“Do you smell something?” my employer wrinkled his nose and looked around the house suspiciously as he set down his briefcase.
He was a doctor, as was his wife. I was the nanny.
It was the summer of 1987. Whitney Houston wanted to dance with somebody, a gallon of gas cost $.89, the FDA approved AZT as a medication to fight AIDS, and televangelist Jim Bakker was mired in sexual and financial scandal while rivulets of mascara spelled out “FAKE” as they drizzled down his wife’s cheeks. Having given birth under contract, Mary Beth Whitehead seized custody of the baby, thus launching a court storm that called into question the issue of surrogacy and parental rights. In theaters, Cher was smacking Nicholas Cage in an effort to get him to “Snap out of it!”
Me, I was in a Boston neighborhood, working for the summer as a live-in nanny, taking care of an infant. The baby’s big sister went to preschool/daycare each day when her parents headed off to work, leaving the little guy and me to rattle around the duplex together while the rest of them interacted with the world.
My sister, attending college in Boston and babysitting for a variety of families throughout the school year, had scored the opportunity for me. By spring, she had her own nanny job arranged for the summer, but when she heard that the family of doctors for whom she sometimes babysat was looking for someone, she drew on her good credit with them and suggested me. Before the school year ended, I needed to interview with them, so I flew from Minnesota, where I attended college, to Massachusetts; there, I spent a weekend hanging with my sister in her dorm, seeing the big city, eating jaw-droppingly good lo mein, and — just for fun — meeting the little boy, Eli, who would be my sister’s charge for the summer.
Generously, his parents invited us over for dinner. As liberal, forward-thinking people, they didn’t put limits on their son’s questioning brain and verbal development; indeed, they welcomed any topic during mealtime. The dinner conversation with this family I’d met minutes before, therefore, consisted of the two-year-old exploring his current area of passion: genitalia.
The napkin had barely hit my lap before the curly-headed toddler turned to his father and queried, piercingly, “Daddy hab a penis?”
Even profuse mortification can’t keep a well-educated, upper-middle-class parent from supporting his child’s efforts at learning. Although his face was frozen, the father answered his son: “Yes, buddy. I have a penis.”
Gaining energy, the boy’s head swiveled, and he continued. “Mommy hab a penis?”
“No, honey,” Mommy sighed. “Mommy has a vagina.”
Mommy’s grilling wasn’t over. “Mommy, Dee Dee hab a penis?”
I kept my gaze lowered, locked onto my plate. If I looked at my sister (Dee Dee), I would burst into the kind of uncontrollable barking laughter that resolved only when I was dabbing tears from my face à la Tammy Faye Bakker.
Mentally, I filed away a reminder to ask my sister later, and again two days after that, and once more, three years after that, if she had a penis.
His eyes brightening as he connected some dots, the inquisitor yelled, “DEE DEE HAB A ‘GINA?”
Heroically, the boy’s father stepped in and answered. As Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ben Affleck, Jude Law, and Gavin Rossdale would one day discover: yes, son, the nanny had a vagina.
Bouncing in his seat with excitement, the two-year-old gained steam. “Daddy! Daddy! Dawson hab a penis?”
I was Dawson.
Dawson did not hab a penis.
As Daddy quickly explained, Dawson hab a ‘gina, a fact that was re-established repeatedly throughout the meal.
Dessert came in the form of two scoops and one rod: the toddler, pulling his diaper away from his waist, conducted an examination that ended with a joyful shout: “ELI HAB A PENIS!”
Also that weekend, I met with the doctor family and had an interview in their living room. Yes, I had taken care of kids of all ages. Yes, I was a Nice Girl. I read books and had friends. Yes, I had taken CPR classes. No, I would not shake the baby.
No doubt impressed by the whiteness of my Keds, they offered me the job.
Thus, a few months later, I found myself inside a duplex in Jamaica Plain, watching Oliver North testify day after day on the big box of a television that dominated my bedroom. The cute little softie baby would hang out on a blanket on the floor, and I’d plant a leg along either side of him — assuring myself it was an excellent hamstring stretch — and rattle toys above his head while pretending to understand the machinations behind selling weapons to Iran so as to raise funds to pay a Panamanian general to overthrow the ruling party in Nicaragua. Sometimes, bored by all the white guys wearing medals swearing to tell the whole truth, nothing but the truth, I’d get up and fluff my spiral-permed hair in front of the mirror. If the baby was napping, I might put on massive chandelier earrings and fluff my hair again. Other times, I’d strap the baby into his stroller, and we’d walk down the street to the roundabout and back. Occasionally, my sister and I would get together with our wee ones and dink around. During my time off, I’d take the bus into the city — there was this thing there called Filene’s Basement that blew my mind — and splurge on a Big Mac.
I liked the baby because BABY, and the family was lovely. They’d given me a fine private room and always invited me to accompany them to Cape Cod for the weekend. Craving time off-leash, I always refused. But we’d eat dinner together each night, once everyone was home, and I’d learn about how the father was a cutting-edge AIDS researcher and how the mother had spent her early years in the Philippines because her dad’s work had taken the family there. Even when the mom-doctor cooked fish, and I recoiled in horror at the sight of a face and eyeball on my plate, I managed to choke down a few bites of the body. Living on the East Coast, where people did strange and glamorous things like eat fish with eyeballs in ’em, was broadening. This summer gig? It was all good.
Then one day Oliver North’s crewcut must have looked particularly sharp and neatly edged — like a lawn freshly mowed by a Midwestern retiree.
Or maybe the July light dazzled, highlighting all the sparkly facets of my dangly earrings as I tilted my magpie head in front of the hand mirror.
Possibly, the baby had one of those epic diaper blowouts that ended with me mopping out both his and my armpits as we wiped our way back to civilized skin.
No matter the cause: I got distracted.
In fact, it was only when I wondered, abstractly, who in the neighborhood had decided to set fire to a pile of old tires that I remembered I’d been sterilizing all the baby bottle nipples in a pan of boiling water on the stove top.
HOLY-BO-DEREK-IN-A-SWIMSUIT: THE NIPPLES!
Stuffing pillows around the roll-about body of the baby, I thrashed frantically into the kitchen and to the pan on the stove.
It was hot. It was empty — completely, utterly dry.
Aureolas notwithstanding, Dawson no hab nippos.
For a few seconds, I stood, staring at the pan, trying to riddle out where the nipples had gone. Feeling my brain bend, I tried to remember if I had maybe come in and removed them from the pan. Then I wondered if the person who had set fire to a pile of old tires in the neighborhood might have taken them.
Then . . . apostrophe before the t . . . carry the seven . . . capitalize the W . . . show my work . . . brush away the eraser scat. . .
I arrived at my final answer.
Rubber or plastic — or whatever golden, translucent, chiminea-shaped material I’d been shoving into the little guy’s mouth every time he got hungry — could, in fact, be boiled into oblivion.
The baby’s next feeding wasn’t for a couple of hours, so I had a window of time to find replacement nipples.
Speaking of windows, maybe I should crack some. Or all of them. The house reeked.
As fresh air poured into the house, I loaded the baby into the stroller, grabbed my wallet, and bumped the kid down the front staircase. Thump. Thump. Thump.
For the next hour, we walked to every drug store in the neighborhood. None of them carried the exact nipples that I’d decimated. Finally, desperate, I bought a few packs of a different shape and brand.
Maybe no one would notice.
His next feeding made us both sweaty; back rigid, he recoiled from the unfamiliar nipple, dramatically turning his head and protesting loudly. It was as though someone had put a fish eyeball on his dinner plate.
Eventually, after intense struggle, he ate enough to calm down and fall asleep.
See? These new nipples were going to work out.
Powered by the magical thinking of a twenty-year-old who hated to make mistakes, I decided I probably didn’t even need to mention the whole sterilization fiasco.
“Do you smell something?” my employer wrinkled his nose and looked around the house suspiciously as he removed his coat.
Maybe I needed to mention the whole sterilization fiasco.
Quickly, sheepishly, I broke it to him that the nipples had gone to a better place. I apologized, told him how I’d gone out and bought replacements, watched his face for clues that it was okay to have messed up.
At the end of his day, he was tired, stressed, done. Yet there’s no such thing as done when it comes to parenthood. Sighing deeply, like someone who’d just been publicly interrogated about the presence of a ‘gina between his legs, he told me he’d call his wife, and they’d figure it out.
An hour later, she came home, a bag of new nipples stuffed into her purse. They felt it was best if the baby stuck with the nipple shape and size he was used to.
No one had much appetite that night — since the house smelled like a flaming trash heap. I felt dumb. They were kind.
It was a silly, no-big-deal situation, but, still, a cloud swirled in my stomach. I hated to have made a mistake, especially in someone else’s house. Damn that Oliver North and the freshly mowed lawn on top of his head.
After a few days, the house smelled less like someone had been holding matches to a frisbee. I never again left the nipples as they boiled. Instead, the baby and I would dance a wide circle around the kitchen table, peering nervously into the pan after every circumvolution. He ate; he grew; the months passed. As fall approached and my time as a live-in nanny reached its end, I looked forward to the day I’d head to the Boston airport and climb onto an airplane with my two best friends: we three were flying to Dublin together for a semester of study.
Always, in my youth, my attitude was “This was great! Now: onto the next thing.” Months were grouped into chunks called semesters or summers, and I’d dive into the demands of each experience, do some things, and move on. Everything was important, and none of it really mattered.
Over time, though, I have come to see that it all matters. Getting distracted and melting a heap of nipples mattered — not because it taught me never to get distracted; I maintain distraction is essential to a life happily lived. Rather, three decades later, as I look back on that day, what stands out to me is the absurd belief that I could pretend nothing had happened. Despite sensory evidence attesting to A Minor Event, I embraced denial. Maybe, if I acted perky, we in the house wouldn’t notice our burned-rubber headaches. Maybe, if I acted blasé about the new nipples, the parents would never notice there were new nipples. Maybe, through adamant bluffing, I could envelop those around me into my preferred reality.
More than anything, the nipple melting matters to me now, thirty years later, because I teach 20-year-olds. Often, they bring me to despair: they fail to do something, yet they desperately want me not to notice or want me to accept their story. Many times, I react with disgust or eye rolling or mockery; they don’t actually think I’m unaware of what’s really going on, do they?
Well, maybe they do. Or perhaps their desperate desire not to be idiots despite having been idiots conjures a less-painful alternative reality, the reality of denial.
I’ve been there.
I’ve done that.
I’ve melted a pan full of baby bottle nipples and then scuffed my toe against the floorboards when asked if I knew anything about it.
It is not beyond me to be empathetic to the 20-year-old brain.
So this, then, is why I tuck away each silly story and dumb moment, unfolding them periodically to see what shakes out. In them, there be lessons.
Plus, I’m always looking for new icebreakers to use in class, and it occurs to me now that I’ve never gone around the classroom on the first day, quizzing each bright, hopeful face.
“Caitlyn hab a penis?”