Right before I wrote this story, I was re-reading a lot of Jane Bowles (what “a lot” there is of her to read, which isn’t much). When I first read her, what struck me as so amazing about her work is that her characters spoke and acted as if completely unmediated by societal norms. But that wasn’t totally getting at what made her characters so dynamic and surprising. My friend Jason pointed out to me that Bowles’s characters are, almost completely, lacking in self-awareness—to the reader, perhaps, it seems as if they are totally laying their pathologies out there for all to see, but the characters are just “being themselves.” Having written characters in the past who were very self-reflective and wafflingly ambivalent, I wanted to try to write characters who were allowed to get it wrong. Or: there’s little more annoying than a child or teenage character/narrator who knows too much. I wanted to explore girlhood through the lens of young characters completely convinced that their way of seeing and experiencing the world was the only way to see it, before age granted them the gift of perspective.
Sara Jaffe is a writer, musician, and teacher currently living in Brooklyn. She plays guitar in the present-perfect-tense band Realia, and is an editor at New Herring Press, a brand new purveyor of prose chapbooks.
Read it, she said.
She pushed the diary at the babysitter, more gently this time. It’s okay, she said, I want you to read it.
The babysitter nervous-laughed. You don’t want me to read it, she said. A diary’s private. That’s why it has a key.
The girl squeezed her fingers between the pages of the locked diary and pulled out a tiny key on a silk thread. For a second the babysitter was afraid the girl was going to swallow it. But that would be what someone would do if she didn’t want someone else to read her diary.
This was the babysitter’s first time babysitting for the girl. The girl’s house was three doors down from the babysitter’s. The houses on the street were all pretty much the same size, though their shapes made them look as if they were different sizes. The babysitter had lived on this block for her whole life, and the girl’s family had moved onto the block a year ago. The girl’s family had a regular babysitter but she was away for a baton-twirling competition. The babysitter hadn’t known that baton-twirling was something you could do competitively, but she was interested in learning more about it.
Do you have a diary? the girl asked.
No, the babysitter lied. Lately, she had been trying to write in her diary as if she were someone else. She had been experimenting with signing different, imaginary names to the entries: Shara, Sharon, Dana. Sharon had a boyfriend, but Dana was better at tennis.
The babysitter might have read the diary if it had been another child who’d offered it to her—but another child probably wouldn’t have tried to make her read it. This girl scared her in the way that she seemed to aggressively engage with every activity she participated in, doing it a little more, a little differently than it needed to be done. She sat very far from the TV, as if someone had once told her that sitting too close was bad for her eyes. She wore socks and leggings and an oversized sweatshirt all with the same stripe of difficult blue. The girl reminded the babysitter of a man who had once come up to her and her mother on the subway holding a stack of little cards. The cards explained that the man couldn’t speak and that he would appreciate it if you could give him some money. The cards were a bit wrinkled and dirty, as if he’d been using the same stack for awhile. Her mother looked away and said Don’t take the card, don’t take the card. Don’t take the card the babysitter intoned to herself as the girl put the diary in her lap.
The diary had a puffy plastic cover, with heart-shaped music notes on it. Do you like music? the babysitter asked.
The girl looked at her like she was stupid. I practiced before dinner, she said. Twenty minutes.
I know you did, said the babysitter. The girl had seemed young to be playing classical. But a lot of people play piano. Do you like it?
That’s kind of a stupid question, the girl said. I don’t know why else you would do it. Then she moved closer to the babysitter and put on a big fake smile. Are you ready to read my diary now?
The girl wasn’t cute. Her hair was a frizzy halo around her ponytail. She was too old to be doing this. Just like she was too old for the hysterics she threw an hour ago, when she said she had to talk to her parents. She made the babysitter call the restaurant. The babysitter was so embarrassed. Less so to speak to the parents than to the smooth-voiced maître d’ who picked up the phone. She had said to the girl, The maître d’ is busy, he doesn’t want to deal with that kind of thing. The girl had asked what a maître d’ was. Like the Master of Ceremonies, the babysitter said. The one who stands in the front. I don’t think that’s what it’s called, the girl had said, and went back to her hysterics. The babysitter hadn’t argued with her, because why argue with a little girl? Actually, she felt sort of bad for the parents, too. They seemed pretty nice, and normal, except for the ways that they didn’t seem to acknowledge the weirdness of their daughter. Sitting in the girl’s pink room with the diary on her lap, the babysitter had a sudden flash of empathy: I really hope you get less weird before middle school.
Why do you want me to read your diary? the babysitter asked.
I think it’s a good way to get to know me, the girl said.
Can’t we talk about something?
We’ve talked about everything, the girl said. All we’ve done is talk. Talk talk talk.
We haven’t talked about anything, the babysitter said.
The girl, up on her knees, hovering near the babysitter, gave a huge sigh and fell backwards onto the carpet. She looked at the ceiling and scissored her arms and legs up and down. The babysitter carefully put the diary aside and lay down on her back, too.
Does your sister ever read your diary? the girl asked. Does she find it under your mattress and break the lock? This surprised the babysitter, because she did keep her diary under her mattress, and she was worried that her younger sister would find it and, with her ingenious tomboy skills, figure out how to pick the lock.
Do you know my sister? the babysitter asked, sitting up. Have you been talking to her?
Nobody on the block talks to your sister, the girl said, which was true. Mostly, I’m scared of her.
Me too, said the babysitter.
Did my parents tell you my bedtime? the girl asked.
The babysitter was dazed. She looked at the things in the girl’s room: a pink clock-radio. An aluminum trash can with a winter scene painted on it. It looked similar to the gift-cans filled with three kinds of popcorn that her grandparents sent her and her sister every year at the holidays. Did that can used to have popcorn in it? the babysitter asked. The girl nodded. The babysitter picked up the girl’s diary and pressed lightly on its padded cover. I was going to ask you, the babysitter said. What do you think of the name Shara?
The girl sat up and yawned aggressively. She stretched her neck back and thrust out her arms like a cartoon of a tired person. I think my parents usually want me to go to bed by 8:30, she said.
That’s right, the babysitter said. They said 8:30.
Well, said the girl, then I guess it’s time.
by Sara Jaffe