Read an Excerpt
I shouldn’t be here. That’s what I’m realizing as I follow John Tanner down the hall of his house in suburban Australia. After the interview, I should’ve called back and said it wasn’t going to work. But I had no choice. I needed money, or I’d be back on my mother’s doorstep within a month, and wouldn’t that please her to no end?
It’s her fault. That’s another thought I’m having as I set down my backpack on a single bed in a room with a skylight but no windows, and John Tanner says, “I hope this will be okay.” If she had given me even a little money . . . a loan . . .
This is not what I left home for. That’s the chalky horse pill I choke down when John Tanner says the kids are so excited about me moving in, they’ll be in here bouncing on my bed in no time. “First nanny and all,” he says.
I’m a nanny, a fucking nanny.
For the record, I didn’t touch down in Oz, open The Sydney Morning Herald, and circle “Recent Widower Looking for Live-in Nanny.” If anything, I was thinking bartending, or at least waitressing. Good money, tons of laughs, guys everywhere.
My college roommate Tracy and I had been traveling for two months, burning through cash, so when we got off the bus in downtown Sydney, we filled out applications at all the restaurants and bars that sounded Yank-friendly: Uncle Sam’s, Texas Rib Joint, New York Steak House. We followed up, we waited. Seven days in, we broadened the search—surf shacks, burger joints, cafés, pubs. Nobody would hire us. We called friends of friends and left messages asking if they knew of any temp work. No one called us back. We tried all the bulletins posted at the hostels. No one would bend the rules to let us work under the table. So after three weeks, we did what no self-respecting globe-trotter would: We looked in the help-wanted ads for nanny gigs, all of which were in the ‘burbs, where we would meet zero boys and have zero big experiences and learn nothing about anything.
I picked a rich family with an indoor pool and views of the Sydney Opera House, but Eugenia Brown turned out to be a total despot, and after I made a funny face about scrubbing her pool tiles and dragged my heels about helping with a mailing regarding her availability as a bridge tutor, I pointed out that her ad had said nanny, not nanny plus housecleaner plus personal assistant, at which point she said I was her first American—she usually hired Asians, who had “worked out so nicely”—and that I might be too “unionized.” Then she fired me.
After that, I interviewed with four more families. I told Smiley Vicki in Chatswood that I was open to babysitting on weekend nights, which would suck, and Skinny Jane on Cove Lane that I knew CPR. Didn’t matter. No one wanted a nanny who could only stay for five months, so I went back to the newspaper, and the widower’s ad was still there.
John Tanner was older than I thought a man with a seven-year-old and a five-year-old would be. His mustache was graying, and his hairline had rolled back a touch from where it started. His shoulders were sloped, giving him the outline of my grandmother’s Frigidaire. All in all, he struck me as someone who might participate in Civil War reenactments.
In a conversation that lasted under an hour, he explained that he was a steward for Qantas and used to work the overnights to New Zealand, Tokyo, and Singapore. It had been six months since his wife passed, and it was time to resume his usual schedule. He needed an extra pair of hands, someone who could drive the kids to school when he was flying. He didn’t care that I couldn’t commit to a year. He couldn’t either. He said this would be a good way to test the nanny plan—he wasn’t sure it was the right long-term solution for them—and I said that sounds great to me, and we shook hands, the deal done. He did not ask to make a copy of my passport. He was tired and I was good enough for now.
The house is a rancher half-painted in such an ill-chosen orange—probably called “Happy Face” or “Sunny Outlook”—that I wonder if he’s color-blind, or relied on his wife for those sorts of decisions. Gallon cans, half unopened, line the porch. There’s no discernible method to the painting, just halfhearted swaths of color here and there. The patches under the windows make it look like the house itself is crying.
In the living room, John’s widowhood is even more evident. There’s crayon on the walls and puzzle pieces sprinkled on the floor. The sofa’s slipcover is bunched up. On the side table, a plastic dinosaur is tipped over in rigor mortis beside a framed school photo of a girl in a plaid uniform, pushed back against a small treasure chest you might get from a dentist or a fast-food restaurant. A piano bench overflows with drawings on pages that, I see as I get closer, are sheet music. Tilt, I hear my mother say, which I believe refers to the message pinball machines flash when players lose control, but I can’t say for sure. Some of her expressions are hard to deconstruct. (I learned only recently that when she says Mikey! after the first bite of something good, she’s alluding to the old Life cereal commercial.)
My bag unpacked, John’s son, Martin, trots toward me on the balls of his feet like a show pony. He’s scrawny, and his ears rise to a point, like the Texan Ross Perot, who just announced his campaign for president.
“Keely!” he calls, his accent lifting the middle of my name until it rhymes with wheelie. I met him only briefly during the interview last week, but that’s no matter to him. We’re friends already.
His smile is loose and wavy, and his lips have a line of red crust along the edges from too much licking. I have lip balm in my pocket. I could start fixing him right now.
“Listen!” he says. I watch as he bangs around on the piano, creating a soaring anthem of madness and joy before spinning around to check my reaction, making me feel important.
“Brilliant. Bravo! Do it again!” I say, clapping. He whips back around, raises his hands high in the air, and pauses like a pelican hovering over an unsuspecting fish. “Go!” I say.
He drops his hands to the keys in a free fall and hammers out a near cousin to his first composition.
“LOUD RUBBISH,” Milly, who would hardly look at me when we met, hollers from the TV room. “I’M TRYING TO WATCH MY SHOW!”
“I can play! Keely wants me to play!”
“Well, I don’t!” she shouts. “Daddy!”
“OY!” John silences the two of them. All three of us, actually.
I peek around the corner to make nice with Milly, who sits low in a chair, wearing her school uniform: a plaid kilt with a thin white shirt, untucked. Her lips are pressed together, her hands tucked under her thighs. If she could make herself disappear into the crease of the chair, she would. She has a round face, a dozen freckles sprinkled across each cheek, blue eyes, and thick sandy hair gilded with highlights that a middle-aged woman would pay a lot for.
“Hello,” I say.
“Hi,” she says, barely moving her lips.
“So, you’re coming up on eight, right? Wow!” She looks at me like, Really? Is it really so “wow”? Her fingernail polish is chipped. I have a bottle of polish in my bag. I could fix her, too. “What grade are you in again?”
She doesn’t answer.
“Amelia Tanner, Kelly is asking you a question,” John prods from the kitchen.
“What are you watching?”
“Television.” Little Miss Smart-mouth, I hear my mom say.
“Do you like hard candy?” I hold out a lemon drop.
“No. Thank you.” Her accent brings to mind the British Royals, as do her robotic manners. She doesn’t want a nanny. She knows how it is that her family has come to need the help of Some Lady. She knows I’m here to help everyone Transition. Even if no one else cares that a stranger will soon be making her sandwiches, zipping her jacket, and signing her permission slips on the line clearly marked Parent’s Signature, her loyalty is with her mother, wherever she is.
“What’s your name?” Martin says, appearing behind me holding a big encyclopedic book called Marsupials.
“You know my name, silly. Kelly.”
“What’s your mum’s name?” he asks innocently. I glance over at Milly, who doesn’t seem to be disturbed by his question.
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your mum’s name?” he says again, in the very same cheery tone that, mercifully, undercuts what otherwise would be an unbearably sad call-and-response.
I look to Milly for help, but she’s busy transmitting her distrust using only her eyes: Don’t think you can come in here and take over just because you’re all buddy-buddy with my chump brother. She will not be diverted by my cheer and candy. She will not throw open the gates to the territory and stand by while I tromp all over their sacred ground.
Well guess what, Milly Tanner? I don’t want to be here, either. I didn’t save for a year and fly halfway across the world to stir-fry kangaroo meat and pick up your “skivvies” off the bathroom floor. This was supposed to be my trip of a lifetime, my Technicolor dream.
Things happen when you leave the house. That’s my motto. I made it up on an Outward Bound trip after college. During the Solo—three days and three nights alone on a stretch of beach in the Florida Everglades with a tent, five gallons of water, an apple, an orange, and a first-aid kit—I made the most of what my hairy vegan counselor, Jane, called “a singular opportunity to plan your life.”
After deciding where to put my tent, dragging my water into a patch of shade, floating naked and singing “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor, I pulled out my journal and mapped out my life in yearly, sometimes monthly, increments. No way was I going to be just another apple rotting at the base of my mother’s tree. I was going to roll. I was going to Do Things Worth Doing and Know Things Worth Knowing. Seventy-two hours later, when Jane pulled up in the motorboat, all major decisions were settled: work, grad school, relationships, moves, marriage, childbearing. I went all the way up to my death, a peaceful event that I scheduled for 2057.
But for all my zealous imagining, a year later I looked up from my life and was deeply unimpressed. I worked at the bottom rung of a nonprofit in downtown Baltimore, and thanks to the understandably pitiful pay, I lived with Libby, my grandmother on my mom’s side, which meant that except for Tuesdays, when I had Weight Watchers, I spent every weeknight eating roasted meats and Pillsbury dinner rolls with Libby and her very crazy brother, whom everyone called Uncle Slug. By eight o’clock on any given night, I was up in my room—the room where my great-great-aunt Gerty lived until she died in the rocking chair that still sat by the window—highlighting The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People until my next move became clear.
If I really wanted to grow, well, that was not going to happen while I was living with my granny, driving my shit Honda two miles to the office every day, clocking in to happy hour on Water Street at five p.m., hoping some club lacrosse player would try to suck my face behind the phone booth after pounding a Jägermeister shot. I needed to get out. I needed an adventure. So I found a round-the-world ticket on sale in the back of The New York Times and talked Tracy into coming with me. One year, seven countries, bang-o—odyssey!
When I laid out the plan for my parents, my dad said, “Lovey, FANTASTIC!” He would know. He went to Australia with a lacrosse team back in the late fifties. “Go get ’em, Lovey!” He’s a Life Eater, my dad.
My mom said, “You haven’t been out of college two years yet. You need to focus on making money, saving up.”
“I have saved. How do you think I’m paying for the plane ticket?”
“You should be using that money to get established, get your own health insurance, not traipse all over creation,” she said. “I certainly hope you’re not expecting help from your father and me.”
“I’m not.” (Hoping, maybe.)
“Good. You don’t want to come home to a mountain of debt.”
“Mom, I get it.”
“You get it. I bet you get it,” she said, mostly to herself, as she cut a sliver of lemon rind to toss in her five o’clock drink.
“Anyway, I’ll go back to work when I get home.”
“You better hope they’ll take you back.”
She looked at me like I thought I knew everything. “You really think you know everything, don’t you?”
“Here’s what I know: I want Life Experience!”
“You know what’s good Life Experience? Life. Real life is excellent life experience,” she said, pleased with her retort. “How does running around Australia apply to anything . . . like working, marriage, family?”
“Mom—God! You know what? Things happen when you leave the house.”
“I’m not going to magically become interesting sitting on the sofa. I’m not going to learn anything—my values, or purpose, or point of view—at home. Things happen when you leave, when you walk out the door, up the driveway, and into the world.”
“I don’t know why you don’t walk out the door and go to an office, like everyone else.”
Despite my mom’s total failure to get behind me, I liked everything about the odyssey plan. I even liked the vocabulary of travel. Ripping yarns of distant shores, exotic vistas, excursions, expeditions. Show me the poetry in ground-beef special, informational interview, staff development.
Two months later, my parents walked me to the gate at JFK. I spotted Tracy from a hundred yards away—she’s six feet, a head taller than all the Taiwanese in line for our flight to Taipei—with her mom. They have the same haircut because they go to the same hairdresser; they share clothes and shoes, sunglasses and jewelry, which they can do because Tracy’s mom has pierced ears, like a normal person. My mom wears clip-ons that feel like little vises on my earlobes.