides of meat in butcher paper. I stood in front of two women who read morosely from prayer books. Less of a baptism and more of a confession, I felt punished with some kind of sacramental tardiness. I suffered from previously absent Christian blessings. Here was the genuine wrath of God, the stark necessity of prayer. I shrank as I stood there and felt dark wells in the back of my head and a throbbing throat. I said nothing. I hoped the white-robed priests would not lift me aloft and carry me down the aisle in gauche exultation. I stared at the many crucifixes hanging in the sanctuary. This: The year of the dead.
In the summer, I played with my gold on the pool deck and wore blow-up swimmy helpers in the pool. Sarah fell in love at her school with a blond model with feathered hair named Scott. Sarah found out she was pregnant while studying abroad at the Sorbonne. My mother helped her figure out where to go to get an abortion in France. With her feet high in stirrups, she thanked a God she didn’t believe in for Martha.
“You were born to be a mother, but not now,” my mother said.
Sarah ditched her exams at the Sorbonne for a younger, hungrier moment. With a Swiss passport, she gained surreptitious access first to East Berlin and then to Russia. Before perestroika was even a word, Sarah and her traveling friends sprinted onto a train as strangers gave chase.
Sarah’s cardboard figure stood high atop a Luxor Realty sign, selling Victorians and Tudors in Cleveland’s fashionable Shaker Heights. Mark and I visited her often in her local office. Sitting below her desk on the tips of her leather boots, I pilfered company stickers and letterhead from her filing cabinets. She wore heavy belts over textured fabric sweaters with severe haircuts. She consorted with champagne flutes, diamond rings, long cashmere scarves, and thin cigarettes.
Mark and I pounded the steps when Sarah came to the door at our house on Dorner. Martha’s hair was boyish, salt and pepper, and she favored big T-shirts and billowy shorts with canvas shoes and nautical designs. Both women stayed in the canned air and talked for hours, using big words I didn’t know, words like “commitment” and “independence.”
I always loved how Sarah talked to me like an adult. A gap languished between my depth of understanding and the practical world, but I thought I knew better when she told me about her dating life and complicated relationships with her parents. Sarah was always able to fill my own world with optimism. My mother’s job, in contrast, was that of the token realist, giving me the cold hard edges of the truth, or pointing out the places inside me it already lived. When my awkward limbs spilled food every time I ate, Sarah said offhandedly, “It’s just tie-dye.” When I was eight and struggling to make friends, my mother suggested I enroll in a course for socially awkward children. When I refused, she warned me I would stay behind my peers.
When Sarah came to visit, my mom prepped us like we were waiting for our birthdays, asking, “Does Sarah spoil you?” We greeted her at the door like a herd of cattle. Sarah’s world was one without rules, only dessert for dinner, dirty jokes, R-rated movies, not wearing your seatbelt, and drinking milk straight from the gallon jug.
I loved the true war movie Memphis Belle and saw it three times in the theater, once with Sarah on my ninth birthday. When a World War II air force navigator gets shot high above Germany, a poorly trained doctor takes care of him until the plane lands again in a British airfield. Eric Stoltz and Billy Zane play these characters. Only male actors are in the film. I wasn’t sure why I loved this movie so much, though I rented it dozens of times.
Fond of astrology, my mother reminds me about my Scorpio inclination for vengeance and retributive justice, but forgets about her own Pisces water sign ambivalence, love and hate all at once, ego and modesty. Perhaps I inherited a strong will from my mother, but this may be all we have in common. When I had to wear rec specs to protect a legally blind right eye, my mother told me I could say whatever I wanted to any bullies. I told all the nosy teachers it wasn’t any of their business. None of the playground third graders really cared. Sarah told me the Cincinnati Reds third baseman Chris Sabo wore rec specs so I was cool like him. That was the first time I cared about baseball.
Sarah’s lioness mane has always been her strength. She and I agreed years ago that hair is power. We both have thick, rich brown hair, like chocolate cake. One time she admonished a college friend for buying me the wrong sandwich from McDonald’s. “He doesn’t like cheeseburgers, he likes fish!” My mother’s lioness instinct took her tearing into classrooms for her children, sports fields, doctors’ offices, and the DMV. She thrived on conflict. Still does.
When I was homesick at sleepaway camp, I wrote letters asking for a rescue. Martha called my camp counselors, asking what was wrong. Sarah called my mom, suggesting I just leave. On this, they disagreed. In combat with each other, these women sparred in asynchronous warfare. My mother fires bullets. Sarah dodges them, takes cover, doesn’t fire back.
Sarah met a man in Texas named Joe, a businessman just self-disciplined enough not to get pudgy. I was sure he hated me because I fidgeted and made bad eye contact. He made me nervous. I sputtered my words. Sarah forgot to throw the flowers at her wedding. Mark cried hard when she tied the knot. Wept. I now know that in those years when she stayed like a big sister, he developed stronger feelings. When I saw her hair as power, he must’ve gushed over the scent, shape, and sound of her voice. Sexual beauty.
That was the year Mark’s Boy Scout manual first fascinated me. I read it over and over like a child does a Disney picture book. The first-aid section of my brother’s Boy Scout manual: all the laying of hands and bandaging. The sign of something I didn’t recognize. My dad said George Michael’s gayness was a shame because he was good-looking but when he spoke “it made you want to puke.” I often wondered what about speaking made someone gay. The puking part had already been reinforced for years.
In a snowy corner of Philadelphia, Billy Harrington, a cousin I don’t know, dies. He is a poet. A travel agent. Was. He writes from a bed deep inside Exodus, New England’s first center of conversion therapy, before he dies that he came out of the “homosexual lifestyle” as he was dying. Billy also found drug and alcohol recovery. My father lied and told us he died of cancer. I learned the real truth about AIDS years later.
The first time I saw my father cry was in the movie Philadelphia. The movie is about a gay man named Andrew who dies of AIDS.
Smoky parking lots and chick flicks. You’re officially different from Martha, a combination of Drew Barrymore, Molly Ringwald, and Jodie Foster. Safety filled the corners of the November evening and melted like shining Wonka bars when I finally said it. I was scared no one would believe me if I said I liked boys better than girls. I only had you, not my blood. This is not yet something for Martha. I said it, so it’s real now. I collapsed inside of myself, a quick snap of the fingers, so no one could see me. Swish.
- Dear Mom,
I was raised straight but I don’t think I am. Sarah was the only one who listened.
- Do you know how homosexuals have sex? This is not what I wanted for my son. One day someone will put their hand on your leg and say just trust me.
- He would have had no one else to tell, so scared of retribution. I couldn’t tell you.
- Everyone doesn’t have to cry. This revelation is about me, my life. Not about the friendship of two women.
You have to allow me time to grieve.
Boys in showers I wasn’t watching. Sports I wasn’t playing. Lunches I wasn’t eating. Friends I didn’t have.
Mom and Sarah stopped speaking. Mom said Sarah stole this thing from her, this right as a mother. I saw her devastated face and I knew. Sarah validated me in ways Mom never would. Martha said Sarah should have told her.
Cigarettes are delicious when I drink. Smoking them is rhythmic. I can drive now. Martha’s SUV through rain with beer in the back whenever I want. She’s just happy I have friends. With all the windows down and all the people, it still doesn’t smell like Marlboros. 2 a.m. Sarah lives on Orchard now. I measure out my life in weekend days and pages of books and cigarettes and beers. When I’m alone I scream in a mirror and plan for the minutes a few minutes from now. People might be mean to me tomorrow. I wasn’t ready to tell anyone.
A shadow in an X-ray could be anything. Hormone replacement in menopause was the wrong pill. Cells crowd each other. No contact inhibition. The word is “carcinoma,” like a roller coaster or a coiffed French pastry, a rare wine, a postwar poet. Bald and then puking, a green triangle over white enamel, then begging me to stop smoking. Her neck veins guttered down into her chest and skin shriveled around her middle, her skin graying, sutured from lost organs. College is writing like this, yeah, sure. My own stolen pills like stolen moments just so I could count beers and remember the number. I licked my cracked-out lips at all the boys, boys, boys. The panic simmered, rushing through me. Nothingness with a turbo engine. It feels like tripping on acid. All. The. Time. I used to slow down but I was still impatient. Free-falling inside me.
Sarah had one baby and then another. Marianne was born with Down’s syndrome. Seth looked like me. Martha wouldn’t forgive. The land and sky from the northward turned green and then orange and dipped down like a muscly tongue from the heavens and licked around a sylvan cabin in the country. I fled one woman to visit another. My mother went to the cabin once just to say I still am angry you never told me. I was a man now though. Age twenty-three. Hair sprouted fully from my chest as I rose well above six-foot-three. My midsection thickened from too much drinking, and I often forgot to shave. I was fond of T-shirts. Almost always Birkenstocks. Tender spots like childish bruises falling off a bike. This war put me in the middle for years and it hurt. Dad and I can talk about drinking but not girls.
In July I learned my dad was sick again after concealing it the first time. Complications from prostate cancer. Radiation was weakening his resolve. His bones creaked with tumors. Three weeks later he was dead. Object permanence is an odd phenomenon to golden retrievers and toddlers. A person or object appears and remains in place even if the baby or dog leaves or moves. Similarly, we expect a person to remain in the same place from one day to the next. All evidence points to permanence. Reading glasses and sweaters remain draped on a sofa. My father’s quirky paper arrangement on his card table in his office remained, as did the dirty clothes in the hamper and his unmistakable smell, his Post-it Notes stuck on inanimate objects, the bathroom door left ajar, one Top-Sider turned sideways. In his last moment a single tear escaped his eye before his limp body drooped a little in the bed.
I helped myself to his mayonnaise-sized jar of painkillers and was thoroughly doped when I gave the eulogy.
To Sarah, Martha said, “All is forgiven. Forgotten.”
Sarah said, “Maybe for you.”
The night an ambulance came for me I thought something should change.
Drinks I don’t take are delicious.
These two women speak to each other now. Not the salad days of white wine and paperbacks, but still with me in common.
I think I can finally go on some dates.
“Hi Andrew. I like you.”
“Yeah? I like me too.”
Metastatic cancer. Stage 4. Stomach and lymph nodes. Immunotherapy. What do the cells look like as they bulge outward like cauliflower? Inside a shrinking stomach panic chafes like thighs and food churns, sizzling with bile. Malignancy is a woman’s private war.
Martha asks Sarah, “Please don’t ever leave Andrew.”
Sarah says, “I swore to God in a church I wouldn’t.”
I wonder what it means to be a woman, to exist in that body, to have breasts and to lose them, to bear a child and share him with another. A woman must gauge the advances of men. How does she define, desire, and carry it between her hips and bear it on her shoulders, press it against her lips, pick it up, clench it with both hands? I imagine the angularity of a chin and flick of hair, the regularity of blood. The colors teal, pewter, puce, fuchsia; do these belong to my godmother, these feminine tones? They remind me of her Datsun, her bedroom, her apartments, her chairs, armoire, her shoes, offices, pillows, aging mother, the moment an infectious giggle turns to a cackle.
My mother loves her birthday, Mother’s Day, Christmas. When she tells people not to give her presents, she lies. She sees beauty so much in the flowers of her garden she may well turn into one. Like Narcissus. She loves the oaky resolve of the eternal Katharine Hepburn and stalwart Bette Davis. Sarah admires striking introverts like Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, and Cher. The long-haired actresses simmer humility while remaining unafraid of their own dark exuberance. These women are most powerful in their shadows.
I spend my time not drinking wine, with my own paperbacks. Alone in my Baltimore rowhouse. Teaching in a classroom made only for boys. I long for the impersonations of Meryl Streep, how she disappears into characters, like wind that folds back on itself. Only the character, the art, the beauty, remains, when in a breath, the woman herself, is gone.
ANDREW BORNEMAN is a teacher and college counselor at an independent school in Baltimore. His short story “The Storm” won the Henry-York Steiner first-place award for short fiction at Grinnell College in 2003. He will begin his MFA in fiction and creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts in July 2023. Find him on Twitter @AndrewBorneman1 and Instagram @andrewborneman.
Featured image by Sebastien Le Derout, courtesy of Unsplash.