I’m babysitting my five-year-old niece today, my sister Suzanne’s daughter, Ellie. I’m back home for the week, staying here because Sis has a house now (whop-dee-freggin-do) and she thought that it’d be easier than staying with the folks. Besides, she said, it’ll give you a chance to spend some quality time with Ellie. Like Ellie and I need to catch up. Like she has something to say about anything besides boogers and ponies.
Anyway, Ellie and I are sitting at the kitchen table because that’s where the TV is. The kitchen. Apparently it would kill them to put one in the living room with the suede couch. Sis and her hubby are out socializing with other people with kids, and I’m thinking I’m a sucker, and no wonder she was so eager for me to stay here. Ellie’s working on some drawing and I’m half watching TV because the game is on and half talking to the kid because I don’t want her to tell her mom that I watched TV the whole time she was gone.
Just so we’re clear, Ellie doesn’t give two shits about me. She’s completely off in her own world. But I start to feel guilty anyway, like I ought to make an effort to find out what she’s into, so I take a closer look. Ellie isn’t much of an artist; I can’t tell if I’m looking at flowers or a flock of birds or what. All I can make out are some wavy, blue lines so I’m like, “Is blue your favorite color?”
“This is turquoise,” she says.
“Well,” I say. “Aren’t you a smart one?” Ellie stops drawing, picks her face up from the paper and rolls her eyes. No bullshit. Then she goes back to her drawing and the game comes back from the commercial, and I’m left with this tingle in my belly like you get when you make a joke in a crowd of people and no one laughs. The tingle lingers. And I don’t even realize I’m staring until she looks up and stares back, her little five-year-old wheels turning. I feel naked. If a grown person looked at me this way I’d have to consider punching them in the face.
“It’s not polite to stare,” she says.
“I’m sorry,” I stammer. I can’t believe this. My niece thinks I’m an asshole. Now I need a strategy. I’ve got to get her back on my side. Not because I can’t stand not being liked, but because I’m her uncle after all, and because I know what it’s like to grow up in this family, and it’s important for her to know that she’s got an ally. I take a closer look at her drawing. It’s not as bad as I thought. The wavy, blue lines are more like small arcs converging in the center of the page like a tornado.
“I really like your design,” I say, slowly, the way people do when they want to impress upon you how truthful they’re being.
She scrutinizes me. I’m leaning forward, stroking my chin, studying this thing like it’s not just a child’s doodle, like it’s got some deeper meaning. She tilts her head to the side and scrunches up her eyebrows and her nose like she smells something rotten.
“That’s not a design,” she says. “That’s dog.”
The naked feeling vanishes. I smile. I lean back in my seat.
“Oh!” I say. “I love dogs. My favorite kind’s a Boxer. What’s yours?”
She exhales and shakes her head side to side.
“No,” she says. “Not dog. God.”
I scrunch up my eyebrows and my nose. I open my mouth to speak but I have no words. In desperation, I almost ask her what her favorite kind of god is.
“Oh,” I say. “Can I?”
“Here.” She puts the paper in my outstretched hands. I look hard. Suddenly it’s real important that I see something besides wavy, blue lines.