It was a busy Saturday morning at the local supermarket, the one on Connecticut Avenue. Anxious, coat-clad people lined the check-out stations hugging bread and milk and toilet paper to their cushioned chests for the just-spitting snow storm. These patrons huffed dramatically and rolled their eyes under frost-fogged glasses when a trainee made a mistake on a register, or the credit card machine ran out of paper. I am from Wisconsin. I enjoy snow -- and cheese. I had a shopping list with thirty-three other items in my jacket pocket that day, and a handful of safety-scissored coupons on the flip-down child seat of my cart. I thought: I didn't know you had a daughter. That's what Laurel Wisenberg had said. But you know this.
Wordless muzak filled the Safeway's corners, and families seemed to fight for breathing room, hand-held baskets, and a place in line at the meat case. I admit I felt frustrated by the weather-induced hysteria, and claustrophobic. I was devastated by my own stupidity, too. I am a scientist. I have a PhD in Chemistry. I've published more than a few science fiction stories. I should have told Laurel the moment we met: I have a child. I was married for six years. At least then I would have known that she was not a long-term option. I might have saved myself some embarrassment.
There had been time to tell my edited widower's tale; women seem to be drawn to it like they are not drawn to me in my best 'daddy wear': a torn college sweatshirt and lemon yellow high school basketball shorts. Laurel and I'd met at an acquaintance's dinner party, and neither of us had known very many people there. We'd stood together at the punch bowl, tapping our feet to quiet jazz music and judging passers-by silently. The food had been exceptionally bad; my mouth had been clear. But I'd stuck to surface talk and awkward flirting.
That snowy Saturday, two months after the party, instead of calling Laurel and laughing about the stuffy soiree that had first brought us together, instead of asking her to join my daughter and me for a trip to the mall or a lunch out at a kid-friendly restaurant, Gracie and I walked down a newly mopped breakfast foods aisle alone. Gracie shed her yellow hat and matching mittens when we hit the circular oatmeal display, and then my child began to skip. She sang "Frosty the Snowman" at the top of her lungs. I collected her cold weather apparel behind her as a consenting, albeit indentured, servant.
I was not upset by Gracie's theatrics; these song and dance routines happened regularly. She was three. I simply looked for a lower-sugar cereal as my daughter bounced before me, a miniature Julie Andrews with her head tilted back and her arms flung wide at the maple-and-brown sugar instant oats. When she'd finished her song, which included a made-up verse about a snow woman and her seven snow children, Gracie counted the shelved breakfast boxes at her eye level. Her voice rose and fell like the stock market in response to the cartoon characters on the front of the cardboard cartons, and the miniscule prizes within. Then, she patted her pudgy hands on every General Mills box in sight, tapping the ones she liked twice, as a tiny advertising executive might. I said, only, "Stay by Daddy, kid," but was less than vigilant. I was busy picturing Laurel's broad smile and dark, curling eyelashes in my mind's eye. I was busy wondering if I'd ever sleep with another woman again. I was only thirty-five.
When I came back to fluorescent-illuminated reality, Gracie smiled pleadingly over her shoulder. She was ten steps ahead of me. I shook a figurative fist at the men and women who stocked such cereals within a preschooler's grasp. Gracie was deaf to my directives to put the box down, to stop where she was, to listen, listen, listen. She was oblivious to my broken heart and continued down the grocery corridor, loping happily in an open blue pea coat, her favorite leopard-print dress, and untied pink tennis shoes. When I looked up from an automatic coupon dispenser, I thought: She is her mother in every way. This thought padded my Laurel-bruised ego a bit. Gracie was her mother in temperament, in looks, in voice. She was a firecracker of a preschooler with red hair and an impish grin. Like most children, she spoke in dreams and acted on whims. She held tea parties where, on occasion, I was her guest of honor; this makes her my favorite person, period. I wish she knew her mother as more than a flawless face in a faded picture, or a name on an ornate headstone. As an adult, I have come to terms with that loss, or at least I don't punch holes into walls any longer. I don't think I've yet recovered from the other loss, however. Parents should never outlive their children.
Gracie pranced between two elderly women balanced by two gallons of purified water each and enough gray hair to clothe a sheep besides. I apologized to the septuagenarians who teetered in the aftermath of my wind-whipping child, and tried to stay calm despite the fact that the supermarket was packed and I couldn't use the Express Lane with the thirty-three necessary items. I tried to ignore the steely-haired and whispered questions, like Where is that girl's mother?, as I walked past the grandmothers towards my then-jogging daughter.
Gracie suddenly stopped in her own wet footsteps. I was excited by this turn of events until I saw why she'd stopped. She was charmed by a marshmallow-laden cereal box with a plucky leprechaun on the lowest shelf. She clapped her hands wildly and shrieked. She pleaded, "Please?" I wanted luck, too, in the shape of marshmallows or any other junk food God would give me, but I had to stay stoic and parental. I had gained more than a little weight since my wife had died, and I certainly didn't want my child to suffer grade school teasing because I preferred drive-through fries over organic potatoes. Six years later, I still I hate saying 'no' to treats or toys. You, on the other hand, are quite good at it. I don't tell you enough that I appreciate that gift in you. It saves my 'mostly-fun' reputation.
I shook my head that morning, said, "Try again." Gracie kicked the wobbling wheel of the shopping cart in toddler exasperation; it is something she probably learned from me. Then she saw a baby stroller and rushed off to peek inside. I looked to the top cereal shelf for something fortified. Anything fortified. I did not want to see that young mother or her perfect, cooing infant.
On what turned out to be my last date with Laurel, I dressed the way a single man would. I was sure to match my tie to my shirt, and remembered to shave and wear cologne. I trimmed my nails and used duct tape to rid my once-worn sports coat of white cat hair and red Gracie curls. I swear both cats and children haunt you when you're out having fun without them. I flossed. I brushed and rinsed obsessively. I kissed my daughter good-bye at the front door of what used to be my four-person family home and honestly, truly, I focused on the woman before me rather than the child behind me as I called goodnight to Gracie and the well-qualified babysitter. I did not bring a cell phone to the restaurant so I would not be distracted from the quintessential French brie with crusty bread, or the intelligent couple conversation. As I got into my car, I breathed in through my nose and out through my mouth like I was training to run a marathon. I only turned to wave to Gracie twice as I backed out of the driveway, and I did not listen to the "Disney's Greatest Hits" cd all four miles.
The evening began perfectly. At the corner table, with a beautiful view of the Potomac and just a slight frost from the outdoors a pane away, I'd sighed. It was our fifth date, the infamous intercourse date. Her condo was a short walk away. I let my forehead relax and felt the silly pain of a too-big smile. I said, "I want you to know I have a daughter," and felt relaxed. This was not ten minutes into the meal.
She responded, slack-jawed. "What?"
You know that I stammer when I'm nervous. Laurel's response made me nervous. I stammered, "She's...she's...she's three. She'll love you." Somehow I thought this second part would help my case, both because I am a man and because my daughter's acceptance means everything to me. 'Three' means past the wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night stage, and into the able-to-go-out-in-public-and-look-cute stage. Most women love a tidy three-year-old.
Laurel'd answered stiffly, "I didn't know you had a daughter."
I said, "Oh," and lowered my eyes to the gleaming table. It was obviously coated with thick polyurethane, and hit me rib-high. My falling face shone back at me. I have never met another woman who speaks in such a sour tone about children.
Laurel's forehead actually crimped in a grim papier mache fashion; she'd tucked some dark hair behind her ears then closed her menu and placed it, flat, between us. Her mind seemed as shut as that menu. She cast her eyes downward and thumbed her expensive watch. She did not reach for her wine glass. She did not suggest any overpriced appetizers. She did not seem to blink for several minutes, though I know she must have. My throat was thick with the tension and itchy with the smell of a single blooming rose between us. I cannot tell you, today, if that restaurant's food is as good as its Zagat's rating.
When I'd swallowed my obvious surprise and inhaled the sickly perfumed air, I tried to explain. "I wanted to wait to tell you."
Laurel looked up at that, looked me directly in the eyes for the first time that evening. "Until?"
This, perhaps, is the moment any friend would have told me to step back, to forget this woman and her maternally void instincts. Her eyebrows arched and she cleared her throat as if I had said something so monstrous that she would never recover. But I've never had many friends close enough to say such words aloud. I do believe in miracles. I believed -- before I left the house that night -- that a beautiful brunette with real breasts, an impeccable wardrobe, and a PhD in Ancient Literature could want a boring father, who staggered under his emotional baggage.
I rolled the words on my tongue like hard candy before saying, quietly, "I wanted to wait until I was sure you were serious. About me. About us." This was true. I then pleaded shamelessly, knowing she'd had a point about my imperfect timing. "Surely you understand?"
The space between Laurel's cold eyes shrunk, and, in contrast, the emotional distance between she and I dramatically increased. She was angry, then, and it was obvious. She tapped her fingers on the white linen tablecloth and stared at the concert violinist in the corner who, I imagined, had to play at such restaurant bars to make ends meet.
Looking at the violinist, Laurel said, "You wanted me to fall for you."
I said, "OK." I missed something in those syllables that explained how it was wrong that I had wanted such a thing to occur.
She said, "I don't do that often," and she was less attractive than I'd thought previously. I'd known she didn't do that often; she'd never been married. She continued, almost whining, "I feel like you wanted me to fall for you so I wouldn't care that you had a child. A child, Jason. We're not talking about a puppy, here."
I couldn't help this: "No. I'm allergic to canine dander."
The waiter'd rushed to the table, seemingly out of breath, before I could explain the difference between caring for an animal you can leave in your backyard eight hours a day and one that needs you to burp it when it eats, and suction mucus from its tiny nose when it cries, and teach it morals like compassion and integrity. I appreciated the break in the moment. I'd been close to one of those sitcom scenes where the unfairly maligned protagonist stands to assert himself but pulls the tablecloth, which has been tucked into his pants, sharply. I'd been close to a scene of spilled water and wine and shattered glass. The waiter forgot his faux French accent when he asked, "Mr. Thompson?"
I nodded, already placing my linen napkin on the table and pushing my chair out. I did finger my zipper to be sure wide-open nickel teeth would not instigate another cliché sitcom laugh reel. Tawny, the babysitter, was known for calling restaurants asking inane questions about snacks or bedtime rituals. Once, she'd called because Gracie was insistent she read a book that was lost somewhere in the depths of our basement. Tawny had wondered if I knew it by heart, and if I could recite it so she could write it down for future visits.
The waiter'd whispered, "There's a phone call for you, sir. Your babysitter? She says it's urgent."
The 'urgent' pained me. Physically. No parent ever wants to hear those two syllables in regards to their child. No parent wants to hear it in regards to any child. I stood up. Laurel'd rolled her eyes and sighed.
Gracie was sick; I had to go home. When I went back to the table to gather my coat, Laurel'd said: "I was serious about us. But I've never wanted kids, Jason. I'm just not motherly. And I can't ask you to make that choice."
I'd wanted to say, There is no choice, but Laurel wasn't a parent; she couldn't understand what it meant to be a parent. My only child was throwing up, and it was important I be home despite the fact that the babysitter admitted allowing Gracie to eat ice cream, cookies, Cheerios and a pound of red, seedless grapes for dinner. I left Laurel with this: "It's not just Gracie." I swallowed bile. "I used to have a son, too." I gave the maitre d' my credit card. After signing a receipt for the meal I'd never taste and fighting my own tear ducts, I drove home to pay the teenaged babysitter her scalping $10 an hour fee. I drove home to hold my baby's hair back as she vomited childish gluttony.
With one no-sugar added jelly jar in our cart, and a fortified cereal sans Lucky Charms, Gracie and I trolled to the frozen foods section of the grocery store. We dodged several elderly shoppers preparing for the upcoming storm and discussed the morning's cartoon. We often partake in cause-and-effect conversation, because all the parenting books say this is the stuff whiz kids are made of. I asked Gracie, "Do you think Jerry should have tried to hit Ben with that sledgehammer?" I wanted to know if Gracie had what the books refer to as 'emotional intelligence,' as well as skipping and hopping genius.
Gracie said, "He didn't hit him, Daddy." My logical daughter stuck out her tongue and said, "It's a comedy." And I wasn't sure she was as emotionally insightful as she could have been. Then, she gave a two-minute synopsis of the animated cat-and-mouse chase and explained its inherent comedic theme.
I sighed as she jabbered; I sighed because my head hurt for lack of peace and because the frozen food aisle was a particularly difficult aisle for my expanding paunch. I nodded every few seconds as my verbose daughter showed her magnificent vocabulary to everyone who passed by, and tried to ignore the ice cream and other temptations with zero percent real fruit juice. There were many empty calorie lures, there, including frozen pizza, French fries and almost-chicken pot pies, but pizza was my Achilles heel. It was as much a temptation as Laurel, and just as bad for me. I thought, Maybe I'll go to a matchmaker. Ask for a much older homely widow. Gracie played pat-a-cake with the previously gawked at infant in the stroller.
I pulled Gracie away from that infant and asked her to pretend she was a statue. I stopped at the second door on my right and forced myself to grab a bag of chopped spinach and two bags of mixed organic peas and cauliflower. Gracie was an apt, though fully clothed, Nike. She only broke her statue play when she saw the healthful vegetables in my hands. She said, "Yuck!" I often wish I could speak so freely.
I put the bags in our cart and told her, "My sentiments exactly."
"What are sentiments?" She twirled on one foot.
Gracie Ann soon forgot the rabbit-like food in her future and began drawing hearts with busy fingers in the condensation of a frozen foods door. This shape was the newest of her shape repertoire. The irony bruised me as an obese woman in an electronic scooter scraped by my cart complaining loudly. Gracie yelled, "Daddy!"
"See what I can do?"
She could not only draw hearts, but mend them, too. Her fingers often seemed tiny needles threading my memories of a wife and an infant son, tightly, to the bright future ahead of us. Seeing her hearts made me believe life would go on.
Gracie did not wait for an answer. She tilted her head towards the microwaveable pizza section. She said, "Pizza has tomatoes. It's good for you. "
"I suppose it does, and is." I gave in because I wanted to, not because it was good for Gracie. It's important you know that I felt a pang of guilt at this. It was the dripping condensation heart on the frosty freezer door that moved me to it. I took a deep breath, told myself that I was human. I told myself, as I did each morning, Progress, not Perfection. The conversation with Laurel had taken a toll on me. I promised myself that I would run on the treadmill the following morning as penance for the frozen pizza. I gave in to the universe and said, "OK. Because it's Saturday we can have a pizza for dinner. But tomorrow it's chicken and spinach. No arguments." Then, the lights inside the grocery store went off.
People screamed, though daylight filtered through the front windows of the store almost as brightly as the overhead lights had shone before the electrical break. Everyone stopped their carts in the muddy tire tracks and put hands to hips in irritation. I knew it would be hours before the frozen food section thawed and erased Gracie's hearts completely. I was certain I had enough cash to pay for our cartload. I was not worried until I looked for my child. She was nowhere to be seen in aisle eleven.
I shouted, "Gracie," with appropriate concern and rattled my cart with nervous hands. I yelled, "Gracie, come here now," with comely threat in my voice. I screamed, frightened, "Gracie Ann Thompson?" I left my cart in front of the myriad microwavable pizzas and ran to the end of the aisle. There, I slipped. I landed on my ample rear at the functionally dressed feet of a fresh-faced blonde in worn medical scrubs. Ten minutes later, I'd learn your name is Sasha.
You bent over, showing more cleavage than you probably meant to. The blue scrubs were v-necked. You wore a coat, but nothing beneath that surgeon's wear. You asked, "Can I help you up?" You meant this. You were forty and meant everything you said.
I was worried about Gracie. I had given up on looking for attractive women. I said, "My daughter," and stood, rubbing my rear. I did not care that, while sprawled at your feet, my silky basketball shorts had fallen upwards and flashed those water-carrying grandmothers from the breakfast cereal aisle.
Thankfully you asked, "What does she look like?"
The gray-haired women who'd once toddled with their filtered water and unfiltered mouths squealed, "You've lost your daughter?"
To you, alone, I said, "She's about this high." I gestured at least six inches shorter than Gracie was, maybe because we all think of our children as smaller and more fragile than they are. I whimpered, "She has red hair. A blue coat. Pink shoes. She loves pink shoes. " When you tell the story, I'm crying. When I tell it, I'm only slightly misting.
You grabbed my hand as if I was blind and you were leading me. As if you hadn't seen my torn briefs or noticed my bald spot while I sat at your feet on the grimy grocery store floor. We left my cart, pizza and veggies, in the middle of the frozen foods section. We left your cart, too. Gracie turned up in the next aisle, by the refrigerated cookie dough. It was almost Valentine's Day and those cookies came complete with heart sprinkles. I bought four packages.
Two weeks later, I didn't have to tell you I had a daughter. We ate, with Gracie, at McDonald's.
Three years later, I still believe in miracles. And families, too.