I say, “He was nice,” and watch the fair-skinned, jolly man slip into his car and drive away.
From the kitchen, Mom says, “That was your dad.”
I look out the living room window. We live on the second floor of a paint-chipped, drooping two-family house. Our living room is filled with ashtrays, bongs and guitar picks. Incomplete charcoal sketches of horses and women line the coffee table. Black and gray film canisters overflow from the brown couch cushions. Mom manages to take many photos, though she rarely has them developed.
The hazy afternoon casts everything in a shade of wheat-colored light. Mom is in the kitchen. She is cleaning, throwing everything from dog poop to rotten food into garbage bags. She piles our front porch with overstuffed black bags that are never hauled down the steps.
I stand before the window, pressing my nose to the hot glass. Sun is pouring into the living room. I look to the floor; brown carpeting shows signs of our life—dog stains, spilled coffee, red wine, burn marks from forgotten cigarettes.
My lips touch the window glass. I make wet sloppy noises, not exactly kissing the glass, rather talking to it. My lips spread and mouth the words: I have a father. I pull my lips away to see how my spit smears onto the glass; it looks brown from the chocolate milk I gulped down at lunch.
I am seven. Until now, I never had a father. From the moment I emerged, Mom was all that I knew. How can you miss something you never had? Still, the notion of having a father sounds dreamy and warm. There is something so normal about it: for the first time, I can say with confidence I really do have a father. I look forward to sharing this news with my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Milinsky. She will smile at me, and then reach for my chin and say something kind. This, too, makes me feel light and free.
I hear Mom swearing at the messes she is cleaning up: “How long has this pasta been in here?” And then, “Why do I always deal with this shit?”
I push closer to the glass. I curl my fingertips around the top of the window frame. I push the window open. I feel air rush in; it makes my T-shirt flutter around my stomach. I feel dizzy. I have a dad. When I say the words it sounds elegant and powerful. I have dad.
Tommy Ward took us to New Haven. We listened to a jazz band play at a large, busy park. It was spring. The sun was bright and low. The saxophone made my ears pop. Women tiptoed barefoot across sharp, taut grass, wearing strappy sundresses. Little shirtless boys rolled down hills. We threw out a blanket; I sat in between Mom’s parted legs. Tommy pointed to things: Birds, sparklers, a juggling clown. I smiled at his gestures; I pushed closer to Mom. She did not talk with her hands like she usually did. Instead, spoke in a low, plain voice. She sat still and erect as I moved closer and closer. By the end of the afternoon, I was curled in her lap, my back pressed against her lean stomach.
We stopped at a diner before heading back home. I ordered what I wanted: A tuna fish sandwich and a tall glass of chocolate milk. I was shocked that Mom did not shake her head no to this as both sugar and fish were not approved among Mom’s circle of friends—we were vegetarians and limited our sugar intake. But she said nothing as our server scribbled my request. I kicked my feet. I stared across the booth at Tommy Ward. He had an easy smile and winked a lot. Once my food arrived, I ate my toasted tuna sandwich. Something about happy Tommy Ward inspired her to watch me. She smiled when I blew bubbles in my chocolate milk. We sat side by side in the booth; she kept one hand on my knee.
Walking backwards, I drift from the window. I slip into our pea green kitchen glowing with yellow light, yellow curtains and yellow table napkins. The front door is open. I spot a mess: one plastic bag busted, a mound of old wet spaghetti spilled onto the porch.
I hold my breath and look at Mom as she throws another bag on to the porch. Her eyebrows are pushed together. She is busy and serious and I think she never wants to talk about Tommy Ward again. This does not stop my mouth from shaping the words: I have a father.