Choose your deal
Theirs was a hate-hate relationship, but there were payoffs.
For Casey, it was money. Paltry, but enough to get her closer to where she needed to be. For Ryan, it was social mobility. With her in his life, he got to experience the city like he never would on his own. When they stepped out together, they owned the Upper East side. Nobody remarked on the age gap – she was 17 years his senior – yet privately it was the thing that put them most at loggerheads. They barely had a thing in common. Casey was a singer, a dancer, fully alive to the Manhattan offering, an Australian abroad, brimming with dreams. Ryan was single minded, quarrelsome, self-absorbed, contrary. A New York native, not quite three years old.
‘Spiderman not wear coat!’ Ryan’s declamations that brisk November morning were one-note and pitchy. ‘Not hat, either!’
Casey knew this was a battle she would lose. As the stand-in nanny, she wasn’t invested in quashing his fast-developing sense of entitlement, even if it meant he got a bit chilly. If she could get through this two-month stint with some cash in her pocket and a reference, she’d be happy. Angling for dominion over a three year-old trust fund kid could hardly be energy well spent. She had bigger fish to fry.
“Well, he’s got to wear a safety belt,” she said, stuffing his coat into the stroller’s carrier pocket, just to cover her arse. “Buckle up.”
When they rolled out of the building onto Park Avenue, Ryan was wearing neither coat nor hat nor safety belt; just a well-worn Spiderman suit and a victor’s smirk. Casey was sanguine. The day was bright, and her only obligation was to keep the brat out of the apartment while his mother entertained her book club. Three hours. They didn’t all need to be about him.
She flicked her raven curls like a shampoo model and set course for Bloomingdale’s. She’d imagined doing this – minus the stroller – long before she left Tasmania a month before. She’d come here to be someone. She was no guileless tourist ticking off bright lights and billboards. She planned to sing and dance her way into a dazzling life. There was no career path for this in small town Zeehan, so her eyes were on the Lincoln Centre, the Lyceum, the Gershwin. When she was done with the menial jobs, when somebody had finally recognised her talents and plucked her from obscurity, she’d call New York home. She’d find her tribe in the colourful theatre world. Warm white bulbs would adorn her dressing room mirrors. She’d flirt at Bar Centrale, dine at Sardi’s, shop for her Hamptons weekender at Bloomingdale’s.
Approaching Lexington, the stroller’s front wheel caught on the curb, tossing the unbuckled Ryan clean out onto a pedestrian crossing, hands first. She felt a jolt of vindication, then admonished herself. He was pretty small. The passing throng clucked its disapproval at her, but Ryan – pride excepted – was unharmed. He threw himself back into the stroller with a ‘Just drive!’ cast to his brow, huffing like a put-upon statesman as she clipped on his safety belt. Let’s not mention this to your mother you spoilt little turd, she didn’t say. A flush of anxiety rippled through her at the thought.
‘Let’s get some cake,’ she said, suddenly solicitous.
His studied broodiness showed cracks. ‘Chocolate!’ he declared earnestly, a hard-nosed negotiator in a deluxe three wheeler.
‘Deal,’ she said, careful not to smile.
Inside the department store, they wheeled across the checkerboard tiles towards Magnolia, in search of the bribe. On the perfumed air, Sinatra crooned, thrilling Casey to her bones. Classic New York! When Broadway came calling, she’d be back here in her Monolos, clacking along the hard floors, turning heads in her calf length suede coat. She could hardly wait.
Ryan’s thunderous face had turned gleeful – he’d seen the escalators.
The bakery would wait. He wanted to ride, and she wanted no tantrums. Besides, she longed to fondle the Jimmy Choos on Five.
She’d barely unclipped him from the stroller when he was on the escalator, eyes glinting, mussed up blonde hair making a mockery of his Spiderman guise. Casey didn’t get why you’d have one – there goes your dancer’s body – but she quite liked the kid when he was abandoned to joy like this, when he wasn’t being belligerent. Maybe they could get along.
Thankful for the reprieve from battle, she played wingman to Ryan’s pilot as they flew up the floors in a giddy bliss, one of Ryan’s tiny hands gripping the rubbery rail while the other made like an aeroplane, feet pounding in place on the slatted silver steps, milk teeth busting from his gums. His every whoop of delight gave her hope that the faux pas on the pedestrian crossing would be forgotten, never mentioned. His mother had been typically hands-off about today’s movements, but the expectation not to tip him out onto the asphalt in traffic was implicit.
From the fifth floor landing, Casey spied a diamante-encrusted pair of slides. From his cockpit, Ryan sensed the shift in focus. ‘Up!’ he said, and when she pulled him gently away from the escalator, toward the display, he screamed it. Squealed it. ‘Up! Now! Up! Now! Up! Now!’
This was the kid she knew. Offending her pitch perfect sensibilities, cramping her style. Heads swivelled, not in the way she dreamed of. She crouched to his level, and spoke soft and low.
‘All right, bratski, here’s what we’re going to do – ’
‘Okay, shh. We’re going to look at the shoes, and then we’re going to –
She turned him on his heels and pushed him onto the escalator.
‘Go on, then, knock yourself out.’
She walked away fast, breathing deep, finding her composure. She didn’t see his face fall. Ryan rode the escalator in a stunned silence, eyes wide and plaintive on her disappearing back, aeroplane arms grounded. She just needed a minute with something beautiful, a pocket of time alone, some quiet. She’d catch him up. They’d come back down and go for cake. They’d resume their uneasy truce.
On the sixth floor landing, a man in black leather held a small paper tray, a slice of chocolate cake glistening at child height.
‘Do you like riding elevators too, Spiderman?’ he said.
Ryan eyed the cake. This had been promised.
‘They’re much faster, you know,’ said the man.
‘I press the button!’ said Ryan, his inner negotiator finding form.
‘Deal,’ said the man, and wrapped a child size grey coat around the garish blue and red onesie. He fished a knitted hat from his pocket, pulled it down over Ryan’s blonde tresses.
Had she seen this, Casey might have been impressed at how readily the kid yielded to the extra layers. What trickery was this? No argument? Could he strap the kid into a stroller, too, without a fight? Could he make him look at sparkly shoes for two minutes without bellyaching?
But she didn’t see it. She was 40 seconds too late, half an escalator away, five frantic minutes from knowing the crushing weight of an American dream gone bad.
Ryan grinned thick chocolate frosting, as the man and him rode the elevator all the way to the basement.