I was an on-air radio person, with my own Manhattan co-op, the one thing I’d gotten in the divorce from an abusive husband. No way I was going to walk into a long-term relationship run by a foot-stamping youngster, no matter how adorable. Instead of trying to ingratiate myself to her, I set boundaries.
There was the time her father and I planned a picnic. It was a clear, sun-filled day, and we thought she’d enjoy the ride and the time together. She came tromping in to see me, her cheeks full. “I don’t want to go,” she pouted. I could see the whine building. She didn’t expect my answer. “You don’t have to,” I said, keeping my voice low-key. This confused her. “You’re big enough to stay home without a baby sitter,” I said. “We’re definitely going. You can stay here.” I could feel her thinking that through. I wondered what would happen if she went to her father who, I thought, would probably cave to her wishes. But she didn’t go to him. She quieted down. She got her things together and took my hand as we walked to his car.
There was also the time with the hair brush. I almost laughed at the way she abruptly tried to hand it over, expecting me to clean it for her. It was almost a command. “Take a comb and run it through the bristles,” I explained. “Then you can run the brush through soapy water.” I thought she would twist herself into a tantrum, but she didn’t. “Will you show me how?” she asked. “Of course,” I said. And I did.
Sometimes I’d consider the possibility that she hated me. As far as I knew, I was the only adult in her life who denied her supremacy. But I didn’t spend too much time worrying about that.
Then, after about two years together, the boyfriend made me an offer I definitely could refuse. He said that any issues between him and me were because I hadn’t fully committed to us. He wanted me to quit my job and sell my apartment. Move in with him. He would absorb all costs for a year, he said.
“And then what?” I asked.
“Well, then we’ll probably get married,” he said matter-of-factly. He was sure that he’d set out a generous offer and that we would end up together.
I thought: So I’d be a “kept woman” for a year. What if it doesn’t work out? Then I’m out of a job and a career, with no place to live. I said nothing, but I fumed. I knew then that “we” were over.
The next day, while he was still at his office, I filled a suitcase with everything I’d brought to his place. Back home, I waited for the call I knew would come.
He was incredulous. He said he was bereft. He wanted to make things right. I kept my voice calm. “It’s no use,” I said.
What I hadn’t counted on was his daughter. A sadness fell on me that wasn’t about him. It was about her. Her smarts and her laugh. The way she’d stop acting out when I weighed in. How I felt when she put her arms around me. I hadn’t thought to say goodbye.
When she called, I thought my smile would touch the sky. She confided her unhappiness, her dreams, her hopes. I had to lose her to realize how much she meant to me. “You showed me what to do,” she said. “I miss you. Can’t you come back?” I kept my voice steady: “No. I’m sorry. I miss you, too.”
Finally, as gently as I could, I asked: “Does your father know you’re calling me?”
Silence. A long pause. A tiny: “No.”
“I want you to know how much I love talking to you,” I said slowly. I hoped she couldn’t tell I was near tears. “You can call me any time. But you have to tell your father that we’re talking. Do you understand?”
Silence. An even longer pause. An even quieter: “Yes.”
That was the last time we talked. Our relationship was collateral damage to the split between her father and me.
I never felt the need to have children that so many women seem to feel. Yet the loss of this almost-daughter stung in ways I never would have predicted. This wasn’t any child. This was a special little girl who needed me. I needed her, too.
Several decades later, my second husband and I are at the theater. It’s a full house. Our row, slightly to the side, holds only four seats. An elegant woman is to my right. I turn left, to my husband.
“The man in the aisle seat looks like my ex-boyfriend,” I say. My husband laughs. “What are the odds? Can’t be. This is New York,” he says. But my ex and I recognize each other. We chat. He shares some health issues. He tells me what his daughter has been doing. Shows me a photo.
She’s now a beautiful young woman. I try to seem casual. I don’t want him to know how much I care. “Did she ever tell you that she called me after you and I broke up?” I ask. He’s dumbfounded. “No. She never said a word,” he says.
The lights dim. The show goes on. I worry that I’ve betrayed a secret. I try to let it go. I disappointed her all those years ago and now I’ve let her down again.
Several days later, I receive an email from his daughter. She’s gotten my contact information from my website.
“My father told me about your run-in the other night at the theater. I was really tickled since we’d just been talking about you a few days prior,” she wrote.
“But I was truly moved when he told me how you kept my confidential kid calls confidential ;-).
Thank you thank you and thank you. You’re a gem.
Most affectionately yours ... "
They had just been talking about me. She had been glad I’d kept her calls confidential. My heart is dancing. She’ll never know the gift she’s given me.
I don’t know if we’ll continue to be in touch. Or whether we’ll ever see each other again. But my bond with her is stronger than I’d ever imagined it would be. Something empty in my heart feels full.