I felt more general hopefulness about starting graduate school than I had felt about practically anything I had ever done before.
With a few weeks to go, to make a little money before school started, I put up a notice on the local café bulletin board, on Balboa Island near Newport Beach. I’d just finished three years of teaching elementary school, and I figured babysitting would be a breeze. After a couple of days, I received a call from a mother who lived just a few blocks over from my new tiny studio apartment, on a street named for a jewel—Pearl, maybe, or Emerald.
I walked over in the gorgeous blue-skied morning at about ten o’clock, asked her absolutely nothing about her kids, answered all two of her questions, said everything would be fine, and she, with slumped shoulders and head down, ran off to run errands in some kind of hurry.
She had two children, boys: a baby and a 5-year-old. I suggested we go to the nearby beach and realized uncomfortably only while walking over that I had never babysat for an actual baby before. I chatted up the bright-faced 5-year-old, in the hopes that he could help a bit.
At the beach, the baby patted a shovel in the sand happily. Boats and kayaks skimmed the bay. We all seemed to be getting along fine, but ten minutes in, the older boy’s face soured and he raised up one of his shoes and threw it into the water. “Ha!” he said, in a taunting voice. “Will you get that?” I asked. The shoe bobbed along, pushed and batted by the light waves. He threw in his other shoe. I gave him a reprimanding look, but he just laughed.
After a few minutes, I left the baby in the sand, rolled up my pants, and ran in to retrieve the shoes. The boy was running around the beach, squawking and making faces at me. He had been my ally just minutes ago. “I’m counting to three,” I said. Or, “This is not acceptable.” Or, “Looks like I’ll have to tell your mother.” He stuck out his tongue and ran away. A murmur of fear rustled through me.
Back at the house for lunch, the brother pointed out to me that the baby needed a diaper change. In the side room, I changed and wiped with inexperienced hands. The older boy began making some kind of muttering noise in the kitchen; I didn’t like the sound of it. I had baby poop on my fingers, but I stepped out of the changing area, the baby safe but starting to cry on the table, and peeked in. The boy was standing at the kitchen counter, lifting knives in and out of the knife block. “Hey!” I said sharply. The baby wailed. Panic rose in spikes inside me. The boy turned around and laughed. Then he reached back into the knife block, pulled out the sharpest chef’s knife, and pointed it right at me.
“Put that down!” I said. The baby was screaming now. The boy placed the knife on the counter, coyly, but stood by it. Something had turned, and I didn’t feel safe; I washed my hands fast, put the knife block in a high cabinet, and called his mother. It had been maybe two hours of a scheduled five. The baby was still crying on the changing table, and I grabbed him and held him close, the diaper too loose, the odor of poop still hovering in the air, and we stood in the kitchen, wide-eyed, watching as the older boy cowered and grinned in a corner by the dishwasher. I wanted desperately to leave.
When the mother finally came home, the boy ran and hugged her leg, and she confessed in a low voice that he was on medication for behavioral problems and she had experimented, that morning, with taking him off it. “I’m really sorry,” she said. “I just thought it was worth a try.”