I can feel something shaking my arm and a presence near my face before I open my eyes.
“Time to get up!”
Zoe’s standing next to the bed, her eyes big and excited. I look past her at the clock. It’s 5:59. In Colorado it’s 3:59. I’m not even aware of my eyes closing again.
“Sun is shining,” she says, pushing harder on my arm.
“Yep. I’m getting up.”
A faint amount of light is coming in through the drapes. How did she know it was time to wake up? I walk to the bathroom. She tries to follow me into the toilet.
“No honey, just Dad,” I say, closing the door.
She shuts the lights off on me while I’m trying to piss.
“Zoe, can you turn those back on?”
I hear her running away laughing. I do my best to finish up in the dark. After I step out, I start to put on my shoes. I need coffee and rehydrated eggs.
“Jump on the bed first.”
“You’re so right.”
I lift her overhead by the ankles and shake her back and forth as she laughs uncontrollably. I drop her onto the bed and flip her over from her stomach onto her back and then to her stomach, again and again. After several minutes I can feel my muscles fatiguing and the sweat gathering under my clothes. I drop her onto the bed and fall face-first next to her.
“One more!” she says, climbing onto my shoulders.
“Dad needs a break.”
“One more. Then a break.”
I pick her up by the waist and put her under my arm. With her bouncing and laughing in my arms, I put on my shoes, and start towards the door.
“Dad, my clothes!” she says.
“Breakfast first. Then clothes.”
I set her down in front of the elevator and join her on the floor. We sit in front of the doors, her in her pajama onesie, and me in a ratty t-shirt and shorts.
Downstairs, I pour a cup of coffee. I carry it around with me as we walk to each of the breakfast stations. I listen to the sound of her padded feet clapping against the tiled floor. She stops at the waffle maker. We have to look through everything, but we always stop at the waffle maker. I help her pour the batter. When the waffle’s done she covers it in syrup and then eats about half of it.
“Can you eat a little fruit?” I say, pushing a small bowl towards her. She picks out the strawberries and grapes, leaving the cantaloupe, kiwis and pineapple.
After breakfast we spend time playing in the room. She feels comfortable here so we’re not in a rush to leave. I can feel the exhaustion in the back of my skull. I work hard to keep it there, off of my face and out of my eyes.
There’s a big box of crayons and plenty of paper. We draw next to each other with magazines between the paper and the carpet.
“Dad, what is that?” she asks, pointing at my picture.
I realize I’ve just been drawing random geometric shapes: circles, squares and triangles, in various colors, all over the page.
“A magic eye picture,” I say.
“Lots of funny shapes.”
She holds up her picture.
“And me?” she asks, showing me a drawing that looks like three people holding hands.
“Is it a family?”
She nods her head.
When we finally get ready, the sun is up, and the room is sticky with heat. I dress her in shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals. Put her hair, as best I can, in a ponytail. Carefully fold her picture into the seam of one of her books. Pick up the change that is buried in the carpet and slide it back in her pockets. Then hurriedly repack my bag so I can focus on repacking her bag, because it was a fucking disaster the one time I took home Gina the giraffe.
At the door, I look around the room. It’s too easy, like I’m forgetting something.
She’s excited, and even though she can barely wrap her arms around her towel, she insists on carrying it. She sings a simple made-up song, “Pool party! Pool party!” over and over.
“Dad, there’s a playground! Hey Dad, there’s a playground, right there.” she says, pointing to a huge well-maintained park of plastic bubbles and rubber.
“I know, I see it. But we’re going to the pool.”
She balances the towel on top of her head and skips ahead of me across the loose gravel parking lot.
I see the car coming out of the corner of my eye.
I grab her by the arm, pulling her out of the street. The car speeds by, unaware or uncaring.
She’s frozen and then melts down. The towel falls to the ground. She drops onto the cement and buries her head in her arms.
I sit down next to her. I can’t speak. Slowly I wrap my arm around her.
She puts her fingers into her ears and starts screaming, “Mom! Mom! Mom! I want Mom! I want Mom!”
I try to bring her closer to me, but she pushes me away and curls back into herself. I’m terrified this is what she’ll remember.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I just didn’t want you to get hurt. You have to hold my hand when you cross the street. Please, I didn’t mean to hurt you–”
She wraps her arms around me. My mouth goes dry and I can feel even the weight of her hair resting in my lap.
“It’s ok. Everything is ok. I’m not mad at all. I just didn’t want you to get hurt.”
She looks up at me. Her eyes swollen as she tries to understand. On her arm I notice a creeping red mark where I grabbed her.
You did this.
Her skin is sensitive and freckled, like mine. A memory comes to me of my mother applying sunscreen and making me swim in a white t-shirt. I want to redeem my obliviousness with unrequited love, but how can I do that when I’ll be gone in eight hours.
She watches me for a moment and then stands up. The ache in my throat is so strong that I can taste it.
“Come on Dad,” she says, and picks up her towel.
I hold her hand in a daze as we walk across the street. On the other side, she lets go and runs ahead. I take several steps and reality drops me to one knee.
Fuck you. Get up.
I can’t keep doing this. Please God, I can’t…
Your daughter is right there.
I push my head into the ground. My entire body strains against my mind.
Get up you absent son of a bitch.
She needs me.
My muscles labor as I feel myself lifting off the grass. Hazy eyed and sun blinded I walk towards the entrance. The high school girls working the booth study me. I pay the eight dollars and fifty cents and open the gate for Zoe.
Inside, she follows me as we weave past the lap pool, lily pads, water castle and come to a large shallow kid’s pool with mushroom waterfalls and eternal buckets of water falling onto screaming children. She sets her towel down and starts to run away.
“Hold on,” I say.
She waits for me, dancing back and forth. I get out the sunscreen, SPF 50. It sticks to my hand in an unnatural way. I can barely smear it across my fingers. When I wipe it on her arm it sticks with an opaqueness that reveals what I’ve missed.
“Mom says we have to put the sunscreen on before we get out of the car,” she tells me.
“That was like five minutes ago.”
I squeeze the tube too hard and a huge glob of sunscreen covers my hand. She watches the buckets of water.
“From now on we’ll put the sunscreen on in the car,” I tell her.
I keep coating her in sunscreen until she’s covered in a light protective white, and then start applying it to her face. The skin on her cheeks gives way momentarily before perfectly snapping back into place. I look into her eyes as she continues to stare at the pool.
I remember the day when she woke up and her eyes had changed from blue, into their current mix of matte green and brown.
“I thought they were going to stay blue,” her mother had said.
She sounded disappointed, which surprised me, because she had always told me that she liked the color of my eyes. In that moment I wanted her to have blue eyes. But now, as I look at her, I’m thankful they’re something we share.
“I know, I know.”
I kiss the top of her head and let her go. She runs to the nearest bucket, huddling underneath it with several other children. It fills to the top, and then tips over, dumping water onto them, sending them screaming.
I apply sunscreen to myself as I watch them.
When we drive home Zoe falls asleep, resting her head against her padded car seat. The back-country roads to her mother’s place are endless, and it all passes too quickly. I come to a dirt road stretching towards perfectly weathered farmhouses, the rural meth epidemic apparently having spared this small corner of my hell. I follow the dirt road until we come to a long row of trees serving as a windbreak for the enclosed homestead. I pull into a service ditch and kill the engine.
The sun is lost behind the large white farmhouse and the sky has descended from orange into red. It’s so flat that you can see the curvature of the earth, and it reminds me of the endlessness I would experience when my mother would take me to the ocean. It can be beautiful here, when you let it.
That farm house must be a hundred years old. You could have put a lot of kids in that house a hundred years ago. You could put a lot of kids in that house now if people did that anymore. If I would have bought that, would she have been happy? She always wanted to move home.
What if I surrendered myself up to a higher power? Not God, but the power of the courts, mother, and social services, the unholy trinity of estranged fathers. It would be so much easier if her mother was poor. But she has money in the worst way, judgmental Midwest protestant money. Money that doesn’t exist for consumption, but as an ever-growing reference of Calvinistic pride. I keep sending the checks, hoping to engender some sort of co-parenting reciprocity. But they don’t need me. And they don’t think Zoe needs me.
They want for nothing.
No, that’s not true. They want me to go away. How badly it must piss them off that I’m still here.
I smile to myself and roll down the windows.
I shouldn’t ask these questions. I have a fifteen-thousand-dollar therapist bill that proves how dysfunctional we were together. But it’s impossible in this place of beauty, not to question the past. I should have come home sooner at night. I should have dragged her kicking and screaming to couple’s therapy. I should have grown up and settled down. I should have–
You know better than to follow that rabbit hole.
When Zoe left, I told myself I would be present. No more phone, no more work, just her. Even if I wanted to, I can’t go back and analyze everything now.
“Dad…” I look in the rearview mirror. Zoe’s eyes are barely open.
“Where are we?”
“We’re out in the countryside.”
“Because it’s pretty. And because you were sleeping and I didn’t want to wake you up.”
“Can we go back to Mom’s?”
“How about ice cream first?”
I start the engine and stare out at the farm house.
It’s a pointless gesture.
And yet, I can’t say that I did everything I could to make it work. Which means that I can’t say that I did everything I could to keep Zoe.
“Yep, I’m going.”
I back out of the service ditch and take the dirt road to the highway.
There’s a small ice cream shop in downtown Versailles. We’ve been there three times, not enough that it’s a tradition, but it could become one. She’s gotten sorbet every time, which I think is a little quirky. It’s in these small things that I see Zoe not as an amalgamation of her mother and I, but as fractions of each, and then a large mass of something that I can’t comprehend yet.
As we eat our ice cream, I entertain her by trying to steal hers, and she holds it high above her head. We play the game over and over. For her this is nothing special, but for me, it’s one of the last moments I’ll have with her until my next visit.
“Hey honey, can I talk to you for a second?”
She looks up at me as she shovels melted sorbet into her mouth.
“Mmm delicious,” she says playfully.
“I have to go home soon, but I want you to know that I really like spending time with you.”
“We did a lot of fun things, didn’t we? What was your favorite?”
“The zoo and the pizza party and the pool party.”
“Would you want to come and have a pool party at Dad’s house?”
“I would really like that too.”
“Can Grandma come?”
“And Aunt Kelly?”
“Mom probably won’t be able to make it.”
She’s goes quiet.
“But that’s ok. We’ll have snacks, and games, and Grandma and Aunt Kelly will be there. It will be really fun.”
She stares down at her ice cream.
“We’ll go to an even bigger zoo, with elephants, and giraffes, and penguins. And tons of playgrounds. It will be so much fun.”
I stick my spoon in what’s left of her ice cream, and with a slight delay she raises it above her head.
When I pull up to the house her mother is waiting outside. Before I can get out of the car, she’s opened the door and started to unbuckle Zoe. By the time I get to her she’s pulled out the car seat and put it into her own car.
“You’re late,” she says.
“Ten minutes,” I say, and look at my watch. “Eight minutes. And I texted you.”
“I can’t make plans if you’re not on time,” she says, buckling Zoe back into the backseat.
I resist the urge to ask her where she’s going. I squat down onto my heels and look at Zoe.
“You’re like my favorite person in the whole world, you know?”
She nods her head a little.
“I love you.”
“Me too,” she says.
I shut the door and they drive off. I walk the perimeter of the driveway, kicking around some of the gravel, and then get back into my car.
As I’m driving back towards Dayton, I can feel myself losing touch with the world around me. The road, following centenarian houses and descending into fluorescent green hills, straightens itself before me. The houses dissolve into the ground, and the people look fat and bloated and indistinguishable as they point the way to my destination. I follow them and I see it stretching into a future that is supposed to be a life. But it’s not my life. It won’t be. Even though I can see it clearly, I refuse to accept it.
When I become aware of my surroundings again, I’m careening down empty blacktop. I was sent on a detour outside Versailles and must have been driving into nowhere ever since.
I try to pull up directions on my phone and realize it’s dead. Probably from that text Zoe’s mother never got.
I pull over into some farmer’s drive way.
Once the car is off, I realize my hands are shaking.
It will be another month until I see Zoe. This is the moment when I’m the furthest from her.
Play the long game. Keep putting in work.
My charging cord is packed away so I walk to the trunk and unzip my bag. Dirty clothes and toys spill out as I grope around for the charger. When I find it, I leave the mess and get back in the car and plug in my phone.
You just need to get through this.
I get out and walk back to the trunk. I shovel dirty clothes into the bag by the handful. It shouldn’t be like this.
Someday, when she’s older, she’ll be able to articulate what she wants. And you’ll be there to listen.
Lego pieces are scattered across the felt. If we were in Denver, we could build entire cities together. I pick them up and put them in the front pocket of my bag.
The Lakers pajamas are twisted into a small pile. I separate them out, refold them, and lay them on the top. If she stayed with me, I would take her shopping, and she would show me what she likes.
I close the trunk and get back in the car.
She needs more time with me. Even if she doesn’t know it yet, she needs more time with me.
I check my phone. Still black.
If I could just get her to Denver. She would see how comfortable it is. And once she feels comfortable, then we can do holidays: Christmas and Easter. And once she can do the holidays, then a month in the summer becomes a possibility. And with a month, we can build the consistency of a normal life.
It’s a future that offers redemption instead of missed calls and rushed activities. She’ll know that I love her and that she can depend on me. We can be a family.
The screen flashes back on. I punch in the Dayton Airport and do a U-turn.
Nothing else matters except my life with Zoe. I’m so fucking done with being the reasonable parent that gets stepped on. Why shouldn’t I fight for a life with her? I know what I want, and her mother is either accepting it or I’ll go to court.
I rehearse the conversation as I’m directed through unknown roads that crisscross the countryside.
“It’s reasonable. I’m not asking for too much. I’m her father. She loves me and she needs me.”
When I’m back on the highway, I call her mother.
“Hey,” she says.
“Hey, I needed to talk to you before I fly out.”
“What do you want to talk about?”
“This isn’t working for me. I want to be more involved in Zoe’s life.”
“You are involved in her life.”
“No, I’m not. This isn’t a life. This is some fantasy land where I live in a hotel and I’m tired all the time. I want to have a real life with her.”
“You should be grateful for what you have. I don’t even have to do this.”
“Grateful? I could get so much more if I went to court.”
“Then quit threatening me and go to court!”
I contemplate screaming into the phone. I grip the wheel so tight the leather cracks. I should pull the car over.
I keep driving and count to five before I respond.
“I’m just trying to be more involved in her life. I want to talk to her more. I want her to come out and see me. I’m not asking for a lot. I just want to build a life with her.”
“You never gave a shit for three years and now all of a sudden you care?”
“How could you say that?” I can feel my voice escalating. “I’ve always loved Zoe.”
“Maybe you loved her, but you didn’t show it.”
“I’m showing it now.”
“All you need to understand is that I’m going to do whatever’s best for Zoe and right now you’re creating issues.”
“Have you ever considered you’re the one creating issues?”
“She’s been crying!”
My throat tightens. “…What do you mean?”
“I found her in a room crying with the door shut.”
I open my mouth, but I can’t speak.
“She said that you were going to go on a trip to Colorado, and that I’m not going to be there. She doesn’t know where Colorado is, but she knows it’s far away.”
My arguments are gone. I thought through so many possible objections, and yet I hadn’t prepared for this. I imagine Zoe alone, stressed out, trying to make sense of a situation that she can’t comprehend.
“We need to take a step back,” her mother says.
“What does that mean?”
“I’ve been having to fight with her for a while to get her to the spend the night with you. I think we should put the overnights on hold. You can still spend the days with her, then she’ll sleep over here.”
I start to hyperventilate. The world outside the car disappears except for a small strip of the highway in front of me and the sound of the tires over the pavement.
“Please don’t take away the overnights. Gretch, I’m begging you. Those are the happiest moments of my life.”
“This isn’t about you.”
“But I’m her father. She needs me.”
“No, she needs stability. She needs to feel safe.”
“What if I flew you both to Denver? I’ll pay for everything: the flights, hotels, whatever you want. We can just hang out with Zoe together.
“That’s not going to happen.”
“It’s not about you, Gretchen,” I say. “It’s about what’s best for Zoe.”
“Listen to me very carefully– I’m not having this conversation with you.”
“…Do you think I’m a bad father?”
She sighs. “I think you love Zoe. But I don’t think you understand the effect you have on her.”
“I’m doing the best that I can,” I rub my eyes. “She needs me.”
“Then focus on repairing your relationship, before you try for more.”
I want to fight, to say something, but there’s only emptiness.
“I need to go.”
“Alright,” she says.
I hang up and drop the phone into the passenger seat. Instead of resolution, there’s a pain that is beyond gross.
I never thought I could love anyone as much as I love Zoe. I should feel rage or sadness. But for all of my disgust at what’s happened, I don’t have an absolute belief that I’m right.
I pull into a gas station off of the highway, fill up the tank, and without thinking stagger inside for coffee. I watch the steam rise out of the cup. As it nears the top, I move the back of my hand under the nozzle.
The pain is instant and numbing. I stare dumbfounded as the coffee pours down my hand.
I know the pain is there, but I can’t feel it. I look to my left and see someone staring at me. I let go of the handle and the coffee stops. Steam rises off of my skin. An uncontrollable itch runs up my arm. I wrap my hand in napkins and stumble out.
I drive to the airport in a blanket of shock and revulsion, napkins falling over the cab, the road fading in and out. When the thought of Zoe comes to me, I twist the raw skin on the back of my hand until I’m screaming.
I park in the rental lot and hand the guy the keys.
“Don’t you want a receipt?” he calls after me.
“You keep it,” I mumble, walking away, clutching my hand, hunched into myself.
I keep my head down as I go through security, walk through the airport, and sit in a chair in front of my gate. I can smell coffee. It makes me hungry.
I buy fried chicken that comes with French fries on the side. I try to peel the chicken apart with a fork, but it tears into small sheer inedible strips. I drop the fork and rip at it with my teeth. My mouth begins to fill with blood. The skin at the top of my mouth is pulpy and split apart. My gums swelling into the cracks between my teeth. I’ve become soft. Too much juicing and salmon dinners. This place is stronger than me. The pizza, sandwiches, fried foods, and candies. They slit me open. I’ve let myself grow alienated from this world. My daughter’s world. It doesn’t give a shit about protecting me from the existential fear that my creature comforts beat into submission.
What if nothing is ever as meaningful as Zoe?
It never leaves me. And so, I have to believe what it would be like to cook her dinner. To laugh with her when she loses her first tooth. To hold her hand as we walk to Kindergarten on the first day of school. To go swimming in the Colorado reservoirs. To carry her into bed after she falls asleep in the car. To guide a finger along a page as we sound out words. To flip pancakes to her on Saturday mornings. To hear her coming into my room at night when she’s scared. To help her stand up to a bully. To spend Sunday afternoons lounging around the house. To celebrate Christmas in LA with a pine tree in the living room and palm trees outside. To take her horseback riding in the mountains. To overhear her talk about boys. To solve Algebra with her on the kitchen table. To watch her grow up and become the person she’s meant to be. And throughout it all I could just be there for her without the expectation of reciprocation.
I could just love her.
I need to keep believing in those things or I don’t think I will survive this.
You piece of shit.
I spit out the spongy mass that’s in my mouth onto the tray. It’s the color of diluted blood and chicken scraps. There are pieces of napkin covering my hand, the taste of iron in my mouth, and an itching sensation across my scalp.
Those are your dreams, not hers.
I just want to be a father. I want to do one good thing.
It doesn’t matter how badly you want it.
I feel myself collapse into the chair, head rolled behind the backrest, arms limp by my sides.
There is no shortcut. She can’t save you.
I thought I could suffer more than most people. I considered it a skill, and one that commanded a high wage. The more you endure, the further you get.
But this is not something to be outlasted. The timeline stretches beyond my life.
No one can save you except for yourself.
I take two Xanax out of my bag and swallow them without water.
I pull out my phone and send a text to Gretchen.
Sorry about before. See you both next month.