She is sitting across from him, a tray of uneaten food in front of her. His folded hands are on the table in front of him.
First there is the declaration.
“I don’t want this. I’m not ready for this. I can’t have a career with a baby and a wife hanging around my neck like an albatross.”
Then there is the reasoning.
“What about grad school? How are you going to go off to Montana or Vermont with a newborn?”
Then there is the meanness that comes of what can only be imagined as desperation.
“Who is going to possibly want you with some other man’s kid?”
Finally, there is the leaving.
He gives her $400 and tells her that she nor the baby will ever want for anything but that he is not going to be a father. She drove them to the restaurant, so had to drive him back to his brother’s shop and as he crossed in front of her, she briefly entertained the thought of running him over, believing no jury in the world would convict a distraught pregnant woman.
And then I drove off. I went back to the basement I was living in as a stopgap while I waited to hear from grad schools. I threw every piece of soft furnishing I could find followed by all of the folders I’d organized my grad school applications into. Then I sat on the patio overlooking the cold, February Tennessee River and cried.
My son was born in September. His father called me at the hospital and told me he was proud of me because I didn’t take any drugs. I was ashamed that a tiny light flickered inside me that maybe he would change his mind.
He came to see the baby at one month and seemed more than a little anxious around my seething family.
He came to see the baby at three months and said that he was too little to need a father, that boys didn’t really need one until they were, like, fourteen. He gave me some money and kissed me goodbye. And though I wouldn’t admit it, a tiny little torch continued to burn.
There wasn’t another visit, or any more money, and the torch burnt itself out.
I was disappointed and angry for my son. Disappointed that there wasn’t another person in the world who was as invested in or loved him as much as I did. I was angry for all the things my son missed. I was violently, retchingly angry the day my father died and my five year old crawled in my lap and put his hand on my face and said it was okay because now neither one of us had a daddy. I was angry for all the nights of naked spaghetti noodles because that was all I had in the house for us to eat. It was okay to be angry for him. It was my job to be angry for him.
It was also my job to protect him from my anger. I had to be strong enough for two parents. I made it my job not to speak ill of the absent in front of him. I doubt I was a hundred percent successful because children instinctively know all the things we don’t say. When he asked me if his father loved him, I said, if he knew you he would love you. And I believed it. Despite my well-kept, furry little ball of anger, I knew two things. My son’s father was not evil because I had loved him once and my son’s DNA was half his. I also knew that young, scared people do stupid things. Admittedly, I wasn’t always as forgiving on the second point.
When my son was seven, I met and married someone who not only wanted me but fell in love with my son, too. He was a father. He wanted to be a father to my child and his. He adopted my son and put his name on the birth certificate where there had always been a blank.
My son is now eighteen and recently had his first college spring break. He was with his father, the one who didn’t want the job initially. I was anxious and worried and relieved, and even happy that they finally might get to know each other.
The thing I didn’t expect to be was sad. Sad for all the might have beens and should have dones. Sad for the nervous father in the delivery room. Sad for every day at the park. Sad for every dad with a toddler on his shoulders. Sad for the first tooth, first day at school, first bicycle, first soccer game, first girlfriend. Sad for birthday parties and making dinner together and skinned knees and a broken arm. Sad for late night talks philosophizing or planning for college. Sad for prom night and graduation. And, after years of keeping it at a distance, so very sad for that girl in the sub shop with her broken heart and all the years she carried its heavy pieces. I can finally let the last one go because the hope it held, that his father would have the opportunity to see what an incredible person our son is, came to be.
Now they have to figure out what happens next and I can just keep on being grateful for every moment I’ve gotten, every moment I get.