It was four thirty in the afternoon, and Diane Bernstein knew that the phone was about to ring. She had just paid the babysitter, the third one to quit this month, extremely polite when she quit, blaming it on other issues—sorority functions, heavy schoolwork—as though the boy had not unnerved her at all. When Diane had walked through the door, Liza, the baby girl, fell into her mother’s arms, weeping so hard she began to choke. The boy, Johnny, was curled up in his bed, rocking himself, for he had scratched the babysitter in a fury (“I had wanted to play the radio,” she said, “and he just went insane”) and the young woman had shut him in his room. Why hadn’t Diane found a better babysitter? It was not a question she allowed herself anymore. She had long stopped worrying about forgiveness, of herself or others. When the therapist had told her, again, that it was not her fault, she laughed; everything was her fault; everything was everyone’s fault. “Even if it was his fault,” she said, meaning her husband, to the therapist, “What would it matter? He’s gone.”
Diane had to figure out who to comfort first: the two-year-old, Liza, who clung to her, frantic with love, unwilling to peel herself from her mother after their long day apart, or Johnny, curled up, a knot of frustration in his bed. “They’re cute kids,” the babysitter called back, apologetically, pulling her long sleeves over the scratches the boy had given her; clutching her fifty dollars, she got into her Jeep and drove off.
Diane had spent the day working in the remedial writing lab of a private university in the Southeast. She hunched in a dimly lit cubicle with the undergraduates, glossy, overfed children who drove SUVs that were gifts from their parents and who could not correctly use a comma. Their essays were supposed to address the presidential election, and involved passionate, ungrammatical declarations stating why the Republicans should win. Lazy people should not get my tax mony, they wrote, or I dont want any gay agenda on my family. Marriage is between a man and a woman. That day, Diane sat with a young woman dressed like a prostitute, her pink Spandex halter top stretched across her breasts. Her hair was styled in two pigtail braids. The girl smelled of the beach, of coconut and salt. She had written a diatribe about how the United States should not only take over Iraq but Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia, and Japan, as revenge for Pearl Harbor. It was an extremely long and angry run-on sentence.
“Do you worry about how other countries might respond to this?” asked Diane.
The girl glared at her. “The terrorists want to kill me,” she said.
The girl’s previous paper had recorded her frustrations about her parents’ divorce, the insensitivities of her superiors at Wal-Mart, the cheap gifts her boyfriend had given her. It had been a more interesting paper, though it still lacked consistent punctuation.
“The terrorists would come to Briar Wood College?” Diane asked, before she could stop herself.
The girl’s eyes narrowed. Then, as though concerned about her grade, she smiled and said sweetly, “You’re just from the North,” she said, which was true, though “the North” seemed to imply anywhere slanting north or west; Diane had moved here from Seattle.
Diane closed her eyes; the school where she worked had raised tuition too many times, and faculty had been cautioned not to discuss the election with the conservative students. They lurched about campus, students and teachers, ignoring each other’s pins and T-shirts. She had done what she could: covered her car in bumper stickers and stuck yard signs in her lawn that were later torn down.
Now, at home, Diane thought it was best to unplug the phone. Then she would not have to decide whether to answer it. The father, who was now residing in Florida, was not supposed to call at this hour; he was supposed to only speak to the children in the morning, for his voice upset them when it was time for dinner and bed. She carried the girl up to the boy’s room and sat on his bed. The children both fell upon her. Liza put her head on Diane’s leg and closed her eyes, quiet; her breathing became calm. The boy did not like to be touched, but was generally soothed by coloring in squares in black and yellow. She gave him crayons and paper and he sat up, filling each box in with extraordinary love.
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