It all started with boredom, which is the greatest occupational hazard of the baby-sitter.
"Dawn, I'm booooooooooored," Leo whined, getting a good three syllables out of the word.
"Me tooooooooooo," Jen concurred with her big brother, something that only happened in the direst of circumstances.
"Bored, bored, bored!" Sammy, sitting on the kitchen floor, punctuated this chorus by banging his sippy cup on the floor.
I sighed. It was only ten-thirty on a sunny Saturday morning, and activities that had been proposed and rejected included: playing catch, running through the sprinkler in the backyard, going on a scavenger hunt, reading aloud, board games, card games, video games, making a healthy snack, making an unhealthy snack, and even watching a video. To be honest, racking up so many hours as the Yangs' nanny, I was feeling almost as tired of their house as the kids were.
The baby-sitter doesn't get to whine that she's bored, though. I closed my eyes briefly, hoping that inspiration would strike me.
Nothing. Darn. When I opened my eyes, though, I saw that Sammy had jettisoned his sippy cup and upended a large plastic garbage bag that had been squatting in the corner.
"Let's not touch that," I said, moving to disengage him automatically. "What is this stuff, anyway?"
"That's the rag bag," Leo informed me loftily, not even bothering to raise his head from the kitchen table, where it had slumped in the ultimate posture of boredom.
"Mommy reuses old sheets and t-shirts for rags," Jen elaborated.
I pulled one such t-shirt out of Sammy's mouth. It was used, all right, but it was clean and it didn't have any holes in it. An idea started to take shape in my mind.
"Guys," I announced, "we're going to do an art project."
"Is it coloring? I'm sick of coloring," Jen announced.
"It's not coloring, and it's a surprise," I said firmly. "And we're going to need some special supplies, so let's all take a walk, okay?"
I won't claim that they were instantly fired with enthusiasm, but Leo did peel himself off the kitchen table, and, balancing Sammy on one hip, I led my small procession down the street.
The Yangs live in an older neighborhood that's not too far from my campus, which is how I ended up taking a job as their nanny. (It definitely beats working retail.) I knew of an excellent art supply store a few blocks away, which wasn't surprising, since Berkeley is swarming with artists.
I let the kids look around a little bit – Leo was especially intrigued by the ball-jointed wooden artists' figures – but after about fifteen minutes I brought my purchases to the checkout and struggled to pay while disentangling Sammy from my long blonde hair.
"Are we going to have a rubber band war?" Jen asked, with the first glimmer of interest she'd shown all day.
"No," I said, exasperated. "You know my rule about violent games."
"Are those paints?" Leo asked. "I don't want to paint."
"They're better than paints," I said, "and if you want to find out what we're going to do with them, you have to hurry home."
Sometimes, being a good baby-sitter is like being a magician: it's all about creating suspense, not to mention a little slight of hand and some good stage patter.
"First, we take these ordinary white t-shirts and soak them in the magic solution," I begin, dumping a mass of white cotton into in a huge bucket full of water and soda ash that I had mixed up in the Yangs' garage. Leo and Jen were wearing their oldest, grubbiest clothes, and Sammy was just wearing a diaper. "Here, stir them with these sticks."
"Double, double, toil and trouble," Jen chanted.
"Fire burn and cauldron bubble," Leo and I joined in.
"Double trouble!" Sammy added, and I laughed and planted a kiss on his shiny hair.
"We'll start with Sammy's shirt," I said.
"No fair!" Leo started up immediately, but I was ready with a counter.
"After I show you how it works, you and Jen will be able to do your shirts all by yourselves."
All by yourselves is practically a magic word when you're a kid. Leo and Jen subsided, slightly more patient, and put on the latex gloves I handed out.
I pulled out the smallest t-shirt and wrung it out, twirling it on my toasting fork like a huge bite of spaghetti, and wrapped it with rubber bands, making sure that Leo and Jen could follow what I was doing.
"What's your favorite color?" I asked Sammy.
"Blue," he replied promptly. I whipped out my bottle of bright blue dye and applied it generously to the wet, wadded-up t-shirt.
"What's your second favorite color?" I asked.
"Blue!" he repeated.
We all giggled. "Okay, your shirt's going to be blue and blue," I said, spreading around the blue some more and turning it over to do the same thing to the back. "Now, we wrap it up in this plastic wrap, and leave it for the dye to set, and then we throw it in the washing machine and voilą!"
"Hey," Jen said suspiciously, "are we doing dye-ties?"
Leo laughed like a hyena. "It's called tie-dyes, not dye-ties, stupid!" he crowed.
"Don't call your sister stupid," I said automatically. "Besides, Jen figured out what my secret art project was first. That was very smart."
Jen beamed. Leo stuck out his tongue at her. Sammy smiled beatifically, pointed at his shirt-in-progress, and said, "Blue!"
Jen and Leo got to work on their shirts. Jen wanted hers to be purple, her latest absolute favorite color, so I gave her the red and the blue to mix as she spread the dye on her shirt. Leo chose green and yellow to match Springer, his favorite Transformer robot, which was slightly more complicated to achieve, but he stuck out his tongue in concentration as he worked out how to do a wash of yellow and then add blue stripes to make green.
"What are you working on, Dawn?" Jen asked me. While the kids were busy, I had taken an old white sheet and twisted it into one huge spiral, and I was layering my colors carefully, red blending into orange into yellow into green into blue into purple and then red again.
"A rainbow," I answered. "See how all the colors blend together?"
"I like rainbows," Jen informed me seriously.
"Me too," I told her. "Rainbows symbolize a lot of things that are important to me: nature and peace and hope and gay pride."
The Yangs have all met my girlfriend, who is also my roommate, who is also my best friend since the age of six, so they all know that I'm queer. I'd never really talked about it with the kids because they'd never really given it a second thought. As far as they knew, some boys liked boys and some girls liked girls and that was just normal.
"I know about gay pride," Leo put in. He had carefully laid aside his t-shirt. "My teacher talked about it at school. They have parades and rainbow flags."
"We can have a parade," Jen said. "Dawn already has our flag."
I started to choke up like my step-sister Mary Anne when she rereads Wuthering Heights. I tried hard to blink away the tears that I couldn't wipe with my rainbow-dyed latex hands.
"Okay," I said finally. "We'll have our own gay pride parade this afternoon. But only around the block," I added, trying to make sure the project didn't get too far out of hand.
"I'll pull Sammy in the wagon," Jen suggested.
"And I'll help Dawn carry the flag," Leo said.
By the time I pulled the shirts out of the dryer, their multi-colored spirals set by the heat, our parade had expanded to include Maddie, the eight-year-old girl next door, and her dog Sparkle, who was wearing a pair of bunny ears. We solemnly processed down the street, except for Sparkle, who kept pulling on his leash, trying to chase squirrels, and Jen, who tugged Sammy's wagon laboriously up the hills and then zoomed down them, almost crashing into the rainbow sheet that Leo and I were bearing between us.
The great thing about Berkeley is that nobody gives a second thought to a bunch of kids marching around in tie-dye with a dog dressed like a rabbit. I wasn't totally sure that anyone could tell that it was supposed to be a gay pride march, but I appreciated that they gave us a friendly wave and let us do our thing. I like to think of myself as an individual, but sometimes I find it hard to actually be one.
We timed our parade perfectly, because when we made it back to the Yangs' front door, Mr. Yang was waiting for us.
"Wow," was the first word out of his mouth. "I see you've been busy today."
"We made shirts!" Leo yelled. "And we had a parade! For rainbows and peace and gay rights!"
"Just around the block," I added.
"Sounds like fun," Mr. Yang said. He scooped up Sammy, admired everyone's shirts lavishly, and handed me a fat pay envelope for the last week. I folded up my new rainbow sheet, tucked it in my backpack, and climbed on my bike.
When I got back to our room, Sunny was lying on her bunk in the dark listening to her Discman, but she turned it off when she heard me, propping herself up on her elbows.
"How was work?" I asked, reaching for the bag of organic granola that we buy in bulk at the co-op. In our room, it's a staple.
"Exhausting," Sunny groaned. "You would not believe how many kids tried to sneak into the new French movie for the topless scene."
"Yeah, well, my kids didn't want to do anything," I said, washing down my granola with water from my sports bottle. "Finally, I got them busy with tie-dying."
"Tie-dying?" Sunny pulled off her headphones and sat up all the way.
"Yeah, they had a whole bunch of old t-shirts in their rag bag and I was inspired and I went and bought some of those dyes in the little squirt bottles, because we didn't have any big tubs for the dye. I showed them the basics, but then they did the colors by themselves, except for Sammy, of course. He insisted on blue, the whole blue, and nothing but the blue."
Even after all these years of no club notebook, I'm still used to debriefing whenever I get back from a sitting job. Luckily for me, Sunny loves kids too, even though she herself hasn't baby-sat in years.
"And then," I went on, "I made this rainbow sheet, and Jen and I started talking about rainbows, and next thing you know, I'm leading a gay pride parade down the block." I flourished my handiwork and then tossed it on my bunk (top). It fit right in with the rest of our dorm room décor, which is basically punk rock meets modern hippie with a healthy helping of clutter.
"You had a gay pride parade?" Sunny echoed incredulously. "Why is it always about parades and bake sales and day camps and carnivals with you?"
I froze, stung. "I didn't make them do it," I said defensively. "It was all their idea."
"Whatever you say, Kristy Thomas," Sunny snapped.
That made me furious — partly because Kristy is still somebody I consider a friend, even if we only talk to each other maybe twice a year, and partly because I do not consider myself to be like Kristy Thomas.
"The last time I checked," I said icily, "you sure enjoyed sticking your tongue down my throat in public. I guess you're just not mature enough to handle the fact that the personal is the political."
"Maybe I just don't want to be an item on your political agenda!" Sunny's Discman tumbled to the industrial dorm room floor with a sickening crunch. "Dawn Schafer, she saves the whales, she feeds the homeless, and she munches rug! She's like the ultimate California girl, Super-Dawn!"
"I'm going to come back when you're ready to act like a reasonable person," I said shakily.
"Don't bother," Sunny said, kicking her broken Discman across the floor. "I won't be back tonight."
Sunny stomped out of the room. The slamming of the door echoed above the usual Saturday night dorm buzz.
I threw myself down — on Sunny's bunk, actually, because I wasn't sure I could handle the climb up to mine — and those tears that had been lurking behind my eyes all day poured out in a flood. I wrapped my arms around Sunny's pillow and smelled her sunscreen-shampoo-Sunny scent, and began to cry even harder.
Only after I had poured out approximately an ocean of tears on Sunny's pillowcase did I realize that I hadn’t eaten anything besides a handful of granola. No wonder I was shaky. I raided the minifridge and forced down a banana, some carrot sticks, and half of a carton of leftover Chinese, although I barely tasted any of it.
Part of being Sunny's girlfriend was that there was never any honeymoon period: I already knew all the worst things about her before the first time we kissed, surprised and deep and desperate, sharing a single towel on the beach as the sun set and the tide washed in. I had waited before when Sunny ran away, and I just hoped that when she came back she wouldn't have done anything too stupid.
I thought about calling people who are good to talk to — Ducky, Mary Anne, Mom, maybe even Carol — but I decided that I didn't know what I wanted to say to them anyway. I did dial one number — 555-5333, Palo Alto's only Dial-a-Joke, my little brother Jeff's particular pride and joy.
"A man noticed a farmer holding a pig up to an apple tree so the pig could eat apples right off the branch," began Jeff's voice on the answering machine. "He stopped and said, 'You know, you could save a lot of time if you just put the pig down and let him eat off the ground!' The farmer turned around slowly and responded, 'What's time to a pig?'"
Jeff provided his own ba-dum-shish on his drum set. "If you enjoyed that joke, or even if you didn't call 555-JEFF, that's 555-5333, for all your Dial-a-Joke needs!"
I smiled as I replaced the receiver, then I pulled out my organic chemistry homework and forced it to absorb all of my awareness. Down at the level of molecules and compounds and reactions life on earth was completely comprehensible, even if sometimes I got so confused I had to look up the answer in the back of the book.
After a long, long day of baby-sitting, fighting and crying, it was aromatic compounds that finally did me in. I dragged on a nightshirt and climbed into Sunny's bed, since she wasn't planning on using it. It smelled like organic laundry detergent and sweat and Sunny, and I flopped back and fell sound asleep.
Lips on mine, wet and firm and pulling me into a deep kiss. Sunny liked to wake me up that way sometimes, when I'd pulled an all-nighter and I had an 8:00 AM test or she just happened to be awake before I was. I pressed up into the kiss sleepily, feeling a hand around my neck, breasts pressed up against my own, a knee planted between my naked thighs. I arched reflexively, grinding up against Sunny's leg, clawing for the shirt on her back to ruck it up around her neck and expose her breasts.
I don't know how long it took my sleep-addled, lust-filled brain to remember the fight, the yelling, Sunny saying she wasn't going to be coming back tonight. I tried to unlock our lips, to ask questions, but Sunny just shook her head, tightened her grip on my shoulder close to bruising, and pushed aside my cotton panties to stroke my greedy clit.
I had gotten my hands on her breasts and pressed them up against my own chest, feeling the stipple of the nipple piercings that I claimed to hate but secretly loved to play with for hours. I tugged on one barbell and was rewarded with a growling purr, and then Sunny broke away from my mouth and fixed her lips on my left breast, interspersing hard suckles with sharp little bites.
"I can't … get your jeans … oh!"
Sunny fingered me hard and fast and I clung to the small of her back instead, digging in my fingertips as I came, leaving half-moon circles of my quick-bitten nails. My eyes were closed, and some people say they see stars, but I saw rainbows, washes of color.
Breathing hard, I forced myself into a sitting position, looking into Sunny's eyes, pupils blown wide with arousal. "We have to talk," I said, wondering if I would ever get to do that again.
"Talk later," Sunny said, "Fuck me now."
She helped me drag her jeans down to her ankles and I buried my face in the wet golden curls of her cunt, drinking her in (it must be true that vegetarians are sweeter, because Sunny tastes like honey and sex), fucking her with my tongue. Sunny always shouts when she comes, wordless exultations. She shuddered and writhed and clutched me to her, licking her juices off my face as I did the same for her right hand. Sunny kicked her jeans the rest of the way off and we fell asleep wound around each other in that bunk, fitting tightly in the confined space.
I woke Sunny up the next morning with freshly-squeezed orange juice, which is not as good a wake-up call as sex, but contains a lot more anti-oxidants and vitamin C. She gulped it greedily and set the glass on the floor.
"That was a stupid bullshit fight and I didn't mean ninety-five percent of it," Sunny began, without preamble.
"Good," I said. "Wait, what five percent did you mean?"
Sunny rubbed sleep out of her eyes and sighed. "I don't really like having to call myself gay, or bi, or whatever. It's like I don't even understand myself from, so why do I have to declare some kind of allegiance and explain exactly what people I would consider having sex with? It's stupid."
I nodded and waited.
"My mom loved to tie-dye, you know?" she said, and her voice cracked. "She did our curtains, our clothes, our tablecloths."
"Your bedspread," I added, remembering the very first day I had met this very unusual new girl and her very unusual room.
"She was always showing everyone the beauty in the world, and I failed her so much before she died," Sunny buried her face in her hands. "I bet she would have liked to know that I was queer. She would have talked about it with me. My dad just expanded the GLBTQ section at the bookstore."
"I remember the first time your mom showed me how to tie-dye," I said quietly. "I was so afraid of looking stupid that I ran away. I would have missed out on so much in life if you and your mother hadn't showed me how to be different without being afraid."
Sunny looked up from her hands, startled. "You said you had a stomachache!" she said accusingly.
"More like cold feet," I said, giggling. Sunny laughed with me, but her laughter was half sobs.
"I keep telling you that your mother always saw the beauty in you," I said into her hair, my arm around her neck. "She understood why you were acting the way you did."
"She should have been madder at me!" Sunny burst out. "At least that would have made sense."
"Life only makes any sense on the chemical level," I said, remembering my orgo homework. "At least sometimes it gives us rainbows."