The Standishes lived a block away. The father was named Young Attorney of the Year; the mother enjoyed the Junior League and the Neiman Marcus makeup counter. They had two little girls, prim and pretty, and for a stretch of three years, I was their babysitter.
“Help yourself to whatever,” Mrs. Standish would say, slipping on a mink as she rushed toward the Mercedes idling in the driveway.
“I’m fine.” I would wave her off as she headed for the door. “I already ate.”
For the next few hours, I was an attentive babysitter. I bathed the girls and played with their Barbies and laughed at their jokes though they were never very funny. They went to bed at 8 p.m., at which point I began rooting around the house – digging into the refrigerator, the bathroom cabinet, the closets. See, while I did enjoy playing with the Standishes’ children, what I liked more was playing with the Standishes’ things. Especially the missus – her costume jewelry, her high-end makeup, her clothes in seductive, luxury fabrics. Eventually, I became curious about their expansive liquor cabinet as well. By the end of our three-year run, I was stealing vodka and measuring my diet by how Mrs. Standish’s leather pants fit.
It’s hard to remember when it started, how I became bold enough to do any of this. Because, at thirteen, I was the opposite of bold – shrinking, nothing but polite, save for the wicked interior monologues only given voice in personal diaries and fanciful, incomplete novels. I did wear an awful lot of makeup – even slept in the stuff – and so I wonder if the gateway was Mrs. Standish’s vanity. Maybe I peeked out of curiosity but couldn’t keep my hands off the stuff. All of it Chanel, candy colors hidden inside that glossy black lacquer: the little dome of sparkly peach-pink blush; the blue shadow smeared on with an index finger; the tarty red lip gloss thick as Vaseline. I would slather all of this on my face – regard its wild iridescence, regard the way I resembled a movie star (Kathleen Turner! No, a young Kim Basinger!) – only to wash it off, almost immediately afterward. I’d go downstairs and call a girlfriend. Or I’d stare at the food in the refrigerator like it was MTV.
During these years, I was on and off many diets. Some were self-made (the starvation diet) and some were pre-programmed (Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers), but the point is that food had become an epic preoccupation from which I sought any escape. The place I didn’t want to be – but the place I always wound up – was alone, calculating calories with the refrigerator door hanging open. How much for a slice of American cheese? How much for a tablespoon – okay, four – of peanut butter? Sometimes I’d just go straight for the good stuff: an endlessI guess a lot of this is just part of being a thirteen-year-old girl. supply of chocolate chip cookie dough in the freezer. I always made sure to eat a negligible amount. I always rewrapped each package so that it sat in the very place, at the very angle, where I had found it. The Standishes wouldn’t have cared if I had Hoovered their cupboard with a giant straw, but I didn’t want them knowing I’d taken anything. Not even a slice of Velveeta.
I guess a lot of this is just part of being a thirteen-year-old girl. So much feels wrong that you’re not sure what behaviors you should be hiding (lathering your skin with someone else’s high-end liquid foundation) and what behaviors you shouldn’t bother hiding at all (eating all the Triscuits). Once, I folded and buried an empty box in my purse so they wouldn’t find it in their trash. But for me, in particular, food was a subject larded with shame. It made me mental. I remember the Standishes had this gingerbread house one Christmas – the kind made with real gumdrops and icing – and I would drool over that thing. And eventually, I took a gumdrop and popped it in my mouth. And the next week, I took another, and the week after that I took two. And all winter long, I kept nibbling at it, one teensy bit at a time, until it looked like something the birds had eaten. But no one asked me about it. It was possible no one cared. Actually, it was possible no one noticed.