April 9, 2020, 10 a.m.
Dan: Birthday wishes
I straighten the oversized red and white striped top hat on my head and then adjust my red bow tie before sending the Zoom invite.
Of course, I look ridiculous. But that is the point. I want to see little Lori laugh at what I hope is a familiar character. Hey, I even shaved so I could draw whiskers on my face with a Sharpie. It was done before I thought about how hard it would be to get the ink off my face.
I couldn’t find my Dr. Seuss books though I’m sure I brought them when I moved in. I did find my Maurice Sendak books though. I hope she’ll like Where the Wild Things Are. I practiced reading it all through breakfast.
Now I have to wait for Jessica to get to her email, find the invitation and decide to click on the link. I haven’t told her anything about my plan, such as it is. I want this to be a surprise.
At five after ten, I retie my bow tie and drum my fingers on the keyboard. My nerves jangle the way they used to when I was waiting for my turn to visit Santa. I had to be about Lori’s age, I figure.
At ten after ten, I take off the hat and loosen the tie that’s chafing my chin. I haven’t had anything tight around my neck for nearly a month.
And wouldn’t you know it? That Zoom doorbell goes off to alert me my invitation has been accepted.
I’m still retying the tie as the hat falls to the floor. I’m reaching under my desk when I hear Jessica’s voice.
“Morning, Dan. Dan?”
OK. This is not exactly what I planned.
I pop back up, my hat askew with, I’m sure, a dumb look on my face.
I can tell because Jessica bursts out laughing.
When she finally settles down, a smile still tugging at those luscious lips, I ask if Lori is available.
“Oh.” Jessica brightens to an even sunnier glow as she gestures to my hat and tie. “That explains it. I’ll get her.”
Lori climbs up into her mother’s chair, dressed in a pink dancing thing with one of those frothy little skirts, like a ballerina. Jelly, grape I’d bet, is smeared on her cheek. I feel a little thump in my chest as she peers at the screen.
Then her eyes get wide. I clearly am not what she expected. “Are you dressed up like the Cat in the Hat?”
“Yes, ma’am. I am the Cat in the Hat. Since we can’t go outside, even though it is sunny, I thought we could have some fun that is funny!” OK, it is a terrible adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s magical poetry but it makes Lori laugh.
So does Jessica and that is my real goal anyway. Her eyes crinkle as she laughs with her daughter and I see something that wasn’t there before. A dimple in her right cheek. Not the left, but definitely in the other.
“I have to be honest, birthday girl. I searched all over my house for my copy of The Cat In The Hat, but all I could find was his hat and bow tie.”
“I like the hat, Mr. Dan.”
“When we can meet again in person, I’ll bring it so you can wear it, if you like.”
She claps her hands with such glee it surprises me. I forget how easy it can be to charm a child. To tell the truth, I feel like I’m having more fun than the kid is.
“Really, Mr. Dan! Did you hear that, Mommy?”
Mommy has to be the voice of reason. “It won’t be today, though, you know.”
“Oh. Maybe we could be outside when Mr. Dan walks his dog.”
I have to smile at that. I am turning Lori into my own personal cheerleader. I see the worry lines on Jessica’s forehead and can read them. My mother used to have the same little wrinkles, the ones I knew meant she was going to say “We’ll see.”
And that’s what she says.
“Even though I couldn’t find my Dr. Seuss, I did find my second favorite book. Have you ever read Where the Wild Things Are?”
“Have I, Mommy?”
Mommy shakes her head. “I don’t think so.”
“Oh you’re going to love this. At least I hope so. Is it OK to read it to Lori, Mommy?”
Jessica rolls her eyes at me. “How could I say no?”
I show Lori the cover of the sleeping monster and the little boat coming to the shore and then open to the first page. “The night Max wore his wolf suit…” I show her the picture of the little boy in his wolf suit. “See he likes to dress up? Just like me and,” I point to Lori’s pink dancing outfit, “just like you.”
I can’t remember the last time I read out loud. With no younger siblings, no nieces or nephews, no kids anywhere in my life, it’s been years, decades even. But I enjoy the moment as much as the birthday girl. I use little squeaky voices and deep, rumbly ones until Max returns to his room for his supper, which was still hot.
Lori claps when I finish.
“What do you say, Lori?” her mother prods.
“That was fun.”
“What else do you say, Lori?” Jessica’s look is pointed. Where do mothers learn those facial signals? I know exactly what she expects.
“Thank you, Mr. Dan.”
“You’re welcome, Lori. I hope you have a wonderful birthday. Now I suppose I better let you and your mother go back to work.”
“That was fun. My Tia Hanna is sending me a present today. This is the best birthday ever.”
Lori dances off, growling like a wild thing, and her mother gives me the biggest smile. It feels like my birthday to see it.
“That was really a nice surprise.”
“I hoped she would like it. Having a birthday all by yourself must suck.”
“Tell me about it. Lori was feeling a little down since we couldn’t have her family party on Sunday or her class party today. I don’t even have a real birthday present for her. Just some new clothes. And the pink leotard she’s wearing. It’s hard to pick out toys from Amazon, you know?”
“Can’t say as I do. Well, I’ll let you get back to work. Claire will have both our heads if she finds out we’ve been playing dress up and reading storybooks.”
Jessica laughs, a clear sound so full of joy. “Thanks, Dan. That was really great.”
And with those half dozen words, Jessica has made my day.
April 9, 10:20 a.m.
Jessica: Birthday surprise
What would be the harm in Lori’s idea of a walk this afternoon? I wonder as I tap the “leave meeting” button. Maybe we could meet up with Dan and his big ugly dog. Lori just may have the right idea.
I banish the notion the minute I open my email. Why in the world would I do such a thing? I have work to do. We really shouldn’t go out so I don’t expose my child to the virus and endanger her health, not to mention encouraging her obvious fondness for a man we should not trust. She might get hurt.
Or I might get hurt. I realize that is really what I’m thinking. I haven’t let myself like anybody since Colin told me he was leaving that awful summer day.
The words in my email message blur as that memory pushes to the front of my thoughts. I wrap my arms around my middle, steeling myself for the inevitable wave of pain that will engulf me for the briefest of moments.
The morning after Colin told me he was leaving, I went to work. Numbly, I sat at my desk and didn’t hear the phone ring, didn’t make the coffee, didn’t hear my colleagues’ questions, didn’t even open and distribute the mail. LaDonna was the one who led me out of the office, put me in her car and drove me home to the little Cape Cod north of the city I thought would be my forever home. I didn’t hear a word she said. All I remember was a buzzing in my ears. Grasping the idea that Colin was gone was impossible.
I felt like he died rather than announced his decision to rent an apartment across town, before he packed his bags and hired a mover to come for his books, his big-ass TV and half of the furniture.
I didn’t even get to choose which pieces I wanted. When I got home, I discovered he had already taken the sofa and the coffee table but left me the king size bed. I never slept there again. In fact, when I moved into my grandparents’ house three years ago, I left the bed behind.
I closed off a piece of my heart then, figuring I’d never need it again. All my love would be directed at my fatherless daughter. We’d make a happy family together if we could.
And we have. Moving back to the old neighborhood helped. With fewer places where I’d run into old memories of Colin, it helped me find my footing again.
Now, hearing Lori dancing around the dining room table, when she should be answering subtraction problems, I realize the fortress I so carefully crafted around my weakened heart has cracked.
A cat in a hat stepped in with fun that was funny. And a heart that was sunny.
Shit. I sigh, fearing that something has happened that I can’t stop. I don’t want to like Dan Johnson. He’s arrogant. He takes the good stories and leaves me the dregs. Well, if not the dregs, then the soft features he doesn’t want to do.
Yes, even if that’s all true, it’s also true that he’s been nothing but kind to my daughter. And quick to defend me, in spite of Claire’s obvious displeasure. And he still is taking care of my plant. During our online meetings, I can see it on a shelf. Its flowers have faded but the plant is still a bright green.
My feelings are in quite a muddle as I click on an email from Claire.
The man I loved and allowed to change my life was a man who walked away because he didn’t want to become a father. He never looked back, never asked whether his offspring was a boy or a girl, doesn’t even know her birthday.
A stranger, though, dressed up like a storybook character to wish my daughter a happy birthday. A man I don’t like or trust.
I’m beginning to wonder if I’m making a mistake. Not just an inaccuracy in one of my stories but a serious error.
Claire’s email, Subject: Clarifications needed, is full of questions about the article I turned in the previous night. I refer to my notes and listen to a recording of one of the interviews I did late in the day.
As I send back my response, it occurs to me that I might be a poor judge of character. I wonder whose character I should be weighing. Claire told me not to trust Dan so I haven’t. Dan hasn’t said anything but his actions have shown me again and again that he is someone to trust.
And maybe, heaven help me, someone to like. Another crack winds its way down my bricked-up heart. It feels like a little fun that is funny to realize it might be okay to like a man again. Just to like him, appreciate him as a fellow reporter, a guy that’s nice to my kid. I’m not marrying him, or anything, just giving him the benefit of the doubt.
I can go slow. It won’t hurt to be nice, to appreciate his kindnesses to my Lori, and maybe if I get my story turned in on time, to take a walk to the park before dinner.
“Lori,” I call to the child singing “Happy birthday” to herself under the dining room table. “How about you finish your math assignment and then we’ll make your birthday cake?”
“Oh boy! Yes!” She jumps up so fast, she hits her head on the corner of my grandparents’ mahogany table. I fly to her as I always do when she’s hurting and fold her in my arms.
Her hot tears run down my arm and she rubs her snotty nose on my t-shirt. I’d say something but this is the third day I’ve had it on. The truth is she’s done me a favor. As soon as I make sure she isn’t bleeding, I get her a glass of milk and sit her down at the table with her worksheet and a pencil with a strawberry-scented eraser.
Then I toss the dirty t-shirt in the laundry basket and find a clean blouse. I don’t need my red jacket today. It can’t give me any more confidence than I already feel. I’ve got the best job in the world, the sweetest daughter and we’re taking a walk after work.
Next Monday: CHAPTER 12—Dan: APRIL SHOWERS
Coming on Wednesday, the next audio chapter, Chapter 10— Dan: SECRETS, Jessica: REVELATIONS
Dan and Jessica’s story needs your ideas.
Every Monday I’ll post a new chapter until Dan and Jessica find love, lose it and, we hope, find their happily-ever-after. Do you have an idea, torn from your own pandemic stay-at-home saga, that might help them?
If you have a suggestion for what happens next, send it along with your name and hometown to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Copy and paste the address, please.) Or comment below.
Together we can write a great story to remember the lockdown of 2020.
Ⓒ2020 MARY K. TILGHMAN