Editor’s Note: Names in this piece have been changed for privacy.
Every night I had to inspect the toddler’s body with a tiny magnifying glass. Asher was three. I was his nanny. His mother, Samantha, religiously tracked the outbreaks of Lyme disease in Annandale-on-Hudson, the small town in upstate New York where we were staying for the summer, and within ten minutes of my arrival she taught me how to examine her child for ticks. I had just graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree, the first in my family to do so. Before I could unpack my clothes or take the last swig of soda from a Taco Bell somewhere on the long drive from Michigan, I was holding both of Asher’s little feet with one hand and separating his butt cheeks with the other.
“Ticks are really tiny,” Samantha said. “You have to look in every crevice.”
Asher squirmed and whined.
“Have you ever thought this might be a little excessive?” I asked tentatively as I lifted his penis and scrotum.
“Of course not,” she said. “It must be done every single night before you brush his teeth and put him to bed. If he gets some awful disease, I’ll never forgive myself.”
I met Samantha the year before – as a 19-year-old art major from Michigan on an internship in New York City. Because my college provided academic credit for internship hours, my only duties were working for artists and creating art of my own. I was responsible for no one other than myself. I never had a desire to interact with children, let alone serve as the primary caregiver for one.
I arrived in New York City in early January at the beginning of what would be one of the worst winters on record. I hadn’t brought a proper winter coat. Samantha was one of the artists I worked for. She had a studio in Brooklyn, which was far enough from where I lived in Chelsea that I could justify splurging on a subway fare. I delighted in these train rides, and sometimes I extended my commute by overshooting so I could catch a train going back in the opposite direction. On a good day, performers of various talents would file into the cars and I would give them whatever change I had in my pocket. On the way home, I invented stories about the businessmen and high-heeled mothers on the seats beside me and in the trains that passed by. The large, dirty windows froze these moments and created temporary portraits that vanished before my eyes.
Even more than the subway, I loved being in Samantha’s studio. Three tall windows flooded the room in light. Usually, she relinquished her desk chair and asked me to teach her tricks on Photoshop, but occasionally she insisted I go retrieve paint or hang her large, abstract photographs on the wall for her to examine. Samantha was a tiny woman. Sometimes the dark knot of hair piled on the top of her head seemed so huge it could knock her off balance. Though our time together was usually focused on her work, the moment we left the studio for lunch or to walk back to the subway together, Samantha offered advice to me she said she wished she’d had at my age. I felt comfortable enough with her that I came out within the second week of my internship.
“Everyone in New York is gay,” she told me. “You fit right in.”
As we worked, I listened as she talked about her husband, a distinguished painter, and their son, Asher. She showed me videos of the boy, and I pretended to be charmed. I had never been fond of small children. I was far more interested to learn that the pregnancy had been brutal on Samantha’s tiny body, exacerbated by her decision to wait to have a baby until age 42.
I considered confessing to Samantha that I had been obsessed with pregnancy for a long period of my teenage years. I was pregnant in all of my dreams. Throughout the course of my life, many people have tried to offer an explanation. A friend told me the baby symbolized my gayness, which is why the dreams tapered off after I came out as a lesbian. Another friend jokingly postulated it was a divine message indicating I would soon deliver the second messiah. A teacher claimed it was common for young women to prophesize carrying their future children, but the baby inside me never felt like mine.
Instead of sharing my secret with Samantha, I listened as she confessed her resentment of her husband, Cliff. The childcare responsibilities were nowhere close to evenly divided between the two of them, she told me, and as a result her art was suffering.
“I just don’t have the same focus anymore,” she said. “I used to be one of the best in the world. I had six shows a year. Now, I have spit-up on my clothes and a group show in six months.”
I arranged my features into what I hoped communicated empathy, but I was far more disgusted by the spit-up than I was moved by Samantha’a situation.
When my internship ended, I thought my relationship with Samantha would end too, but it didn’t. Every few weeks, Samantha sent pictures and short videos of Asher, whom I had never met and couldn’t have cared less about. When I asked about her art, she would simply send me pictures of the studio I missed so much.
Months later, Cliff was promoted to the chair of the art department at a prestigious graduate program for the summer semester, and Samantha asked if I was interested in being an au pair. I’ll never get any work done if I’m solely in charge of Asher, she had written, and I must keep making art.
Her proposal found me in the midst of a crisis. Graduation was looming, and I had no job prospects. In addition, although I had come out to my family more than two years earlier, they silenced any mention of my gayness. My mother was threatening to not come to my graduation ceremony because she blamed the college for fucking me up. She insisted I was straight and simply delusional; I would come to my senses in time.
There was nothing worse, in my mind, than having nowhere to go. I had been flirting with the idea of living in my car. A substantial part of me, though, wanted to mend the relationship with my mother and I knew that wouldn’t be possible if I moved far away without having a reason. She would take it personally—assume I was moving away to escape her. A job as an au pair was a perfectly suitable reason. Maybe distance would help me forgive her. Maybe distance would help my mother realize how much she loved me and how sorry she was for insisting, over and over again, that I was disgusting and that women fucking other women was disgusting, too. Maybe distance would help me realize where I had gone wrong, when our relationship had started unraveling, and help me figure out how to fix it.
I accepted the offer immediately.
The house Samantha and Cliff rented for the summer was bigger than the house in which I grew up. Samantha led me around and Asher stumbled behind her, chancing quick peeks at me. In the kitchen, she gave me a quick run-down of the rules: Only organic food, no plastic containers, green vegetables at every meal.
Halfway through the orientation, Samantha noticed the Diet Coke I’d brought in from my car
“Obviously it’s fine if you drink soda,” she said. “But don’t give it to Asher.”
Shamefully, I took the cup and hid it behind my back.
We entered the living room, where Asher’s toys neatly lined the walls. There was a crown, a wand, several pink princess dresses, and a box of dolls. I was astonished by how willing Samantha was to supply him with toys typically marketed for little girls. My mother had been so resistant to my desire to play with rubber snakes and toads, and though she always tried to push her love of clothing and fashion on me, I preferred dressing in jeans and baggy athletic shirts. (I was voted best dressed in high school, my mother always told me. The trick is to remember that beauty is pain.)
Samantha took her big bag from the table and started removing various bottles and lotions.
“This is the only sunscreen I use on Asher,” she said. “You should apply it in the mornings before you leave the house and reapply throughout the day. I also am very particular about bug repellent. In fact, I don’t use it at all. I’d much rather have him bitten by a mosquito than infected with that horrible poison.”
It felt as though I should be taking notes.
“How do I keep the ticks away?” I asked.
“Well, I want you to keep him on the cement,” Samantha said. “The probability of him getting bit by a tick up here is just too high to risk going in the grass. Oh, also, I forgot to mention only allow him ten minutes of screen time a day.”
She handed me a key and told me it was very important to lock the door when we left the house. I didn’t reveal to Samantha that I had never been in possession of a house key before. My mother insisted that there was nothing in our house worth stealing.
On my first evening at the cottage, Samantha and Cliff went to a reception to celebrate the advent of the summer semester, and I was left alone with Asher. Once the door slammed and the lock clicked, Asher and I engaged in somewhat of a western standoff, silently sizing each other up.
“Have you ever made chocolate chip cookies?” I finally asked.
A slice of his little belly stuck out from under his shirt. He shook his head no.
Because Samantha and Cliff were renting a house that was typically inhabited by other people, all the necessary ingredients were stocked in the cabinets. I pushed aside Samantha’s dried seaweed and the organic fruit strips to reach the brown sugar and chocolate chips. Though my mom rarely baked or cooked, I knew I could follow an online recipe. When I was very young, sometimes my mother would buy cake or pancake mix and she would allow me to watch her add the water and stick it in the oven, but as I grew older those occurrences dwindled. She gradually stopped serving frozen fish sticks and heating up jars for spaghetti sauce. She called these nights, “fend for yourself” nights. My dad stepped in for a time, and sometimes would fix me a hot dog or some tortilla chips with half-melted cheddar cheese.
By the time I reached high school, both of my parents were so invested in losing weight that sometimes they abstained from eating dinner altogether. I usually poured myself a bowl of the cereal that came in bags bigger than dog food. Sometimes my mother defrosted a Lean Cuisine for herself and we ate our dinner on the couch watching reruns of Project Runway. I never resented my mother for choosing not to cook. In fact, I saw the act as noble. In rejecting all the traditionally female roles—cooking, cleaning, taking her husband’s name—my mother became legendary.
I gave Asher an egg and taught him how to crack it. Huge pieces of the shell fell into the bowl.
“Try this,” I said, handing him a chocolate chip.
He took it, tentatively, and slid it into his mouth. His eyes lit up and he started blinking uncontrollably.
“That was the most yummiest raisin I ever tasted!” he exclaimed.
Later that night, once I scrubbed Asher clean and rushed through the mandatory tick inspection, I sat down in the rocking chair and let him crawl into my lap. We read Madeline, which used to be my favorite. When I was six, I insisted that we name our dog Genevieve, after the dog that had saved Madeline from drowning in the river. Though Genevieve was certainly central to my appreciation of the story, it was Madeline’s relationship to Miss Clavel that truly enticed me. Most of my favorite stories involved a young girl developing a deep connection to a maternal figure. I read Anne of Green Gables four times in the summer between third and fourth grade. Dahl’s Matilda, was also among my favorites but I always had to stop reading right before Matilda’s teacher signed her adoption papers and took her away from her biological parents because it made me cry tears of envy. Madeline, I think, was my first introduction to the possibility that even a strict Catholic nun could demonstrate tenderness to a girl like Madeline despite all the troublesome things she’d done. I longed for the same connection, the same tenderness.
After I put Asher to bed and scrubbed down the kitchen, I retreated to my room quietly and collapsed onto my bed. The air conditioner at my window buzzed noisily. Even though my childhood home in Michigan was equipped with central air, my mother banned us from touching it. She said after all those winters in Alaska, she wanted to feel the summer. It seemed as though she wanted to feel everything, but mostly discomfort. I think it gave her a sense of superiority and toughness. Sometimes when it got too hot I went to sleep in the basement, in a room that the previous owners used to develop photographs, but usually I just kicked off all my blankets and stripped down to my underwear to sleep. That first night in the cottage, I rose to turn off the humming machine. Though the cool air blowing into my new room felt nice, I preferred the familiar heat lull me to sleep.
Cliff insisted that Asher be clothed at all times. It made him uncomfortable, I think, when Asher ate or played nude. Before I dressed him in the mornings I’d let him run from the back of the house to the front, race up and down the stairs, and play with his Legos and dolls naked. He soon began utilizing his penis as a doll diving board, which struck me as dazzlingly innovative. Cliff would spontaneously burst forth from his bedroom to find Asher streaking down the hallway as quickly as his chubby legs would carry him. He’d scowl at me and yell at Samantha, who was usually trying to create art on the front porch, to put some goddamn pants on his child.
Growing up, anyone was permitted to walk into our shared bathroom at any time. I only started hiding my body once my mother walked in on me getting out of the shower when I was about thirteen and she insisted I had gained weight and should start monitoring it for the purpose of my competitive swimming career. When my sister was born when I was five, most of the negative attention transferred to her. She’d been nearly ten pounds at birth and remained in the 90th percentile throughout her childhood. My mother would ask her to weigh herself, report the numbers back, and devise strategies to help her shed them.
I learned from my mother never to show my stomach. It was a part of my body I rather liked, but I feared if she saw it she might put me on the same weight loss program as my sister. My mother obsessively analyzed other girls in my class and swim team: So-and-so is too fat to be an athlete. She should just go on a diet and give up. That girl has the strangest body. Do you see how her flab hangs out of her suit there? How disgusting. Once my sister established herself as the best competitive swimmer in the history of our town and began receiving recruitment letters in the mail from Division I colleges, my mom started sending me emails about her body. She would tell me how much my sister weighed, what she had eaten the night before, and always closed the emails with the notion that if she lost about twenty pounds she’d be a hell of a lot faster.
I bought my first bikini in New York and wore it to the community pool with Asher. It was light pink, strapless, and hugged my breasts tightly. We walked out onto the deck into the sunshine holding hands, and I felt utterly naked. I imagined what we looked like to an onlooker: my cheap purple sunhat, his UV protected full body suit, my white belly, his unabsorbed organic sunscreen.
Samantha took comfort in the fact that I was a certified lifeguard. I’m not sure she would have allowed me to go swimming every day with Asher otherwise. We started out in the six-inch kiddy pool, per her request, but within a few days, I coaxed Asher into the bigger one. I taught him how to blow bubbles and how to hold his breath.
A woman sitting on the side of the pool with a small girl clinging to her leg leaned over to me and said, “Watching you and your son makes me so happy. And I love your bikini!”
On the way home from the pool, we would drive past a clearing in which the Adirondack mountains were perfectly visible.
“Can we go up that big hill one day?” Asher asked from the backseat. “All of us? Momma, daddy, me and you?”
By grouping me into his family, Asher made it even harder for me to admit to myself that I wasn’t really part of it. I didn’t see myself, like he did, a part of the family that already existed. There didn’t seem like there was room for a mother, father, son, and nanny. What I did start fantasizing about, quite early on, was being Asher’s mother. When I was with him, I was playing a role. In a sense, I think my persona comforted both of us. I acted like I knew what I was doing, like I wouldn’t ever leave, like I knew all the answers. But in reality, Asher’s question about climbing the mountain with me was one of many I couldn’t answer.
“I don’t know, Ash,” I said. “Hey, what was your favorite part of swimming today?”
“Being with you,” he answered.
At night, after I peeled Asher’s arms from my neck and laid him down into his bed, we sometimes heard Samantha and Cliff fighting. I’d try to drown out Samantha’s shrill, urgent voice, which drifted through the shallow floorboards, but it always found us. I made a halfhearted attempt to give them privacy, but as the fight escalated I usually crept to the top of the stairs and crouched there to listen.
“I’m going crazy here, Cliff. I can’t stay here.”
“God, Samantha,” he spat. “I told you not to come in the first place.”
“I’m trying to make my work,” she said. “But I can’t accomplish anything out on that tiny porch. I need a studio.”
“Then go back to Brooklyn,” he said. “I don’t need you nagging me all the time anyway.”
Most mornings, there was some residual tension between Samantha and Cliff but I’m not sure if I would have noticed it simmering under the surface if I hadn’t heard them fighting the night before. They would trade a few pleasant exchanges before Cliff kissed the top of Asher’s head and took his toast to go. Samantha would then see us off with the same parting message—please be safe—and retreat to her makeshift studio on the porch, where she would disappear under the curtain attached to the old 4-by-5 camera.
Asher and I quickly established a routine that suited both of us. We went to the public library first, where I would make small talk with the other mothers and allow Asher an hour on the computer. Most other three-year-olds I observed weren’t capable of sitting for a full hour, but in this way, Asher was unique. He’d never used a computer before and couldn’t operate the mouse, so I sat behind him and allowed his hand to rest on top of mine. Once, he was so engrossed in the computer game he wet himself.
“Why didn’t you tell me you had to go potty?” I asked, immediately hating myself for using the word “potty.”
The other moms just laughed and helped me wipe it up.
After the library, we went to the pool and then to a little deli where we got grilled cheese sandwiches and sometimes cinnamon buns for dessert.
“This is called a flaxseed muffin,” I said, the first time I handed it to him.
He was skeptical, but as he bit into the icing and warm dough his eyes widened. “I love flaxseed muffins!”
Sometimes Samantha abandoned the notion she could make new art on the porch and accompanied us to the grocery store. I was acutely aware that we looked like a lesbian couple, and I enjoyed the fantasy mightily. I wasn’t attracted to Samantha as much as I was to the idea of openly being in a relationship with another woman. My dating life in college was top secret. I never realized how badly I wished I could step out in public with another woman by my side.
The other shoppers were not so much taken aback by our apparent lesbianism as they were by Samantha’s wardrobe. Most of them wore frumpy, plaid shirts. They dressed like my parents—blue collar workers. Samantha, however, always looked like she’d just stepped off a runway. She dressed in blazers and tight dresses, which she accessorized with a brown fedora and clunky pumps. I pushed Asher in the cart and watched as the other shoppers scanned her up and down. They all kept their distance. Samantha pretended not to notice, but I could tell it hurt her.
In the evenings, when Asher was so tired he could barely sit on my lap unsupported, the fantasy of being his mother continued. I loved feeling the weight of his body on my lap and the way he squeezed my bracelets absentmindedly as I read to him. I loved the way his hair smelled after baths and the way he insisted on kissing my cheek before I lowered him into his bed. Perhaps it would be nice to have another human who viewed me the way Asher did.
But reading bedtime stories to Asher had one negative effect: it refreshed my resentment toward my mother for refusing to touch me. It was a strange realization, and one I had mentioned to the free college therapist the year before.
“I bet your mother’s lack of physical contact is why you embraced homosexuality,” the therapist said. “The desire to be touched by a woman is probably conflated with the affection you craved from your mother.”
I wish I’d asked her where the hell she got her shrink license, but instead I silently suffered through the rest of the appointment and never scheduled another.
Midsummer, I started developing an intense earache. The entire left side of my head throbbed nonstop; I couldn’t sleep on that side because the pain was so intense. I should have asked Samantha for an afternoon off to see a doctor, but I was raised to believe doctors were reserved exclusively for critical maladies. It was this belief that had prompted me to wait nearly a day before I went to the ER when I had kidney stones at 16 and that caused my mother to wait until she’d had a near fatal heart attack to ask a doctor about the pain in her chest. As a family, we toughed it out.
The day I came to terms with the fact I could no longer manage my ear pain was the same day Samantha found a mark on Asher that she believed was a tick bite.
“Oh my god,” she said. “I have to get him to a doctor.”
If I hadn’t been in so much pain, I would have dropped to my knees and sung the hallelujah chorus.
“Did you do the tick inspection last night?” Samantha asked accusingly.
My kneejerk reaction was to tell her yes, of course I did the tick inspection. My ear hurt so badly that I would have said anything to get to a doctor’s office. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t remember what had happened an hour ago. All I knew about last night was that I had been in pain.
Later, the doctor at the Urgent Care facility said mine was the worst inner ear infection he’d ever seen. I yelped when he touched my ear and teared up when he removed my earrings. He prescribed pain killers, antibiotics, and a solution that went directly into the ear canal. For Asher, he just scoffed and told Samantha it was a mosquito bite.
Samantha turned red and pointed to the bump.
“But why is there a ring around it?” she asked. “Do you see? It looks just like every other tick bite I’ve seen online!”
The doctor shook his head firmly.
“Better safe than sorry,” he said, which was a mantra she repeated the whole way home.
The medicine dulled my pain almost instantly, and when I could finally think again I experienced a wave of guilt. I felt intensely sorry that I had so carelessly brushed aside Samantha’s rules about examining Asher’s body for bugs. I’d neglected nearly every rule Samantha imposed, and although it was wrong, I could at least rationalize breaking most of them. Ultimately I wanted Asher to have fun. I wanted him to experience the unadulterated joy that accompanies chocolate chip cookies and learning to swim. I wanted him to have an adult who was not micromanaging his every move, but not brutal or negligent either. I reasoned there must be a way to strike a balance between Samantha’s style of parenting and my mother’s.
After putting Asher to bed, Samantha and I often cooked dinner together. She didn’t know how to cook any better than I did, but we always managed to concoct a somewhat balanced meal and would sit on the porch-turned-studio with a bottle of red wine and the baby monitor at our feet.
“Where are you going to go after this?” Samantha asked one night.
After my long pause, she said she wished she had extra space in her Brooklyn apartment so I could stay with her and Cliff.
“Oh no,” I said. “I’ll figure it out. I’ll be okay.”
I didn’t actually believe that, though. I had applied to fifty art-related jobs in the few weeks I’d been living with Samantha and Cliff, and I hadn’t received any good news. I was offered a position at a library in Flint, Michigan, but it was precariously only half an hour away from my parents’ home and only part-time.
Samantha, either sensing my fear or seeing the tears welling up in my eyes, crossed the porch and embraced me.
“You can go anywhere, you know,” she said, as she wrapped her fragile arms around me.
A few days before I left New York, Asher asked me, “Are we going to climb that big hill today?”
“Not today,” I said.
We walked to our usual lunch spot, and I became aware of an elderly man watching us from behind a newspaper. We were reading and waiting for our grilled cheese sandwiches when the man started walking toward us. I held onto Asher’s upper arm instinctively.
“You know,” the man said, “my mother abandoned me when I was three years old.”
I wished he would go away. Asher didn’t yet know that mothers could abandon their children.
“If I had a camera,” the man said, “I would take a photograph of you two together. You’re both so beautiful. And I bet you’re not the kind of mother who would just up and leave one day.”
I liked that many strangers we encountered that summer assumed I was Asher’s mother, but this man’s comment felt invasive, as if he knew I was leaving Asher, and that I had been abandoned in many ways, too. I thought of the close relationship I’d had with my mother as a young girl, though a friend would later call it manipulative from the beginning. Her words echoed: She saw you as a part of herself; she couldn’t fathom that you were your own person. It took many years for me to understand that forgoing responsibilities like providing food, support, and nurturing was not heroic.
Although I insisted I never wanted children, I always felt it was somewhat inevitable. I wonder if my mother felt the same way. It seemed like something women just did, or were pressured into doing. Every day I spent with Asher, I grew more and more aware of the complexity of motherhood. It seemed impossible not to resent him. Most of the sacrifices I made for him were small: leaving the pool on a particularly wonderful day because he was hungry; allowing him to see the doctor before me; dragging myself out of bed when he was having a bad dream. But, it also allowed me to see all that Samantha had done for him. Although she spent hours on the porch trying to make new work, she never completed any of it. Instead, she poured her energy into checking in with me, concocting quinoa salad for Asher, constantly asking me if he seemed happy.
I wonder now if my mother would be different if she had been childfree. I knew she used to want to write novels. I once found some of her journals written before I was born, but couldn’t read the tiny cursive writing. Would she have published books if she could have afforded a nanny, or would everything have turned out exactly the same? The only journals my mother kept as I was growing up were to document her daily intake of calories. I wonder if I caused that. After all, I was the reason her stomach expanded in the first place.
When I hugged Asher goodbye, he wasn’t wearing any clothes. Cliff had spent the better part of an hour chasing him around the house with a pair of Spiderman underwear but hadn’t been able to wrangle him onto the floor without eliciting a full-blown tantrum. I wrapped my arms around him and buried my face in his puffy belly. I blew into his belly button, which made him laugh.
All three of them watched from the front lawn as I pulled out of the driveway. Cliff’s face, usually tight and serious, had relaxed slightly. Asher stood beside Samantha, and as soon as my car started rolling backwards he began chasing after it. I imagine the gravel hurt his bare feet because he started crying abruptly. Samantha scooped him up, but I couldn’t discern any of her features because the fedora was casting a shadow on her face. She’d hugged me tightly earlier and presented me with a memoir by Sally Mann with a note scribbled on the inside. It said, I admire your courage. Thank you for being here for me. I couldn’t have done it without you.
I cried the entire width of the state of New York. I felt lighter, somehow, having relinquished the role of primary childcare provider back to Samantha, but also significantly older. About twenty miles before hitting the Canadian border to cross back into Michigan, I remembered what Samantha had told me at dinner several weeks back: you can go anywhere.
I considered going north. Everything I needed was in a duffle bag in the trunk. I could drive up through the snowy Yukon to Alaska like my mom had twenty years ago. I was at an advantage: I didn’t have a six-month-old baby in the backseat. In Alaska I could learn how to fish. I could rent a little shack in the mountains like the house I lived in when I was young. I could get a dog and a job and carve out a new life the way I remembered artists chiseling statues out of blocks of ice.
When I pulled up to the border and gave the agent my ID, my hands were slightly shaking.
“Ma’am, where you going?”
“Back home to Michigan,” I said.
He had no further questions. He knew I was telling the truth.
GABRIELLE MONTESANTI is currently a nonfiction MFA student at Washington University in St. Louis. She received her BA from Kalamazoo College in mathematics and studio art, and spent terms in New York City working for visual artists and in Rome writing her senior thesis. She is a competitive swimmer turned roller girl and is currently at work on her first book-length manuscript about roller derby. ☆ Judge Adriana Ramírez selected “New York Nanny” as second runner-up of Proximity‘s 2017 Personal Essay Prize.