The full circle of macaroni and cheese

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     I pull my car up to the curb of the house I know so well, and look up at it as I park and cut the engine. The lawn is bright and green, the swing tied to the branch of the tallest tree moves lazily in the breeze, and bright white curtains cover the large windows in the front.

     I shift my gaze down to grab my phone and my keys, and when I glance back up, the white curtains have been pushed aside, and a little girl stands in the window, staring out at me.

     She is small and petite, with long hair that is a mixture of blonde and brown tied half up, and her wide eyes watching my every move. Her mouth is spread into a small smile, and she bounces a little when she sees me notice her.

     Even as I get out of my car and shut my door, I can hear the front door creaking open, and small footsteps hurriedly rushing down the walkway. I meet her half way, crouching down to one knee so we’ll be the same height, and opening my arms for a hug. She practically jumps on me, her little arms wrapping around behind my neck and squeezing with impressive strength for a five year old.

     “Hey,” I say as she continues to hold on to me, “I missed you.”                                                             

     “I missed you too,” says her soft voice, muffled by my shoulder.

     Her name is Emmy, and she is probably one of my best friends.

     It may sound strange to call a five year old one of your closest friends, but if you look at our relationship, it makes sense. We tell each other all about school and our friends, she asks me questions and I answer them, we hang out together and go to each other’s birthday parties, and she rarely gets angry with me unless I tell her that, no, bedtime cannot be pushed back another ten minutes. Each time I come to babysit her we have a genuinely great time, despite our routine always being relatively the same.

     She finally lets go of me and grips my hand as we go inside, her mother greeting us in the doorway. It’s not just Emmy I’m close to, but the whole family. Often after she gets home, her mother and I talk for several minutes about what’s new. She’s like a close friend or sister to me, and we trade stories about high school and college, as well as tales about parents and in laws. She’s told me before that she hopes Emmy turns out something like me. That’s one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received.

     After her parents leave I fill a pot with water and put it on the stove to boil. Mac and cheese for dinner is a staple of these nights with Emmy. She talks to me and plays with dolls as I stand and stir the pasta. If you rewound my life about 13 years, you would see almost the exact same scene with me and my old babysitter.

     I loved my babysitter so much I called her my sister. We’re still close now, not even able to be separated after she went to college and then took a job in California. She still comes to visit whenever she’s in town, and we sit and talk for hours. She’s met Emmy before, and loves her too. In one of my favorite pictures I’m standing with them and my two best friends. My sister is by my side, her hand on my back, and Emmy stands in front of me, my hand on her shoulder as all of us smile for the camera.

     After dinner is ready Emmy and I sit at the table to eat and talk. This is my favorite part of the night. I pull a leg up into my chair and rest my chin on my knee as I listen to her tell me about preschool, her friends and how she’s learning to write. I tell her about applying to college, going out with my friends and writing for the newspaper. She tells me she wants to be a swimming teacher, and I tell her I want to write books. The conversation goes on and on until our bowls are empty and our spoons are set aside.

     After dinner is playtime, more than likely Emmy’s favorite part of the night. Sometimes we watch movies together and I become reacquainted with my old favorites, such as Toy Story or Alice in Wonderland. Other times Emmy decides we’re princesses and chooses a tiara for each of us, the large pink one that sparkles in the light for her and a smaller purple one for me. Board games are usually played, and I’m usually caught trying to cheat. And then occasionally she has a new craft and we spend the night testing our creativity with glitter glue and rhinestones.

     Though bedtime is supposed to be 7:30, I let her stay up until 8. Even though there’s always a solid hour and a half of playtime for us, she’s always a little sad when I tell her it’s time to get ready for bed. She claims she’s not tired, and then yawns while changing into pajamas and brushing her teeth with her Hello Kitty toothbrush.

     Choosing bedtime stories follows closely behind. “Pinkalicious,” the story of the little girl who ate so many pink things that she turned pink herself, is a classic with us. If we’re feeling silly, we pick a fairy tale redone with a twist such as “The Princess Pig and the Pea.” If we’re feeling simplicity, she pulls out “If you give a Mouse a Cookie.” And sometimes, if we’re feeling daring, I’ll attempt to tackle something by Doctor Seuss that practically ties my tongue in knots and keeps me speaking in rhymes for a few good minutes afterwards.

     She’s giving in to being tired now, rubbing her eyes and yawning more frequently. I turn off the bedside lamp, the night light automatically switching on and casting a soft blue glow over the room. White noise drifts from her sound machine and fills the background.

     “I’ll be downstairs if you need me,” I tell her as I toss dirty clothes into the laundry hamper.

     “Okay.” She says.

     “I’ll see you next time,” I say as I walk towards the door.

     “Okay.” She says.

     “Goodnight Emmy,” I whisper as my hand touches the doorknob.

     “Danielle?”

     I stop, and turn around. “Yes?”

     I can barely make out her shape in the darkness, but her sweet voice is clear as crystal.

     “I love you.”

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