By Madeleine Goldsmith
The swing creaks and I’m ordered to “make it go high to the sky” by the toddler strapped into it.
“Please…,” I prod, waiting for that magic word.
“Ok, Shashi, we’ll go higher.” I am satisfied.
I push the hardened black rubber of the swing with one hand while I scan the other side of the playground for Natasha’s older sister, Beatrix, who, at the wizened age of five, wanders the swings, bridges, and monkey bars independently without the need of constant adult supervision.
We’re at the playground early today. The sun reflects brightly off the metal park apparatuses, but we have clearly missed the memo that this particular Friday morning everyone is having a leisurely breakfast at home. I am the only nanny and they are the only children. Shashi’s squeals of delight from the deep pendulum curve of the swing break through the silence perpetuated by the cool morning air, and Beatrix appears unfazed by the lack of usual playmates at her local stomping grounds.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see a young boy, brown, who has clearly only recently gotten used to calling himself a teenager. He is in the furthermost corner of the playground, and he’s looking for someone, waiting for someone to show up. A small dog flits around his feet as the twine leash and collar around its neck dangles absentmindedly from the boy’s hand. Two thoughts cross my mind: 1. This teenager should be in school, and 2. You must be accompanied by a kid to be at this playground.
Then he sees who he’s waiting for: a girl, his age. She hops the fence and rushes into his arms even though there’s a gate she could have easily walked through ten feet further down. Here we go, I think to myself. Two kids, in love, ditching school, with a dog. They aren’t accompanied by kids. They are kids.
“Madeleine! Watch me!” yells Beatrix from across the playground. She’s about to attempt the full set of monkey bars.
“Okay! I’m watching!” I hurry to respond, and I half-watch her as I see the girl-teenager give a boost to the boy teenager onto the fence surrounding the playground. I’ve never noticed it before, but just on the other side of the playground, in someone’s yard presumably, stands a three-story tall avocado tree. It rises high above the playground, but doesn’t provide any significant shade, since avocado trees are basically just branches with avocados hanging off of them. Then the boy starts to climb.
He shimmies slowly up a thick branch as if he has done this before, but not recently. He scans the tree for the best footholds – and for the ripest fruits.
“The itsy-bitsy spider crawled up the water spout…,” chortles Shashi from the swing that continued to hurtle itself backwards and forwards.
“Down came the rain and washed the spider out…,” I continue without really hearing the words.
One thing they don’t tell you when you start working with kids is that, after a while, you can sing and think about other things simultaneously. You’ve sung the songs so many times that your mouth and vocal chords can go on auto-pilot, freeing up your brain to obsess over a boy who still hasn’t texted you back, or a job application you still need to finish, or what the fuck those teenagers want with those avocados.
The boy, now even higher up in tree, is clearly taking his time, so the girl starts kicking around a soccer ball around to play with the dog. Her bursts of laughter intermingle with the thin, sing-songy sounds coming from the swing-set while Beatrix has become a look-out at the top of the jungle-gym tower. The girl seems to be kicking the ball around the dog to keep it sequestered in their corner of the playground.
The ball ricochets off the curb where the dog’s head had been a second before. It’s a miracle the ball missed the dog, and the girl only laughs harder.
I turn back to what I am supposed to be paying attention to and check my phone. We have only been there twenty minutes. The longest twenty minutes of all time. Another thing they don’t tell you when you start working with kids is that time no longer ticks along at a reasonable pace. Five minutes can be an eternity.
Shashi finally asks to get down from the swing and she joins her sister on the jungle-gym. I’m not allowed to come, they say. “Okay, okay,” and I stay on the ground, close enough to jump up if they need me, but far enough so they feel they are alone.
But my eye is brought back, once again to the teenagers. This time they are hoisting a long metal pole up off the ground, which looks like the tool used to clean swimming pools, whatever that’s called. The girl gets the pole into the hands of the boy, and he starts maneuvering it high up in the branches of the tree, eye level with the people’s windows who probably own the tree and all the avocados in it. He is trying to find the perfect fruit, or fruits, and the girl is hovering below with her backpack open, ready to catch any falling treasure.
The girl collapses to the ground. The first snipped avocado had fallen squarely on the top of her head. Her boyfriend rushes down from his perch in the tree.
“Mi amor! Mi amor!” he cries out. He cradles her head for a moment, trying to wake her, but she does not respond.
“Armando! Armando! Aiutame!” he calls to someone in the nearby office he must know. He tries to lift his love off the ground and stumbles as he attempts to ferry her out of the playground. He falls to the ground and simply repeats, over and over again, “Mi amor, mi amore, mi amor.”
Beatrix and Natasha continue their games, but they notice I am not watching them. Do I go over and try to help? What if she is bleeding? How can I help the lovers and still take care of the girls? I am standing in shock as my heart starts to race. I don’t know what to do. Children model your behavior. They copy whatever it is they see the adults around them doing. So I run over.
“How can I help you?” I yell. The boy does not respond.
“Ospedale? Ambulanza?” I ask. I speak Italian, not Spanish, but he nods yes to me, so I run back to the girls.
“We need to go now, girls, ciao ciao playground, we need to go talk to someone in the office.” Kids can also tell when it’s not the time for questions. They intuit when there is tension and trouble because that means their survival, evolutionarily speaking, is at risk. I try to stay calm but they can tell the situation is serious. I want them to behave, but I don’t want to scar them for life, because once again, white, anxious parents.
“Has someone called 911?” I ask when we get to the office. A man is on the phone and says yes, but he didn’t see what happened. Can you tell us?
I was the only person who saw. I was the only person who was watching. I was the only person who had been worried. The paramedics arrive incredibly fast, and they are followed by firefighters and police. I tell one representative of each group what I saw. They wheel in a gurney to the playground. The slides still glisten with morning dew. A nice and very attractive firefighter asks the girls if they would like stickers. He has clearly done this before, and he bestows upon each child a golden firefighter badge-sticker, which they proceed to wear around all day.
We leave the playground, and my heart-rate begins to settle. I imagine the girl being wheeled out of the playground gate. The girls and I talk about how it’s important to help people when they are hurt and in need. I see her being lifted into the ambulance and him not being allowed to go with her. It was a very important thing we did today. They did not expect their morning to end so abruptly and so terribly. We stop in a bakery. I hope they have papers because people can be deported from the hospital. We get a fancy pastry and split it three ways. I see the devastation the hospital bills could bring to her whole family. We rush to the bathroom so Shashi doesn’t have an accident in a busy hipster establishment. I see him weeping into his hands because he does not know if she is dead. We go home, and we draw still lifes of a vase of flowers left out on the table. But maybe they are fine, maybe they have health insurance, maybe they are U.S. citizens. We tell their mom and dad about our morning adventure. If we lived in any other country, they would have gotten grounded for skipping school. Here, their lives could be destroyed forever.
The golden badges affixed to the girls’ cardigans shine in the sunlight coming through the second-story window. Before I leave for the day, they tire of their prizes and throw them in the trash.