April 29, 2020, 12:35 a.m.
“Your daddy?” My heart shudders to a stop as I grab a kitchen chair for support. It can’t be.
“That’s what he said, Mommy.” Lori takes a bite of her sandwich, watching me like I’m about to perform a magic trick. I’d like to disappear but that isn’t possible.
Why would Colin show up here? Why now? I haven’t heard from him in seven years. I didn’t even ask him for child support. I didn’t want to be tied to him for even one little thing once he walked out.
I still don’t.
All my worries about Dan dissipate as I slowly put down my handbag and gather my courage.
What do I do with Lori? My initial inclination is to send her to her room until I find out what this is all about. But she’d have to go right past that man and that would be weird.
“Stay here,” I say in my Mommy-est voice.
I sneak into the dining room and pick up Lori’s laptop, still improvising my plan. When I see the day’s art project, really just a coloring page I printed out earlier, I snatch it and Lori’s pencil case and set them down on the kitchen table.
I pull out the chair and urge my daughter to sit down. “Be a good girl for Mommy and work on your drawing. Just for a few minutes. I won’t make you wait long.”
Lori looks like she’s about to ask a question.
“Just do it, Lori.” I may sound like my mother at that instant but sometimes it’s necessary.
“But I need my crayons.”
“They’re not in your pencil case?”
She shakes her head. “They’re in the sideboard.”
Wordlessly, I sneak back into the dining room and gently slide open the drawers to discover Barbie dolls in with the silver, old homework sheets tucked in among the last remaining pieces of my grandmother’s antique china. The crayons, rubber bands, pencil nubs and my favorite pen are scattered all over Nana’s linen table cloths, you know, the ones pressed to a smooth, satiny sheen that I could never reproduce. I’ve haven’t used them since I moved into the house.
I scoop up a handful and rush back to the kitchen. I don’t dare take even a peek at the man still standing at the door.
“I’m proud of you, Lori-Beth.” I hand her the crayons and straighten the barrette in her hair.
“You didn’t let the stranger in the house. You remembered what I said.”
She shrugs her shoulders as if it’s no big deal but stranger-danger is a topic we’ve had to go over since we live in a house so close to city streets.
You never know who’s going to show up at your door. It could be a homeless man. It could be your ex-husband. I’d rather see a homeless man.
As I prepare to shove open the kitchen door I check to make sure Lori’s working on her picture.
The pause gives my heart a chance to speed up and my palms to sweat. I have no idea what I’m going to say to the man at the door. “Get lost” is one option.
“Hi, Colin. What are you doing here?” is what I actually say. I’m sure my face says “Get lost.”
“Hi, Jess.” He shifts from one foot to the other, nervous I hope. I guess he’s waiting for me to let him in. I choose not to, instead opening the screen door and letting myself out.
“Really, Colin, what are you doing here?”
“Aren’t you going to let me in? Introduce me to your daughter, I mean, our daughter?
“Why would I do that? You’ve never even asked what I named her. Do you know her name?”
“Lori. She told me when I introduced myself as her daddy.”
“I wish you hadn’t done that.” I really don’t. Lori has been quite satisfied to have a Mommy without Daddy up to now. I’ve known we’d have to have this discussion one day, probably soon, but I wasn’t ready for it to be today.
“Why not?” He frowns the way he always frowned when we talked about having children. Even now, I don’t think he’s interested in becoming acquainted with his child. So what does he want?
“Why are you here?”
“Let me in and I’ll explain.”
I take a seat on the marble step and smooth my ripped sweat pants like they’re Talbot’s best navy linen trousers.
“Oh come on, Jess.”
“You’ll have to talk to me here or nowhere.”
I didn’t used to be such a tough talker. When we were together, if Colin asked me anything, I said yes—until he told me he didn’t want children. He made me choose between the husband I thought I’d love forever and the child I intended to love forever.
He sighs like a soap opera actor and drops onto the step below mine. I wait for the explanation I think he owes me.
“Look, Jess.” He pauses, as if waiting for a response. I merely raise my eyebrows.
“In the past couple weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. I realize I’ve left a number of things undone, or unsaid. One of them is being a father to Lori. I guess I’m trying to say I’ve made a mess of things.”
That’s not what I heard. He remarried the year after we were divorced, to a woman with three children. He’s been in the paper for his leadership with a community association in a hoity-toity neighborhood uptown. He’s doing pretty well for himself, judging from the looks of his well-pressed slacks, lime green Pebble Beach golf shirt and brown Topsiders so new the white soles don’t have a smudge of dirt on them.
I raise my eyebrows a little higher. How can I respond to such a statement, knowing what I know?
“I’ve been sick, Jess. I thought it was covid-19.”
Colin’s statement makes me cringe. Has he brought the virus to my door?
He must have read my mind. “It was a month ago. I’m fine now.”
“It might have been. The doctors couldn’t get a test. So I don’t know for sure. I had a fever and congestion and all the symptoms, but never bad enough to go to the hospital. Thank God.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Maybe I am but, in all honesty, I really don’t care. It’s hard to care about a man who left me green with morning sickness to figure out on my own, how to be a mother, how to be a single mother. It should have been some of the happiest days of my life. I guess I’m still bitter.
He reaches for my hands. That was something he always did when he was going to say something important. I shy away. I don’t want him touching me.
There’s hurt in his eyes but I try to ignore it. “Fine, Jess. While I was sick, and terrified I might have the virus, I realized I might be facing the end of my life. I decided I couldn’t die until I’d met Lori and done right by her.”
His gray eyes softened. “And asked you to forgive me. I failed you, babe.”
Failed me. Babe.
“You didn’t fail me. You did me a big favor.” Until this moment I didn’t realize what a bitch I could be. But if I was going to be one, here was the man who deserved it.
“You were honest when you said you didn’t want our child. And when I wouldn’t get rid of her, you left us to make a happy home all by ourselves. Which we have done. I’ll admit it hasn’t always been easy. But my Mom and Dad have helped and so has Hanna. My daughter has been lucky to have the greatest grandparents and the greatest godmother a child could have. ”
“But she’s my daughter, too.”
I laugh when he says that. Out loud and in his face.
“You’ve never been her father. At best, you can say you were a sperm donor. I was pregnant all by myself for eight of the nine months. I had to rent a new apartment, move everything you left me, figure out health care, find a doctor, go to all my appointments, suffer through labor without benefit of a loving husband, and spend the next seven years being mother and father to the most wonderful little girl a parent could want. She’s kind and smart, loves ballet and her little friends and wishes she could visit her grandparents. But since my mother has been sick with cancer…”
I pause as it sinks in, Lori has never met her other set of grandparents. “Do Colleen and Jeff even know they have a granddaughter?”
He hangs his head. Of course, I should have known he’d never told them. Colleen and Jeff would have been at my door the day I brought Lori home from the hospital with presents and offers to babysit. They were, probably still are, two of the kindest people I ever met. Now, it breaks my heart to think they don’t know their granddaughter.
I don’t know what to say. I don’t want Colin in my life for even another minute. I’ve forgiven him for being such a jerk but that doesn’t mean I want to forget it. He let me and Lori down.
I can’t help but think about his parents, though. I’d be happy to let them get to know Lori. She’d … no, I shake my head. It’s all too complicated. He made a new life for himself and provided his parents with enough step-grandchildren to keep them busy.
Turns out it wasn’t children he didn’t want, it was my children.
I stand up, ready to dismiss my ex-husband.
“I’ve done very well since you left, Colin. You hurt me but I healed. And then I grew up and realized, I don’t need you and neither does Lori. Go home to your wife, what’s her name? And your children.”
The words taste bitter but I try not to feel the pain they once caused. I am so much better now than I was on that terrible day when he left.
“Lori and I are just fine the way we are. I wish you and your family well. Thanks for stopping by. It’s good to see you’ve recovered. That must have been an awful experience.”
Any hope that lit Colin’s eyes has dimmed and faded away. I kind of feel sorry for him. But now that I’ve said my piece, the bitterness has left me. The truth is, I don’t care about this man at all anymore. If Lori wants to know him when she’s older and can understand better, I won’t stand in her way.
I tell him that but ask him to wait for her to contact him. He gives me his email address—when he offers an address or phone number, I turn him down. An email address is enough. I can store that in my contacts and ignore it. An address would let me know exactly where he lives. With his new wife, what’s-her-name.
He turns away and walks down the street. I run back into the house. I don’t even want to know what kind of car he drives. He’s nothing but a piece of my past, mine and Lori’s.
The drawing project is nearly finished by the time I return to the kitchen. Lori gazes at me with her big, expressive eyes.
I enfold her in my arms and whisper, “I love you, Lori.”
“I love you, too, Mommy.” She squeezes me back. This is us. All we need. How do I explain who that man was, why he called himself her daddy?
Maybe I don’t need to volunteer information now. She seems to have forgotten about our visitor. When Lori is curious about Colin, I’ll tell her the truth. But not until she asks.
I close my eyes and pledge to my little girl not to let anyone come between us. We haven’t needed anyone else before so why would we need anyone else now? I’ll make exceptions for my family and Tia Hanna. They’ve brought joy to our family, never pain, never hurt.
We, Lori and I, are enough.
Next Monday CHAPTER 20—Dan: What’d I miss?
Coming on Wednesday, the next audio chapter,
Chapter 18—Dan: The real world
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? (PS–This is torn from real life, for sure. Someday I’ll share the story. It’s wonderful.)
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