During the spring semester of my international graduate program, I responded to an ad for a babysitter. The father wrote back and invited me for an interview. I consulted my Amsterdam map, hopped on my bike, and found their address, a house somewhere on the edges of affluence.
I was greeted by a white couple, tall and thin, who spoke with the poshest of British English. John and Kate handed me a mug of tea with milk and prattled on about their brief life as expats and parents. John’s hair was cut with precision, speckles of gray showing at his temples, and he wore a day-old beard. He was dressed in a linen jacket and pants and a lime green t-shirt that matched his sneakers. On his wrist shone an expensive-looking watch. Kate was his fashion counterpart but what caught my attention was the way she moved in her space, effortlessly shifting from attentive hostess to doting mother to loving wife.
We’d moved to Amsterdam around the same time, but that’s where the similarities ended. The child in question, Ben, was a blond-haired baby of seven months. At intervals, he opened his mouth for mushy food. He watched me, his fingers drawing circles on the plastic highchair table. They seemed convinced by my competence.
They called often for evening dates. I was a student with no plans and no money, and I always went. Ben never woke up when I was there. I read their books, watched their British series on DVD, and nibbled food from the fridge, usually Greek olives or farmstead cheese from the artisan deli around the corner. I checked on Ben often, counting my visits so I could give Kate a number if she asked, which she never did. I’d ease the door open to his dark room and listen for his breath.
Once, about a year into our arrangement, Kate offered me a glass of white wine. Occasionally I’d hear her joke about wine’s necessity to get through motherhood. Just a couple years past drinking age, I associated alcohol with reckless behavior. I couldn’t imagine gulping wine while my toddler clung to my leg. I said yes, to be polite, and memorized the casual sophistication with which she opened the bottle, poured the wine, and handed me the glass, all the while steering pleasantries. For the rest of the evening, I sat in terror of my buzz.
They moved to an even grander house in the Old South, one of the fanciest neighborhoods in Amsterdam. The house had its own front door, a garden, several balconies, and two sets of carpeted stairs. In between checking on Ben I wandered around, feeling the carpet under my bare feet, examining the edges of the wood floors, the structure of the brown leather couch that molded to my body. John and Kate had a wardrobe with antique gold door handles stretching the length of their bedroom. I never snooped but, once, they left it open, and I let my eyes linger on Kate’s skirts and shift dresses and smooth leather boots. My bulky hips helped stifle the urge to try anything on.
The next summer a second baby was born. Simon. Not wanting to navigate the Dutch obstetrics system, Kate went back to London to give birth and took Ben with her. It was quiet. John stayed to work. I imagined him coming home to an empty house, eating takeout and watching the news, letting wine glasses and laundry pile up around him. I thought about writing, asking if he needed anything. A cleaner, maybe. One night, a condom broke during sex with my boyfriend. I spent hours waiting for a morning after pill prescription and three days vomiting up my insides. Then I got an email from Kate. My face flushed as I opened her message.
“Dear Amanda, we have two of them now. Lovely but chaotic. We need you! We’ll be back soon. xoxo”
I watched Simon several mornings a week. I cuddled him and changed him and let him sleep in my arms. I only let him go when Kate descended from her home office to feed him. She sat on the couch, pulled up her shirt and offered him her breast. He took it as I averted my eyes and gave Kate a summary of our hours. She nodded and drew insights into Simon’s behavior, in the manner of someone who has captured the essence of motherhood. At noon, I put Simon in the double stroller and walked across the Vondelpark to Ben’s preschool. I pushed them back together, Ben chattering about his morning activities. Several times, I was stopped.
“Are those your children? They are so beautiful.” Inexplicably, we all had the same head of wild blonde curls and the same dark brown eyes. I could understand the confusion.
The first time, I said, “No, I’m the babysitter.” After that, I smiled and said, “Thank you.” Thank you wasn’t a lie. Still, I felt guilty, like I was taking something from Kate.
When a sample sale occurred at Tommy Hilfiger, where John worked, they invited me to come along. We rode together in the car, Kate in the back with the two boys. Their car was from England, with the driver’s seat on the right, and I found myself startling from my strange vantage point, my arms flying up to grab the steering wheel that wasn’t there. John’s mobile phone rang. I can’t remember why Kate picked it up.
“Hello?” Kate said. “Hello?” She hung up the phone, and silence descended. It rang again a minute later, and John twisted his arm into her space and grabbed the phone.
“Hello?” he said. He held the phone to his ear, saying nothing more.
We got to the sale. I tried on so many things. Jeans. A jacket. I could see they were getting tired and wanted to go home. As we drove back in silence, I felt uneasy. I was sure I’d spent too much time combing the racks. I got on my bike and rode back to my studio on the west side of town, where I tried on each item, turning in front of the mirror.
There was a week where Kate had to go to London for work. John asked me to come more often. John, the one who had everything, needed my help. Ben got sick, and together we discussed a plan for bringing him to the doctor. My concern was nearly euphoric. Kate would be grateful.
Ben went to bed early that night. I started Simon’s bath and John came in.
“I think Ben’s a bit better,” he said.
“I’m so glad to hear that,” I said, zooming a ducky around Simon. “How’s his fever?”
“Nearly normal.” John knelt down next to me, making a face to get Simon giggling. Then he stuck his fingers in the water and brushed his hand against mine.
It was a mistake, I was sure. I picked up the washcloth and started cleaning Simon’s back. It happened again. A stray caress beneath the bubbles. John got up and left the room. “I’m going to catch up on some work,” he said.
With the wet washcloth, I wiped a tiny smear of yogurt from the corner of Simon’s mouth. I pulled the plug, wormed his little body out of the bath seat, and dried him off. Simon waved his arms at me. I put on his PJs, gave him a bottle, and put him down.
I let myself out, easing the door closed to avoid disturbing the children. Kate would be back in the morning, and I’d be on my usual schedule the next week. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings with Simon, pick up Ben, lunch with Kate and the boys afterwards. She always prepared a lovely spread, with salad, baked bread, and fresh mozzarella. She always sat across from me, asking about my life and sharing details about hers. And she always emanated such grace, even as she spooned yogurt for Simon or cut Ben’s food. They were like family.
Cover Art by Azzah Sultan