Blood defines family--but not always in the way you think.
"OK?" Cami's father stood in the doorway of her room. She rolled over and facedthe wall. "Is it the babysitter? I've arranged for a new one," he explained. Cami lay still. "Is it school?" he asked. No answer. "Cami?"
"It's everything," she said to the wall.
It was moving. It was leaving her friends. It was her father's stupid job. It was having to tell people, tell them all over again, that it was only the two of them--Cami and her father.
Her full name, Camilla, was her mother's legacy to her. That, and the burden of trying to explain being motherless everywhere they went. It was easier to say "divorce" or "plane crash" than to tell people what her father had told her: "She was young , Cami. And you were so little. She found being a mother harder than anything in the world." Her father's explanation to her would be unbelievable to others. She thought it seemed unbelievable to him.
On a day in that reluctant spring, on her first day at another new school, Cami's fourth grade teacher introduced her. "Class, this is Camilla," she announced to snickers. "It's Cami," Cami corrected, but the horrid utterance had already begun to circulate like a fart in church, and it swirled above her head. She felt like an oddity--a weird one-parented girl in a land of judgmental, perfect pre-teens.
He sat on her bed and rubbed the back of her neck. She liked it, resented it, wished she was older, wished he would leave her alone, wished she could lie in bed with him like she did when she was younger.
"It's going to be all right," he said. "Give it some time." Her father smelled good, like the cologne samples in magazines. She could not stay mad at him.
"There's someone new coming over tomorrow after school." He stroked her hair and she lay still, facing the wall. "I'm leaving work early to pick you up so we can meet her when she gets here. OK?" She didn't answer.
"OK?" he said into the back of her neck, leaning on her and tickling her ribs. She squirmed and rolled over facing him, and as hard as she tried, she could not keep from smiling.
"Good," he said.
"Can I stay after school by myself when I'm thirteen?" she called to him as he left.
"We'll see," he answered.
Every babysitter Cami's father hired was met with Cami's extreme disapproval. She hated them, she told him. They smoked, they stank, they talked on the phone for hours, they snooped through the house; she could be very convincing.
But this time, when the new babysitter arrived, Cami did not have to roll her eyes, pinch her nose, stick her finger down her throat or do any of the other things that brought that panicked look to her father's face; it happened as soon as he opened the door. He stood there, looking nervous and incompetent, while the new girl stared down at him.
Perhaps it was because she was taller. Perhaps it was the shirt she wore that exposed the gold hoop that pierced her belly button. Perhaps it was her extra-wide pant legs and the psychedelic, crocheted bag that hung over her shoulder. The new girl smiled broadly, and Cami's father stuck out his hand.
"You're Kate," he said. Not a question, or an exclamation, but more a bewildered statement--the way you might react if you caught your grandmother smoking pot. The face did not match the name.
"That's me," she said and turned to Cami.
"This is Cami," her father said.
"Cool name." Kate nodded in approval at them both.
Cami could see her father's apprehension abating then, and knew he would be going back to work, leaving her with this '70s girl. Good reasons to hate her were starting to congeal in her mind.
"OK," he said, like he was about to divulge a big secret. "I'm leaving." He scanned their faces for comprehension. "Any problems, my number is on the fridge." This was standard; the number hung there under a banana-shaped magnet as it did for all the other babysitters. "Gotta go." He leaned down and kissed Cami, who stood rigid, unreciprocating.
As was her practice, she went directly to her room. She said she was going to do homework, which meant "don't bother me." Normally, she would lie in her bed, doodling in her text books, listening to the noise of the TV coming from the living room, and the cupboard doors opening and closing in the kitchen. Cami felt babysitters had an innate ability to find potato chips in any house and always helped themselves. Having someone strange in the house, watching her TV, eating her chips, talking on her phone, and ignoring her just like she wanted--these things bothered her. She was thankful it was only for a few hours after school, and that her father felt enough guilty about it not to venture far in the evenings or on the weekends without her.
When Cami and her father watched television at night, he sat on the couch, and she would sometimes sit on the floor with her back resting against his legs. He flipped through catalogs and asked her which curtains matched which bedspreads, holding the catalog in front of her face and blocking her view of the TV. (The furniture they moved from their apartment looked almost like doll house furniture in the house's large rooms.) "I don't know," she would say, and change channels indiscriminately.
Sometimes she would catch him staring at her, then say to him: "What?"
"Nothing," would be his surprised answer, snapping from his gaze. "Just looking at a monkey," and chase her with his tickle-ready fingers.
Sometimes he just sat there looking defeated and lonely. In those instances, Cami could say or do nothing that would help, for if she could, she would have done so for herself. When he was not home she took the catalog to her room; not to look at the furniture and drapes and towels that her father struggled to choose, but at the women, deciding which were the prettiest, and which, if any, looked like her, had her round cheeks and wide, dark eyes.
"Are you hungry?" Kate said and came into and Cami's room. Cami sat up. "No," she said. She scrutinized Kate as she wandered about the room browsing through Cami's things. Kate's hair was straight and hung down her back. She parted it somewhat in the middle, but really in no particular place, and kept sweeping errant strands behind her ears. Her ears were pierced in several places, and earrings hung around them like seats on a Ferris wheel, dangling hypnotically.
Cami could see that her "no" had not registered. Kate moved over to her bureau and picked up a magazine. "You like these guys?" she asked and turned the picture of the band on the cover in Cami's direction. They were Cami's favorite. "They're OK," Cami said.
Kate put the magazine back and surveyed the room. "Where's your mom?" she asked. "Working too?"
If Cami had been a cat, she would have scratched her, would have run up her leg and clawed her belly, and maybe hooked a claw into that bellybutton ring. Cami's eyes narrowed to slits and her lips were thin and pale. But, as she always did when she was asked, she said, "It's only my dad and me."
"That's cool," Kate said and looked neither surprised nor sympathetic. Everything was cool. Cami was getting a little tired of cool. Kate sat on her bed, and Cami pulled her knees in to her chest. "So, what do you want to do?" Kate asked her.
Cami shrugged and inched back toward the wall, bracing her knees with her arms.
"Do you want to listen to some music? Do you have any CDs?"
"A few," Cami said reluctantly, "in the living room."
Her cat arched against the wall near the door. Cami watched Kate bend down and pick up the cat on her way out of the room. "What's her name?" she asked.
"It's Tiger, and it's a he," she snapped. "He'll scratch you," she said, more hopeful than cautionary, and watched her hold up the surprised cat under the front legs like a baby, rubbing noses with it. "Pretty Tiger," Kate cooed, then tucked the cat under her arm and rubbed its head. The cat's tail flicked wildly against her exposed lower back as she carried it down the hall.
Babysitters should eat chips, lie on the couch, talk on the phone, and not bug her. That is what they should do, Cami decided. Not come into her room, ask a bunch of nosy questions and pick up her cat. And why did she have so many earrings? What, two weren't enough?
Cami thought about how many times she asked her father to allow her to get her ears pierced. "Someday," he would say, not really trying to put her off, she thought, just not knowing that it was important to her; a girl thing, a growing up thing. He frowned when they went shopping, and smiled helplessly at the clerks as Cami coaxed and pleaded him to buy her what she wanted; not the cute sweaters with the animals or cartoon characters on them, but clothes like other girls wore--girls like the ones in her school, the girls with earrings, the girls who talked to boys, the ones who turned and giggled when "Camilla" spread through the room like a gas.
And like a strange, nauseous gas itself, music spread from down the hall into her room. It wasn't one of her CDs--it was something new. Cami went to see what her new and nonconforming babysitter was doing.
"Your dad has some really old ones here," Kate said as she pulsed in front of the record player, holding an album up for Cami to see. The cover had three men with hair as long as a woman's and neatly cut beards--The Bee Gees, it said. Her cat stood in the middle of the room looking defensive.
"I didn't know that worked," Cami said, nodding toward the record player. Kate's shoulders dipped with the music and her hips moved back and forth, and Cami watched the ring wriggle as her bellybutton puckered and winked in rhythm. Kate's head bobbed as she read the words on the album cover.
Cami moved closer to see exactly how many records her father had. She knelt and pulled some from the drawer below the turntable. They were light and flimsy with faded pictures of strange looking groups on the front. She was kneeling close to Kate and watched her pant legs billow and her painted toes tap on the floor. She smelled faintly of cigarette smoke, and of fruit. It was her hair, Cami thought. Apples.
"Do you smoke?" Cami asked.
Kate said "No," and Cami stared at her in disbelief.
The records were of little curiosity to Cami; only their number and that they were probably older than she was. She stuffed them back into their slots. When she stood, she was looking directly into Kate's skewered navel. Kate caught her staring.
"Do you like it?" Kate asked, and flipped the ring up and down with a casual finger.
She did not know what to say, and remembered the time she saw a woman breast-feeding her baby on a bench at the mall, and how uncomfortable she looked.
"Did it hurt?" she asked
"A little," Kate answered and smiled and put on another record.
"Does it come out?"
"Yeah," she said, "do you want to see?"
Cami shook her head to say no, but "Yes" came from her mouth.
Kate undid the clasp on the ring and slid it from the tiny holes in her navel. The little wounds looked neither sore nor grotesque as Cami had expected. Kate slid the ring back in with ease; first in one tiny hole, then out the other, then fastened it. "See," she said.
Kate played records and cooked some fries and fish sticks in the oven--her specialty, she joked. Cami followed her in and out of the kitchen and living room, keeping her distance, acting nonchalant, and stifling the questions that filled her mind. She sat on the couch eating (she was hungry after all), and watched Kate reel to the music, alive in it. The couch felt new and the room felt different to Cami. In the waning light of the afternoon, in the odd scratchy beat of another era, being that close to a babysitter for that long, it felt like a different house.
Her father looked too surprised to smile when she told him that things went OK. "So it's OK that she comes back?" he asked her. Cami shrugged. She brushed her teeth while her father leaned against the bathroom door, staring at her with his glassed-over gaze.
Toothpaste frothed down her chin. "She was playing your records," she said, expecting somehow it might be a bad thing, since the records were obviously something sacred, something she had never seen or heard. "And I think she smokes." Her habitual resentment resurfaced.
"My records?" he said and wiped her face with a towel. "Did you like them?" he asked her, smiling. "No," she said, "they were weird." This was to be his punishment for not being upset with Kate.
He kissed her on the forehead and swept her hair back when she got into bed. She could see his face soften. And as she lay there for a long time, unable to fall asleep, she pinched her bellybutton and her earlobes as hard as she could, just to see how much it hurt. She heard scratchy music coming from the living room, records and a life she never knew her father had. She fell asleep trying to picture her father when his records were new, when he was younger, happier, dancing to that music, holding a woman and whispering into her round cheeks.
In the morning she asked again.
No. Please? Cami. Please? No. Why not? You're too young. But... Cami. Please? No. Please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please? Cami, you don't need your ears pierced. Wait 'til you're older. When will that be? Soon.
In the heat of the spring sun, the tulips that had kept themselves a secret under the snow since Cami and her father moved there pressed through the warming soil and basked next to the front of their house. Thanks to the spring rain and spring sun, things grew.
Cami's curiosity grew.
How old are you? Does your father let you stay out late? How late? Do you keep a diary? I think I'll keep a diary. Do you have a lot of friends? What are their names? Are they all seventeen too? Do you like school? How old were you when you started wearing a bra? I think I should get one. My dad gets weird when I ask him. Do you have a phone in your room? Really? Cool! Do you think I should let my hair grow? When people kiss on TV are they doing it for real? I think it would be cool to be on TV. Do you? Cool.
Cami told her father: "Kate knows lots of stuff."
"I bet she does," he said.
"She said she was nine when she got her ears pierced."
"Yeah. And she says that people on TV really are kissing, but they don't mean it. And she said she was ten when she got a bra. Do you think I should get one?"
"I don't know. Isn't it almost time for bed?"
"Don't you think Kate is cool?"
"Yeah. She said she would take me to get my ears pierced if you said it was OK. So, can I?"
"Please." She said it only once.
"Great," she squealed and scampered to her room, picking up the cat in the hall before it had time to get away.
Cami was not nervous. She trusted Kate and felt the feeling was mutual, since she promised not tell her dad that they spent the money he had given them on a bra and not on ear piercing. Cami held the tiny blue box in her hand as she twisted in front of the mirror to see if the outline of her new bra was noticeable through each and every shirt she owned. She held the little gold studs up to her ears to see how they looked--studs Kate had given her, ones Kate had worn when she was ten. Cami was not nervous. She reassured herself aloud. She trusted Kate. Not nervous at all. Kate promised that it would not hurt much. Kate said she pierced her own once. Cami pinched her lobes. "I'm almost ready," she could hear Kate calling from the kitchen. She pinched them harder and her fingernails left her earlobes red and with crescent shaped indentations. Her cat was nowhere to be seen.
"Are you sure you want me to do this?" Kate appeared in the doorway of Cami's room and caught her by surprise. Cami was wearing the tie-dyed shirt Kate made for her. She turned in the mirror, examining her newly accentuated physique. "You can hardly see it," Kate said and grinned uncontrollably.
"Really?" Cami said. She was disappointed.
"Things are ready," Kate said. "Why are your ears so red?"
"Uhm...because...this isn't going to hurt, right? You said it wouldn't." Cami covered her ears.
"I said it will a little," Kate said. "You don't have to do it..."
"I want to. Will it bleed?"
"A little. Are you sure?"
"And you'll have to take care of them so they don't get infected."
Cami nodded again.
Water boiled in a pot on the stove, and some alcohol and a bar of soap were on the counter. Cami sat on a stool near the sink. Kate took the earrings from the box and put them in the boiling water along with a pin she took from her bag. She gave Cami two ice cubes and told her to squeeze her earlobe between them. Cami did, the ice melted, and water ran down her arm. She watched Kate intensely and began to sweat and itch in her new bra. The ice burned her fingers and ear, and she was sure it was going to be painful.
"Keep holding it," Kate said and fished the needle and earrings out of the pot with a spoon and doused them with the alcohol. Kate took the ice cubes from Cami and swabbed her ear with the alcohol. She held a bar of soap behind Cami's ear and stretched the lobe over it and held it in place with her thumb. "Hold still," was all the warning she gave before Cami felt the pinch of the needle and the little gold studs sliding into place.
"Go and have a look," Kate said, and Cami scampered to the bathroom mirror. She lightly touched the stud, and waggled her earlobe with her finger, and was impressed at her own durability and pluck. A speck of blood formed behind the gold, but she didn't mind. She ran back to the kitchen where Kate returned the needle to the boiling water.
"It looks good, doesn't it?" She pulled back her hair and cocked her head.
"Very nice," Kate said, "now let's do the other."
"It did hurt some," Cami said, "but not too bad." Her face glowed. "You're good at this."
"Thanks. You did great too. Hold these," and she pressed ice to Cami's other ear.
It was like Christmas, and Kate was like Santa. That was how Cami felt. She was getting exactly what she wanted and she could not wait for her father to get home. She did not mind the cold water dripping down her arm.
The phone rang. "Tell Dad that I can't come to the phone. Tell him I'm doing homework. No. Tell him I'm in the bathroom." Water pooled on the floor.
Kate answered. "Hello? Oh, hi. Not much. Piercing Cami's ears. Yes, really." Cami's face plummeted. "I'll ask her. OK. Tomorrow. OK. I'm sure he won't mind--he seems really nice. OK. Me too. Bye."
"Why did you tell him?" Cami accused her, "I thought..."
"That was Derrick, not your father."
"Derrick? Who's Derrick?"
"My boyfriend. Are you ready?"
Boyfriend, Cami thought. Kate took the ice from her ears. Cami had questions to ask. How old was he? What does he look like? How long had they been dating? Does he call her all the time? Why hadn't she mentioned it before? "Ouch!" And with the prick of the pin, the questions stopped swirling, and her ears had matching holes.
Cami went from the mirror in her room to the mirror in the bathroom, back and forth, twisting and changing clothes, looking at her ears and her bra, and how it all looked together while Kate put everything away. Cami sat on the couch and tried to think of something more mature to talk about with Kate; after all, they did have things in common now, she thought--two anyway, or four, depending on how you counted them. But Kate was practicing lines for a play and was not chatty. Cami paced and modeled and fidgeted and touched her ears until her father came home.
When he arrived, she pranced before him, holding her hair back and turning her head from side to side, showing him both shining studs with a speck of dried blood behind each.
"They're beautiful," he said, "very mature." He looked relieved.
"And..." Cami said, twisting on the balls of her feet and thrusting out her chest.
"And what?" he said.
When Cami turned her back (she hoped her bra was more noticeable from that angle), Kate plucked at her own strap for him to notice.
His relieved look deserted him. "Oh, yes... a new... ah, a bra... it's very... ah... new."
The end of the school year drew nearer; the sun stayed longer after supper and etched long shadows across the lawn. The tulips, spring's first adornment, withered next to the house. The cat slept in the picture window, absorbing the sun in its orange fur. Cami's ears were almost completely healed. Kate studied a lot and rehearsed lines for her play. Derrick watched wrestling on TV.
Derrick was cool, too, Cami thought, or at least he acted that way in spite of the pimples on his forehead and cheeks. He would arrive at the house after school, and although Cami's father had given unenthusiastic consent, Derrick always left before Cami's father got home from work. Cami liked the flag Derrick had sewn over a hole in the seat of his ripped jeans. And she was beginning to consider his very faint mustache to be not as hilarious as she did the first time she saw it. The first thing Kate did was advise him not to smoke in the house.
The first day he was there, Cami walked into the room and they separated quickly and Kate's face turned crimson.
"Were you guys kissing?" Cami asked, trying to act like she'd seen it all before and that nothing surprised her.
"I was just smelling her hair," Derrick said and grinned foolishly.
"Yeah, right," Cami said and tilted her head giving him her how-dumb-do-you-think-I-am look. "Kiss her all you want. I don't care." She tried to act indifferent, but, in reality, was never far from them while he was there.
She felt older just being around them, sublimely absorbing the intricacies of courtship. Kate laughed differently at the things Derrick did and said, different from the way she laughed at Cami. When she laughed at Derrick, she would lean into him and he would put a casual arm around her or a hand on her bare lower back. Cami thought that was why he tried to act funny more often, especially if Kate was standing close to him. Cami noticed that Kate sat sideways on the couch to study, and tucked her feet under Derrick's legs as he watched TV, as if her painted toes were cold. To Cami, that closeness seemed effortless and natural and a lifetime away.
"Are you going to get married someday and have kids?" she asked them one night.
Derrick never looked from the TV. "Not if she's going to college, we're not," he answered.
That night at supper, Derrick drank a beer from the fridge, and Kate got mad. Pretty mad, Cami guessed, since Kate sat on the floor while Derrick sulked on the couch.
Out of allegiance, there was something Cami found not so likable about Derrick. Kate's knitted eyebrows and pursed lips confirmed it. There was something ugly about the ripening pimples on his face, something repulsive and dirty about the way he flicked ashes on the front step. There was something extremely annoying about the way he monopolized the remote control.
Cami broke the silence. "Is that all you like? Stupid wrestling?"
He did not respond immediately. He was sitting there, she thought, trying to come up with something funny to say; something stupid to make Kate laugh and make her want to sit next to him.
"What? You don't like the Hulkster?" he said as he jumped up and put a wriggling Cami in a pretend head lock. His belt buckle hooked her earring. When she tried to pull away, it felt as though the gold stud had ripped off her ear. Cami screamed and clutched the side of her head. Derrick froze.
When Kate rushed to her side, and knelt and took her head in her hands, Cami could smell her--apples and ink. Kate's hands were smooth and gentle as she turned her head to inspect the damage. "It's OK, Cami. It's not ripped. It's OK."
"Hey. It was an accident," he said. "Don't be such a baby."
"Derrick--you're an asshole." Kate's face was hard.
Cami's ear throbbed and her confusion swelled. She did not want to cry in front of them--to be a baby. She wanted to run to her room and cry into her pillow; she knew her sobs were muffled there, and her tears absorbed. She wanted to run over and kick Derrick in the shins, and throw her hissing cat in his face. She wanted Kate to let go of her arm so she could run from them to her room. She wanted Kate to use both arms and hold her--tightly--and not let her go. Cami stood there, wincing as she touched her bleeding ear with fingers covered in her salty tears.
With her thumb, Kate swept a tear from Cami's cheek. "Are you OK?" Cami nodded and sniffed. Kate smiled gently and in her soft, even voice said: "With eyes so brown, I was expecting brown tears," and she showed Cami her wet and shining thumb.
How far away was college? Will you come home on weekends? Are you still going to go out with Derrick? Will there be a phone in your room there? How much does it cost to send a letter there? Can you come home for my birthday? Cami wanted to know all these things and more, but did not ask. And she thought she had finished crying; that is, until Kate hugged her and she started again--woeful sobs, and plump, streaming tears. Kate's earrings hung like the seats on a Ferris wheel, jingling in Cami's ear like chimes in a summer's apple-scented breeze.
When the curtain came down on Kate, the audience applauded the resurrected unicorn and her chorus of bowing animals. Cami and her father rushed home--Kate was coming from the play to their house to babysit, and Cami wanted to make a card for her before she got there. Cami could still hear the applause as she her father hurried across the parking lot to their car. They passed Derrick. He was leaning against the auditorium, with the glowing ember of his cigarette casting an orange light into his squinting and evasive eyes.
On a piece of colored paper she drew a unicorn: Kate, the unicorn. She drew the white and blue ribbons that were curled into Kate's hair and floated and danced in the air when she leapt around the stage. She drew the flowing white dress Kate wore, and showed its silky layers fluttering behind a prancing and carefree unicorn. She drew the glittering spiral horn that grew from her head, and she drew the audience in front of the stage that stood and applauded the star. She drew herself, applauding among the appreciative, stating proudly to the stranger seated beside her, that the unicorn, the star, was her babysitter.
When Kate arrived, Cami was already in her pajamas with the card she made in hand. Were you nervous? Did you see me clapping? Did you sign any autographs? Can I stay up late? There is no school tomorrow. We can make popcorn. Did you save the horn?
Kate was still in her costume and glittering makeup sparkled blue and gold across her cheeks. Her horn was missing and she soberly held her bag over her shoulder. Her smile was bright, but brief when Cami gave her the card: The Best Babysitter.
Cami's father left a number where he could be reached before he left.
Kate made popcorn and they sat on the couch watching the news. Kate never changed from her flowing white dress, and the blue and white ribbons entwined in her hair hung over her shoulder. She answered Cami's questions with little enthusiasm until eventually Cami struggled to stay awake, and her chatter slowed.
"When are you leaving for college?" Cami asked, leaning her head on Kate's shoulder, preparing to close her eyes.
"Next month," was Kate's answer.
To that, Cami said only, "Oh." Her cat rubbed itself across Kate's legs, then jumped up and curled by the arm rest, purring.
Kate placed a pillow on her lap. Cami laid her head there and looked up, fading from consciousness. The blue and gold sparkles on Kate's cheeks glittered like the heavens, and her earrings hung like the planets in the tails of shooting stars that were the ribbons in her hair. Cami's limp body twitched occasionally in opposition to sleep, but eventually her mouth hung open, drawing in peaceful breaths, and her hand hung limp over the side of the couch.
She started to dream; a dream of a unicorn surrounded by children with their outstretched arms. There were flowers and the smell of apples and a faint unsettling smell of smoke. Fingers ran through her hair. "Do me a favor," she heard, and her body lunged to a half-sleep. "Don't ever go with a guy who will make you choose." And sparkles of blue and gold on streams of mascara ran down to the corners of a trembling mouth. There were many children, and cats chasing balls. The unicorn smiled and whirled around trying to touch all the outstretched hands, but kept missing Cami's. The whirling and spinning obscured the unicorn's face. "Look at me," Cami tried to say above the others. Then she felt herself being carried on a scent and in arms so familiar that she nestled into it, comforted, secure, until she was set down and she awoke.
Her father kissed her on the forehead then turned to leave her room.
"Dad," she said in a fragile and fatigued voice.
"She went home, Cami."
"Oh," she said, under the weight of realizing where she was and that she had been dreaming.
"Can I sleep in your bed?" She held out her arms so she could be lifted and carried.
She felt half her age as she clung to his neck as he carried her down the hall, and she wondered how long it took to dream a dream.
"Dad?" she asked.
"Do you ever wonder if she can see us?"
He laid her in bed and covered her and brushed her hair back as he always did. "Sometimes," he said. "Sometimes I do."
Larry Lynch (email@example.com) is a 32-year-old single dad from New Brunswick, Canada. He works in a paper mill and writes on night shifts while watching the paper go around and around. His boss hopes Larry will write a best seller and quit. Larry does too.
Kate and Cami's story was inspired by Dar Williams' "The Babysitter's Here."
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 7, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1997 Larry Lynch.