A Lesson in Lifesaving

As the babysitter gathers up her schoolbooks and coat, William’s wife whispers—he catches the faint musk of bourbon still on her breath—that she will wait up for him while he drives the girl home. Then she winks, sort of. Gina has never been able to close just one eye without contorting her entire face. Tonight, the man finds it exhilaratingly lewd.

“All set,” Cindy announces, waiting by the front door. “Oh, Mrs. Stevenson, I washed the dishes you left in the sink.”

Gina smiles sweetly at the sixteen-year-old. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“It’s OK,” the teenager assures her, “I thought you wouldn’t want Mr. Stevenson coming home to a dirty kitchen.”

Gina’s smile curdles. “It was just the dishes from the kids’ dinner.”

“Yes, ma’am, it wasn’t any trouble.”

As they back out of the driveway, the man tells the girl, “That was very nice of you, Cindy, doing the dishes.” He has trouble with the string of d’s at the end of the sentence, his tongue still sticky from all the liquor he has drunk tonight.

“It’s the least I can do,” she says firmly, nodding her head.

“Watching those kids is job enough.”

“Billy and Eileen? They’re angels.” Then she adds, “They look just like you, you know.”

“And I thought you liked the way they look,” he jokes.

“Oh, I do.” The girl sighs. “They’re lucky to have a father like you.”

There’s something about the way she says it that makes him ask, “But you’re lucky, too, aren’t you?”

“You mean, to have my father?” She turns to the window, where dark houses whisk past, one after another.

“He seems very nice—at least at the bank when I see him.”

The girl is still looking out the window. “Do you ever wonder what’s going on inside other people’s houses?”

He thinks she is changing the subject. “Sure, sometimes. Especially at night if there’s just one light on.”

“It would surprise you,” she says weakly.

The man smiles to himself. “How would you know?”

Her voice is almost a whisper. “What goes on in our house would surprise you.”

He stops smiling. He looks at the girl and sees the streak of a tear glistening in the light of a passing streetlamp.

He doesn’t really want to hear what he guesses his babysitter is going to tell him about what goes on in her house. But she is crying now, and so he eases the car to a stop along the curb of the deserted street and turns off the motor.

He stares straight ahead. “Look,” he tells her, slurring his words, “if you need a man to talk to your father about whatever … ”

The girl is wiping her eyes. “I’ll get in trouble if I say anything.”

“Well, you haven’t said anything. I’m just offering, that’s all.”

“You’re a real lifesaver, Mr. Stevenson.”

The gratitude in her voice is obvious. He feels good about himself, about being a man who can protect the weak. “Actually, I used to teach lifesaving. For the Red Cross. I trained lifeguards when I was young.”

“Did you teach mouth-to-mouth?”

“Sure. Mouth-to-mouth, inverted scissors kick, fireman’s carry—we taught everything. Everything you’d need to save a person.”

“But it must have been yucky, mouth-to-mouth with all those boys.”

“I’ll tell you a secret: I only practiced resuscitation with the girls.” He smiles sheepishly and adds, “The pretty girls.”

“I bet they must have waited in line to practice with you.”

“Well, maybe. It was a long time ago.”

“Teach me,” the girl insists.

“Now?”

“Yeah. What if I’m babysitting someplace with a pool and one of the children falls in and drowns? I’ve got to be able to revive the kid before the parents come home.”

He is thinking like a man who is a great deal drunker than he actually is. “That’s true,” he agrees, nodding. “Babysitters ought to know artificial respiration—and CPR, too.”

The teenager unbuckles her seatbelt and sprawls across the leather bench of the Crown Victoria, her body limp as a suicide dragged from the sea, her head lolling in his lap, her mouth jutting open, her eyes closed.

“What are you doing?” She has startled him.

Cindy opens her eyes. “Come on, show me how to do it.” She closes her eyes again and lets her mouth fall open.

The man doesn’t allow himself to think about what he is doing, what it would look like if someone found them parked on this dark street. Instead, he concentrates on the mechanics of saving the drowned. Though he is, in fact, close to panic, he bends stiffly, adjusting her head beside the steering wheel, lifting her chin. “In goes the good air,” he whispers just above her face. Clamping her nostrils shut with finger and thumb, he covers her mouth with his own and exhales. Even after all these years, he has remembered to put his hand on her chest to check whether her lungs are expanding with his breath. Yes, there’s no blockage, he thinks with unnecessary relief. It still thrills him when it works. Barely above her lips, he whispers, “Out goes the bad air,” as she exhales his breath, stale with liquor, back into his face.

“That’s cool,” she squeals, her eyes springing open. “Let me try.”

“Oh, you don’t want to do that,” he demurs.

She is on her knees now on the front seat, her back to the windshield. “Lean your head,” she insists.

He tries to keep thinking about this as a lifesaving lesson, so he does as she instructs. Her delicate finger and thumb close around his nostrils beneath his unblinking eyes. Involuntarily, his mouth gapes open to breathe. That quickly, she clamps her lips over his. Her mouth is so small, he has to help her, pursing his lips so she can cover him. He tastes her hot, fresh breath as she empties herself into him. He takes her hand and places it on his chest.

Suddenly, he feels her tongue flickering between his lips. Her slender hand has slipped between the buttons of his shirt and rubs the thick hair on his chest.

He bats away the hand holding the nostrils so he can get a breath. A deep, serrated purr vibrates through him; he realizes it is coming from the girl. Grabbing her by the shoulders, he pulls her away and back toward her own seat. As her hand jerks free of his shirt, one of the buttons pops loose, but he does not notice. He is too busy struggling to keep Cindy from embracing him.

“Oh, Mr. Stevenson, let me make you happy.” She sounds a dozen years older.

“Cindy, stop it.”

“But—”

“No buts.”

The girl pouts, “You kissed me first.”

“No, I didn’t.” He stops himself from adding, “You’re the one who kissed me first.” Instead, now achingly sober, he explains that he was not kissing her; he was teaching her artificial respiration.

It sounds so ludicrous, Cindy looks at him and they both start to laugh.

“Maybe you’d better take me home,” she says.

He starts the car. “Yeah, everyone will be worried.”

Neither says anything else, but then when they pull up, a few blocks away, in front of her house, the girl turns to the man and asks, shyly, “Did you mean what you said about talking to my father?”

“Of course,” he assures her. He had forgotten all about that. “Whenever you want.”

Cindy gets out of the car, but before she closes the door, she leans back in. “You’re sweet,” she tells him, smiling.

It’s going to be all right, he thinks as he watches the teenager climb the steps onto her porch.

“You’re missing a button,” Gina remarks when William walks into the bedroom. It’s the first thing out of her mouth.

He looks down at the rumpled cloth.

“Come here,” she tells him. “You didn’t go out like that tonight, did you?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

She lifts the shirt just above the missing button. “I don’t think so,” she says pensively. “I would have noticed.”

He shrugs, grateful that she hasn’t noticed how long it has taken him to drive the babysitter home.

“And where have you been? Cindy’s house is just on the other side of the highway, isn’t it?”

“You know, now I remember. The button came off during dinner.”

“So where is it?”

He smiles, waiting for the answer to occur to him. “I couldn’t exactly go crawling around under the table looking for it.” Gina seems about to ask another question, so he adds, “Now, how about if I pop a few of your buttons?”

The woman giggles.

He is relieved. His wife is still drunk.

The next morning, as she does every Saturday morning, Gina drives the kids to their Suzuki lesson at Mrs. O’Neil’s house. Each child carries a miniature violin in a small black case; their mother, too, carries a violin. All week, the trio has practiced, over and over again, the Suzuki repertoire: “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” and “Long, Long Ago.” Today they will try Dr. Suzuki’s “Perpetual Motion” for the first time.

When the bell rings, William thinks somebody has forgotten something. He runs downstairs shouting, “Use your key.” But when he twists the dead bolt with one hand and the doorknob with the other, he finds Cindy standing on the steps. Behind the teenager, her bicycle lies sprawled on the lawn.

“Hi, it’s me.”

“What are you doing here? Did you forget something last night?” He still imagines this has got to do with forgetting something.

“I wanted to talk to you.” The girl shifts from one foot to the other. “About what we talked about.”

At first he thinks she means the lifesaving lesson. Then he remembers the other thing. “Oh, yeah,” he says, nodding, “sure.” He scans the street. Nobody is outside. “Come in, come in.”

The girl knows the house; she heads straight for the kitchen. The man, wearing only a robe, follows her. He had been padding around the bedroom after his shower when the bell rang.

The breakfast dishes are still on the table. “Mrs. Stevenson must have been running late,” he apologizes.

“It’s OK,” Cindy assures him. “The kids told me they had a music lesson this morning.” She begins to clear the table, carrying the dishes to the sink. When he objects, the girl shakes her head. “I don’t mind.”

He pulls out a chair and watches her rinse the plates. “You said you would talk with Daddy,” she reminds him. “I don’t know who else to go to.”

He wishes he had already had his coffee. “But what is it I’m supposed to talk to him about?” He doesn’t want to sound like he is chickening out. “I mean, what is it exactly you want me to say?”

The girl wipes her hands on a dishcloth and turns to him. Behind her, the water is still running. “Tell him you know what’s going on—and it’s got to stop.”

“But what’s got to stop?”

Her clothes are too small for her; her tight little T-shirt doesn’t even reach the top of her shorts. She wraps one leg around the other and looks away. “You know what,” she whispers.

“But, Cindy—”

She bursts into tears, her body wracked with wailing. He has never seen anyone cry like this before. Choking on hoarse sobs, she sinks down until her arms clutch her knees to her face.

It breaks his heart to see her weep so wretchedly, but after last night, he knows he has to be cautious. He crouches next to her, holding his robe closed with one hand, and gingerly pats her on the shoulder, repeating over and over again, “It’s OK, it’s OK.”

The girl rocks herself from side to side. “What am I going to do?” she manages between sobs. “What am I going to do?”

The poor kid, he thinks. He lets his arm squeeze her a little tighter. “We’ll think of something,” he promises.

She leans her head against his chest. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, Mr. Stevenson,” she stammers, calming down.

“I’ll talk to him. We’ll straighten this out.”

Helping her to her feet, he shuts off the water that has been gurgling down the drain the whole time.

Cindy wipes the tears from her eyes, like a child, with the heels of her hands. “I’ll finish the dishes,” she says, taking a deep breath.

“No, don’t be silly,” he tells her. “I’ll finish them.”

She gives him a shy smile. “And you’ll talk to Daddy.”

“Sure, on Monday. I’ll stop by the bank.”

“Good,” she says. “Tell him, ‘No more.’ ”

“I will. I promise. Now you go on and let me clean this house.”

The girl laughs. “That’s not a man’s job.” By the time she finally leaves, the sink is empty, and the table has been sponged.

Half an hour later, when Billy and Eileen come bursting in, banging their violin cases against the chairs as they run to their father, he is finishing his coffee and reading the paper.

“Oh, you sweetheart,” his wife calls from the door, her violin case and two grocery bags bundled in her arms, “you cleaned the kitchen.”

Pages: 1 2