Cyborg and the Babysitters: A Tale of Childhood Destruction and Reconfiguration
Content Warning: This piece contains references to acts of violence against children and sexual child abuse, as well as its effects on mental health.
The local drive-in was showing Cyborg with Leviathan as the double feature in the Spring of 1989. That’s when the memories are the clearest.
The babysitters I had at the time were bragging about taking their own kids to the movies that night. They were a married couple in their mid-to-late 30s. I asked if I could tag along and maybe stay the night, but they would have to call Mother to get permission. Later that day, they said Mother didn’t want me going to see R rated films. In 1986, Mother took me to see Aliens. Hell, by that time I had already seen Bloodsport after renting it from the local video store.
I should have expected the deception and abuse which was already taking place but at that time I was only 8. I was proud if I could spell Jean-Claude Van Damme’s name.
I don’t blame Mother at all.
A week later, Mother took me to see Cyborg with her. It became my new favorite movie until Kickboxer came out only days later. After all, it would be a five-year wait for the American cinematic masterpiece that is now Street Fighter The Movie.
These babysitters were up to no good while also hiding underneath a thin, fragile web of lies. The kind of web one weaves to keep an 8-year-old kid away from the “harsh realities” of the ”real world”. This is the story of everything I can remember as an 8-year-old boy told through a lens of movies and video games.
Weapon of Choice
My mother served in the military for twenty years — United States Navy. She was also single. Father had left either before or shortly after I was born. I had more babysitters than I ever had friends. I got used to the idea of moving from place to place fairly quickly. In 1989, I would have the last pair of babysitters. They had two children of their own: one boy and one girl.
I usually remember them as the “mother” sitter and the “father” sitter. The place was run more like a daycare; they would watch anywhere between one and over a dozen kids at a time. It’s unclear if either sitter had a day job.
As I write this, I just imagine the “father” sitter hanging around in the grungiest of dive bars. I’m not sure if I could go so far as to label him an alcoholic but I do remember him drinking beers at a rate that I drank cans of Surge and Diet Coke in high school. So, yes, maybe he was constantly intoxicated.
He had a particular fondness for punishing the children if they were misbehaving. Misbehaving could be any number of things, up to and including: yelling, not sharing toys, jumping on the beds/couches, speaking at an unacceptable volume or — my personal favorite — no reason whatsoever.
His weapon of choice wasn’t a belt or a slap on the wrist with a ruler. He had a specific tool designed for a specific purpose. A large, mahogany rectangle with a handle. A paddle roughly equivalent in size to a baseball bat. A paddle with several holes drilled into it. A paddle designed for one specific use alone: spanking or punishing human beings — more specifically, children. It was usually hidden from sight, tucked behind a couch, underneath a chair, or inside of a dark closet. It was always hidden. Hidden like someone would hide a weapon.
I can’t remember the first time it happened. I can’t even remember the last. I only remembered how it felt. It wasn’t long before it began to feel normal to me. Even though I would cry afterwards, as any child might, I remember thinking “well, this is my life now, this is how it is”.
Sometimes he wasn’t home, so a wave of relief would wash over me and the other kids. As if it were some form of silent solidarity. We knew that we wouldn’t be punished at a moment’s notice.
The “mother” sitter of this babysitting nightmare duo never spanked us, although she never stopped it from happening either. There could be several factors for why she never intervened, ranging from emotional and physical abuse from the “father” sitter or she simply didn’t care what happened to us since we weren’t her children. I can’t even remember their faces at this point so I suppose it barely matters. One of the harshest punishments in my childhood came in the most unexpected of forms, though.
Atari and the Mickey Mouse Watch
I remember playing some of my first video games at this house. At that time, some of the kids already had a Nintendo or a Sega Master System. Here, they had an Amiga and an Atari 2600. I would play River Raid and shitty versions of Pac-Man and Asteroids for hours on end. None of the other kids — with their fancy 8-bit systems — wanted to play with me, so I was always the loner. The babysitters quickly caught onto how much I loved video games.
I would talk to my mom endlessly about video games. What games I played and which ones I didn’t like. What games the other kids were playing at their houses. I would buy video game magazines even though I didn’t have a Nintendo. Eventually, for Christmas, my mother was able to scrape by and get me my very own Nintendo Entertainment System. We even went out the next day to buy The Legend of Zelda. I remember how excited I was about the golden cartridge.
When I went to the babysitters’ house, I would brag about it to the other kids. They didn’t really care, but I was too excited and kept yapping and yapping away. This was enough for it to be punishment time. So, I got the paddle. I’m not entirely sure how many times I was spanked by that thing. I lost count. I just thought that this was normal — this was my life now and that my mother knew about all of it.
This went on for weeks. Weeks turned into months. Punishment time for anything. The kids could hear the paddle being produced from its hiding spot before it was announced who was being punished and why. Sometimes we would all be punished for one child’s ‘faux pax’. If it was nap time and one kid wasn’t napping, everyone would be punished. These were the irrefutable laws of the Adults, so this is what life was like.
Eventually there came a day when my mother had to work overnight. The sitters agreed on short notice and, shockingly, I was the only kid there. I remember just going immediately to bed. If I wasn’t awake, there wasn’t anything I could do in order to be punished. I wasn’t surprised when the “father” sitter woke me up in the middle of the night.
“Hey there, pal,” he mumbled in his muffled, alpha male voice.
“I’m sorry,” I immediately responded after waking up.
He set his hand on the bed while crouching down to my level, hiding something small in his grasp. “Christmas is coming up and I thought I’d give you an early present since you’re here.”
I thought only briefly. In retrospect, I should have immediately handed it over. I was only a child and had yet to take a study course in ethics.
I was confused. A present? From him? His hand lifted, revealing a Mickey Mouse watch with a black leather band. I was ecstatic. I didn’t have a watch and especially not such a sought-after piece as this. I mean, his hands were pointing at the numbers! How cool is that?
It was a simple and quick moment, but I remember it clearly. A rare moment of compassion from whom, previously, was my nemesis. Oh, poor 8-year-old me was going to find out just how much of a punishment this was.
The next morning, the “father” sitter was gone and the “mother” sitter was in the kitchen. She fixed me up a bowl of cereal and remarked on the watch.
“I heard he gave that to you,” she said, handing me a bowl of Lucky Charms. “Actually, I was wondering… that’s MY watch and it wasn’t really his to give away.”
A lump rose in my throat.
“Do you think I could have it back?”
I thought only briefly. In retrospect, I should have immediately handed it over. I was only a child and had yet to take a study course in ethics. Also, Mickey’s HANDS pointed at the NUMBERS.
I chose to keep it.
She didn’t hit me or spank me, she simply lied to me. It was the ultimate “My Uncle Works For Nintendo” fib.
“Well, you can keep the watch. It can be your Christmas present from us. But that means we’re going to give your REAL present to another kid.”
I was shocked. They were actually giving me a present and they had preemptively found a gift exclusively for me? What was it?
“What was it?” I blurted out. “What was my real gift?”
“Oh, it’s a really cool video game. It has 20 games in one cartridge. But I’ll just give it to one of the other kids.”
It felt like the first time in my life that an adult had lied to me. Like it was some grand revelation of passive aggressive attitudes towards children. It was a brand new world of garbage.
I subscribed to Nintendo Power. I knew no such thing existed at the time. But my curiosity got the better of me. I definitely liked video games more than Mickey Mouse and telling time. Hell, that’s true for me today.
“Okay, we can trade,” I offered. I put the watch on the kitchen counter.
The sitter shook her head.
“No, Austin, you’ve made your choice. Too bad, also. It’s a really cool game…”
I was sent reeling in my mind. I was being played. It felt like the first time in my life that an adult had lied to me. Like it was some grand revelation of passive aggressive attitudes towards children. It was a brand new world of garbage.
At eight, not only had I learned that “punishment time” was real, I also learned that adults can and will manipulate kids. Just because. Had Mother been doing this too? This was at the same time where I thought the ninja turtles were real superheroes living in the sewers of New York City. And Santa was still real — at least for now.
I distinctly remember shopping with Mom at the local JCPenney a week or so later. She had bought me the Tiger Electronics handheld version of Batman; oh dear reader, if you’ve heard legend of the NES game’s difficulty, that was a kid’s toy compared to this hulking behemoth. While Mom looked for whatever Moms looked for at JCPenney, I took a quick trip to the restroom.
After doing my business, I took off my blood-money Mickey Mouse watch to wash my hands. I would later tell Mother that I had lost it. Instead, I looked at it, pondering its meaning as a gift and as a faux olive branch. I walked into the one stall inside the restroom and chucked it as hard as I could into the glossy white, porcelain toilet bowl.
I didn’t even bother to flush.
Playing A Fish Called Wanda
The only real friend I had in that house was a girl — a few years older than me. Maybe even 12 or 13. We would often play together, tell each other stories, or watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We both loved Donatello. There was something about her that drew us closer as friends. I can’t remember any details about any of the other kids — only her. And I can’t even remember her name. I just remember her as “Wanda”.
We wouldn’t play “house” or anything. Although, there was a brief moment of tension when we watched A Fish Called Wanda together. We would role play each character afterwards — I would be Archie, John Cleese’s character, and she would be Wanda; Jamie Lee Curtis’ character, not the fish. Then the roles would reverse. I would be Wanda and she would be Archie.
While the ninja turtles were fighting the mad scientist-turned-gigantic-fly Baxter Stockman in the background, she asked me to kiss her.
That, I distinctly remember. I remember because I didn’t.
Sometimes I still regret it because I didn’t see her after that day. We had the home to ourselves, save for the inattentive “mother” sitter. Then “father” sitter came home from wherever he was. It was immediately punishment time.
While my friend waited in the kids’ room, the sitter brought me into the living room. He was furious about something and couldn’t find the paddle for the life of him. I’m unsure if he was intoxicated or high or both, but I was terrified.
I could see the paddle.
It was laying underneath a wooden rocking chair, in plain sight from where I was standing. I didn’t want him to find it, though, so I kept my little trap shut. That was another regret.
“Well, since I can’t find the fucking paddle, I’ll just have to use my bare fucking hands,” he said to me, crouching down. “Father” sitter wasn’t a slouch, either. He had big, leathery biceps to go along with his stretched out, discolored tattoos.
“And since it won’t hurt as much as the paddle, you’re gonna have to go bare assed,” he shouted.
This is the moment where my memory goes from crystal clear to a hazy fog. A fog I’m not sure I want to disperse. A fog that’s better left undisturbed in the back of my mind. Like a long forgotten collection of Betamax video cassette tapes inside a storage unit 20-miles East of Bakersfield type of undisturbed.
After my punishment, it was Wanda’s turn. She came back soon afterwards, crying.
I never saw Wanda again after that day.
Maybe a few weeks had passed when I finally confronted my Mother about Wanda.
“How was school?”
“I miss my friend, I haven’t seen her in a while.”
“Oh? When did you last see her?”
I thought for a bit.
“I think it was the last time we got punished.”
If she were driving, she would have slammed so hard on the brakes that I would’ve gone flying out of the windshield. She dropped whatever she was doing in order to talk to me about “punishment time” and the paddle. I don’t think I ever told her about playing A Fish Called Wanda, though.
Retribution or Revenge
Mother went and spoke with the babysitters. She brought me with her and I don’t remember much of the “conversation” but I do know that it was fire and brimstone. Those sitters were lucky to walk away with bruised egos. If Mother weren’t in the military, making whatever paltry salary she was on, I’m sure she would have taken litigious action against them. Unfortunately, this story doesn’t have such a happy ending — although my childhood never got worse.
I don’t think I ever had a babysitter after that. Mother would take me to work with her on overnights and I would sleep in a sleeping bag or cot on-base. It wasn’t terrible — after all, I eventually had a Game Boy and all the Tetris a kid could play. There are plenty of things I still regret such as not keeping in touch with “Wanda” and not speaking up when the abuse started to occur.
I’m told that it was only natural to keep silent. Above all, I just wanted to not be punished by either the babysitters or my own mother. For the record, I can’t recall a time when my mother was physically abusive; she never laid a hand on me. After those sitters, though, I always had that lingering sensation that Mother would pull “the paddle” out from the closet or under the bed or the garage or any other number of places.
Today, I see that paddle everywhere I go — brief glimpses of it in the corner of my eye. Sort of how a person would mistake a coat-rack for a shadowy figure or tree branches scraping against a window as huge, monstrous claws. Only this is far more terrifying.
I’ve wondered about them daily. Mostly about their own children. Is that couple still together? I certainly hope not. Would I seek retribution or vengeance against them? I can’t even remember their faces, let alone their names. The more I think about them, the less I think about myself and how I want to live as a human being.
What would I say to 50 or 60-year-old “father” sitter?
“Do you even remember me?”
“Do you even feel anything?”
I don’t even know what I’d say to my own biological Father.
“Do you even remember me?”
“Do you even feel anything?”
It always feels like yesterday because just like yesterday I thought about you. And the day before that, and the day before that. Carrying around that emotional luggage is exhausting. It’s impossible to put down. It’s why my roots were always dug in so deep. It’s why I never stopped thinking about you.
I wish I could find “Wanda” and ask if she’s alright. Is she still fighting? Does she remember me as Austin or Archie? Or does she remember me as Wanda too?
After so much time, it isn’t so far fetched that I rely so heavily on escapism like film and video games. Healing is going to require these crutches. I just hope I don’t lean on them too heavily.
I don’t wish death on my abusers. Some part of me wishes that I did. I suppose I wouldn’t bat an eye if I found out they were dead. I wouldn’t mourn them or grieve them — and I’m sure they would feel the same for me. Just a passive, dull nod of what was. Then package it away with everything else. Solder it into the rest of the circuitry and flesh.
Why do I continue? Because I can. Not because I should, only because I can. I’ll show myself who I can really be. I’ll show my loved ones who I can really be. I hope one day, dear reader, to show you who I can really be.