Barbarella
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Providence protects children and idiots. I know because I have tested it.

-- Mark Twain

I stood by the door and waited for Jane. "Come on, Bella, we're going for a walk! Want to wear your doggy?" My sister held up the small, plush dog backpack that snaps around her daughter like a harness. The soft puppy's tail is twice as long as Bella is tall.

"You put that leash on her just to go for a walk?" Simon, who had been watching a soccer match on the television across from where he lay on the couch, sat up and raised a quizzical brow at his wife. Jane's face fell.

My sister's guilt for putting a leash on her daughter is almost as great as her fear that Bella might suddenly sprint into oncoming traffic or be abducted by another pedestrian. Last week I accompanied Jane on her weekly trip to Target, where she buys everything she needs, including her groceries. It was fun to have a glimpse of her daily life.

Once inside the building, Bella refused to either sit in the cart or don the doggy backpack by screaming until her little face was as red as the store's bullseye logo, so we spent most of the morning chasing her up and down the aisles. This seemed to greatly amuse the imp with golden ringlets that bounced around her grinning face as she bounded away from us. A person with legs that short should not be able to run that fast.

Now that I knew what the child was capable of, I agreed with Jane on the leash thing. But, in the end, after she locked eyes with Simon in an attempt to detect any potential judgment, Jane's guilt won out. Nodding in silent understanding, I grabbed Bella's left hand while Jane clasped on to her right, and we headed out the door.

About once a week, I join Jane for a walk around her neighborhood, a trip to Target followed by lunch, or a cup of tea in her dining room. This was the first time I had been able to set aside an entire day (11.5 hours, to be exact) to spend with my sister and her 2-year-old, a day that taught me that nothing is simple when a child is involved.

We began with a walk or, more accurately, two steps and a stop, two steps and a stop, and so on, depending on which lawn Bella felt like exploring or how many small rocks she decided to pick up, examine closely, and relocate. We made it halfway around the block before Bella decided, with a perfunctory pout, that it was time to turn back.

Jane and I left the little girl with Simon while we went to rent a few movies and shop for lunch and dinner.

"It's so nice to be able to just hang out and do nothing with you guys," I said to Jane as we sifted through the prepackaged sushi. "It's like escaping from my life and living in yours, like I get to walk a mile -- or a half a block -- in your shoes."

Simon left for work and Bella went down for a nap. Jane and I maximized our time alone by getting comfy on the couch, breaking open the plastic containers, and eating the sushi with our hands while we watched the first of our two rented movies, The Brothers Grimm . With the movie over and the sushi gone, it was turning out to be a perfect couch-potato day until (halfway through a taped episode of Oprah ) Bella woke up.

If I ever need to be reminded of how illsuited I am for motherhood, I need only spend some time with a child. When confronted with the naive sophistication of a little one, I become a bungling idiot. Bella, my darling yet mischievous niece, has the ability to impair my mental acuity with her mere proximity.

Jane and I stared at the screen as Oprah's guest began to divulge the most common professions among 1500 pedophiles who were caught giving their money to child pornography. As though sensing the importance of silence as we leaned in to be truly horrified, Bella chose that moment to test her vocal chords.

"Bella Boo, do you want a cup of tea?" Jane cooed expertly over the noise.

Following her lead, I reached for the miniature ceramic tea set that rested on Bella's small table and grabbed the closest piece, a flower-painted pitcher.

"Mm, yummy tea," I said, keeping my eyes on Bella and my ears perked for any snippets of sound I could catch from the television. It was working. For a split second, Bella stopped her surprisingly powerful solo and watched me intently. Convinced of my superior intelligence in tricking the young thing to cease making noise so I could hear the man say, "...it turned out that 300 of these pedophiles were pediatricians, teachers, and...," I carried on the charade by tipping the pitcher toward my face and pretending to drink.

"What the?!" A rancid smell reached my nostrils and I suddenly felt...wet. I broke my gaze with Bella, whose cognizant smile was disconcerting, to look down and see that my red shirt and black pants were drenched with a thick white substance that had been sitting in that mini pitcher for God-knows-how-long. "EWWW!" Oprah forgotten, I jumped up and ran to the kitchen. I can't stand milk, even when it's fresh. I fought back gags as I returned to the living room with a roll of paper towels. "Careful, Jane, if you don't stop laughing so hard, you might piss yourself or forget how to breathe," I snapped.

Bella pointed to the milk-covered spots of floor and couch by way of narking on me, which only made Jane laugh harder. She continued to laugh as she cleaned up my mess. Bella launched back into her song, and I sat at the other end of the room, regaining control of my gag reflex and pouting.

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