"Mommy, Mommy!" my five-year-old daughter Amanda yelled, slamming her way out of her father's car. "Maya called Daddy a jerk-off!"
She hurtled up the front walk toward where I was crouched under the hedges, trying to clear the dead leaves away from the hyacinths and tulips, and leaped on top of me, knocking me backward onto the wet lawn. I shut my eyes and pulled her close, burying my face in her mango-and-sweat-scented hair.
"That's not a nice word, sweetie," I said, feeling her heat above me, while below the damp from the grass was already seeping through my clothes.
"I know," said Amanda, pulling back and looking at me gravely. "That's what Daddy told Maya. And then she said, okay, she was sorry, he wasn't a jerk-off, he was a dickhead."
I bit back a laugh.
"Why did she call him that?" I said, working to keep my face as serious as hers. "Did they have a fight?"
Amanda only shrugged. "Can I go play Barbies?"
She scrambled off me and ran up the stairs into the house. I had barely made it to my feet, and was still trying to get a look at what was going on inside the car, when the passenger door shot open. Now it was Maya tearing up the walk.
"Mom," she said, as she whizzed past me, "tell Frank to leave me alone."
Frank was already out of the car, also hurrying my way. This was a real shocker: Usually he was peeling out within nanoseconds, heading back to New York, not even cutting his engine in his eagerness to flee. It had been weeks since I'd gotten so much as a glimpse of him, and now I tried to keep from gawking, so transformed was he with his newly lean body and his bleached blond spiky hair, his suede jacket and -- my God, could it really be? -- teeny tiny hoop earring dangling what looked like an ankh.
"What's going on?" I asked him.
I could feel Maya breathing behind me, sucking her rage in and out through her teeth.
"Nothing," said Frank, trying to look around me to where she hid. "She's just being fifteen."
"If you don't fucking tell her," Maya said, "I will."
"See how she talks now?" Frank said. "This is okay with you?"
Dickhead, I thought. "Tell me what?"
Frank took a deep breath. "I'm leaving the firm, Kennedy. I'm becoming a yoga instructor."
Frank, who couldn't make it through a cocktail-party conversation without mentioning he'd gone to Harvard Law. Frank, who used his legal stationery to write to the local newspaper to complain about faulty garbage collection. Chucking it all for the downward dog.
Now I really did burst out laughing.
He drew himself up to his full height, which wasn't all that tall. "I object to your ridicule."
"You're not a lawyer anymore, Frank," I said, still chuckling. "Remember?"
"This is about healing," Frank said. "This is about giving back to society."
"This is about you covering your ass," Maya said.
Frank opened his mouth, then shut it again. "I don't have to put up with this," he said, lifting his hands in surrender. "I'm out of here."
He half-turned and had started to move back down the path when Maya spoke again.
"The thing he didn't want me to tell you, Mom, is that we met her. We met Sunny."
Frank froze. Maya held her breath, waiting for my reaction. And I stood rooted in my spot, trying to take it in. I knew about Sunny, of course, the high school surfer girlfriend Frank had run into last fall at the Oyster Bar. Had gotten reacquainted with, had slept with, had left me for. I knew all about her, but my daughters were not supposed to. Not yet.
"What do you mean, you met her?"
"She came to the apartment, Mom. Duh! She came for dinner Saturday night and she was still there when we woke up this morning."
Frank broke in. "Maya, I warned you not to go running to your mother with all this misinformation." He took a step back toward me. "Kennedy, this is not what it seems."
"She was wearing a diamond ring, Mom," Maya said from behind me. "Way bigger than yours."
Without thinking, I reached out and pushed Frank. Hard. Leaving a muddy handprint on his pristine suede. I should turn him in to the maharishi for wearing dead cow.
"You promised me, Frank." I advanced on him. "You agreed we were going to give them time to adjust to the separation before we introduced other people into their lives."
"It's been four months, Kennedy," he said, backing away.
"Four months is nothing. They're nowhere near ready."
He stopped. "I think you're the one who's not ready."
He said this so quietly that it didn't even sound at first like it had come from him. It was more like a voice in the air, one of those voices that crazy people heard. Behind me, the screen door slammed; Maya had retreated into the house, leaving the two of us alone. I blinked.
"What do you think I'm not ready for?" I asked him.
"To leave the past behind. To start a new life."
That uncharacteristically straightforward no-bullshit statement coming from Frank hit me like a hardball between the eyes. Reeling, my gaze swerved and I looked blindly beyond him, desperate for something, anything else to focus on. What I found was Mrs. Husk's cherry tree across the street, which seemed overnight to have come into bloom. For months I'd seen only a tangle of black branches, and now suddenly there was this cloud of pink. Gaping at that pinkness, I realized that Frank was right. I had not, until that moment, accepted that he was gone and that my life was once again my own. And right then, ready or not, I knew that my future had already arrived, and that I was sailing into it by myself.
• • •
Unfortunately -- or maybe not -- I didn't have much time to think about what I was going to do now that I had again become master of my own domain. As soon as Frank left, Amanda pulled me into playing Ken to her Barbie. And then there was the evening's pizza to order -- one of the main advantages of single motherhood: not having to give a fuck what he wants for dinner. And then once I had Amanda bathed and settled down in front of her Sunday night TV shows, I had to go see what Maya had been doing all evening barricaded in her room.
Halfway up the stairs to the third floor, I could hear the clack clack clack of her computer keys. Her door was open and she was sitting in the dark near the window, illuminated only by the blue glow from the screen. She'd outgrown the green-painted antique chair at her desk -- she was taller than me now -- and her long, muscled legs sprawled into the shadows. When she saw me, she stopped typing and covered the screen with her hands.
"Homework?" I asked, trying for a casual tone, attempting a smile.
"No, Mom. Don't you have, like, something else to do?"
"Not really." I crossed the room and perched on the edge of the wicker chair near her desk, one of my flea market finds Frank would not allow downstairs, in "his" part of the house.
"Well, I do, Mom, okay?"
"No," I said, hearing the nervousness in my own voice. It wasn't often these days that I confronted her about anything, not wanting to piss her off any more than adolescence and her crumbling family already had. "Not okay. I want to talk with you about what happened today."
She let her mouth drop open and batted her eyes, which I guessed was as much encouragement as I could hope for.
I took a deep breath, trying to summon what little advice I could remember from those books on how to talk to your teenager. "I know what's happened between me and Frank is hard for you," I said. "But Frank loves you, Maya. You've got to know that."
"Well, I don't love him."
"Oh honey," I said, "Frank may have done some things that weren't very nice, but he is your dad."
"He's not my dad."
I sighed deeply. I'd started going out with Frank when Maya was five, the age Amanda was now, moved in with him when she was six, married him when she was eight. Her biological father hadn't lived with us or supported her since before she could remember, and she'd seen him only a handful of times after that.
"He's the only dad you have."
"No, he's not." And that's when she dropped her hands from the computer screen and I saw what was there:
Marco J. Rivera
"Maya," I said, my breath catching in my throat. "What are you doing?"
"I'm trying to find him, okay?" she said, her hands fluttering back to the screen, too late. Through her fingers, I could still read the name: Marco Rivera. Her real father.
"Oh, Maya," I said. "You don't really want to do that."
"Yes, I do."
"Maya. There are things I haven't told you."
She narrowed her eyes at me -- the amber eyes with the Asian tilt that were so like his. As was her thick hair, darker even than mine and as straight as mine was curly. And then there was that aggressive streak that made her seem to almost relish confrontation. "What?" she said, sticking out her chin, just like he used
I took a deep breath. "Drugs."
She laughed, startling me. "I know about the drugs."
"How do you know?"
"What do you think, Grandma's jabs just whizzed by me all these years?"
"It wasn't only grass, Maya."
"I know, I know: coke, crack." She waved her hand impatiently. "What else?"
I thought about it. What hadn't he done?
"He stole to get money for drugs," I said. "He was arrested."
"He was young. George W. Bush was arrested when he was young. What else?"
What else? She needed more?
"I'm just afraid for you, Maya," I wailed. "It's been so long." When I thought of Marco at all, I imagined him in an alley somewhere, on a bench, drunk, strung out, toothless, as good as dead. I tried a different tack: "If he was capable of being a father to you, I think we would have heard from him long ago."
The chin came out again. "You don't think he wants me."
Just knowing this thought had passed through her mind made tears spring to my eyes. "No, no, that's not what I'm saying."
In fact, we'd both really wanted Maya, me as much as him. Whenever I told anyone I'd gotten pregnant at nineteen, they always assumed it was a mistake. My own mother offered me $100,000 at the time to have an abortion, which made me so angry that I cut off all contact with her. Even after my mother and I made up, when I finally broke up with Marco, I swore I would never take money from her for any reason, never let her control me that way, a resolution I still kept.
Marco not only wanted Maya, he aspired to being an ideal father, which was what started his trouble with drugs. He'd played major league ball for about two minutes and when we got together, he worked construction, as a bicycle messenger, whatever job he could get that -- combined with my waitressing tips -- would pay our East Village rent. But having a baby, that introduced a whole different way of life, an entirely new side of Marco. He knew I was from a rich family -- the reality, more precisely, was that my mother had married a series of progressively richer men -- and he wanted to "take care" (his words) of us in "high style" (his words, too). It didn't matter that I told him that I'd never cared about having a lot of money, either making my own or living off my mother's. When I protested that I wanted to keep working, that I was happy to contribute to our household expenses, he only laughed. His outmoded brand of Latin pride would never allow his wife, the mother of his baby, to work.
And so he started dealing drugs. He told me he was working as a trader on Wall Street and I believed him. I was naive, and I wanted to believe him. It was the golden age when people rose from the mud to make millions in mergers and acquisitions, as well as the era of crack cocaine. Marco kept the yuppie charade going -- he'd even get up in the morning, put on a beautiful suit, and leave the apartment -- until he started using drugs himself. Then it was downhill fast.
"Marco really loved you," I said, thinking carefully now about how to explain all this to Maya. "You were the most important thing in the world to him. But he just couldn't hold it together, sweetheart. He wasn't capable of being a good father to you, and I think that broke his heart."
Her face softened as she considered this. Then suddenly her eyes widened and brightened as if she'd seen something wonderful. "You know what I remember?" she said. "I remember him coming to Frank's apartment on my birthday, and bringing me that pink dress with all the ruffles, and I remember he and Frank got in a fight."
That had happened. Marco had been high, as usual, and Frank had challenged him, and they'd gotten into a shoving match that Frank won only because Marco, who had been muscled and powerful when I first met him, was by that point so dissipated he could barely stand up. The next year on her birthday, Maya had put on the ruffled dress, by then so tight it bit into her waist and strained across her shoulders, and waited in Frank's vestibule, certain Marco would appear. She waited for four hours. Then she took off the dress, marched out into the hallway in her underwear, stuffed the wad of pink ruffles down the chute to the incinerator, and never asked to see Marco again.
But that wasn't what she remembered now. She remembered getting the dress; she remembered feeling her father's love. And I could understand, despite all my misgivings, why she wanted to feel that again.
"I'll help you," I said, hearing the tremble in my own voice even as I tried to convince myself I was on Maya's side. "I'll help you look for him, and if you find him, I'll help you connect with him."
"You really want to do that?" Maya said.
"No," I admitted. But I'd already decided I would do it anyway. Marco had scared me for a long time, but it scared me even more to think of my teenage daughter going to see him without my backing her up. And, I thought, I'd been too afraid of too much for too long. I'd gone from being a teenager so self-confident I had a baby and supported her on my own to a thirty-four-year-old woman who was scared to drive on the highway, who was afraid to walk alone through New York streets where I'd lived for years. How had that happened? I didn't know. I just knew I wanted to be different.
Copyright © 2003 by Pamela Redmond Satran