Since my first post was all about how I’ve gotten involved in this Eating My Heroes book project with Rick Bass, I thought I should rewind and write something about how I decided to apply to MFA programs in the first place. But then I got sucked into a 30 Rock rerun black hole. So, instead, I thought I’d share a short story from my collection that, sort of, sums up how I
got fired, ended a relationship and lost my mind came to recommit myself to creative writing two years ago.
To poorly quote the wise and beautiful nerd, Liz Lemon: sometimes before things get better, you have to climb down into the darkness, sell someone your life rights and write the script for the porn version of your life. This reference would make more sense if you’d spent the last several days watching old episodes of 30 Rock. Whatever. Read on and climb down into the crevasse with me.
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How To Be a Nanny
A Story by Cristina Perachio
Get fired from your nine to five job but tell everyone you got laid off. Walk home with a box full of desk supplies and birthday cards in a misty rain. Feel like a wet newspaper.
Collect unemployment and feel guilty about it. Lie to your parents because you know it doesn’t really matter, they will think it is because you are too smart or too pretty and would never believe you were just a bad employee.
Realize your Bachelor’s degree qualifies you for almost no jobs. Vow never to waitress again. Start biting your lips, picking your skin, peeling your cuticles. Dip into savings. Eat a lot of Chinese takeout. Watch MTV docu-drama marathons that make your problem seem manageable. At least I’m not addicted to eating Comet, you think. At least I’m not in a suicide cult. At least my internet boyfriend isn’t secretly an obese old woman who hoards ferrets.
Decide to apply to graduate school. The less practical the program, the better. Then you can get away with not finding another traditional job so you can “make space” to work on your “art.” Possible suggestions include: painting, writing, sculpture, graphic design. Other possible non-academic endeavors include: yoga instructor, doula, holistic healer certification programs, or really, anything with apprenticeship in the title.
Spend your days in coffee shops with a notebook or computer to feel productive. Pay in quarters. Flirt with the barista. Wear tight-fitting yoga clothes and lipstick like the young stay-at-home wives who craft and volunteer. Eye the stay-at-home mothers like aliens whose, language you can’t speak.
Compliment the one with the blonde braid, thick as a sailor’s rope, on her attractive toddler. He is dressed like an old man with a little sweater vest over a dress shirt (the collar matted with drool), pleated khakis, ironic orange Converse sneakers that could fit in a large soup spoon. Wonder how she met her rich husband. Wonder why you never thought to spend any time at all looking for a rich husband while you were in college.
Look busy. Stall going home. Say no, thank you, through a gritted smile when the barista asks if he can get you anything else for the third time. Sit by the window and let the sun dry your hair all day. When you get home, even when you get in bed that night, you smell like French roast.
Change nothing about your lifestyle. Go broke. Meet for a drink with an old friend from high school who is moving to New York to act or be a cater waiter. She’s a nanny and her family needs a replacement and are you interested in meeting and what do you charge? Get bold and say $20 an hour because this is the city and you have a college degree. After all, you’re going to be saving their child’s life on a daily basis, not delivering a pizza.
Tell your family. Use the word temporary. Tell them how few hours and how much money. Tell them how the kid will nap for several hours a day and you’ll do homework. Tell them it’s perfect. They will seem nervous but supportive you’ve found something to help pay your rent, mostly because they are worried in your fragile state, you’re susceptible to taking a job as a cocktail waitress or joining a suicide cult. Smile and nod. Your grandfather will tell you that nannying is for foreigners and retards. Laugh weakly.
Never work for a single-parent family unless they are a doctor, lawyer or widow. Never take jobs as a mother’s helper or in a situation where one parent can “pop home” at any moment. They will always pop home the one time you turn the television on and it just happens to be a Jerry Springer paternity test episode, or when you let the kid have a Tootsie Pop so he’ll stop crying or the dog just lifted his leg and peed on the baby’s head. Never twins, never more than one child and never over age four. Never agree to also do “light housework,” walk dogs, grocery shop or, really, any non-child related job — you’re a nanny, not an indentured servant.
The laid back families will allow you to eat your way through the fridge, freezer and pantry. They’ll encourage it. Make yourself at home, they’ll smile and wave as they hurry out the door to their spinning classes, drinks with childless friends, jobs for non-profits. But they will come home late and not call, they will come home drunk, bleary-eyed on date nights and want to chat about their wasted youth. They will “forget” to take out cash.
Target nerds, squares with clean, nine to five professions. Government jobs. Insurance agents. Auditors. Their houses will be tidy and sparse, artless. Their children, quiet and well-behaved. Nervous couples who will pay. They want to see your CPR card. The child is already on a strict schedule and please don’t divert from it because it confuses him (but they mean confuses us.) They ask you not to spank and you say, of course not. But still discipline whenever necessary and you say, of course. The word discipline is said at a hush, leaning forward, like making a racist joke.
Mom is a serious person with a vicious smile and prematurely gray hair. It ages her and you want to tell her so. Maybe no one has told her. Dad has close set eyes and a twitchy habit of twiddling his thumbs like a bored cartoon character. He keeps pressing his lips together as if to hide a smile; he nods along with squinted eyes as his wife rattles off every neighborhood park and playground within a five-mile radius. You are relieved he isn’t attractive.
When she crosses her leg so does he. When she clears her throat he does the same. They sigh and lean forward together to shake your hand, it’s a deal see you Monday, in the same awkward, stilted manner. You imagine them tap dancing in sync, the Charleston, walk-like-an-Egyptian.
They will ask you to provide your own meals and please, we’d prefer if you didn’t snack on our food. This seems absurd and you can’t hide the look on your face. All jobs have perks. The main perk of childcare are snacks. And cable television. Fancy all-natural and high end beauty products stacked in the master bath. Cheese sticks, day time soaps or reality TV about loaded housewives, Dior perfume and a scoop of Amazonian clay mud mask.
There are ways around this rule, you learn. Stay away from any special foods or treats like pudding cups, popsicles individually packaged cookies. Moms are likely to count these and older children are likely to tattle. Bites from blocks of orange cheddar, spoonfuls of peanut butter, the kids’ leftovers and anything healthy; these will go undetected by busy parents and will save you money on meals. This will make you feel smart, like how your mom says it, and frugal.
Show up the first day and don’t be surprised when Mom says, she’s going to stick around for a few hours. So little Riley or Emersyn or Georgia can get comfortable with you. Because there’s nothing that makes a kid more comfortable than playing with a stranger under the watchful eye of their mother.
Sit cross-legged on an expensive looking shaggy rug with crayon and Cheerios smashed into it. Be afraid to touch anything. Sweat when Mom asks you to please remember to take off your shoes. Be hyper aware of the sharp corners on the reclaimed wood coffee table, the sippy cup of milk laying on its side and leaking into the bamboo floors, notice the child has some of his breakfast crusted on his nose and cheeks.
The parents never want to upset the child, so he often has food on his face. He doesn’t like having his nose wiped. He doesn’t like when his bagels are cold. He doesn’t like lunch. He doesn’t like to nap but I bet he’ll nap for you, she says with a flat line mouth and eyebrows raised. There will be lots of things like this and you have to navigate with a gentle care.
He doesn’t eat sweet potatoes for her but he will for you. She warns you he’s taken to rolling or bicycling his legs while she tries to change his diaper. You say, yes, you’ve noticed but, really he lies wide-eyed and motionless.
You start and he is still on the bottle once a day, then baby food that makes you gag when you mix it up in the little glass jar. Spinach, Peas and Pears. Turkey Dinner. Chicken and Apricot Risotto. Even seasonal fare: Green Bean Casserole, Cinnamon Pumpkin Apple. Feel anxious, the way he’s always sucking on his fingers when there’s still food in his mouth. It makes little green or brown webs between his fingers. Try to get him to stop. You’re wiping him down with wet towels while he’s still eating. Try to leave him be with an orange mustache, always pulling green puree through his hair, smearing the colors together.
Not yet walking and just babbling, always babbling big, long vowel sounds. His voice imitating the meter and tone of the adults around him with a language of his own. Sometimes he makes the same sound over and over, almost like “no” in the same lilting way, again and again. It makes you think of the awful sounds cats would make each spring, fornicating behind your parent’s house. Almost like a crying infant until you realize the way the tone doesn’t change.
Get used to things you wish you’d never gotten used to. The way baby food smells on the way out, kind of sweet and sour and still too much the way it smelled going in. Your nannying clothes (you’ll have designated a few outfits by now) will always smell like drool and Johnson & Johnson products. A pinched nerve from favoring your left hip to balance the baby, so you have your right hand free to warm bottles, will make you feel older than you are.
The child plays with the books on his parent’s shelf. He pulls the hardbacks out by the top corners of their spines, like he’s hoping to find a secret passageway. He plays with anything but his toys that are scattered around the floor, hidden in crates all over, tucked in the couch cushions, squirreled away in the basement turned playroom. Big cardboard boxes make tunnels; he likes when they unfold and fall down and you have to rescue him. He likes when you pretend it takes you a minute to realize. Sometimes he fake coughs to get your attention and you wonder how he learned something like that.
Television remotes, iPod chargers, alarm clocks, pulling at the yellow and white cable cords, knocking the phone off the table with the swat of a dimpled hand. The moment you take a phone call or turn your back to him to sign for a package, he’s sticking his little half moon fingernails into electrical sockets and you’re saying, Jesus Christ, and scooping him up and he is startled like he really did get a shock. Your heart will race for the rest of the day and try to hide the look on your face like you almost killed her kid when Mom finally gets home at half past five.
Get comfortable. Nap when he naps like mothers are supposed to. Bring the baby monitor outside with you and drink instant coffee on the front step. Take solace in small pleasures like the feeling of cold, squishy, just unfrozen strawberries as you slice them into quarters. Or the taste of a single slice of white American cheese, not quite salty, not quite sweet, a definite plasticity to it. Admire the way you cut his food in perfect little squares, arranged neatly on his tray in a gradient. Wonder if this is what is meant by “mom brain.” This is your brain, this is your brain on babies.
Understand why people resent their kids. Wonder how parents get anything done at all in this city. Want to die when you stop in the cafe for just the quickest moment while he’s sleeping only to have him wailing while you fumble with your change. Want to flip off the customers eyeing you with pity or, worse, anger. No one helps you with the door and you use the front stroller tire to exit.
Figure out the best time to run errands is right after a meal, before a nap. The baby looks drunk in the stroller. Run errands: grocery shop, the post office, the drug store. Feel a thrill when you think of getting paid to do these things. Take your time picking out a lemon, bringing it to your nose and smelling the rind like cut grass, while he drools, asleep.
Sometimes say thank you when strangers compliment his big blue eyes or gap toothed smile. Sometimes correct and say, oh, he’s not mine. I’m just the nanny. Make this very clear when in earshot of attractive males.
Watch a mother ogle him and then you and then back at him, as you push him on the swings. Then, with concern and curiosity, “He’s just so much fairer than you are.” Just say, oh yes and then later think of all the things you should have said. His father is albino. Oh, he’s not mine, I kidnapped him. I just found him here in this swing. He’s adopted. He was created in a lab. I’m barren. Run away crying.
You’re always finding Cheerios in your pockets, falling out of your shoes, stuck to your skin like hitchhikers. Cheerios get the two of you through the long nine and a half hour days. If you put a whole box out for the kid, like a dog, you’re convinced he’d eat them all not realizing when he’s full. A handful of Cheerios can distract him from a bump on the head, buys you time to write a few emails, occupies him in public when a pre-nap meltdown is imminent. He has different techniques to eating them and you study him like an alien. Sometimes, with great care, he picks them up one at a time and places them on the end of his tongue like holy communion. Other times, he takes a big handful, puts his whole fist in his mouth and drops about half down his shirt, you guess, for later.
Winter comes and you don’t know what to do with him. You both get stir crazy. He starts getting this look in his eye like you’re supposed to entertain him, his own personal jester. He’s taken to playing the heating grate in the kitchen like a seizure inducing musical instrument. He’s taken to biting your foot or knee to get your attention and laughing maniacally. Sometimes he just lies down on the carpet face down, not moving, and you wonder if he’s trying to scare the shit out of you. It works. The more worked up you get, the harder he laughs. Respect him for his sick sense of humor.
Start going to story time at the library at his mother’s request. You and the kid will both be overwhelmed by the number of babies and mommies crammed into one room. Feel kindred with him for the first time, he’s got a real personality, just as anxious as you are. Feel like an outsider. Think of your own parents who always seemed to be just on the outskirts of the swim team parents, the dance parents, the piano lesson parents. Make a note to yourself to call your parents.
Neither of you know any of the songs or games orchestrated by Miss Lindsay, who looks exactly like what librarians always look like, just younger. She’s got her glasses on a gold chain. She’s wearing the wrong bra size so the straps keeps falling down. She keeps tripping on the hem of her brown corduroys. The kid keeps looking at you like, is this for real? You try to convey to him with a shrug that this is what his mother wants us to do to get him acclimated with other children. He won’t let you put him down on the carpet, clinging to you like you might leave him there with all those overzealous mothers singing along to “No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed” or “I’m a Little Cuckoo Clock.”
You can tell which parents are there more for themselves — to get out of the house, to put on real clothes, to have a conversation with another adult — and which are there for the kids. They are singing along with big smiles, using infants like marionettes, their wobbling heads roll along with their helpless, unfocused gaze. Avoid eye contact with these types. Plan an escape route. Show up a minute or so after the start time so your stroller doesn’t get double-parked in. Learn this the hard way and almost have a panic attack trying to retrieve the stroller from the maze of several dozen like a life-size game of Tetris.
A group of nannies you keep running into at the library and the park take an interest in you. They are older and from Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Uruguay, India. They have grown children of their own. They all have the shape of grandmothers even if they are younger. Big soft curves, bosoms to nap on, hips wide to cling to. They are affectionate with their charges but blood chillingly strict. When they scold their kids, you find that you straighten up and keep quiet too.
Discipline, all-natural cures for every ailment imaginable, and employer horror stories are usual topics of conversation. It is hard to get a word in but you like to listen. They sneak all the kids hard candies, caramels, gum; forbidden treats, to prolong our conversations.
They ask you why you’re doing this job. They shake their heads, who hired you? Mom or Dad? They all laugh before you can answer. You laugh too. They advise you to be cold but cordial to the fathers. They tell you not to get too comfortable. They say five years can go by like that, with a snap. They say the longer you stay, the harder it is to leave, but you don’t believe them. Most have been fired because someone thought they stole. Some have been deported. Some are here alone, their families still in their native country. They all have a son about your age who is a nice looking boy with a good government job. Single. They all have daughters they miss with hair or smiles like yours. Every day you show up at the park they roll their eyes, oh lord, you’re still here? They laugh. We hope not to see you tomorrow.