Curtis Sittenfeld: ‘The Richest Babysitter in the World,’ a Short Story – The Atlantic

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A tricycle in front of a house

William Eggleston / Courtesy of the Eggleston Artistic Trust and David Zwirner

During the interview, I realized almost immediately that the woman was pregnant—I guessed she was about halfway along—but she didn’t remark on it, and of course neither did I. Over the phone, we’d discussed only her 3-year-old daughter. The woman, whose name was Diane, was looking for a babysitter for the girl, whose name was Sophie, two mornings a week from 9 a.m. to noon, for $10 an hour. This was in late January 1997, my senior year at U-Dub—the University of Washington—and I’d seen the job advertised on an index card pinned to the bulletin board outside the career center, the information in tidy blue cursive.

We met for the interview at a café near campus, after describing ourselves over the phone. She’d said, “I’m 5’4, and I have tortoiseshell glasses and light-brown hair cut in a bob.”

Having never previously described my appearance to a stranger, I hesitated before saying, “I’m 5’9, and I have light-brown hair too, but curly. And no glasses.”

When I entered the café, I looked around, and a woman with light-brown hair and glasses waved. When I reached the table where she sat, she smiled. “Kit?” I nodded, and she held her hand to her chest and, in a quiet voice, said, “Diane.” Still quietly, she thanked me for coming and asked if I’d like something to drink. “My treat,” she added, and it was when she reached for her wallet and passed me a $5 bill that I noticed the hard swell of her belly beneath a loose black sweater.

I went to the counter and ordered a cappuccino, and back at the table, I dropped the dollar bill and change in front of Diane more gracelessly than I’d intended. Then I sat down again.

She asked, then apologized for asking, whether I knew what I was doing after graduation (moving to Tucson with a friend, and, as soon as I was eligible for in-state tuition, applying to law school at the University of Arizona); whether I was from Seattle (no, but Olympia, so not too far); and whether I had brothers or sisters (when I said yes, seven of them, she seemed so startled that I added, as I did whenever people found this fact distractingly surprising, that they all were younger half siblings from my parents’ remarriages to other people). Only then did Diane inquire about my babysitting experience. After I described working informally for families in my mom’s neighborhood starting at the age of 13 and officially nannying the previous summer for twin infants and the summer before that for a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old, she said, “You sound more than qualified to watch Sophie. I’m trying to finish up my dissertation for a doctorate in art history. I did the coursework when we lived in New York, and now I just need to write the last two chapters. Sophie goes to preschool Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, but you’d come the other mornings and, if this works with your schedule, the occasional Saturday night. Not every week, though. My husband usually works on the weekends.”

Was the job mine? I hoped so. The job I already had, which was 15 hours a week in the office of a vice provost, mostly involved transcribing letters dictated by the vice provost on mini cassette tapes. I listened to the tapes via headphones connected to a machine made for this purpose, whose main body sat on a desk with a foot pump down below that I could tap to rewind the tape several seconds. To indicate formatting, the vice provost, whom I never spoke with directly, would say, “Period, paragraph,” and the words period, paragraph often accompanied me through the other parts of my life, as did the smell of the office, which was a combination of copy-machine ink, coffee, and the fake rose perfume of the secretary to whom I reported, who’d worked there for more than 30 years. The secretary was nice, and I hated transcribing, hated the office’s smell, and earned $5.80 an hour, after annual raises on the $4.75 I’d been making when I’d started as a freshman. Even if Diane hired me, I’d hold on to the administrative job—I needed to buy half a car by June—but the babysitting position seemed tantalizingly, almost suspiciously lucrative.

Then Diane said, “Did you bring a résumé? I’d like to call your references as soon as possible.”

“Oh, I don’t have that on me.” I chose not to mention that I didn’t have a résumé anywhere else, either. “But I can get phone numbers to you later today.”

“Do you have a car?”

Buying the car was the reason I’d started checking the career-center bulletin board. Together with my housemate Kevin, who was not exactly my friend and also unfortunately not my boyfriend, I was, for $2,000, going to purchase from a third housemate a navy-blue Ford Taurus with 80,000 miles on it. Kevin and I would drive it to Tucson, where he was from, and share it once we got there, which seemed to me to be thrillingly like something a married couple would do, as if we were simply vaulting over the dating phase. To Diane, I said, “I have a bike.”

Diane’s brow furrowed briefly, but then she said, “I think that should be fine. We live close to campus, in Ravenna. Would you be free to come over tomorrow morning to meet Sophie, so we can see if it’s a good fit? It could just be for half an hour, but I’ll pay you for two hours.”

A good fit? I thought. For a 3-year-old? Several times I’d been left to look after kids whose families I’d never met until a few minutes prior. At the same time, it seemed obscene—in a good way—to receive $20 for a half hour of work. “Sure,” I said. “I can do that.”

I’d wondered if their house would be huge, but it wasn’t. It was pretty, though, the wooden exterior painted pale green, with a pitched roof and a front porch. Though it was overcast and only 45 degrees out, Diane and Sophie were waiting on the porch when I arrived. As I climbed off my bike and walked it up the brick path to the porch steps, Sophie called to me, “Becca has two guinea pigs.”

“Wow,” I said. “Lucky Becca.”

Making eye contact above her daughter’s head, Diane said to me, “Sophie’s friend from school. Sophie, this is Kit. Can you say hello?”

“They eat carrots,” Sophie said.

“You know what?” I was, by this point, squatting in front of her. “I eat carrots. But I’m pretty sure I’m not a guinea pig.”

Sophie grinned. “If you have one, you have to have another so they don’t get lonely.”

“Hmm,” I said. “Carrots or guinea pigs?”

Sophie then shrieked—apparently with happiness—and I hoped again that I’d be hired. Inside, they gave me a tour. The rooms were all tidy, and the furniture was simple but somehow expensive-looking: a rectangular sofa with a gray linen slipcover, a coffee table of light wood that matched the wood of the bookshelves. At the rear of the house, off the kitchen, was a sun porch they’d made into a playroom, where picture books lined a small shelf, and toys were stored in canvas bins. Upstairs, of the four bedrooms, one was Diane’s office and one was a guest room with a double bed; none was a nursery. When Sophie and I returned to the playroom, Diane stayed on the second floor.

Sophie turned out to be obsessed with the movie The Little Mermaid, and she wanted to act as Princess Ariel while I was Scuttle the seagull. Approximately 50 times in a row, we re-created the moment when Ariel brings Scuttle objects from a shipwreck.

“Scuttle,” Sophie-as-Ariel said, “look what we found!”

“Oh, look at this,” I replied as Scuttle, holding aloft the dinner fork she’d passed me, which had a yellow resin handle. “Wow. This is special. This is very, very unusual.” Sophie had taught me my lines, and when I used only one very, she always flagged the omission.

“What?” Sophie-as-Ariel asked. “What is it?”

“It’s a … dinglehopper! Humans use these little babies to straighten their hair out.” Then I’d use the fork to brush my hair.

Each time we got to the dinglehopper part, Sophie laughed boisterously, then leaned her face in very close to mine and, as herself, whispered, “It’s a fork.” Then she’d take the utensil from my hand and say once again, in her Ariel voice, “Scuttle, look what we found!”

We were still doing this—it was all we’d done—when Diane reappeared after about 20 minutes and said, “It sounds like you two have had a lot of fun. Sophie, would you like it if Kit comes back to play for longer?”

It had occurred to me that she was listening from the second floor, and although I didn’t think of myself as a person who did well under pressure, I was optimistic.

Sophie scowled at her mother, the first sign of petulance I’d seen in her. “That’s not Kit,” Sophie hissed. “That’s Scuttle.”

I knew I was in.

It was true enough that I planned to apply to law school, although going to law school was not the main reason I was moving to Arizona. I was moving to Arizona because one night in December, Kevin had said, “You should move to Tucson with me.”

“Really?” I’d said.

“Yeah,” he’d said. “We can be roommates.”

When he said this, we were lying fully clothed above the covers on the futon that was my bed, him on his back, me on my side, with about two feet of space between us. We’d just finished watching an episode of The X-Files—I owned VHS box sets of all the available seasons—and the credits were rolling, accompanied by that spooky music. Kevin and I had never kissed, and we’d known each other only since moving into the same run-down six-person house in August. For the first month, we hardly interacted; our rooms were at opposite ends of a long hall. If my friend Cath, who’d told me about the opening in the house, was around, she and I usually made spaghetti for dinner and ate it in the kitchen, but otherwise, I ate meals in my room. If I was hungry, I bought a burrito for dinner, and if I wasn’t that hungry, I ate a bowl of Corn Pops, which was also what I ate every day for breakfast. While I ate, I read copies of the UW Daily and The Seattle Times that I’d taken from the recycling bin in the vice provost’s office.

Once, in early October, just after 2 in the morning, I’d been watching The X-Files, and someone knocked on my slightly open door, and then Kevin asked, “Is that the one where Mulder finds out why his sister was taken?” We proceeded to spend half an hour discussing which episodes we liked best, by which point my face was burning because of how much I enjoyed talking to him. I then gathered my courage and said, “We could watch another one now?”

“Yeah, for sure,” he said, then clambered knees-first onto the futon, lay on his back, and settled his head against one of my two pillows. At his approach, I’d instinctively scooted a few inches away, which I regretted within seconds. But scooting in again felt too obvious. So I stayed where I was but turned on my side, curling my body toward his as I fast-forwarded to the next episode. I proceeded to absorb none of it, which didn’t really matter, because I’d already watched it several times. This pattern—the physical configuration, the viewing of the program—repeated itself several times a week from that night on. It often occurred to me that the way our bodies angled complementarily in each other’s direction without touching at any point was similar to the Earth’s continents. If pushed together, I thought, our contours would fit perfectly, as if, like the ancient supercontinent Pangaea, we’d previously been attached.

In those first couple of weeks, I frequently wondered if Kevin was about to become my boyfriend, until the time he brought home another girl, and I passed both of them in the hall as I returned to my room after brushing my teeth. “Hey, Kit!” Kevin said in a friendly voice, and the girl, whom I’d never before laid eyes on, said in the exact same tone, “Hey, Kit!” I went into my room, closed the door, and cried so hard that I had to change my pillowcase.

Back then, I believed that incidents or moments or words people said were proof of one thing or proof of another; I believed in proof over ambiguity, even when the proof supported a disappointing outcome. When Kevin hooked up with that girl, it was proof that he didn’t want to be my boyfriend, but then, when he suggested that I move to Tucson with him—he was moving back to work for his father’s property-management company—it was proof that the secret love between us was mutual.

He added, “Theresa is going to sell me her car for 2,000 bucks, but we could split the cost and both use it. And we wouldn’t have to pay rent, because we’d live in one of my dad’s units. Are you thinking of becoming a lawyer? The U of A law school is really good.”

The logistics of life after college baffled me. How did a person know what to do with herself? I didn’t want to return to Olympia, because my parents’ houses were crowded and, inside them, someone was almost always sick or crying, or two people were squabbling.

“Well, I wasn’t thinking of becoming a lawyer,” I said. “But it’s a good idea.”

In the third week of my babysitting job, it rained as I biked over, and, because my clothes got soaked, Diane lent me a T-shirt, a hooded sweatshirt, and sweatpants. The sweatshirt was gray, with maroon letters spelling out Harvard, and when I emerged from the bathroom after changing, I asked, “Did you go to Harvard?” I had never, to my knowledge, met someone who had.

“Yes, but that’s actually Bryan’s sweatshirt.”

“Did he go to Harvard too?”

“He was the year ahead of me. I wanted to ask: Would you be free to babysit this Saturday? I know it’s late notice.” In general, Diane was both more formal and more considerate than anyone else I’d babysat for. She’d ask, rather than instruct—would I like to take Sophie to the library today? Would it work to bake cookies with Sophie?—and when I’d pulled up in front of their house on my bike that morning, she and Sophie had been waiting outside in raincoats. “I feel terrible,” Diane said. “I tried calling you, but I think you’d already left. When it next rains like this, we can pick you up.” She also told me to help myself to whatever food I wanted when it was Sophie’s snack time. Almost all their food, I’d discovered, was organic.

“I can babysit on Saturday,” I said.

Instead of my biking on Saturday evening, Diane picked me up. When we walked together into the kitchen through the garage, Sophie sat with a plate of macaroni and cheese, cut-up chicken, and steamed broccoli in front of her; across the table sat a short man with receding brown hair and round-lensed wire glasses. “I don’t think you’ve met Bryan, have you?” Diane said to me.

“The famous Kit!” Bryan exclaimed, and his voice was warm. “My Little Mermaid rival!” I must have looked uncertain, because he added, “I used to play the role of Scuttle, but apparently I’m not nearly as good as you.” He grabbed Sophie’s fork off the table, inspected it, and said, “It’s a … dinglehopper.” Then he laughed uproariously.

I glanced at Sophie and then Diane, who was at the sink squeezing dish soap into a pot, and neither of them seemed surprised by Bryan’s ebullience.

“Seriously,” Bryan said, “thanks for all your help. I’ve heard nothing but raves.”

“Oh,” I said. “Sure.”

From the sink, Diane said, “Sophie goes to bed at 7: 30, so if you head upstairs at 7, there should be plenty of time for bath and two or three books. The restaurant we’re going to is called Buongusto, and I left the number on the message pad by the phone. The reservation is under our last name.”

“We’re going to have such a crazy Saturday night that we might even stay out until 10 p.m.,” Bryan said. He again laughed that laugh that seemed to dramatically exceed its cause yet came off as endearing rather than annoying. He possessed some palpable intelligence and confidence that made his friendliness feel optional, as if he was a good guy by choice rather than by requirement. Or maybe I just thought that because I knew he’d gone to Harvard.

“Kit, I drawed a tornado,” Sophie said as I took a seat next to her at the table.

“Awesome,” I said.

“I drew,” Bryan said.

“The lotion for after the bath is on top of Sophie’s dresser,” Diane said.

“Tornadoes form because warm and cold air mix together,” Sophie said.

“Although luckily, they almost never happen around here,” I said. “After you finish eating, I’d love for you to show me your picture.” I pointed to her plate. “Your dinner looks delicious.”

“I’ll let you take over this uphill battle.” Bryan stood. “Diane, you ready?”

They both embraced Sophie, and after they were gone, she and I did our usual activities—she had a family of clothed cotton-mice figurines we often played with, then we drew pictures, then we acted out the dinglehopper scene a dozen times—plus the bath, during which she pointed between her legs and said, “It’s not called a bagina. It’s called a vagina.”

“Yes,” I said. “That’s true.” After I’d read her a few books and tucked her in, I sat for a while at her request on the floor in the upstairs hallway outside her room. When I was sure that she was asleep, I went to the kitchen, fixed myself a bowl of organic vanilla ice cream with organic hot-fudge sauce, ate it, cleaned up those dishes and the ones from dinner, and sat in the living room reading the magazines on a side table: Time, then Scientific American, then Harvard Magazine. Although I knew that Diane and Bryan’s last name was Woley, I wasn’t sure how old they were. I guessed 31 and 32, but when I looked at the alumni notes for people who’d graduated in 1987 or 1988, and then in the years before and after, there was no mention of either of them. There were, however, many sentences so strange and specific that I had to reread them multiple times before even partially decoding them: “Anders McFadden writes in from Boston, ‘In March, my wife Izzie and I had the pleasure of catching up in Gstaad with Pete and Katherine “Weewee” Horstman. Fabulous skiing and plentiful libations!’”

The Woleys returned at 10 on the dot, and Bryan gave me a ride home. He drove a Jeep Grand Cherokee—it was much bigger than Diane’s Volvo sedan—and as I buckled my seat belt, he asked, “You’re a senior, right? What’s your major?”

“Sociology.”

“Meaning Engels and Durkheim and those guys?”

“Well, they’re the foundation, but I take classes more on modern stuff like the legal system and health care.”

“What about the legal system and health care?”

I hesitated—being asked about myself was almost disorienting, and by an adult male even more so—before saying, “My last paper was about how we define health, like ‘we’ meaning ‘society.’”

“So why is a sociology major going to law school?” His tone remained warm, and I noted with some surprise that Diane must have told him of my plans. “Do you really want to be a lawyer, or are you one of those people who goes to law school because they have no idea what else to do with their life?” He then exploded with laughter, then quieted down, but when I said, “Both,” he exploded with laughter anew. When he’d settled again, he said, “Graduating from college is incredibly confusing. It’s amazing to have so many options, and it’s terrifying to have so many options. I double-majored in computer science and electrical engineering, and I use both and neither every day. The former I use more practically, but the latter underpins a lot of the way I see the world.”

“What’s your job?”

“I started an internet sales company,” he said.

“Oh,” I said. “Cool.”

“Do you ever look at the web?”

“I have before.”

“What kind of things do you look up?”

“Well, I only looked once, but do you know who Jewel is? The singer? There’s a song of hers, and I wanted to know the words, but I couldn’t find them.”

“Yeah, totally.” Bryan was nodding. “A start-up is a lot of long hours now, which isn’t ideal, with this stage in our family’s life, but you’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot.” Surely this was an allusion to Diane’s pregnancy, but he didn’t elaborate. My theory was that perhaps Diane had had troubled pregnancies in the past and was superstitious. “Here’s a dilemma for you,” Bryan said. “Has Sophie ever told you she really wants a Barbie?”

“Yes.”

“Diane’s adamant that we shouldn’t get her one, for the reasons you’d imagine—the sexism and whatnot. But my take is, don’t elevate Barbies by forbidding them. Just give her the damn doll and let her see it’s not that great.”

I had, in my youth, owned Hawaiian Barbie, Astronaut Barbie, and Loving You Barbie (her dress had puffy sleeves and a pattern of hearts). I said, “Well, Sophie is definitely the smartest kid I’ve babysat for. She told me that we couldn’t have a Triceratops play with a Plateosaurus because one of them lived during the Cretaceous period and the other lived during the Triassic, but I don’t even remember which was which. I think she’ll be okay either way, though—if you do get her a Barbie or if you don’t.”

“Kit, maybe you should be a lawyer,” Bryan said. “Because that was an impressively evasive answer.” As we turned right onto 20th Avenue, he explosively laughed before saying, “You know what it is?”

I glanced across the front seat in confusion. “What what is?”

He said, “It’s a … dinglehopper!”

The next Tuesday, when Diane appeared on the first floor in the way that meant it was almost time for me to leave, she said, “I have a question, and you can think about it and answer on Thursday. You’ve probably noticed that I’m—” She swept her hand in front of her torso, as if saying the actual word was embarrassing. “I’m due April 22. We don’t have family here, and I’m wondering if you’re willing to be on call for when I go into labor, to come watch Sophie. Obviously, it could be in the middle of the night, but you wouldn’t have to bike—Bryan would come get you. My labor wasn’t crazily long the first time, so I don’t think you’d need to be here more than 24 hours, and I’d pay you a flat fee of $500 for the first 24 hours and $25 an hour after.”

“Yeah, I’ll do that,” I said.

“You really can think about it. It could mean missing class, depending on the timing.”

I’d also potentially need to call in sick to my job in the vice provost’s office, but I was pretty sure I’d never mentioned that job to Diane. And besides: $500 for 24 hours? For a large chunk of which Sophie would be asleep, for all of which I’d have unfettered access to organic popcorn and pistachios and cheddar cheese? “No, I’ll do it,” I said. “It’s fine.”

So Diane was further along than I’d thought, less than two months from her due date. I was relieved for her pregnancy to finally be acknowledged, and, in a different way, relieved at this request that made the job make sense. I even wondered if all my babysitting up to that point, including the previous Saturday night, had been an audition for the role of Sophie’s caretaker during the delivery—if it had been necessary for me to go from being a stranger to being trusted via the steps of babysitting Sophie with Diane in the house, meeting Bryan, babysitting solo. As far as I could tell, Diane really was working on her dissertation (sometimes Sophie and I passed her office, where she sat with her back to the open door, a laptop computer on the desk in front of her), but I knew well that concrete tasks and ulterior motives weren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, it was probably because I was a person regularly unable to say what I thought or meant or wanted that I perceived Diane as circumspect. Much later, after I myself became a mother, I perceived her less as incapable of expressing her wishes and more as both very careful and very private. I also wondered about her prescience—whether she’d cultivated care and privacy early, anticipating the eventual need for them.

One Thursday in mid-April, just before I left the Woleys’ house, Diane handed me a business envelope and said, “I’m going to pay you now for when I have the baby. It’s cash. Is that okay?”

Did she mean that $500 was inside the envelope? If so, it was by far the most money I’d ever had in my possession. “You can pay me after the baby comes,” I said.

Diane’s expression was strange—it took me a few seconds to realize that it was probably an expression of self-consciousness—as she said, “Bryan and I don’t see eye to eye on how much a babysitter should be paid. I try to pay on the higher side, because what’s more important than the well-being of our child? When Sophie was 2, I once came back from the grocery store and her babysitter had gone to the bathroom and given her a plastic bag to play with to keep her busy, and I just thought, The fact that I even need to explain why this is unacceptable ” Diane trailed off. “If it comes up with Bryan, you can tell him I already paid you without specifying the amount. He’s a great person, a great dad, but he’s frugal.”

I hadn’t previously known if she realized that she was overpaying me in general and vastly overpaying me for the delivery. In the moment, however, I was most struck by her trust—by how flattering her confidence was that I wouldn’t just take the cash and disappear. The $500 would push me over the thousand I needed to buy half the Ford Taurus.

The very next day, a few minutes after 11 p.m., a housemate named Jessica knocked on the door of my room to tell me that I had a phone call. When I walked to the kitchen and lifted the receiver, a female voice said, “Kit, it’s Diane. Am I waking you up?”

“No, I was watching TV.”

“I’m—well, I’m in labor, actually. Can Bryan come get you?” She sounded no different, no less calm, than she usually did, and I thought of the times I’d observed my own mother on the cusp of having a baby. Once, at 4 in the morning, when I was 8 and my mother was about to have my sister Sherry, I’d awakened to her yelling up the staircase to my stepfather, “Fucking hell, Doug, my pink hairbrush, not my comb.”

When I climbed into Bryan’s Jeep, he said, “It begins again,” then burst into laughter. While we rode back to their house, he was warm and chatty, thrumming with even more energy than usual, and as we pulled into the garage, he said, “Diane’s channeling her nerves into making sure she’s written down every last thing for you about how Sophie will want her morning oatmeal with 12 blueberries instead of 13, so our objective here is to reassure her that it’s all going to be fine.”

“Sure,” I said.

Inside, we walked up to the second floor and into Bryan and Diane’s bedroom, where Diane was zipping a small duffel bag set on an ottoman in front of a matching beige armchair. “Thanks for coming, Kit,” she said. There might have been something embarrassingly intimate about being in their room with both of them, with Sophie asleep in her bed, except that the significance of the impending baby overrode everything else.

Diane said to me, “Would you mind setting the alarm clock in the guest room for 6 o’clock and then coming in and sitting there?” She gestured toward the armchair. “Sophie wakes up around 6: 30, and she’ll run into our room and be confused if no one’s here. You can give her oatmeal for breakfast, and for lunch, a PB&J and fruit, and if you’re still here for dinner, there’s cash in an envelope on the kitchen table to order pizza. She likes just plain ch—oh God.” Abruptly, Diane turned, pressing her forearms against the wall and her head against her forearms.

Bryan approached and rubbed her lower back. “You’re doing great, sweetie.”

“Oh my God,” Diane whispered. (Fucking hell, Doug, my pink hairbrush, not my comb.)

Again, I felt like either I was seeing something I shouldn’t or I was so unimportant that it didn’t matter. Bryan and I made eye contact. “We’re leaving now,” he said. “We’ll go out the back door, so come down in a few minutes and lock it again.”

Just before 10 a.m., hours earlier than I’d expected, Bryan called the house to say that Diane had given birth to a healthy, seven-pound girl whose name was Emily Jane. He was going to come home, pick up Sophie and me, drop me off, and take Sophie to meet her sister.

Sophie drew a picture of Ariel and Scuttle, above which I wrote the words Welcome Baby Emily. Presumably, Bryan had barely slept, but he was in high spirits, picking up Sophie and spinning her around the kitchen. “You’re going to be the best big sister,” he said. As we pulled out of the driveway, with me in the passenger seat and Sophie in the back, he said, “I know it’s a cliché, but the miracle of life is pretty damn miraculous. This actual human being exists where once there was no one. And she’s perfect!”

“I like the name,” I said.

“Then there’s the mind-bending question of what changes she’ll see in her lifetime,” Bryan said. “It’s totally conceivable that she’ll live to the age of 150 or 200 and travel to other planets, not as an astronaut but as a regular person.”

“My great-grandma was born in 1895, and she’s still alive,” I said. “Sometimes I can’t believe she experienced the 1800s, even if it wasn’t for that long.”

“Yeah, exactly,” Bryan said. “Think of everything she’s witnessed. At the turn of the century, cars and light bulbs barely existed, and now people have their own computers.” He glanced across the front seat. “Are you still planning to move to the desert for law school? If you decide to stick around here, I’ll be making a bunch of hires in the next six months.”

“Well, I don’t really know anything about the World Wide Web.” An internet sales company sounded even more boring than the vice provost’s office (period, paragraph), but, so as not to seem ungrateful, I added, “Thank you, though.”

“Have you ever heard the expression ‘Hire for talent, train for skills’?”

“Now I have.”

Though I hadn’t been joking, when he laughed his uproarious laugh, it sounded slightly different than it always had before, as if, perhaps unprecedentedly in our interactions, it was sincere rather than generously fake. “Besides,” he added, “in a company like mine, there are plenty of positions beyond programming—there’s customer service, writing copy for the website, etc., etc. Are you a good writer?”

“Not really.”

He laughed intensely. “At least you’re honest. But seriously, you’re a solid, reliable person, and, believe it or not, that’s rare. There are a lot of flakes out there.”

From the back seat, Sophie said, “Daddy, what’s a flake?”

“In this instance, I mean someone who says they’ll do something and doesn’t do it. But it can also mean a little piece of something, like cereal.”

I turned around and said to Sophie, “I’m glad that I’m not a little piece of cereal! Are you looking forward to seeing baby Emily’s toes?”

Sophie held up both hands and rubbed her fingertips together, as we’d practiced; in my experience, the feet were a good place for toddlers to touch a new sibling without manhandling them. In an earnest voice, Sophie said, “So tiny and so precious.”

This time, when Bryan laughed, so did I.

Babysitting for the Woleys didn’t change that much after Emily’s arrival; Diane usually kept the baby in the upstairs bedroom, or occasionally ran errands with her, so it was mostly still Sophie and me hanging out, walking to the park or the library. Emily cried sometimes, of course, but she was good-natured, and Diane still seemed calm and self-contained. The main differences were that there were purple circles under Diane’s eyes and more takeout containers of food in the refrigerator. And her parents came from Delaware to visit for a long weekend, but, though I heard about the visit from Sophie, I never met them.

One early morning around this time, Kevin and I watched the episode of The X-Files in which, while on a case in rural Alaska, Mulder and Scully needed to examine each other’s bodies for a possible extraterrestrial-worm infection. As Kevin and I lay in our Pangaea posture—complementary, untouching—he said, “Would you rather fuck Mulder or Scully?”

Immediately, my face was aflame. I didn’t look at Kevin as I said, “Mulder.” That this was the correct answer seemed obvious—Mulder was male, and Scully was female—but then Kevin said, “If both of them wanted to fuck you at the same time, would you do it?”

I snuck a peek at him, but he was looking ahead at the TV.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” I said.

Kevin didn’t respond. I sensed that we were on a fulcrum, feared messing up, and suspected that not really answering would be the worst mistake of all. I blurted out, “I don’t get why threesomes are supposed to be that great, because I think the thing about sex that would be fun would be feeling really close to another person.” Immediately, I wanted to retract the words; I was humiliated by my use of conditional verbs, not to mention my sheer corniness.

“But if the other people in the threesome are both hot,” Kevin said, “then wouldn’t that be fun too?”

It did not occur to me until hours later, as I lay awake ruminating, that I could have asked him the same questions he was asking me.

A week and a half before my graduation in mid-June, in a copy of The Seattle Times that I took from the vice provost’s office, I was surprised to see a tiny photo of Bryan Woley on the front page. The article, which had the headline “Pangaea to Go Public,” started, “Online bookstore and internet sales upstart Pangaea will publicly offer shares of its stock as soon as August, according to founder Bryan T. Woley …”

Discovering that Bryan’s company was called Pangaea was even more astonishing than reading about him in the newspaper; the name felt like a good omen for moving to Tucson with Kevin, an affirmation from the universe. The next day, as Diane was letting me in the front door and Sophie cheerfully lay on the living-room floor with her legs in the air, I mentioned that I had seen the article. “Tell Bryan I say congratulations,” I said.

Emily was still so little that Diane held her entirely with her right forearm, Emily’s head in the crook of Diane’s elbow. Diane smiled as she said, “Bryan told me he tried to recruit you, and I had to remind him that the Wild West of the internet isn’t everyone’s dream job. Believe it or not, when we first got out here, I was working full-time for the company too. But you know how people say ‘Packing a suitcase takes as much time as you leave for it’? Working for a start-up is like that. You’re never really finished, even if you’re putting in 18-hour days.”

“A company like that seems really different from getting your Ph.D. in art history,” I said.

At this, Diane smiled again. “Tell me about it,” she said.

My father drove up from Olympia for my graduation, and, separately, so did my mother and my 12-year-old brother, Sean. We all skipped the massive ceremony in the stadium but attended the one for sociology majors, after which my mother took pictures of Sean and me before they left—my brother had a baseball game—and my father and I went out for 4 p.m. chicken fajitas. My father, who was generally unemotional, did not ask about my move to Arizona the following week but did say, as he paid the check, “Be careful of trucks on the highway. Some of the 18-wheelers don’t signal when they’re changing lanes.” Before he headed back to Olympia, he dropped me off in front of the group house and handed me an envelope that I opened, after he’d driven away, to find five crisp $20 bills.

Inside, I ran into Kevin, his father, and his sister waiting for his mother to come out of the bathroom so they could get dinner at a seafood place. As soon as his father learned who I was, he invited me to join them, and, having nothing better to do, I accepted. When his mother emerged—she was a blonde who wore pale-pink lipstick and a sleeveless black shirt that revealed freckled, fleshy arms—Kevin introduced us. His mother squinted at me. “You’re Kit?”

On my last day of babysitting, as Sophie and I drew with chalk on the sidewalk in front of the house, she whispered, “We’re having a tea party for you, but don’t tell, because it’s a surprise.” She held her index finger to her lips.

Half an hour before I was to leave, Diane, carrying Emily, summoned Sophie and me to the kitchen, where we drank lemonade and ate quartered peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, sliced strawberries, and chocolate-chip cookies. They gave me a present wrapped in tissue paper, which turned out to be a copy of Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, along with a sealed envelope that I didn’t open. Then they walked me out to the front porch and hugged me—Emily still in Diane’s arm as Diane leaned forward, Sophie repeatedly squeezing my waist with both her arms. I had already told Sophie that I’d send her a picture of fossilized dinosaur footprints from Arizona. As I climbed onto my bike, I was almost sure that Diane was blinking back tears, which made me tear up too. “Bye, guys,” I called as I rode away. “Thank you so much for everything.” That I never said goodbye to Bryan was unsurprising, given that he wasn’t home during the day.

The lesson I thought I’d gleaned from the Woleys—because I was still then a person who believed that situations provided lessons, rather than just marking the passage of time—was that two smart, dorky adults could join together and make a family, a sweet life. With other families I’d babysat for, the messiness of their lives was recognizable to me from my own upbringing, and always vaguely off-putting. Then there was the way couples fell in love in movies, beautiful women and handsome men who made witty comments and kissed passionately. The Woleys were neither disorderly nor overtly sexy. They offered a framework for an aspirational but perhaps attainable way of existing, a home of calm and kindness and seclusion.

In the envelope from Diane were 10 crisp $20 bills, which is to say twice the amount that my father had given me.

In Tucson, the apartment that Kevin and I shared had two bedrooms, and we spent most of our first full day moving furniture that had belonged to his deceased grandmother from a storage unit into the apartment’s empty rooms: an olive-green couch and a recliner, a wooden kitchen table and chairs. A high-school friend of Kevin’s named Miguel helped us, and that evening, while the three of us sat at the kitchen table eating pizza, Kevin informed me that there had been a misunderstanding and his parents wanted me to pay rent after all; they wanted $375 a month, which, he pointed out, was below market value for an apartment this size. I didn’t know if the disclosure in front of a third party was a strategy on Kevin’s part or just callousness.

The previous night, his parents had been grilling by their pool with friends when we arrived in town, and his mother had introduced me by saying, “And this is Kevin’s little girlfriend.” Though the term ought to have offered proof, tonally it had done the opposite, confusing me.

Kevin immediately began working for his dad, and I spent the days reading the Help Wanted section of the newspaper or else taking the bus to various malls and collecting job applications from stores and restaurants. On our first Saturday morning in the apartment, Kevin didn’t change out of the T-shirt and boxer shorts he’d apparently slept in, not as he ate a bagel and butter, nor before playing video games in the living room for several hours. Though glimpses of him in the hall in Seattle in similar clothing had been titillating, there was an insulting absence of vanity in this prolonged version of his self-presentation, as if I might as well have been watching him floss or pee.

On my 10th day in Tucson, I got a job as a cashier at an overpriced grocery store that sold the kind of food the Woleys had purchased. To celebrate, I bought a six-pack of beer, and when I returned to the apartment, carrying it in a plastic bag, I opened the door to find Kevin’s friend Miguel standing by Kevin’s grandmother’s couch wearing only socks, with Kevin on his knees in front of Miguel, Kevin’s mouth wrapped around the head of Miguel’s penis. Here, at last, was my proof. I thought then that it was proof of my own idiocy, of the fakeness of our Pangaea, and of Kevin’s manipulative behavior, though with hindsight, the decisions we both made seem instead to be proof only of a kind of confusion common in one’s early 20s.

It had already become clear that sharing a car was a logistical impossibility, and when, two weeks later, I moved into an apartment that I’d seen a listing for in the back of Tucson Weekly, I accepted $900 from Kevin for my half of the Ford Taurus and rode my bike to work. I stopped eating Corn Pops for dinner, learned to sauté vegetables, and didn’t apply to law school. One day, while making small talk with a middle-aged customer, I learned that she was a speech pathologist for kids at various public schools around the city, and as she described her job, I felt a jolt of jealousy and also a foreknowledge that was unusual in my life. Within three months, I’d applied for a master’s degree in speech-language pathology and audiology at the University of Arizona, and after working in the field for five years, I went back for my Ph.D. By the time I got a job as a professor at a not particularly well-known college in northern Illinois, it was 2008 and I was 33. This is the job I still have, though I’m tenured. I met my husband through a dating website, and the first time we had drinks, I drove 40 minutes to a bar and grill in Rockford. Now I live in Rockford and drive 40 minutes to teach.

My years in Arizona were also, of course, the years during which Bryan Woley became kind of famous, then famous, then extremely famous. Without trying, I would routinely come across articles about him or see him on TV. Early on, he was considered either a curiosity for his exuberant confidence that we’d all eventually do most of our shopping online or else a harbinger of the death of mom-and-pop stores. In TV clips, he was the same as he’d been in their kitchen or the car, but on-screen, his animation and energy seemed unremarkable.

I had never met another famous person and if Bryan’s name came up in conversation, mentioning that I knew him felt like an obligation, almost a compulsion. Then, in the spring of my first year in the master’s program, I was getting a beer from the refrigerator at a party, and through the swinging door that led to the dining room, I heard a graduate-school classmate say, in what apparently was an imitation of my voice, “Oh, yeah, I know them super-well. When I was their nanny, he gave me rides all the time. When they had their second baby, I slept in their bed.” While I froze in horror in the kitchen, the woman laughed, though at least it didn’t seem like she got much of a response from her listeners. It had never occurred to me that mentioning the Woleys was name-dropping; in my capacity as a fairly dull person, I thought I’d been sharing one of my few genuinely interesting tidbits. Also, I rarely lied or even exaggerated, so I wouldn’t have claimed to have slept in their bed. But overhearing my classmate got me to stop telling people that I knew the Woleys—and anyway, as the years passed, did I know them? Had my knowing them expired because of time and Bryan’s ascent? I had indeed sent a postcard of fossilized dinosaur footprints to Sophie, and both she and Diane wrote back—Sophie’s note was two sentences of huge, intermittently backwards letters about how she no longer needed her mother’s help brushing her teeth—then I got a Christmas card from Diane that first year, a photo of Sophie and Emily in their yard. Then we lost touch. Sometimes back then, when I saw Bryan on the cover of a magazine, I was tempted to email Diane and not mention having seen Bryan on the cover of a magazine, to demonstrate that I wasn’t obsessed with status, that I certainly didn’t hope to squeeze more money out of them, but why would I have been reaching out?

The public view of Bryan went through a few iterations—he was kooky, he was predatory, he was prophetic, he was vindicated, he was villainous, he was respected—before, in 2017, he became the richest man in the world. By the time this happened, it had been years since I’d told anyone that I’d known the Woleys. The last person I ever told was my husband, and not until we’d been dating for months.

If the news that Bryan and Diane were getting a divorce had broken, say, five years after I’d worked for them, I’m sure that I would have been devastated; I’d have thought that it undermined, or retroactively sullied, the sweetness of their family. But when I saw the headline on a news app on my phone one night, it had been more than 20 years since I’d been their babysitter. By 2018, Sophie was apparently a graduate of Harvard with a job at a museum in New York. (This? Why … oh, it’s a dinglehopper.) There were very few pictures online of Sophie or Emily, which surely was not an accident, but both Bryan and Diane looked better than they had in the late ’90s. Bryan was now shaved bald and visibly muscular and, like Diane, never wore glasses in public; Diane remained girlishly slim, with longer, stylishly cut hair. She didn’t look fake or like she’d had weird procedures done to her lips or skin; she just looked like an attractive, happy version of herself. Was it easier to age gracefully when you were a billionaire? I wouldn’t know, but presumably so.

A reductive narrative had been imposed on their divorce, and that narrative certainly could have been accurate. But weren’t there other plausible narratives too? Among couples I knew, divorces were, contrary to stereotype, usually initiated by the woman, as were various nonmonogamous arrangements. And sometimes, there really wasn’t that much animosity; marriages just seemed to run their course, and even if you didn’t end up divorced, it didn’t necessarily mean that yours hadn’t. Because the Woleys’ split had some ostensibly seamy aspects that contrasted with Bryan’s general orderliness, factions of the public—comedians, social media—delighted in mocking the situation. This mockery made me feel strangely, perhaps absurdly, protective of Bryan. I understood that people were making fun of him at the available point of entry, but his leaked texts, his apparent wishes to be close to another person and for another person to find him attractive? Those texts, those wishes, were ridiculous and hopeful and vulnerable and human. The reason to criticize Bryan Woley was that he kept a million blue-collar workers toiling under the same crappy conditions that blue-collar workers had always toiled under. He had it in him to revolutionize retail shopping and cloud computing and, for God’s sake, space travel, but apparently he thought labor practices were fine the way they were.

One night at dinner in the third or fourth month of the pandemic, my 10-year-old son set down the fork he was using to eat lasagna and said, “I love Pangaea.” Shortly before the meal, a multi-item delivery, ordered just the day before, had appeared on our front porch: a book about dragons for my son, toothpaste and a garden spade for me.

My husband and I exchanged a glance, and I said, “Well, actually—” After a pause, I said, “Pangaea is kind of bad,” and at the same time my husband said, “Mom knows Bryan Woley. She babysat for his kids.”

“If Pangaea is bad,” my son said, “why do we buy stuff from there all the time?”

“Because it’s convenient,” my husband said.

“Because there’s often a gap between the people we aspire to be and the people we are,” I said.

Why is it bad?” My son is a sensitive boy, red-haired and big-cheeked. Once, he asked me what veal was, and when I told him, he began to cry.

“Well,” I said again. “Workers for Pangaea are expected to be as efficient as possible while they move around collecting the stuff people have ordered, and that can be hard on their bodies. One time, one of the warehouses got so hot that the workers were fainting. Or there were reports that they were so worried about not being fast enough that they peed in bottles instead of going into a bathroom.”

My son looked aghast.

I said, “A lot of their employees work full-time but are still considered temporary, so they don’t get health-care benefits, and that means if they go to see a doctor, the appointment is very expensive. So then maybe they just don’t go to the doctor at all.”

“Mom, we should never buy anything from Pangaea again.”

“On the other hand,” I said, “when I knew him, Bryan Woley was a nice guy. He wasn’t a jerk. And he recently gave $100 million to food banks.”

“Well, sure,” my husband said. “Instead of paying taxes.” As he shook parmesan cheese onto his lasagna, my husband added, “Bryan Woley makes about $300 million a day, so that donation is like you giving $100 to a homeless person.”

“The funny thing,” I said, “is that Bryan once offered me a job.”

My husband snorted. “What, because of your coding prowess?”

“That was my reaction. But they were hiring people so quickly back then, and they needed to fill nontechnical roles too.”

My husband put his hands in front of his face. “I wish you hadn’t just told me this.”

“Why?”

“Because if you’d gotten shares of Pangaea stock in the late ’90s, even if you’d just worked there for a few years, you’d be worth tens of millions of dollars.”

Was this true? Oddly, it had never occurred to me. After a few seconds, I said, “But if I’d taken that job, I’d probably never have met you, and Ian wouldn’t exist.”

It was hard to tell how much my husband was kidding as he said, “Who cares? You’d be the richest babysitter in the world. Instead, you’re Pete Best.”

“Who’s Pete Best?”

“Exactly,” my husband said. “He’s the fifth Beatle.”

This is the part I haven’t yet mentioned: The day that I saw the index card on the bulletin board outside the university career center, with the job description that Diane had written, I looked down the hall in both directions and then I removed the pin, pulled down the index card, put it in my pocket, and stuck the pin back in the board. Ten dollars an hour to look after one kid? Though I believed at the time that this act was the worst thing I’d ever done, I also didn’t see how I could behave other than ruthlessly.

Almost 25 years later, I do worse things on a monthly and perhaps weekly basis. Recently, pulling out of a narrow parking spot at the grocery store, I sensed that I was too close to the car beside me, heard the brief grinding of metal on metal, and, without consciously deciding to—really, with just an instinct that I didn’t have time to deal with this, whatever this was—kept driving. Last week, I looked out my living-room window, saw a neighbor I’m not fond of, a woman in her 60s, walking past, noticed that she was wearing a cast on her left arm, and thought, Good. I then scolded myself, but again, that first reaction—it was so sincere. Both of these episodes would have been inconceivable when I was in college. And at this point, my most egregious crimes are probably those I rarely fault myself for: eating shrimp harvested by slave labor, wearing shirts made by children in other countries. As with buying products from Pangaea, I sort of know how such things reach me and sort of don’t. I intend, as I suspect most people do, to be moral, but when in the day am I supposed to research ethical sourcing of coffee grounds, and am I really expected to pay four times as much for them?

Are the Woleys good and bad in the same proportions that I am, but the vastness of their wealth makes the consequences of their choices more dramatic? That Bryan is cold-blooded in his business dealings seems hard to dispute—Pangaea has indeed destroyed not only countless mom-and-pop stores but also large corporations and tiny third-party sellers—and I don’t know if this means that he once was decent and became cruel or that he was always cruel but not cruel to me, because of my proximity to his wife and children. His obsession with pleasing customers is well documented, but does he not realize that surely some of his customers and his employees are the same people? Does he ever lie awake at night and think, How the fuck did I arrive at this point? Is it relevant that, in my bed in Rockford, Illinois, I often lie awake at night and think, How the fuck did I arrive at this point?

In the divorce settlement, Diane received $40 billion, which she has been giving away with notable efficiency. I doubt that either Bryan or Sophie remembers me at all, but from time to time, I wonder if Diane does; I suspect that she might, though not vividly. Then I wonder if she’s ever looked me up online, which seems even less likely. When I was their babysitter, I assumed that she’d finished her dissertation by the time she gave birth to Emily, but I later learned, in one of the few-and-far-between magazine features the Woleys cooperated with, that she hadn’t earned her doctorate until 2000. As far as I can tell, she never did anything with the degree, and I have no idea if the immensity of Pangaea, the immensity of being Bryan Woley’s wife, precluded her ability to be anything other than a philanthropist, rendering her own goals ridiculous, almost stunty. Or maybe, at least for a while, she found satisfaction in motherhood, marriage, being the private yin to his outward yang. Or maybe she is other things, and it’s just not visible.

Certainly not everyone who gets a Ph.D. goes on to become a professor, and I don’t know if Diane wanted to or not. In imagining that perhaps she finds her fortune burdensome, I might be letting her off far too easily; it could be that she relishes the power such wealth provides. And yet I cannot help wondering this most of all: if my life of department meetings and strip-mall takeout and a mortgage—my ordinary life—would make her jealous.

As you may know !