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.
It struck me that the Standishes had a disregard, or at least a casualness, about consumer goods that my family did not. The Standishes were rich; my family was middle-class in a upscale neighborhood, which, anyone who’s seen John Hughes movies knows, feels a lot like being poor. I went to school with twelve-year-old girls who wore mink coats and carried $300 Louis Vuitton purses, and when my mother bought me a fake fur coat at a resale shop and gently suggested a Louis Vuitton knock-off, this felt like the biggest injustice in the world. I was a babysitter with too much free time on her hands, a giant two-story house to roam, and the clock ticking at $6 an hour. I guess I felt I was owed something. And, not surprisingly, I started to shoplift around this time. Just little things – mostly Wet N Wild makeup at Eckerd’s, gummi bears at the candy store. And I would go into dress shops in the mall and ask to try on their most expensive gowns. I looked older than I was, so they believed me when I told them I was going to prom. Once I put a dress on hold and never returned. I actually did plan to buy it, though I’m not sure if that makes me sound any more reasonable.
Mrs. Standish, being a well-to-do, beautiful woman (with a striking resemblance to Saturday Night Live‘s Jan Hooks, if you remember her), had a closetful of fun for the teenage girl dying to play dress-up. Some of it was too fussy for my taste – high-collared silks and brocade vests and cashmere cowl necks – but she had a few racy numbers. The size-six leather pants, of course. A pair of knee-high patent leather boots (in red!). I didn’t wear her clothes often, but when I did they gave me not only a thrill, but also a comfort. I wonder if this is what cross-dressers feel. The bolt of electricity you get from discovering that – finally – the person staring back in the mirror isn’t just your boring old self.
At this point, I would like to point out that, despite my many indiscretions, I was not a snoop, and I was not a perv. Yes, I stuck my nose where I shouldn’t have, but it wasn’t to find secrets or get dirt on the Standishes, whom I genuinely liked. Some of my friends, fellow babysitters, were terrible snoops, and they had sordid tales of porno tapes and Valium and infidelities. All the makings of Cinemax at Night. Meanwhile, it was years before I realized the tiny white skullcap in the bathroom cabinet was a diaphragm. I couldn’t have cared less about the Standishes’ sex lives; I had a different purpose in mind. I was some kind of pathological borrower of lives. I could have been the roommate who takes your clothes without asking. I could have been the friend who gets the same haircut as you. Instead, I was a babysitter with too much free time on her hands, a giant two-story house to roam, and the clock ticking at $6 an hour.
But then, I started drinking. And that’s when I really got brazen. I mean, drinking is probably the part of this story most people will understand – oh, of course, teenagers drink! – but it’s the part of this story that I totally knew it was wrong. And I did it anyway, and I didn’t care. makes me feel the worst. Because until that point, it was almost innocent. Weird, creepy, but innocent, almost as if I didn’t know any better. When I started stealing booze, I did know better. I totally knew it was wrong. And I did it anyway, and I didn’t care. I started with a few airplane bottles from a collection near the wet bar. Then I started stirring Vodka into my orange juice while the kids slept upstairs. Eventually, I was bringing empty mason jars (mason jars!) to fill with rum and tequila, which they kept in these ginormous bottles even a Kennedy couldn’t dent. It bothers me now that I never felt an ounce of guilt. Was I simply that bratty and entitled? These people were paying for me to take care of their children, and I went home with twelve ounces of Bacardi weighing down my purse.
What I don’t know, what I never knew, was: are all babysitters like this? I don’t mean to ask if all babysitters prance about in your clothes and swill your booze – obviously not – but do they all come into your home dragging around these private little insanities? Do you notice, do you sense, do you even care? If the kids are safe and the house is still standing, maybe it’s all part of the bargain.