So we’re on our way to the restaurant when the kid turns to me and she goes, Dad, who is this lady? Just like that she says it, Who is this lady, eight years old and already she sounds like a snotty teenager, which she just so clearly gets from her mother that it isn’t even worth going into. She’s a friend I say, and keep my eyes on the traffic, I already told you who she is, because I did, like six times back at the house. But there’s something about my explanation she doesn’t like or trust. Is this a date? she asks. No I say, too quick, less because I’m lying than because I’m surprised she knows yet what a date is, until I realize that of course fucking Janine fucking told her, which realization is confirmed when she says, Because I don’t think Mom would like you taking me on a date and then a Range Rover of all goddam things cuts me off. Well then, I tell her, your mother should call me before she drops you off out of the blue, kiddo. I mean don’t get me wrong, I love having you here, but I didn’t exactly know you’d be around tonight. Danielle shrugs, She had an emergency, and stares at her own reflection in the side-view mirror as I change lanes. I’m wondering what she sees there—if she sees what I see whenever I look at her little face: my puggish nose, my widow’s peak—but everything else is Janine’s, especially like now, like when she’s pouting and lippy and feeling sorry for herself. I feel like such a shit for even thinking that, though, that I try to make it up to her and say Get whatever you want tonight. Chicken fingers, right? That wins her from the mirror, though she doesn’t smile. She’s still being mad at me. With honey mustard? she asks. There’s a lilt in her voice despite her effort to punish me. Who is this lady she says once more under her breath, and though I shouldn’t react, I go It’s not a date again because fuck it, if she’s already turning into her mother, I might as well start lying to her.
We’re (I’m) not supposed to meet Amanda until 7:30 and we’re in the parking lot of Chili’s by quarter after so we idle in a space wordlessly, and really even though I don’t want Dani and Amanda in the same restaurant in the same room at the same table, for God’s sake—but then whatareyougonnado, it’s Friday and it’s happy hour and it’s not like I’m taking the kid to a dive bar right, I mean what am I gonna leave her at home by herself with a Pixar movie? blow Amanda off and babysit?—I find myself tapping the brake pedal in anticipation with tremors that can only be described as Parkinsonian. I’m smoking my way through half a pack of Camels and Dani is playing with the radio until she finds a country station, some singer whose voice I recognize but can’t name. OK your turn I say, this little game of ours, what’s this one babe? She looks at the dome light and goes Yodeling. Yodeling and but she stops so I go Yodeling and what, and she goes Yodeling and sand, sand, I’m guessing, because the singer’s got a gravelly voice, so I nod and she twiddles the knobs again and I look at the Chili’s entrance for Amanda and try to remember what she looks like, try to guess what she’ll wear. Last night when we met she was wearing cut-off Daisy Dukes and a not really like a tank top but more like what looked like an oversized handkerchief tied around her torso, right here she was wearing it, at this very Chili’s, and of course none of the meathead-y bartenders seemed to mind. She was drinking something called an El Presidente straight out of a plastic mixer with the words “MARGARITA MADNESS” on the side, a drink whose salt I could smell on her breath when she leaned in and said You look like before being interrupted by the bouncer, or whatever the equivalent of a bouncer is at Chili’s, who told her she probably needed to head out, and I promised I’d get her home safe and we Frenched in my car before I took her back to my place where the sex was fine, but really didn’t compare to the thought I had back in the car, which was that it had been so long since I’d Frenched someone that I didn’t even know what the cool word for Frenching was anymore. I have absolutely no idea what Dani will think of someone like Amanda and I don’t know what she’ll tell Janine and so as you can see the Parkinsonian leg tremors are a bit understandable considering the balancing act I’m about to pull off, but I can’t think of any of that anyway because Dani goes Dad-dy, your turn! to a radio station that sounds like the Cranberries, a B-side, from Everybody Else is Doing it, So Why Can’t We I think, and if I want to play the game properly, I have to answer honestly, but the only answer on the tip of my tongue—which I don’t dare say to Dani—is Your mom, this one sounds like your mom, and it does, though it sounds like the old Janine. The new Janine sounds like, well, she sounds like Dani, right now, as in this second in the parking lot, as Dani looks toward the entrance and says, Oh, I’ll just bet that’s her.
Right right context: OK. What do you want to know? Would it help to know that Janine and I broke up a year ago? Would it help to know neither of us can afford a lawyer, hence we’re not technically legally divorced, hence no custody agreement, hence Dani being dropped in my lap whenever Janine doesn’t feel like being a parent for a night? Would it help to know that I’ve tried to get back together like nine times? Or that I’m not in the least bit paranoid when I say that my daughter is being turned against me? Or that it’s working? Or that I sound so much like my father when I say that that I have to sit on my balcony and chain smoke until the taste of him disappears? Probably not. Probably all you really need to know is this: Janine is convinced both that I’m an alcoholic and that I don’t love her anymore, but she’s only right about one.
This is where Amanda comes in. She’s sitting between Dani and me, and she’s already handled my bringing an eight-year-old on our date with really you gotta hand it to her and just call it aplomb, like this was the plan the whole time, like of course I was gonna bring my daughter along, why would she think otherwise, what’s happy hour without a first-grader in tow? Dani is looking around the bar at the crowd that’s here, mostly young pant-suited chicks and a couple guys in shirtsleeves who just got off their telemarketing jobs and are trying to forget the nine to five for a night. The crowd to our left cracks up at something, way too loud, and Dani giggles too. What are you laughing at asks Amanda, genuine though, not mean, just sweet and curious, and Dani picks up on it and goes It’s so funny, they’re so funny, why are they acting so funny and we look over at the group where one of the guys has poured the margarita salt on the table and is pretending to snort it like coke. They’re happy Amanda says. What are they happy about Dani asks, and I go Beer, babe. They’re happy about beer. Amanda puts her hand on my knee under the table and I arch my neck around for the waiter before she can catch my eye, but she puts a finger to my chin and turns my head to hers anyway. Hey you she says, and as the words reach my nose there’s a tar-and-citrus sting that I do my best not to flinch at. You know what you want I ask her and Dani goes Chicken fingers I thought, until she looks up from her menu and sees this woman wrapped around her father like a strait jacket and realizes I wasn’t talking to her. But Amanda turns and says Chicken fingers sounds great. I haven’t had those in forever, you wanna share some but Dani obviously doesn’t and looks almost personally offended that anyone would want to share hers, and then Amanda goes I like them with honey mustard, you? and Dani smiles and for a second I think, Shit, maybe this will work.
So I get a drink and Amanda gets a drink and for Dani we order Pepsi, chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, whatever she wants—just as long as she stays entertained. Eat some I tell Amanda, pointing to the appetizer plate, it’ll soak up whatever’s in that glass. She slides her hand up my thigh another inch and swivels her head to Dani, says Is your dad always this much of a square? Dani, mouth full of scalding hot cheese, goes Square, her mouth too full for me to tell if it’s a question or what, so Amanda just makes a little square with her pointer fingers and says I’m gonna use the bathroom and uses my crotch as a platform to lift herself up.
She’s all right huh I say to Dani as soon as Amanda gets up, and Dani just shrugs, not even looking at me when she does it either, looking instead at the chicken finger in her hand that she tears into pieces until it’s the shape of a gun. Bang she says, pointing her chicken-gun at me and I go Where’d you pick that up, meaning the habit obviously, not the chicken finger, and she says This boy in class—you hear that? A boy from class. First grade! Or at least I think that’s what grade she’s in—Robby she continues as I gain my composure enough to hear her out, I hate him, he keeps following me and bugging me every time I try to talk to people. I watch her dip the barrel of the gun into some honey mustard and say He probably just likes you, you’re pretty which she is kind of, for an eight-year-old anyway, and she says I don’t want him to like me. I hate him. I order another whiskey Coke (I like hearing about how her life is going and I want to enjoy it) in anticipation of her follow up, I want to hear why she hates him, what this poor kid did to deserve her hatred, to make her not want him around her when clearly that’s all he wants, but it takes her until the drink arrives to say Where’d you meet Amanda?
Here I say, walking through the fucking minefield of this conversation, careful only to say where we met and not when, and wondering where the hell Amanda is anyway. Did you and Mom meet at a bar she asks and I say This isn’t a date and she says Did you though and I say This isn’t like me and Mom and she says But did you and I say No, your mother and I met in college. Something just absolutely fantastic must have just happened in the Yankees game because the margarita-coke-salt guys at the bar explode at the screen in fireworks of laughter so I can’t hear what my daughter says next and I say What? What hun? and she says How I said, and I have to think a minute to remember. When you’re in college it’s like camp I tell her, You all live together, boys and girls, and Mom lived across the hall from me. I was really scrawny and she says What’s scrawny so I absentmindedly pat my own biceps, It’s when you’re grown up but you still look like a little kid, real skinny, and she says You’re still scrawny but she says it “scron-ny,” sounding out this new word she just learned, so I don’t take offense. Your mom was really pretty and for some reason she actually talked to me, like a lot, and so we got together and had you and that’s when we had to leave school, I say, surprised, actually, that Janine’s never told her this story. But Dani says how did you meet? That’s how you knew each other but how did you meet? which I’m confused at and say You mean become boyfriend and girlfriend and she goes Yeah and I say Well
Hope you two didn’t miss me too much Amanda says, standing over us, clear-eyed and peppy and tall; I take her in for the first time and she’s quite a sight, in this Greek-style dress that just fits her like a dream, I mean she’s wearing the hell out of the thing and even Dani’s gotta notice. Of course we did I say, where were you? She shakes her half-empty pack of Newports in response. She sits back down and says to Dani They have a jukebox here. What music do you like, and Dani says I don’t know. Dad has this one CD he lets me play on Saturdays when I’m over there. It’s called Golden Oldies. I like those guys. And here Amanda’s face lights up bam! like Dani has just said the magic words. Fifties stuff? Amanda asks her and Dani goes Maybe and I say Yes and Amanda says Dion and the Belmonts? which lands on Dani’s ears like Shakespeare in Greek as translated by Siamese cats, so Amanda starts to sing Here’s a story, it’s sad but true / About a girl that I once knew. . . . And if you knew my daughter you’d understand that this is all it takes: Dani belts out the rest of “Runaround Sue,” note-perfect, and Amanda doesn’t try to out-sing her, just accompanies her with some hey-hey-bumpahaydeehaydee-hey-hey, awwwwwww’s—in other words she’s the Belmonts, not Dion—and Amanda even does a little Chaplinesque tap dance with the chicken fingers and I’m wondering where all this energy is coming from, but don’t bother myself with it, just order another round for all three of us.
I lean back and relax a second, the food’s gone but the drinks are still coming and I think I can leave these two alone for a beat, though Amanda won’t sit still and even Dani is wiggling all around. I’m about to say What’s the matter sweetie but Amanda says What’s the matter sweetie and Dani says My shirt, my shirt itches, it’s the tag, and Amanda takes a pair of tiny scissors from her purse and helps to cut it off as she says Have you ever heard of a hair shirt? which Jesus Christ of course my daughter hasn’t, but those two seemingly disconnected nouns sound funny to an eight-year-old when put together so Dani’s interest is piqued. Take it easy I tell Amanda and she just brushes it off. It’s a really uncomfortable shirt people used to wear. They made it out of horse hair.
Gross! Dani says, in that way little kids say “gross!,” the way adults normally say “delicious!” Why would they wear something like that? It sounds itchy.
It was, says Amanda. That was the point. They did it when they felt bad about stuff. To show they were sorry she says and sips her drink and I sip mine. I’m actually kind of impressed with the way Amanda’s explained this without any kind of religious context whatsoever, and I’m feeling a little buzz from the bubbles crawling down my throat so I let her keep going. When I was a kid, my dad didn’t talk to me all that much, he knew I loved baseball but he didn’t know what team. He thought I liked the Red Sox even though I loved the Yankees which is funny since she hasn’t turned her head to the screen once this whole time, but whatever, so for my birthday one year he bought me this Red Sox hat and I hated it. But I never threw it out. Every time I messed up or did something he didn’t like, if I got a bad grade or skipped school or got kicked out for fooling around with a boy in the janitor’s closet, I’d wear it for him, in front of him, so he’d know she says, and I don’t know if Dani knows what “fooling around” is but maybe you just have to be here, at this table, watching Amanda tell this story—she’s so kidlike and manic and invested in telling it that interrupting her just feels cruel, and I’m about to put a hand on her shoulder, seriously that’s how wounded she seems at the sound of this memory, but before I can get my hand there she shoots up out her chair and says I have to pee again and I notice for the first time her sniffling and rubbing her nose as she picks up her purse and walks away.
Dani on the other hand doesn’t seem to have noticed at all, she’s a pretty perceptive kid but maybe that only applies when it comes to me and her mom. She knew this was a date, for instance, and she knows whenever Janine has guys over that they aren’t just pals, I know Dani can see right through it because she tells me, whenever I ask. I ask Dani about Janine’s personal life a lot, and if you think that’s pathetic and manipulative you’re not telling me anything I don’t already know. But before you judge me, although I’m sure you’ve already done so, just try to imagine someone you’ve loved, an ex, someone whose rejection of you is a total mystery, and now imagine that you have a little person living with that ex who carries around this well of information, and now imagine this little person hanging around your house for days at a time unexpectedly, and now try to resist the temptation to ask and ask and ask and ask. Dani is my daughter but she’s also like my personal human wiretap, even if asking her about Janine’s dating life is like a sort-of emotional hair shirt in itself.
Fuck I hear, loud and clear as someone calling my name for dinner, and here’s the part I want to tell you about. Those assholes at the bar have gone from hitting on the girls next to them to straight-up harassment. A blonde guy with a buzz cut and a loosened, slack tie reaches for one girl’s purse. Hey she says give that back and he goes Not until you guys promise to come down the street with us, and her friend says Quit being an asshole and I’m happy that at least the two girls are in it together until I realize that Girl #2 is not talking to Buzz Cut but is in fact talking to Girl #1, telling her not to be an asshole by, I don’t know, allowing this dickhead to steal her purse, and the swearing is getting super loud so I check Dani’s face—unfazed thank God since we are after all at a bar and I can’t after all make them stop swearing, but I certainly can say something to Buzz Cut, I’ve got liquor muscles now and want to show my daughter what her dad is made of, I want to give her something to report back to Janine that isn’t just Dad-introduced-me-to-his-friend-at-the-bar, or hey-Mom-do-you-know-what-a-hair-shirt-is, or have-you-ever-heard-of-an-El-Presidente, I want Janine to know I am not a guy but a man. I want to be the old me in the same way that for years now I’ve been wanting Janine to be the old Janine, and so I get up and grab this girl’s purse, just like that I grab it, sans resistance, and Buzz Cut looks not at me but at the girl, looks at her like she just broke his heart, like she just returned his engagement ring or turned him down for the prom or something. I’m starting to think I’ve misread the situation and begin to say Hey I’m, I’m and then I don’t know what it is that comes over me but you have to just trust me on this, this is a true story so believe me, I was there, you weren’t: I look at my daughter and she’s still my daughter but she’s twenty years old. Her hair’s longer and her eyes are bigger and she’s starting to get these little parenthetical lines at the corners of her mouth, but it’s definitely her. And the look she gives me is so piercing that it’s like she’s not even looking at me, like I’m not even in front of her, like I don’t even fucking exist, I’m tissue paper, I’m air, I’m nothing, and looking back at her I see her widow’s peak is gone and she’s grown in to her nose, so there’s nothing left of me even in her—blame this all on the liquor if you like—but as soon as I blink she’s back, Dani, Danielle, my girl, eight years old if she’s a day, and it’s at this point that I know something’s supposed to occur to me, something about how to take care of her, some fatherly instinct is gonna kick in about the Amanda situation or about Buzz Cut or just about being there for my kid in general—but nothing does. Instead I just stand there with the purse still in my hand and I stare at my daughter and I think:
The morning before Janine realized she was pregnant with Dani, we were lying in my dorm room bed, a tiny single that barely fit me, let alone us. Finals were approaching, and Janine was going home to Minnesota for the whole summer, so we had no clue whether we’d stay together or even see each other again, since we were moving to different buildings next year. I didn’t know whether she was awake yet, and when I opened my eyes all I wanted was a lumberjack breakfast—Janine could go hours without eating but I always woke up next to her hungry as a bear. Janine got out of bed and stretched and when she got to the window she said Clouds. I just looked at her against the window and saw her skinny little silhouette, gawky-sweet and maybe a little awkward, hair framing her face like a curtain. There was a bleach stain on her turquoise underwear. She asked me where her socks were and I pointed to the dresser where she always kept them balled and then she asked if she could bum a cigarette so I gave her one, one of the last two in the pack. I’d been planning on quitting. I pulled on my pants. When I let her out of the building, I finally saw the clouds and had to agree with her—it looked like it would rain. See she said, and pointed at the sky. But it’s not raining I said. But it might she said.
I told her I’d get her an umbrella. She took out the cigarette I’d given her.
She stood on the steps of the dorms and waited for me to light it so I lit it with the cherry of my own, leaned in to hers so the ends could kiss. She didn’t step back but instead leaned in too. I smiled at her, which smile she tried to avoid, but I kept grinning at her like an idiot. She smiled back. What, she said.