It was the summer of 1988 (or 1989) when I met Kelly, our new babysitter. I was 7 years old (or 8). My mom worked with her mom so Kelly was a convenient option. She was young—maybe a senior in high school, or in her first year of college—but she was a grown woman to me. When you’re a kid, everyone older seems like some variety of adult, a form of person beyond what you can realistically comprehend. You drive yourself? Adult. You make your own food? Adult. You have a job? Adult. You have money to buy important things, things you want, like candy? Adult. I never thought I’d grow into an adult. I guess I’m still waiting to know what it feels like to be one.
I’m not sure how long she was our babysitter, but it doesn’t matter. She made an impact.
Kelly was the first girl I ever had a crush on.
Memories are bonkers.
I asked my brother what he remembered about Kelly. “Memories are bonkers,” he said. That made me laugh. I like words like bonkers. You can hear it when you read it.
Jason credits Kelly for introducing him to Stephen King with IT, a book some might say he was too young to read. But he was always reading books kids his age weren’t reading. I stopped trying to keep up with him pretty early on. He taught himself to read out of spite, or so my mom jokes. I came along and he upped his game. Liz might be a baby and require a certain level of attention but look at me! I’m 3 and I’m READING. Jason will always read more books than I do, and I like it—especially when he recounts the stories and I don’t have to read them myself. (I also like it when he ruins movies for me. Great time saver, having a talented storyteller in the family.)
Jason remembered Kelly’s boyfriend who, we were told, surfed the roof of his van. Neither of us can determine if we ever met him or if she just talked about him a lot. I imagine her Trapper Keeper was a mess of graffiti; swirls of script, his last name naturally following her first. Adults still use Trapper Keepers, right? Street-surfing made Kelly’s boyfriend a chaotic character to me, but also an insanely cool one. If Kelly liked him then he was no doubt worthy of being liked, despite the carelessness with which he treated his own life. Maybe that was when I developed an unhealthy attraction to boys who were daredevils for attention’s sake.
Kelly’s skin was delightfully freckled, her hair a faint reddish color and sun-damaged, with perm-like curls. Her bangs were frizzy but controlled, and they always seemed to be drier than the rest of her hair. The wet look was acceptable, maybe even stylish back then. She would brush the curls on her temples straight, the ones framing her face, and slick stray hairs into place with Aqua Net (the white can with the pink logo—it was extra strength. Extra strength just means really sticky.) Her scalp pulled tight, she’d clip the sides back with cheap plastic barrettes.
When you’re 7, maybe you think of people the way you think of your dolls so you classify them by their outfits (Office Barbie, Beach Barbie, Travel Barbie, etc.). Or maybe that was just me … but probably not. Kelly had an outfit that was my favorite: a simple white t-shirt, loosely fitted, with a cartoon duck wearing a sailor outfit a’la Donald Duck, but not Donald Duck—not Disney at all. She would wear navy shorts, white Keds, and everything matched. She might’ve had socks with the same duck on them—the ones you folded over, that circled your ankle with a thin layer of lace, because we’re ladies. That is what my Babysitter Barbie would wear if I had one, and I’d rename her Kelly.
I wanted my body to look like her body.
While Jason and I would swim—most backyards in our Texas neighborhood had in-ground pools—Kelly would lay out, tanning herself in her bikini. I wasn’t allowed to wear a bikini; because I was seven maybe, but also because bikinis were not modest. I grew up in a home where skin was meant to be covered. But I still wanted to know what it felt like to wear a bikini and walk around in front of other people who could see my body with unwavering confidence and a distinct level of comfort with my own nakedness. When I close my eyes to this memory, I see myself tip-toeing across the concrete slab and crouching down quietly so as not to startle her and, while her eyes were closed, I would unapologetically stare at her boobs. I wonder if she knew. I always know when my boobs are being stared at. Most women do. Kelly’s were so round and perky, even when she was on her back! I was mesmerized. Would I have boobs like hers some day? What would it feel like to have boobs? When would I get boobs? Is it going to hurt when they “grow in”? How big were mine going to be? I hoped for cleavage.
Kelly was my Teresa doll, Barbie’s lesser-known but still popular friend. Teresa had brown hair and a darker complexion than Barbie. I liked her better. I could relate to her, even at 7, recognizing that she and I were secondarily pretty to those of Barbie caliber. I would never be a Barbie. I was a Betty, not a Veronica; and not even really a Betty, because I have never been that nice. I didn’t have a crush on Kelly in the sense that I wanted to be with her. I wasn’t aware of what sex was, even though I’d sometimes rub Barbie and Ken’s naked bodies against each other. (Always at the end of their day, when it was getting-ready-for-bed time; when it was normal for clothes to be coming off.) My crush on Kelly was less about her and more about the idea of her. She represented the woman I would become. When I looked at her, I could see myself growing up to be her, and I liked thinking I would grow into a body like hers paired with the sweetness of an unaware, genuine beauty. At 7, I knew obvious beauty wasn’t in the cards for me and I accepted it because of Kelly.
Memories are bonkers though.
I don’t really remember what Kelly’s body looked like. It’s a distorted picture in my mind, muddy with assumed feelings; a lesson for reflection to be picked clean and interpreted however I choose. Kelly brought my daydreams of my own body to life, and I knew exactly what I was going to look like when I grew up.
And I look exactly like what I expected.
Said no woman ever.
I only have cleavage if I smash my boobs together with my arms.