Providence protects children and idiots. I know because I have tested it.
-- Mark Twain
I stood by the door and waited for Jane. "Come on, Bella, we're going for a walk! Want to wear your doggy?" My sister held up the small, plush dog backpack that snaps around her daughter like a harness. The soft puppy's tail is twice as long as Bella is tall.
"You put that leash on her just to go for a walk?" Simon, who had been watching a soccer match on the television across from where he lay on the couch, sat up and raised a quizzical brow at his wife. Jane's face fell.
My sister's guilt for putting a leash on her daughter is almost as great as her fear that Bella might suddenly sprint into oncoming traffic or be abducted by another pedestrian. Last week I accompanied Jane on her weekly trip to Target, where she buys everything she needs, including her groceries. It was fun to have a glimpse of her daily life.
Once inside the building, Bella refused to either sit in the cart or don the doggy backpack by screaming until her little face was as red as the store's bullseye logo, so we spent most of the morning chasing her up and down the aisles. This seemed to greatly amuse the imp with golden ringlets that bounced around her grinning face as she bounded away from us. A person with legs that short should not be able to run that fast.
Now that I knew what the child was capable of, I agreed with Jane on the leash thing. But, in the end, after she locked eyes with Simon in an attempt to detect any potential judgment, Jane's guilt won out. Nodding in silent understanding, I grabbed Bella's left hand while Jane clasped on to her right, and we headed out the door.
About once a week, I join Jane for a walk around her neighborhood, a trip to Target followed by lunch, or a cup of tea in her dining room. This was the first time I had been able to set aside an entire day (11.5 hours, to be exact) to spend with my sister and her 2-year-old, a day that taught me that nothing is simple when a child is involved.
We began with a walk or, more accurately, two steps and a stop, two steps and a stop, and so on, depending on which lawn Bella felt like exploring or how many small rocks she decided to pick up, examine closely, and relocate. We made it halfway around the block before Bella decided, with a perfunctory pout, that it was time to turn back.
Jane and I left the little girl with Simon while we went to rent a few movies and shop for lunch and dinner.
"It's so nice to be able to just hang out and do nothing with you guys," I said to Jane as we sifted through the prepackaged sushi. "It's like escaping from my life and living in yours, like I get to walk a mile -- or a half a block -- in your shoes."
Simon left for work and Bella went down for a nap. Jane and I maximized our time alone by getting comfy on the couch, breaking open the plastic containers, and eating the sushi with our hands while we watched the first of our two rented movies, The Brothers Grimm . With the movie over and the sushi gone, it was turning out to be a perfect couch-potato day until (halfway through a taped episode of Oprah ) Bella woke up.
If I ever need to be reminded of how illsuited I am for motherhood, I need only spend some time with a child. When confronted with the naive sophistication of a little one, I become a bungling idiot. Bella, my darling yet mischievous niece, has the ability to impair my mental acuity with her mere proximity.
Jane and I stared at the screen as Oprah's guest began to divulge the most common professions among 1500 pedophiles who were caught giving their money to child pornography. As though sensing the importance of silence as we leaned in to be truly horrified, Bella chose that moment to test her vocal chords.
"Bella Boo, do you want a cup of tea?" Jane cooed expertly over the noise.
Following her lead, I reached for the miniature ceramic tea set that rested on Bella's small table and grabbed the closest piece, a flower-painted pitcher.
"Mm, yummy tea," I said, keeping my eyes on Bella and my ears perked for any snippets of sound I could catch from the television. It was working. For a split second, Bella stopped her surprisingly powerful solo and watched me intently. Convinced of my superior intelligence in tricking the young thing to cease making noise so I could hear the man say, "...it turned out that 300 of these pedophiles were pediatricians, teachers, and...," I carried on the charade by tipping the pitcher toward my face and pretending to drink.
"What the?!" A rancid smell reached my nostrils and I suddenly felt...wet. I broke my gaze with Bella, whose cognizant smile was disconcerting, to look down and see that my red shirt and black pants were drenched with a thick white substance that had been sitting in that mini pitcher for God-knows-how-long. "EWWW!" Oprah forgotten, I jumped up and ran to the kitchen. I can't stand milk, even when it's fresh. I fought back gags as I returned to the living room with a roll of paper towels. "Careful, Jane, if you don't stop laughing so hard, you might piss yourself or forget how to breathe," I snapped.
Bella pointed to the milk-covered spots of floor and couch by way of narking on me, which only made Jane laugh harder. She continued to laugh as she cleaned up my mess. Bella launched back into her song, and I sat at the other end of the room, regaining control of my gag reflex and pouting.
Thirty minutes later, Jane asked me to watch Bella while she went to deal with laundry in the garage. I followed my niece into Jane's bedroom and watched as she scaled the bed frame and pulled herself onto the recently made bed, letting out a sigh of satisfaction at her accomplishment and the feel of the fluffed blanket beneath her as comfortable reward. I decided to be a spontaneous and fun aunt by giving her a zerbert, that funky and strange act of blowing on someone's belly until your lips vibrate and make a sound that closely resembles that of flatulence.
I uncovered her stomach (which, similar to most toddlers, sticks out like a pot belly), applied my lips to her flesh, and blew away. She squealed with laughter and said, "Again!" But something was wrong. When I stood up to smile, my lips slid against each other in an odd way. My face felt...greasy. "Wha?" I was wiping at my mouth, nonplussed, when Jane walked into the room carrying a hamper full of clean clothes.
"Jane! I gave Bella a zerbert and my face feels all weird."
My sister didn't look concerned at all. She looked amused. Then she doubled over and cackled like a hyena over a stolen carcass. She somehow managed, between gasps for breath, to communicate that before she went to the garage, she had applied some kind of topical steroid to Bella's stomach to relieve the itching and soreness caused by a fleabite near the child's belly button. I fervently wiped at my lips as the "ewww" factor returned full force.
"Can it hurt me? Will I get sick?"
"If anything," Jane laughed, "it will soothe your face."
"Wonderful," I said sarcastically. "Can we watch the other movie now?" I settled back onto the couch, trying to ignore the dried milk on my clothes and the residue of slime on my face. Our second movie was In Her Shoes , a story of two sisters who lead very different lives. Neither Jane nor I had the heart to tell Bella to stop banging a ceramic piece from her tea set against her wooden table; we simply set up the subtitles so we could read what was being said on the screen.
After dinner, which Bella intermittently interrupted to demand we stop eating, I decided to call it a night. When I arrived home -- soiled, traumatized, and humbled -- it was as though I truly had worn Jane's shoes, with the blisters to show for it.