At age thirteen I got my first babysitting job. I had turned thirteen literally the day before and was still tired from the late-night shenanigans and drama of my birthday slumber party. I showed up to my neighbor’s house in a wrinkled t-shirt and shorts and couldn’t go more than a minute or two without yawning.
Still, my next door neighbors thought it would be a fine idea to trust this sleep-deprived barely-teenager with their two daughters for the evening. Lisa was not much younger than I was and required little supervision. But Gretchen, on the other hand, was four. A magical age, if by “magical” you mean “so difficult to deal with that even experienced parents on their third child can’t control these little fuckers.”
Before the parents left, they gave me three instructions:
1) Make popcorn for the girls
2) Watch a movie with them
3) The parents’ bedroom was off limits
Of course the second her Mom and Dad were gone, Gretchen went straight for their room with the zeal of a One Direction fan. That room was the ultimate forbidden fruit in Gretchen’s young mind and she would not rest until she had tasted its sweet juices.
I raced to the door and managed to block the little girl’s frenzied attempts to propel herself through it. With my back against the door, I insisted through a fake smile that Gretchen’s parents had said that she wasn’t allowed in their room.
Gretchen replied to this with an emphatic no.
“Gretchen, your parents told me right before they left that you girls aren’t allowed in there. You were there.”
“NO. NO NO NO NO NO NO!!!!”
My argument was more sophisticated, but Gretchen’s stubborn will made up for what she lacked in logic. Eventually the enthusiastic promise of a movie and popcorn convinced Gretchen to cease ramming her tiny body into my midsection. Lisa coaxed her sister into playing dolls in the playroom while I made popcorn.
Considering my other failings of the evening, I would like to point out that I handled my responsibility of making popcorn with aplomb. I made the shit out of that popcorn. I took it out of the microwave long before it burned and even drizzled some melted butter on top. I brought the popcorn to the girls’ bedroom, popped in the movie, and all appeared to be going according to plan for about fifteen minutes.
Then Gretchen announced that she had to go to the bathroom. Her true villainous intent should have been apparent to me. But I was a brand new teenager running on forty-five minutes of sleep, so I let Gretchen go. It wasn’t until five minutes later that I realized my mistake.
I left Lisa watching the movie and raced down the steps, all the while mentally damning Gretchen’s parents and their stupid, stupid rule. If they wanted to keep their children out of their room so badly, they should have put a goddamned lock on the door. My heart lurched when I saw the parents’ bedroom door gaping open. I’d been running before but now I tiptoed down the hallway in dread. Images of silk pillows bleeding feathers and expensive vases reduced to mosaic-making supplies crowded my mind.
So I was relieved to find the room pristine when I reached it. Gretchen stood in front of her parents’ bed with a look of dazzled awe on her face. Luckily it seemed she had gone to the bathroom, and therefore hadn’t had time to do anything but bask in the glow of her victory. Now all I needed to do was get Gretchen the hell out before she caused any damage. I stepped into her Mom and Dad’s room—though technically I was pretty sure I wasn’t allowed in there any more than Gretchen was. My subsequent conversation with Gretchen went something like this:
Me: Gretchen, you know you’re not allowed in here. Don’t you want to see more of the movie?
Gretchen (crosses her arms): No!
Me: Gretchen, you’re not allowed to be here.
Gretchen: But I am here.
Me (genuinely stumped by this for a second): Yes, but you’re not supposed to be.
Gretchen (sits on the ground): Let’s play!
Me: Gretchen, we can’t play in here!
Gretchen: Why not? I want to play in here! I want to play in here NOW!!
Me (sensing the “you’re not allowed” tack just isn’t going to work): There’s a monster in the closet!
Gretchen: No, there isn’t.
Me: Oh yes there is. That’s why your parents don’t want you in here. They’re trying to protect you.
Me: Gretchen, get up. (She does not.) Listen, I know there’s a monster. I knew the family who lived in this house before you. The parents left after the monster ate their daughters. All the parents found were the little girls’ bones in their closet, licked clean.
Gretchen: (wide-eyed silence)
Gretchen: (wide-eyed silence)
Gretchen: (an hour’s worth of uncontrollable sobbing)
I learned a valuable lesson that day: Scary stories should not include flesh-eating monsters until the kid you are telling them to is at least seven. Four-year-olds take such stories far too seriously. Gretchen was convinced that her parents had been all that stood between her and this grisly fate. Now that her parents were gone, we were most certainly, certainly doomed.
“But I can protect you,” I assured her, near tears myself. There is really nothing worse than watching a four-year-old girl weep with such abandon and knowing that you’re the one who made it happen. “I eat monsters like him for breakfast!”
In response to this, Gretchen only cried louder. It seemed that she did not have much confidence in my monster ass-kicking skills.
So I stood tall, took a deep breath, and went back into her parents’ room. I stomped around and knocked awkwardly on the wall in an attempt to simulate the noises of a monster fight. But since I was afraid to move anything for fear that Gretchen’s parents would realize I had been in their room, the result was what must have sounded like the wimpiest monster fight ever.
Still, Gretchen looked up at me hopefully when I walked out of the room five minutes later. “Did you get him?”
“I got him,” I confirmed.
I was afraid Gretchen would ask me more questions—like, had I killed him or merely subdued him? Because if I said I killed him, then Gretchen would think it was fine to go prancing right back into her parents’ room. But if I said I had just knocked the monster out Gretchen would start freaking out again.
Luckily she didn’t ask me any questions. She just gave me a tight hug and said a heartfelt “thank you.” Gretchen was a pain in my ass that night. But I can’t help but remember her fondly when I think of all the adorable that she managed to pack into that hug.
Gretchen still wanted to play rather than watch the movie, so after checking on Lisa I went outside with Gretchen into the backyard. I wasn’t sure why the little girl had wanted to come outside—there was nothing but a set of two swings out there. It wasn’t even a legitimate swing set; it was made entirely of plastic.
Gretchen dragged me by the hand to these swings. She hadn’t been overly fond of me at first, but my role of Monster Vanquisher had earned me the second title of Very Best Friend Ever.
“Do you want me to push you on the swings?” I asked.
“No,” she replied. “I want you to swing with me!”
I looked warily at the swing set. It had been designed with children of Gretchen’s size in mind, not mine. “I don’t think I’ll fit.”
Gretchen’s tiny lips twitched this way and that. “But, but, I want you to swing with me. I want you to swing with me NOW.”
After an hour of her deafening cries, I was not at all ready for round two. So I plopped down in the swing beside her and hoped for the best. It took about a minute and a half of swinging for the swing’s plastic chain to break, which Gretchen found hilarious.
“Haha, you’re too fat!” she taunted.
Actually, you know what, scratch what I said earlier about remembering that little bitch fondly.
I panicked as Gretchen continued to laugh. Now I can clearly see that leaving the swing alone and explaining what had happened to Gretchen’s parents would have been the wise way to react to this situation.
That is not what I did.
What I did was go inside, fetch a roll of duct tape, and attempt to “fix” the swing. Once I had soldered the orange plastic chain back together with a super-obvious wad of duct tape, I brought Gretchen back inside. Her parents arrived home shortly afterward and when they asked how everything had gone, I smiled wide and said, “Fine.” I accepted my payment and marched out the door with nary a mention of monsters or the swing that I had destroyed.
My first babysitting job was also, coincidentally, my last babysitting job.