Kitty described him to her friends as a liberal cuck; forty-something, divorced from his more famous wife, a music video producer for the likes of Snow Patrol and Fountains of Wayne. He had knobby knees and a clean X-axis of straight, even teeth.
They met at an artisanal ice cream shop in Venice. He pushed a stroller whose back right wheel had come mostly off its hinge, like a head almost severed, so that the wheel’s rubber shell chafed against the laminate tile with a series of ugly screeches every time the line progressed.
The toddler in the stroller was asleep, but his older daughter hung to the side of the carriage with the dud wheel, pulling down on the plastic rim with all of her weight. The stroller tilted ominously every time he moved his brood forward.
“Greta,” he said. They were one customer away from the cashier. He peeled her small fingers one by one from the stroller. “What do you want?”
She replied, “Peanut butter brittle,” which was Kitty’s order, so she only had to say “same as her” when she reached the cashier. Their names were called at the same time, Simon and Kitty. “Two peanut butter brittles,” the cashier said.
There was lightning outside, no rain yet, but they still ate their ice cream inside the shop like they were taking shelter, Simon and the stroller and the girls and, at the next table over, Kitty. The toddler had woken from her nap and was making sounds of discontent. “Give some to your sister,” Simon said to Greta.
“She doesn’t want any,” Greta said. The toddler protested loudly but Greta ignored her. She had smelled Kitty’s perfume by the cashier and wanted to be near it again. She clomped toward Kitty in her pink flip flops. Simon looked at Kitty as his daughter approached, shook his head and smiled widely, flashed Kitty the opal void of his throat, his uvula. He had the type of face that made her think maybe he was someone important, but after being subject to his smile, Kitty decided Simon had a normal handsome face, the face of a man who had aged well and with enough of an ear to the door of youth that he dressed like the guys who took her for burgers and martinis on Montana Avenue.
“We got the same thing,” Kitty ventured when Greta arrived at her feet, silent. Greta looked up at her and then, as if remembering a grave mistake, hurled herself toward the safety of her father’s denim-clad legs.
“Sorry,” he said to Kitty, bending over to rub Greta’s shoulders. “She gets excited about someone and then gets cold feet. It’s a classic move.”
“That’s okay,” Kitty said, her voice hitching involuntarily, the way it did with adults (re: her boss, her coworkers, the cop who she flipped off as soon as he turned his back, the bouncer at Bungalow who said she could only go in because she was alone). She was not a child. She was twenty-two.
The silence was ripe between them as their faces melted out of their smiles, slowly, with creaks, sounds of spittle reconnecting with tongues. Her fingers were sticky from the ice cream. She brushed her hair out of her face with the back of her wrist.
Kitty spoke again. “Not to weird you out, but do you by any chance need a babysitter? I only feel fine asking because when I was a kid, my parents used to go around soliciting random girls for babysitters.” She felt fine asking because she has soft hair and clear skin. “So I feel like it’s a thing people can do.”
Kitty looked for herself in Simon’s pupils, a phantasm in miniature. She saw him see her as an object of lust, or maybe as the subject of his erotic fear of time—that is to say, she could’ve just looked to him the way she felt: like a foal, like a kid—but the space between these two functions felt hot, like a bed of coals, like she was standing in a funeral pyre.
“Oh, hell yeah,” he said. “If you’re for real, that’d be great. My ex has all the old babysitters’ numbers. I mean, you seem trustworthy, right?” Greta dug her nails into Simon’s arms, thinking, hoping: yes. Her last babysitter had been the voice from the commercial on TV about rheumatoid arthritis. She smelled like mushrooms and chewed five or six pieces of gum while she watched them eat Dino chicken nuggets for dinner.
“Definitely,” Kitty said. “I vouch for myself.”
Greta tugged on Kitty’s skirt. “You have hair on your legs.”
Simon handed Kitty his phone. She put in her number and placed it carefully back into the palm of his hand, a sacrificial offering to a deity. She saw it go up in flames. He looked at her contact. “Cool name,” he said.
Simon and his girls left as soon as it stopped raining, Greta looking over her shoulder every few steps to make sure that Kitty had not been a mirage.
Kitty watched them go and then sat on the bench outside the shop. The rain had brought a stench of sewage to the storefront. She googled his full name, found his lackluster imdb page, scrolled through it until her phone died abruptly. She left her ice cream on the bench for a seagull, for a vagabond, and went to search for where she’d parked her car.
Simon lived in a trailer parked in the driveway of the main house.
He retrieved Kitty from the gate, a slab of opaque pyroglass that slid into the hedges with hunky spurts. He put one hand on his hip and clapped the other against the body of his souped up RV. It echoed. “We’re still figuring it out.” Somewhere beyond the crammed together cars, poor parallel parking jobs, headlights dipping into crosswalks and bumpers brushing against fire hydrants, there was the ocean.
The house was one-floor, ranch style, had a deep sunken living room floor and ants that crawled in and out through the kitchen’s back door. The girls’ mom wasn’t there but there were traces of her in the terra-cotta pot with the aloe vera plant, the brass menorah sitting heavy on the windowsill. Greta and Cora, who could hardly yet walk, pulled Kitty to the shelves of toys in the living room as soon as she crossed the front door’s threshold. She shrugged off her backpack and blazer—she’d come from work—and joined them on the floor.
Before he left, Simon showed Kitty the half bottles of formula in the refrigerator, how to work the record player, where he kept the beer, the set of pajamas that Cora would not want to put on over a fresh diaper but just try it, anyway, she might let you. He let each girl do one last flip around his bare arms and then grabbed his keys from a ceramic dish by the couch.
“All good?” He said to Kitty, his thumb in the door jamb. Kitty looked away from his hand, disgusted by the unnamed particles in the minuscule crawl space in which his finger poked and prodded.
“All good,” she said.
That night, they danced to the Grease soundtrack, the crackly speaker of the record player dialed as high as it could go. Cora fell asleep in her diaper, pajamas tossed over her crib, thumb in her mouth, rotund cheeks tear stained.
“Can I fall asleep in mommy and daddy’s bed?” Greta asked. Kitty let her take her hand and lead her to the unmade California king. The room was dark, one lamp was lit but the bulb was dim, there were boxes in various states of packed lining the wall with the wicker dresser and untidy bookshelves. They lied side by side, supine like lovers, like twins, each resting on her own pyramid of hands.
“Will you tell me a story?” Greta asked.
“Real or fake?” Kitty asked, like her father used to.
“Real,” Greta said.
So Kitty told her about her grandmother, who was dead now, and how strict she was about who Kitty’s own mother could date. When Kitty’s mom was a freshman at Vassar, Kitty told Greta, she fell in love with a goy.
“What’s a goy?” Greta whispered.
“A gentile,” Kitty whispered back.
At first, Kitty’s mom only heard about her mother’s dismay from her four older siblings. She sat curled in the common room with the dorm phone pressed to her ear as each of them implored her in their varied ways over many weeks to abandon the goy, to let him roil with the shiksas where he belonged, not with the nice Jewish girl from his Civics 101 class. But she wouldn’t, she loved him too much, his freshly ironed collars and leather messenger bag, his tennis wrist and shin splints. And then one day, it was Kitty’s grandmother on the telephone in her thick Queens accent. “If you don’t break up with him, you’re transferring to Scranton,” she said. “And that’s final.”
“What did she do?” Greta said in her little voice.
“Well, she broke up with him,” Kitty said.
Greta thought of her own mother, her sinewy arms and palms that smell like butter. Her mom wouldn’t do that, she thought. Love comes first. She’d taught her that. She fell asleep soon after.
Kitty settled on the living room couch, tried reading a coffee table book about Frida Kahlo before spreading across the cushions and getting herself off to the idea of tantric sex with Simon while Cheap Trick played, to the image of herself in the tabloids, Simon’s famous wife’s ex husband’s new play thing. And then she, too, drifted off to sleep.
Kitty woke to Simon unlocking the front door. He smiled, smelled like whiskey and the pier, asked in a too-loud whisper, “How were they?”
“Angelic,” Kitty said. “Greta fell asleep in your bed.”
“That’s alright,” Simon said. He collapsed into the armchair beside the couch. “God, that was weird. Dates are weird. We met on Raya, do you know Raya?”
“I know Raya,” Kitty said. It was a first-tier dating app for B- to C-list celebrities or other industry folk.
“She was divorced, too, slightly younger than me, which was strange. But gorgeous, I mean, these women. A piano player. I feel like my profile isn’t attracting the right sort, though. God, I’m too old for this. How do I know what to put?”
“Do you want me to look at it?” Kitty said. It seemed to her like that was what he was getting at.
“God, yes, it needs a millennial touch,” he said. Kitty rose from the couch and kneeled beside Simon in the chair. He held the phone as she scrolled through the pictures on his profile. The scent of her orgasm lingered on the tips of her fingers.
“You should make this one first,” she said. It was a picture of him on set, dimples flashing. “You can’t really see your face in the one you have now.”
“You think?” He said, staring at the phone. His eyes flicked to the time. “Fuck, it’s past eleven. Let me grab you some cash.”
She gathered her things as he fished through his wallet for a few crumpled twenties.
“Thanks again,” he said at the door. His temples were damp with sweat. “The girls love you. I’ll be in touch. Do you know how to open the gate?”
“Yeah, I’m good,” Kitty said. She did not realize how hot it had been inside the house until she walked down the driveway, her mouth hanging open like a guppy’s in the cool air. It was the season of the Santa Ana winds. Gravel flitted at her ankles. She looked for the button to open the gate. When she could not find it, she waded through the thick shrubbery, pushing the brambles out of her way and letting them snap back against her arms, suddenly terrified she’d never come out the other side, until she finally emerged onto the empty street.
Kitty babysat the girls once or twice a week for all of September, October, November. Sometimes, they were already sleeping when she got there, and sometimes she had to bribe Greta to sleep with half-pieces of gum that she could hide in her pillow case to take to school the next day. After the girls were asleep, Kitty dozed off every night like clockwork on Simon’s ex-wife’s couch and woke to the sound of his keys in the door. They would debrief before she left, talking from across the room about his dates, and sometimes her’s, if there had been one that week. She was often tired from work, where she’d been promoted from the mailroom to an agent’s desk. She tried hard but was bad at her job, and when she was fired the week before Thanksgiving, Simon asked for her resume and sent it around to some of his film friends.
Kitty spent Thanksgiving with her parents in Scranton. They did not know that she had been let go. She spent the week cowering from their innocuous questions, smoking herself into a stupor, drinking with people she hadn’t spoken to since high school. She took a girl she’d known in gym class down to her parents’ basement wine cellar and fucked her there against the rattling bottles. She got the spins right after and spent the early morning face-first into a porcelain bowl.
She went back to Los Angeles in December, made a promise to herself that she’d try harder to make a life there. She asked Leah, a classmate from Vassar, to get dinner one night before Christmas. Leah had a group of friends out there, somehow, with seemingly no transition time. They met up at a wine bar in Venice. Even at night, the clouds were visible overhead.
“This is my favorite neighborhood,” Leah said. She was kind with a chipmunk face and wispy bangs. “It feels like a suburb, there’re so many families. I always go to this one cafe down the street to work and it feels like I’m in Marin County or something.”
“I know,” Kitty said, eyes bright and engaged, perhaps a little brighter and more engaged than she actually was; but the face wills its owner to feel whatever it is showing, how forcing a smile can lead to one in earnest, and so Kitty listened, tensing her cheek bones so her expression stayed alert. “I actually babysit for a family right around here. For this single dad who’s actually pretty handsome.”
“Oh, it’s DILF central over here,” Leah said. She had a fresh manicure and traced the rim of her glass as she spoke. They had almost finished their second bottle of wine. “One time at that coffee shop, I was like waiting in line for the bathroom, and there was this guy who was super hot but like, way older than me. Like, too old. But he was hot and basically I was waiting in line forever so we started chatting, he does this, he does that, what do I do, et cetera, and then the person comes out of the bathroom and is like just so you know the lock’s broken. So I’m like to the guy, can you watch the door? And he’s like yeah, of course, who knows, maybe I’ll join you in there.” Here her mouth dropped open, and Kitty mimicked her expression.
“No way,” Kitty said.
“I know,” Leah said. “I was just kind of like haha, yeah, and then was so nervous the whole time I was in there. I mean, I know he was just flirting. And it’s not that crazy, I mean, especially in LA, like, it’s definitely not unheard of for a forty year old or whatever to hit on a twenty two year old. Like, it’s completely legal slash like, expected? I don’t know. But it still feels weird.”
“Completely,” Kitty said. “Did you ever run into him again?”
“No, but I found him on the internet. He does some pretty cool stuff, actually. If I ever stop working in casting, maybe I’ll hit him up or something.”
“Can I see a picture?” Kitty asked.
Kitty retroactively convinced herself that she’d been expecting Simon’s face on Leah’s screen. “That’s the guy I babysit for,” Kitty said.
“Shut up,” Leah said. “Has he ever hit on you?”
“No,” Kitty said.
“That’s good,” Leah said. “It’d be so inappropriate to hit on the babysitter. Like a porno.” Kitty nodded, felt rejection sit heavy on her shoulders, tried to shrug it off like a coat.
“Maybe I seem too innocent or something,” Kitty said. She felt like something dark about herself had been confirmed, something nefarious, even—that is to say, whatever it was about her youth that was supposed to be seductive had been spoiled, wilted, and by virtue of its dysfunction, evil. Had it been like that from the start, she wondered, or had it been a gradual corruption?
“It’s way better to be the madonna than it is to be the whore,” Leah said. It sounded like a euphemism for something, but Kitty could not figure out what.
In January, Simon moved out of the trailer and into a new home in Culver City. It was right at the end of a cut de sac, it had a big driveway and an attached garage filled with skateboards and tricycles. It was a short but steep walk to a park with a jungle gym. There was a mucky pool out back, a turf lawn, a view of Los Angeles more comprehensive and looming than Kitty had yet seen. When she approached the house, the garage door was open like an ancient mammal’s mouth, and the girls were clad in helmets and knee pads. Simon emerged from the main house.
“Isn’t it great?” He called to Kitty, jogging to meet her in the driveway, leaving the front door open behind him.
The house was a series of connected hallways, from the garage to the mudroom to the kitchen to the entry hall, a nonsensical maze of doors. The living room was still mostly empty, save for a leather sofa and stacks of books, piles of toys in the middle of the floor.
“We’ve been kind of just hanging in here for the most part when we’re not outside,” Simon said. Cora sat on the floor, helmet still on, and started smashing two dolls against each other.
“I’m sure it feels good to have your own space again.”
“You have no idea,” he said. His hair had grown since Kitty had last seen him. He had mossy green eyes. She imagined him following her into a public bathroom, holding her hips against the dirty sink.
He left before dinner. Kitty cooked the girls Mac and cheese and then walked them to the park, shepherding them toward the palm trees whenever a car sped by. The girls fought over a red kickball that had been left by the monkey bars. It was dusk by the time they got home. Cora fought Kitty at bed time, crying even as she begged to be tucked in. It was dark when Kitty and Greta settled on the living room floor with pillows from the couch.
“Can I play on your phone?” Greta asked.
“It’s almost dead and I don’t have a charger,” Kitty said. “But we can tell stories?”
“Okay,” Greta said. “A real one.”
Kitty was exhausted. She’d started a new job that day, told Greta about her new boss, the meetings and phone calls she scheduled for him, the flights she booked.
“This is boring,” Greta said. She was missing a tooth. Kitty stopped herself from pushing her thumb into the gummy gap.
“I know,” Kitty said.
She tucked Greta into Simon’s bed. There were no lamps in the living room. Kitty found her phone where she’d left it on the ground by the distant city lights, rolled her eyes at herself when she realized it was dead. She searched for a charger in the leftover boxes, in the outlet by the coffee maker, in the kitchen drawer that had already become a junk haven of paperclips, pencils, unpaid bills, offers from the phone company. Eventually, the search became more of a nuisance than not having a phone, and she sunk, thwarted, into the leather couch. She listened for cicadas but heard only the generator clicking on and off in random intervals.
Kitty woke up to Simon’s hand around her wrist. She braced her body, ready for his lips on her ears, her collarbone. Maybe he’d been waiting until he was out of his ex’s house. Maybe he’d wanted her all alone.
“Kitty,” Simon hissed. He tightened his grip and yanked her roughly off the couch. She scrambled to get her feet on the ground, dazed from her shallow sleep. “What the fuck is going on? I’ve been calling you nonstop.”
“My phone is dead,” Kitty said, blinking in the dark. Simon was an opaque shadow.
“The neighbors’ texted me asking if everything was okay,” he said. She was standing before him, could feel his breath hot on her forehead. “You left all the doors wide open. Jesus, Kitty. Why didn’t you answer your phone?”
“It died,” Kitty said again. “Sorry, I just thought since you left them open.”
“Someone could have come in, something horrible could have happened.” Simon said, his voice straining against the constraints of his whisper. “You were sleeping with the doors wide open. Something could have happened to the girls.”
“I’m so sorry,” Kitty said. She remembered being a kid, when she’d cry so hard that she’d see brilliant colors behind her eyelids, would feel dizzy with the effort of producing sob after sob, her parents somewhere out of view, responsible for the scolding but unsure what to do with this foundling, this waif.
“I’m just glad everything is fine,” Simon said. “But this is so not okay. Jesus.”
Kitty nodded, gathering her things in the dark, her limbs working of their own accord like disembodied machines. “I’m so sorry,” she said again, her shoes were on, she was backing out of the front door which Simon hadn’t closed, either, backing into the heart of the cul-de-sac, the widest it would ever be.
“It’s okay,” Simon said. “Here, let me pay you.”
“No, it’s okay,” Kitty said. She was already in the pavement’s narrow strait. She felt oddly light, like she could float off into the wind if she wanted to. But she kept her feet moving, she had to find her car, she had to keep trying to siphon meaning from the muck of her tawdry existence. Only in her front seat did she realize she’d forgotten her phone. She drove away anyway, aiming for the center of the city’s glowing orb.
Anne Cooperstone is a current MFA candidate in Fiction at Stony Brook Southampton, where she is a recipient of the Graduate Council Fellowship. Previous publications include Variety Pack and Paper Magazine. She lives in New York City with her dog.
Bonnie Matthews Brock is a Florida-based photographer, as well as a school psychologist. Her images have been published in Ibbetson Street Press, The Somerville Times, Oddball Magazine, and Beyond Words Literary Magazine. She loves to capture images of the world around her, and to learn/experiment with photographic techniques and styles. You may find more of her images at https://instagram.com/bonniematthewsbrock