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When I was fourteen I babysat for a couple with three gorgeous kids, two girls and a boy. The kids’ mother was a ballerina. She was petite and muscular. The kids’ father seemed to me like a bear, he was so much bigger than her. And because there was something foreboding about him. I imagined he contained a dark forest inside his skin. He was handsome, though. The few times he was the one to relay instructions to me about dinner and bedtime while the kids’ mother finished getting ready behind their closed bedroom door, I couldn’t look him in the eye.
I didn’t know much back then, but I knew the couple was drunk when they returned late at night. They had a ragged sloppiness about them, like clothes wrinkled from sitting too long in the dryer. How late, I don’t remember now, only that they stayed out much later than my parents ever did. If my parents went out, it was for chicken fried steak and a movie. They were in bed by ten.
When the couple returned, the kids’ father handed me a wad of crumpled dollar bills. I was grossly underpaid. A bargain, my friend Steph called me. The family she babysat for lived in a house with ceilings so high she couldn’t reach them with a broomstick. Two kids versus the three in my charge, but her hourly rate was three times what the Elliots paid me.
I put up with it because I told myself they wouldn’t be able to afford dates if it weren’t for me. Their house was small. Some of the tiles had come up in the kitchen. Every room looked like an unfinished craft project.
Also, I was frugal. Scolded my younger siblings when they begged our mother for toys at the store. Got scolded by her in return because our mother was not frugal. Years later, after my parents divorced, she would blow through her half of their savings within two years, despite having a full-time job and no health problems or other financial impediments.
I put up with it too because I was timid and eager to please, thus easy to take advantage of, which is to say I wasn’t a particularly good babysitter. The Elliots got what they paid for.
The kids’ father always drove me home. The kids’ mother muttered thank you, then disappeared into their bedroom. The glow that had been in her cheeks on the way out the door was dulled and hardened when they walked back in.
Without a word, he would hold the front door for me, just as he had for her some hours earlier.
The drive wasn’t far—a couple miles. Still, he never said a word about how maybe he shouldn’t drive me home, how maybe he’d had too much to drink.
Of course, I could have said something. I could have called and woke my father to tell him to come get me. But I didn’t. Just like how a few years later, I wouldn’t speak up in so many other circumstances involving men who would make me feel as small and inconsequential as a gnat. As that bear of a man drove in silence, as though he were alone, I felt so much smaller than his ballerina wife, smaller even than his children. In reality, I was taller than all of them, but I didn’t own my height. I didn’t own anything about my body other than my shame at being the kind of girl no one gave a damn about, not even a man with alcohol on his breath, nothing but crumpled ones in his pocket.