I wake before my alarm. My heart’s racing like I was being chased by a tiger. I don’t bother trying to go back to sleep.
I thought I had pulled the window shades closed, but a light emanates through the crack where they meet. I shuffle to the bathroom, take a leak, and turn around to see myself in the mirror.
I know I’m not hungover. I know I’m not strung out. But you look like you are. My skin is loose and colorless and there are dark circles under my eyes.
“Fuck you!” I scream at the mirror.
I swipe my dopp kit from the counter and the contents go flying across the bathroom. Shouting, I grab the edges of the counter, trying to tear it out of its foundation. It doesn’t even budge. The static drives me into an even deeper rage. I throw all of the carefully-placed hotel amenities onto the ground. But everything is cloth and plastic and makes a dull thud when it hits ground.
I go back out into the room and tear at the bedsheets, throwing them into a corner and straddling the naked mattress, punching it over and over again. I’m sweating and drooling on myself. I only realize I’ve been screaming as I slow down, and the sound of blood rushing in my ears dies away.
I look around the room. Despite my outburst, it’s condescendingly maintained its intent: clean and inoffensively temporary. The amount of people who lose their minds in places like this must be staggering, and they prepare for it. They consider it in the construction and bake it into the bill: plastic curtains and tubs, single-use cups, fake wood furniture, mounted television, built in bulbs, with the only real glass being the bathroom mirror. Your Personal Safety, it could be another line item on my hotel bill, and they’d be right to collect it.
I roll off the bed and onto my feet. As I stand up, my awareness moving past the pain in my back from the flight and the hotel bed, my vision begins to blur.
Where am I?
I see the stripped bed.
Housekeeping must be here.
No. I’m in my boxers.
Slowly facts return, with the focused effort of remembering a dream. It’s morning. I’m here to see Zoe. This is my waking nightmare.
I know something has gotten inside of me. It’s more than just anxiety attacks and rage. It’s seeping from neuron to neuron, rewriting things, the effects permanent and unclear.
You’re not you anymore.
I take a deep breath. I’m here to see Zoe.
I walk to the window and open the drapes. The window itself barely opens, it rolls out perpendicular through a crank at the base letting diagonal air pass through an additional screen before entering the room. Safety first.
The clouds are a glowing, radiating mass, and despite not being able to see the sun, the world seems illuminated. Below me is the hotel cement parking lot, around that a long thin circumference of manicured grass, and behind the grass a ravine with overgrowth and adolescent trees.
As a child, that ravine would have fascinated me. Even in the absence of the extraordinary I would have filled in the gaps. I’ve made Camelots with less: some ferns, rocks and dead grass (when LA water restrictions were in effect). Worlds formed in front of me, neither bending towards me nor asking me to amend myself.
My imagination came so much more clearly then. How obvious now that the sacrifice of time spent living in this world is other-worldliness. I have to work to manifest fantasy, and when I do, it feels indistinct and laced with suspicion.
Zoe is what comes to me now. I have visions of laying her clothes out before school. Flipping pancakes to her on Sunday morning. Carrying her to bed when she falls asleep on the couch. Baking her a birthday cake. Kissing her goodbye in the morning. Bearing witness to the small everyday aspects of her life.
I sleepwalk through reality, the world wrapped in a semi-translucent haze. But not her. I can see her clearly. And I can hear her and feel her fingers in my hand. I can barely recognize myself in a mirror, but I can see her.
And then it dawns on me that these visions will not happen. Not for me at least. They’re as much a fantasy as the Camelot of my childhood. My imagination hasn’t left me. It’s developed to a point where it’s more vivid than my actual life. I’ve constructed a world with detail beyond anything I could have created as a child.
I’m jittery and exhausted. Energy pulses from my stomach into my limbs, causing them to twitch, and yet my brain remains in a fog. I pick at fruit and a piece of toast from the continental breakfast. I drink coffee until I feel that I’m prepared and focused.
It’s about a forty-minute drive to where Zoe lives. A town called Versailles, pronounced ‘ver-SALES’, which has the clarifying effect of telling anybody who wants to know, all they need to know, about the town. The two-lane highway I take runs through a series of momentum-breaking small towns, which seem both Southern and Rust-Belt: flat faced wooden frontage, giant porticos, and everywhere large protruding American flags. I’ve never been able to tell if it’s affluent Dayton spillover or glamorously provincial.
I make decent time until a Lincoln Town Car pulls out in front of me in one of the indistinguishable quaint downtowns and proceeds to drive twenty miles an hour. I follow behind them, punching the steering wheel, cursing out their ugly Ohio license plate, until a dashed line allows me to blow past. I speed the rest of the way, barely slowing down for the last few towns, screaming at anything that thinks about getting in my way, and internalizing a frenzy when road construction takes me to a dead stop on the edge of Versailles.
Despite my state, the pleasant details are glaringly apparent as I park the car. I notice the wild flowers, the semi-circle of bushes surrounding a house covered in manicured overgrowth that’s not as old as it looks.
I climb the steps of the front porch and press the doorbell. Her mother answers. She’s still gorgeous in almost the same way she was when we first met. Large green eyes, a small athletic frame hidden under layers of jeans and sweats. She appears childish and playful and the desire to help her is almost a reflex. But the look is a façade. She doesn’t need my help.
I smile as best I can.
We exchange pleasantries through the half-opened door. Despite the familiarity, there’s an edge to her that I can only recognize from our darkest moments. I wait, but she doesn’t invite me inside. I used to come in for coffee.
She yells for Zoe and then retreats back into the house. As she walks away, my lucidity is swept under a wave of intense anger. Anger at my ex, at this town, at the house, at myself, but especially at Zoe. My life was so much simpler before she entered it. Before all this shit. It wasn’t graceful. But at least it was comfortable. I understood it.
And now it’s fucked.
I hear Zoe running upstairs. When she and her mother come around the corner, I can’t hide my surprise.
She’s cut her hair.
What had been a mass of red tangles is now form and intention. She looks like a small adult.
My anger evaporates into guilt. Whatever life I had before Zoe doesn’t matter. It happened to someone else.
And you’re leaving in less than thirty-six hours.
“Hi beautiful,” I say, struggling to hold back tears.
She hides behind her mother’s legs and pokes her head out. She watches me but doesn’t come closer. I crouch onto my heels, bringing myself to her eye level.
“It’s good to see you. I’m really excited to be here.”
“Do you want to say ‘hi’ to your Dad?” Her mother says it with so little emotion, that I can’t tell if it’s encouragement or a way out.
I lean forward and she moves further behind her mother’s legs.
“She’s been shy lately.” An unexpected mercy.
“It’s ok. It always takes time.”
“I’ll go get her bag,” her mother says, taking a step backwards. Zoe tries to hold onto her leg but loses her grip after a couple of steps.
It’s just the two of us now, staring at each other through the door. I’m encouraged that she doesn’t run after her mother.
“I was thinking it might be nice to see some animals today. Do you know where we could go to see some animals?”
“The zoo!” she says.
“Great idea! And what could we do afterwards?”
She looks at me wide eyed and unmoving. Her eyes, uncommonly large like her mother’s, are overwhelming.
“How about a pizza party?” I suggest.
“Can I get my own pizza?”
“Of course. A cheese pizza, right?”
“No, I want a Hawaiian pizza.”
“Hawaiian? With pineapple?”
“Ok,” I say, and open the door between us. “We’ll get you a Hawaiian pizza.”
I reach through the doorway. She lets me take her hand, and lightly pull her into a hug. She rests her head against my shoulder. Having her so close makes everything else seem trivial: the flight, the drive, the hotel room, the loneliness. Even the anger. I’ll take it all. Because I’m hers. I’m not strong enough or cruel enough to be anything else.
Her Mom comes back with the overnight bag and a car seat. She tries to hand me the bag, and Zoe reaches up for it, taking it in both hands. I exchange a look with her mother.
“Does she like Hawaiian pizza?” I ask.
Her mother nods her head.
“Wow. Ok then.”
“I don’t know where she had it. I don’t eat it,” she says.
I smile, showing her that I think it’s funny, but she’s not looking at me.
I hold open the door and Zoe walks out dragging the bag down the steps behind her.
I turn back to her mother so only she can hear me.
“Before I fly back, I want to talk to you about having Zoe come visit me.”
“Send me an email.”
“I do, but you don’t respond.”
“I’m a single mother. Responding to you isn’t my number one priority in life.”
She closes the door. I watch it shut, speechless as usual.
I drive us to the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery. Which is basically an all-in-one children’s planetarium, science museum, aquarium, zoo and tea house. But what she likes best are the animals so we call it the “zoo”. While I try to inject a little STEM in every visit as a part of a larger goal to push back against gender stereotypes and align our interests. But it doesn’t really work. For all the time spent looking at stars and model tardigrades, she prefers coloring and dolls. And so I grow closer to those things.
As we walk through the museum, I plot out the rest of the day. Estimating times and locations, limiting the risk of overstimulation. When I started making these trips, I was afraid of her becoming bored so I varied the activities. Only to discover that the benign experiences: like playing hide-and-seek in my hotel room, or going to the play-place at McDonald’s, were the things she likes best.
“How’s preschool, honey?” I ask as we watch the butterflies.
“What are you guys doing?”
She shrugs. Apathy can’t have started this early.
“Do you have any close friends?”
“Mia, Lena, Lawrence, and Elizabeth,” she rattles off without pause.
“Do you have a best friend?”
“What do you like about Mia?”
“We ride horses together.”
“You’re riding horses? Your mother lets you ride…” I try not to sound panicked. “What horses?”
“Primero is the horse’s name?”
She nods her head and goes as close as possible to the window containing Sheldon the armadillo.
“Dad! Look!” she says pointing inside the room. There’s a family inside, with a little girl petting the armadillo.
“Who else do you ride horses with?” I ask, moving my face closer to the glass.
“Mom and Andy.”
My blood runs cold.
“Can we go in there too?” she asks.
“Hey honey, who’s Andy?”
The chill deepens. The idea of a new father figure in Zoe’s life hits me hard and fast.
“Do you see Andy a lot?”
She shrugs. “Sometimes.”
I can’t believe her mother didn’t consult me about this.
“Can you tell me about Andy?”
“She has a little baby. He’s so cute and small.”
Andy is Andrea, her mother’s friend. The realization calms me, but not entirely. There’s an anxiety that didn’t exist before.
“Dad, let’s go in there!” She has her hands pressed up against the glass.
She watches the armadillo closely for several minutes. When she finally touches Sheldon, she draws her hand back laughing hysterically. She holds her hands close to her chest, her fingers interlocked, as if she’s praying. After a few moments she touches Sheldon again, leaving her hand on him.
“Dad, look!” she says to me.
“I see you,” I say.
Outside of the museum I hear muffled jazz. There’s a bandshell in the distance, and a path leading to it that traces the Stillwater River.
“How about we see what’s going on over there?” I say, pointing towards the bandshell.
“No, I don’t wanna go over there.”
“It’s really close. It won’t take long.”
“Can we go to your house?”
“… I don’t live here honey.”
“No, not where you live. Where you sleep.”
“You mean the hotel?”
“Sure, we can go to the motel.”
When we get to the hotel, I pour myself a coffee while Zoe stacks the creamer packets into a thin tower. In front of the hotel room door, she takes the keycard out of my hand, unlocks the door and scrambles onto the nearest bed.
“Jump on the bed!” she says.
I put on the Frozen soundtrack and take her by the hands. We bounce in a circle, and I let of one of her hands go, dipping her into the sheets, and pulling her back to her feet. As the next song begins, I pick her up by the waist and spin her in my arms. We then begin a partially-choreographed robot dance routine that ends in us cupping our hands into a heart.
I climb off of the bed, as she begins her Let It Go solo. I drink coffee and watch her. When the song is over, she hops off the bed and begins to unpack the toys that I brought with me. She sets each one up with certainty. It’s child’s play to transform the room into something special. We build a storefront out of Legos and spend a brisk week buying groceries and cooking dinner, we explore the landscapes of the beds with small model horses, play a couple games of Guess Who?, and color in pictures of SpongeBob, Patrick and Plankton.
I glance at the clock. I want to be present. But there’s a string running from me to the clock, and even at my most attuned moments, I can feel the slight tug.
A knock at the door.
“Pizza!” she yells, pushing herself up and running to answer it. I pick my way across the room, stepping over toys and crayons and digging in my coat for my wallet.
I hand Zoe a couple of twentys, because she always insists on paying the delivery guy. She then stuffs the change into her pocket without asking. I like that she does it. She cares about money, which seems resourceful. That might be a flawed thing to be proud of, but I hope that it makes her independent. I pull a five-dollar bill out of her pocket, handing it to the delivery guy as a tip, and leave the rest of the change spilling out of her jeans.
I open the pizzas, fill two disposable cups with tap water, and lay out a small stack of bathroom towels.
“What should we watch?” I ask, putting pieces of pizza on towels and setting them on the floor.
“DuckTales! DuckTales!” she says, sitting cross-legged in front of her slice.
I put on the show as she digs in her bag and pulls out a small stuffed giraffe.
“Gina!” she says, setting the giraffe next to her.
She grabs the small useless plastic circle in the middle of one of the pizzas and sets it like a table in front of her giraffe. She tears off a small corner of her slice of pizza and places it on the miniature table. She whispers something to her giraffe, and I lean in to hear it. But whatever it was, it was only for the two of them.
The opening theme song starts. “DuckTales, woo-hoo!” she sings along.
I lay on the floor and stuff my face with pizza. It’s just Pizza Hut, but it tastes fucking amazing. I watch her stare at the screen, unblinking, eating her Hawaiian pizza. We treat the process like a beautiful mission. When one episode finishes, I put on another. When one slice is done, I put more on our towels. A nagging awareness creeps into me when the boxes are nearly empty. When it’s gone, she wipes her face with her towel, and then hands it to me without looking. I bundle all of the towels together, squeeze her hand, and drop the mass into the corner of the bathroom.
Back on the floor, I have to prop myself against the mattress to stay upright. She climbs up onto the bed, kicking me in the head, and dropping pillows down next to me. She then slides into the pillows and squirms around so her feet are in my lap. It reminds me of how she used to sleep as a baby, perpendicular, with her feet in my face.
As she watches television, I watch her. Her hands are so small, and her red hair spreads out over the pillow. I stare at her until she goes blurry, tears welling up in my eyes. I dig my nails into my palms.
“Dad.” She kicks me lightly in the ribs when she notices me staring at her. “Watch the show.”
I lean back into the bed. I can feel myself giving out. Strong emotions leave me and there’s nothing left in the backfill. It’s sadness. Or love. Or anger. Or happiness. But none of it in moderation, and always followed by exhaustion.
She’s kicking me again.
“No sleeping,” she says.
Credits are rolling. I look around me, at the crack in the drapes, at the short beige carpet, at the empty pizza boxes.
“Fuck,” I mutter under my breath.
I put on another episode and go into the bathroom to get a glass of water. When I walk out she’s still watching the screen intently.
“Hey Dad,” she says without looking at me.
“Wash your hands.” She rubs her hands back in forth in front of her face.
“I didn’t… You’re right. Wash my hands.” I go back in the bathroom and run the water for about five seconds while I stare into the mirror.
“Can we jump on the bed?”
“In the morning we’ll jump on the bed.”
“Just five minutes?”
“If we do it now you’ll be awake all night.”
“I promise you in the morning we’ll jump on the bed.”
“Hey! I’ve got something to show you,” I tell her.
I lay out a small bodiless silhouette on the bed. They’re pajamas in the colors of the Los Angeles Lakers, with logos running down the purple pants and matching short-sleeve shooting shirt.
I hardly follow basketball anymore. And if I did, I doubt the Lakers would still be my team. But I know she likes purple, and even as a forgettable gesture, Los Angeles is a link between her Californian family and a color that she likes.
She walks over to the bed and investigates them but doesn’t reach out to put them on.
“Do you know what the back says?” I ask her.
“That’s you. And it has the number ‘15’, because that’s the year you were born,” I say, pointing to the numbers below her name.
She looks at the pajamas but doesn’t say anything. I’m not sure she understands what any of this means.
“Your favorite color is still purple, right?”
“Purple AND pink.”
“Well, we’ll find something that’s pink, too.” I can’t think of a single team that uses pink.
She stares at the pajamas.
“Do you want to count to fifteen?” I ask, hoping that will generate some excitement.
She nods her head, and I hold up my hand to start counting down the numbers. She handles the first ten with ease and then pauses.
“…Eleven. Nelve. Sixteen…Seven…”
“Fifteen?” I ask.
She’s beaming as I raise the last finger on my hand.
“You’re so smart,” I tell her.
She turns her head away slightly, looking past me. I don’t know if it’s compliments that make her feel awkward, or just the ones coming from me.
“Do you want to put them on?” I ask.
The question seems to terrify her. The excitement from counting disappears, and she looks away from me entirely.
“Do you not like them?”
A memory comes back to me of my mother asking the same question, as I stared into a box with corduroy pants and an argyle sweater.
“I mean, it’s ok if you don’t. You don’t have to wear them,” I say.
She weaves her fingers together, pulling her shoulders inward, making herself physically smaller.
“Should we try them out next time?”
I take out the pajamas her mother packed. It’s a onesie, with flower print, small white pads on the feet, and a long zipper running up the front.
“This one,” she says.
She starts to peel off her t-shirt and I put the pajamas I brought to the side.
“Dad, why can’t I stay with Mom tonight?” she asks through her shirt.
Her arms are frozen in place above her head, hiding everything but the bump of her nose behind the white fabric.
I swallow the words I want to say. “Because it’s important for children to stay with both of their parents,” I tell her.
She begins to pull at the shirt again. The collar gets stuck, and before she can panic, I reach forward and pull it over her head. She looks up at me but doesn’t say anything.
“Do you know how many parents you have?”
“Two,” she holds up two fingers.
“Who are they?”
“Mom and Dad.”
I feel my jaw relax.
“And I need you to know that your Mom and Dad both care about you very much. And when you care about somebody you want to spend time with them,” I tell her. “I know this doesn’t feel like a home yet, but it will get better.”
I kiss the top of her head. Her hair smells amazing. What shampoo does her mother use?
Together, we go through the familiar steps of getting ready for bed. I help her climb into her onesie, zip up the front, and button the clasp at the top. I set out her toothbrush and the small tube of children’s toothpaste that I presume tastes like bubblegum. We brush our teeth side-by-side, her standing on her tiptoes so that she can see in the mirror. After that I let her pick the bed she wants, and she runs to the furthest one, pulling back the covers and hops in.
“Come on, Dad,” she says patting the space next to her. I put on basketball shorts and a t-shirt and climb in next to her.
“Which one do you want to read?” I ask, fanning the pile of books out in front of us.
“Oh Gina!” she says, pointing to the foot of the bed.
I get out of bed and collect her small stuffed giraffe and tuck it under the covers between us. She chooses a book about a bear wandering through the woods looking for his hat, and then one about dragons and tacos, and then one about imaginary creatures sailing to New York. It’s during the fourth book, about a mother loving her son forever, that I can feel her head start to collapse into my lap.
I lower her onto the pillow and slowly slide out of bed. I pull the covers up to her neck, shut off the lamp and get into the other bed.
Even with the lights off I can see her outline in the green light of the digital clock. I prop myself up against the headboard and begin to scroll through my phone. I check the news and the markets, letting myself sink in deeper. Thankfully, the mania of the morning doesn’t bleed into my night. There is nothing deep or existential about my thoughts, only the easy consumption of the ever-changing details of the day. At this moment, life seems tolerable.
I hear a noise and feel the weight of the bed shift. She hugs herself to me. I hold my breath. I shut off my phone and wrap my arm around her.
She must have been scared of the dark. When she’s scared, she wants to be next to me. When she wants to be next to me, she does so without asking. She knows she doesn’t have to ask.
I begin to cry.
Her hand rolls onto the sheets when she falls back asleep. I run my fingers through the strands of beautiful red hair that I can’t see are red. I think about all of the red and blonde-haired children we would have had. They would be tall and fair and look like Vikings. Or they would look more like me. And I would love them.
How strange it is to love something again.