Because yesterday was Veteran’s day, I agreed to look after my friend’s daughter so he could work while she had the day off from school. I showed up at the tail end of breakfast after an early morning ashtanga practice that I hoped would prepare me for a day with a five-year old. She was really upset when he left and did her best to thwart his departure by wiping her buttery fingers on his nice dress shirt and crying extensively. She insisted that he be the one to get her “dressed,” but when I saw that the outfit she chose was a bright pink, footed flannel pajama suit, I observed, “it’s a hang out on the couch and watch movies day!”
We settled down for “Ariel’s Beginning.” I had no idea that the Little Mermaid had a prequel, but it seemed like a great opportunity to practice restorative yoga poses and read Paul Krugman’s The Return of Depression Era Economics, the next book on my review queue. Kids, I thought, as I snuggled into a pillow and delved into the Latin American 90s recession, are wonderful! Not only that, but after the movie, there was a bonus feature starring the girl who plays the little mermaid on Broadway giving a backstage tour of the theater. I had Musical theater, reason to panic about money and more time to worry that I can’t do lotus pose–in short, everything I could possibly want. But then I had to make lunch.
At first, I was happy when she asked for grilled cheese. It seemed easy enough, and suitable for a chilly fall day. I got the ingredients out of the fridge and placed them on the counter. I gave my brain the cue, “make grilled cheese.” My brain replied, “but how?”
I decided the bread should go in the toaster oven first, then should be cooked in a pan. I avoided burning the bread in the toaster oven, and congratulated myself on the achievement as I layered cheddar cheese on the buttered sour dough slices. Yes, this was definitely how grilled cheese was made. I sighed with relief and turned my attention to the soup. And then the smoke alarm went off.
I turned off the burner, moved the pan and ran to open the windows. “You’re not allowed to have the windows open,” my little friend told me. “It’s not safe.”
“Well, don’t stand over there for now, ok? They need to be open for the smoke to go away.” She agreed, and went with a blanket towards the alarm and started fanning the air.
“I’m helping you!” She cried.
I thanked her and when the wails of the alarm had subsided, I shut the window and returned my attention to the troubled sandwich. The cheese was hard as a rock, but the edges of the bread were already completely burned. I reignited the stove, this time with a lower flame. Master of subtly, expert problem solver, babysitter extraordinaire! I thought. I served the soup as an appetizer. Then the smoke alarm went off again. I ran to the windows.
“I’m cold!” yelled my ward. “And I hate this soup!”
“I’m sorry!” She had changed out of her flannel jump suit into a Disney princess nightgown. I wrapped her in the blanket she’d been using to fan the smoke alarm and assured her, “when I serve your sandwich, it will get the taste of the soup out of your mouth, but you have to eat it.”
But what to do about that pesky sandwich? The bread was now miraculously both soggy and burned, while the cheese was slightly rubbery, but solid. Then I recalled my college boyfriend’s passion for tuna melts, which he insisted his Mom cooked in the oven. Although I’d technically written her off because she hated my guts, perhaps she might be on to something.
I stuck the sandwich on a plate in the oven and waited. And waited. Wasn’t cheese the sort of thing that melted quickly? It had only taken me about 7 minutes in an oven to completely destroy my ipod. Wtf??
“I hate this soup!” Shouted the little one.
“Ok.” Breathe. Just breathe. Then I remembered the best advice my father ever gave me: diffuse and deflect. I turned it over to her. “You have two options. You can wait for me to keep cooking the sandwich until the cheese melts, or you can eat it now with the cold cheese.”
Apparently, it’s really not true that women want the right to choose. She started to cry. “My option is daddy.”
“Daddy’s at work, honey, I can’t bring him home.”
“My option is daddy!!”
“But ‘option’ means that something is possible. It’s not possible for daddy to be here. Pick one of the other options.” I always knew that formal logic class would pay off, someday.
“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!!!” She screamed.
I sunk to the floor of the kitchen, nestling myself between the island and the stove, staring at the stubborn sandwich. “Cook!” I whispered, as the voices in my head started to sneer, “you can’t even cook grilled cheese! What can you possibly contribute to the Planet Earth?”
“I hate this soup!! I want daddy!” She howled. I hoisted myself up and walked over the table, grabbing the spoon. “Here, I’ll feed you the soup, and when it’s gone, the sandwich will be ready.” She seemed to agree, but after receiving the second bite, spit the soup back in bowl and continued bawling, “I want daddy!”
I tried more reason. “But just think, if today were a normal day, you’d be at school. You’d be fine!”
“Yes but when I’m at school, I don’t have to be with you!!” I recoiled back. Much like the bread, I was burned. But I forced myself to go on.
“What did I do to you?”
“You’re bossier than all my nannies!” She began to howl.
“Bossy how?” I demanded (case in point. But oh well.) I softened. “I mean, if you tell me what I did that is bossy, I won’t do it anymore.”
“You’re just bossy,” she sobbed. “It’s just how you arreeee.”
I lay my arms down on the table and hid my head. When I closed my eyes, I saw an image of my dear, sweet, wholesome new Englander ex, with that horrified sneer he had used to express that I was a morally devoid, over-harsh and self-absorbed eccentric. I heard the ex before him, explaining to me over Prince and warm beer at a cast party that I just wasn’t the sort of person a man would want to start a family with.
Maybe, I frenetically hypothesized, if I started crying, she’d stop crying. I imagined what the ex would say about that. That I was immature? No…another word that started with “I..” Ah, yes. Insane. And that was why I was unqualified to make grilled cheese, sustain a relationship, or care for a child. I thought about what my mother would say about that. She’d say, “Stop your catastrophic thinking!” And then maybe she’d tell me how to make grilled cheese… But for now, I had to go against my grain and learn an impossible skill: coping with criticism.
I fled to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. There had to be some way to take this constructively, maturely and improve my behavior. I’d met one of her nannies. What did the other nanny do that I didn’t do? Then it hit me. The other nanny cooed and squeaked. I talked like a grown-up. Maybe kids were like dogs, and if you cooed and squeaked at them, they never knew you were saying, “your horrendous moron! The ASPCA was so right when they said Golden Retrievers were over-bred.”
I marched back out and removed the still-not-cooked sandwich from the oven. “Ok!” I sang. “Time to have some yummy sandwich that silly me goofed up on!’ Squeak, Coo, Giggle: Miracle.
We finished lunch, and I launched into some squeaking and cooing about how cute her clothes were. She smiled at me, “You can have them when I grow out of them, for when you have a baby. Then I’ll get to see my old clothes because you can bring the baby here!”
“Bring it here?” I choked. “I don’t know, honey. It might take me a lot of years. I’d have to get a boyfriend, then get married and then have a baby. How long do you think that will take?”
“Two years!” She replied confidently.
“What? That’s kind of soon!” And what if she was some kind of prophet? I was running out of time to date horribly inappropriate men and complain about my life!!!!
“Well,” she looked at me as though I was missing something major. “The parents decide when the baby comes. It doesn’t have to take that long.” Then she leaned in very confidentially. “You know, I actually have a boyfriend.”
“Really?!” Remember, I told myself: squeak, coo. “Who is he?”
“He’s the talking trash can at Disney World. And…” her eyes lit up. “He’s not even operated by remote control!” For the first time since I’d started slicing the cheddar, my mouth cracked into a relieved and glorious smile.
“Don’t laugh! It’s true.”
I curbed my enthusiasm but embraced my tremendous joy. “I’m not laughing sweetie. I think it’s awesome. And so are you.”
When her dad came home, in the name of full disclosure, I told him everything. “I know!” he commiserated. “That damn cheddar! It just won’t melt. I have no idea what’s wrong with it.”