Lies My Babysitter Told Me
"Your parents told me I could have a pool party on my last night,” Lori said.
She finished rubbing baby oil into her legs and spritzed her hair with Sun-In. I treaded water. My parents hired Lori to look after me so they could “work on their marriage” in Hawaii, even though she was seventeen and only five years older than me. Maybe in high school I’d get pool parties, too.
“Do you think they’ll get the divorce?” I asked.
“No way. My mom would have heard. That’s why I want to be a secretary—they know everything.”
I did an underwater double somersault, weightless in the water. Lori always talked about work. Little jobs she was doing, big jobs she wanted to do. Maybe work was how she knew so much.
Surfacing, I asked, “Why have a pool party if you don’t like to swim?”
“Swimming’s for kids.” Her macramé bikini looked too delicate for somersaults, while my racerback suit was faded and stretched. Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” came on the radio, so I climbed out of the water to turn it up for her.
At the pool party, a boy with curly blonde hair came up behind Lori, putting a cigarette in her mouth and a six pack of beer in her hands. She sucked the flame from his lighter and opened a can.
“You can drink at any age when you’re at someone’s house, right Darrell?”
“Twelve-year-olds too?” I asked.
Lori hesitated, then handed me a beer. “Drink it slowly, Sarah, and you won’t get drunk.”
The beer was like a sour soda with no sugar. Was this the taste of being a grown-up on Lori’s side of town? More people arrived as it got dark. I moved my sun lounger to watch them from a distance. The boys did lopsided backflips off the diving board. The girls used the pool net as a limbo stick, dancing to “Carwash.” I’d never heard so many people laughing. Before that night, the pool absorbed all sound. My mother’s morning laps made barely a splash.
Something shattered and I opened my eyes. A girl ran inside and my cat, Mickey, darted out the patio door. I lurched up, feeling seasick, and he ran straight into my arms. Darrell was twisting Lori’s arm behind her back at the edge of the pool. The water churned with people I didn’t recognize.
Darrell glanced at me and let go of Lori, grinning. She hunched over, rubbing her wrist. He grabbed a grey tube off the table.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a bong,” he said. “Wanna hit?”
“It’s for tobacco,” said Lori, snatching it. There were smudges like dark watercolors under her eyes.
I held Mickey closer. “Mom says no glass by the pool.”
“I bet she does. Nice cat,” Darrell said. “Purebred, right?”
I tried to meet his eyes. “He’s a Russian Blue.”
“Nah, the cat’s grey,” Darrell said, grabbing him, his rough touch jolting through me.
Mickey dug his claws right into his chest. Darrell lost his balance, timbering backwards into the pool with Mickey still clinging to him. The kids laughed harshly as Mickey paddled to the side and shot into the bushes. I couldn’t find him anywhere. Lori was curled up on a sun lounger.
“Mickey’s an inside cat,” I cried.
“I’ll take care of it.”
I ran into my mother’s bedroom closet and slid the door shut. I wished it were an elevator lifting me away. Mom’s long dresses stood watch over me until I fell asleep.
The next morning, Mickey didn’t come for the electric can opener. The sink was jagged with broken glass and the dishwasher smelled like vomit. Lori was on the kitchen phone, coiling and uncoiling the cord as she paced. Her hand over the receiver, she whispered, “If your dad finds out, he’ll fire my mom.” Outside, beer cans bobbed in the pool. The stick for the pool net was broken in half. Mickey was gone.
Lori stretched the phone cord through the patio door. “There’s a maid who can come this morning but I can’t get fifty dollars. What should I do?”
I liked it better when Lori had all the answers. I got my piggy bank.
When the maid arrived, I doused the pool with extra chlorine, which dad said burned the germs. I skimmed the surface for beer cans with the broken net. Something grey lay curled up in the deep end, not moving. Mickey. I lunged for him with the net, but the stick wasn’t long enough. I dove, the bright blue exploding around me, my arms outstretched and groping, dreading the dead wet fur. My hand closed around something hard and smooth and round. I bobbed to the surface. It was the bong. I hoisted myself out of the pool and sat on the edge, watching the bong drip over the water. My fingers opened and I let it slide under the surface. It submarined to the bottom with a faraway ping.
The patio door opened. Lori fumbled with her sunglasses, though the fog hadn’t burned off.
“We finished just in time,” she said. “It’s like nothing happened.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but it was Darrell’s friends who trashed everything.”
A bubble rose to the surface of the pool and disappeared, like a silent “oh,” a message from the deep. Lori peered over the edge.
“It’s the bong,” I said quietly, “…for tobacco.”
Lori grabbed the broken stick of the pool net and made off-balanced swoops toward the bong. She never even got close.
“You’ll get in trouble, too, Sarah. Do you really want to upset your parents right now? Dive for it.”
“I tried,” I said. “Your turn.”
She threw down the net on the side of the pool with a clatter. “I can’t swim,” she said, dark watercolors streaking under her knockoff sunglasses. “Nobody ever taught me to swim.”
The water lapped gently against the sides of the pool, barely making a sound.
Erin Striff is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Hartford, where she teaches creative writing, drama, and literature. She has published plays, poems, articles, and a surprising amount of work about the sport of triathlon. Her flash fiction also appears in *82 Review. She lives with her family in West Hartford, CT.