“Pull over,” I say. “Now.”
Stefan, my husband, steers the Brown Bomber to the side of the access road and turns off the engine. It’s early spring, and sharp pale green points of life shoot up against the mud. I’m broadcasting new life, too — only six months pregnant, I look full-term. Every part of me has inflated, from my cheeks down to my ankles. Even my hair looks like it’s ready to deliver.
I am 29 years old, about to meet my biological father for the first time looking like a bloated summer squash in a yellow jumpsuit. But at least my breath won’t be foul. As soon as the car comes to a standstill, I wrestle a tube of Colgate and a travel toothbrush out of my purse.
“Do you really have to do that here?” says my husband.
“I really have to do this here.”
When I’m done brushing, I take a swig of bottled water, roll down the window, spit, and for two seconds of insanity consider telling Stefan to turn the Bomber around. But if I chicken out now, our kid’s going to have questions one day and I won’t have answers. I won’t know if there’s cancer or heart disease or something as benign as teenage acne waiting on the horizon.
I spit one more time before my husband (I catch that familiar look of disgust on his face) pulls the car back onto the road. Moments later, our ancient Oldsmobile Cutlass careens into the parking lot like a giant turd and we’re confronted by a fleet of Fortune 500 vehicles.
“Oh, God,” I groan. “We’re here. The Larchmont Goddamned Yacht Club.”
My husband would kill for a clean, new Volvo. I can’t even tell you what he would do for a pair of Brooks Brothers underwear. Four months ago, it was one of our worst fights ever. “I deserve them!” he told me.
This, when we’ve been living hand-to-mouth on my reporter’s salary from the Woodstock Times and his mostly off-again construction jobs. We can barely afford rent. “If you have a problem with your underwear,” I said, “then you need to get yourself a better job.”
I don’t have a problem with the way we’re living. Unlike Stefan, I’m a former rich kid. I’ve seen what too much money can do. It’s like a disease. Yet I’m beginning to wonder if it’s also a sickness to wish for what you can’t have.
Which is why, as soon as Stefan turns the engine off, I freeze. “I don’t think I can go in,” I say.
“This is going to be so cool!”
“He’s a Dartmouth grad. How bad could he be?”
Jesus, I would have been better off bringing one of our cats. I glare at the Prince Charles clone I married three years ago, and then I hear my mother telling me, just like her mother told her about the men she chose to marry: “You made your bed, now go lie in it.” I was lying in it, all right.
And the thing is, I never planned to lie in it. To get married. The women in my family have a lousy track record. Three generations of bad marriages. But when I was 26, my stepfather took me to lunch and said if I waited any longer for a proposal from Stefan, I’d expire. Like bad meat. “In my day?” he said, “Girls your age who weren’t married? We considered them losers.”
Speaking of which, is there an expiration date for a father?
It took me six years to find Denny Lane — once I was old enough to look on my own. It wasn’t easy without my mother’s blessing. All I had to go on was a name, two possible states of residence, and the kindness of strangers who answered late-night directory calls for assistance, made when I was drunk or stoned and usually both.
When I found him, I was 21 years old, and he was living in Greenwich, Connecticut. Only one state and 25 minutes away from where I’d grown up. I don’t remember what I wrote in that first letter, but I remember trying not to be hopeful that I’d hear back. But on the day his reply came? I stared at that sealed envelope for hours, thinking I knew exactly how Pandora felt before she opened the box. Whatever was inside was going to change my life.
This is what my father wrote:
“My two children attend boarding school in Europe. During the summer, we travel up and down the east coast in our 65-foot sailing yacht. At work, I oversee 500 people.”
I read those three lousy lines like a kid in the dentist’s office hunting for hidden pictures in the Highlights magazine. There was nothing hidden beneath my father’s words. I didn’t write back to “Sincerely, Denny” for another eight years. Until I got pregnant and convinced myself that there were things I needed to know. For the kid.
Dear Denny, I want to know what kind of diseases and/or deformities my child can expect to inherit from you and your piece-of-shit side of the family.
OK, so I did not write that. I asked for basic medical information. In my wildest dreams, I didn’t think he’d pick up a phone and call me. And from an airport payphone, no less.
This is how our first conversation went down:
“Hello, Charlotte? I’m on my way to Tokyo.” (Are you letting me know you’re a Very Important Person?). “I received your letter.” (And you can’t believe how exciting it is to learn you’re going to be a grandpa?) “Listen,” (Believe me, I’m listening) “I’d prefer to answer your questions in person.” That’s when I nearly passed out. In person? The next thing I knew, I’d agreed to lunch at his yacht club with our “spouses.”
It felt like an offer I couldn’t refuse. Probably because it was the only one I’d ever get. But meet his wife? I could care less. And the Larchmont Yacht Club?
“They eat people like me for lunch,” I told my husband.
“How do you know?”
“Because I grew up in Westchester County! Remember?” Like he could forget. My husband has this annoying habit of telling people, “My wife is from Scarsdale,” as if this should matter. And maybe it does, to some people. Just not to me.
“It’s 1990,” Stefan said. “I’m sure things have changed.”
But as soon as we walk in the clubhouse door, the hostess blocks our path like an anorexic guard dog and I’m sure it’s because she can tell I’m a Jew.
Which would raise the question about why Denny’s here — except I happen to know he’s been passing. My mother once went to a cocktail party where she met people who knew him. They were shocked to learn he wasn’t Episcopalian like his wife. That’s when my mother dropped the other bomb. She told them she was his first wife. But when I asked her if she told them there was also a first kid, she said, “I didn’t see the point.” I told her I was the point.
After the hostess informs us (staring right at my stomach) that there’s no public restroom, not that I’ve asked, Stefan bares down on her with his cruel, thin-lipped smile. “Mr. Lane is expecting us?”
“I see,” she says, sounding hardly convinced.
But as the woman leads us across the sun-filled dining room, her stilettos smashing against the floor like windows on Kristallnacht, I wonder, what is “Mr. Lane” expecting? I scan the sea of pale Easter colors in search of a man who could possibly be related to me. Not that I could pick my father out of a lineup. He was at boot camp the day I was born. Three months later, my mother flew to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, for a quickie divorce. So, the only thing I’ve got to ID him are two photographs taken around the time he married my pregnant, 19-year-old mother. Two years later, she didn’t even recognize him when she was sitting in a restaurant with my godmother, Bobbie, who said, “Don’t look now, Judy. There’s your ex.”
“In a million years,” my mother laughs every time she tells me this story, “I wouldn’t have known that was him.”
I don’t think it’s so funny not to recognize the father of your child. Maybe because I am that child. Twenty-three of my chromosomes came from him and I’m hoping they’re going to light up like a switchboard as soon as I see him in the flesh.
Yet when the hostess pulls up in front of a cloth-covered table and a baby-faced man in a gray suit stands up, the only thought I have is, Oh my God, he’s short!
“Charlotte?” he nods.
I feel my mouth moving and see hands shaking, so I’m pretty sure I’m acting normal, but I can no longer hear myself or anyone else speak. This is the point at which I fixate on the mink that’s slung over the wife’s chair like a fifth person.
When the waiter pulls out my chair, I am amazed that my body remembers how to take a seat. That it remembers how to set the linen napkin on my lap. Keep my elbows off the table. Though spoken words don’t register, I sense the conversation is hovering uncomfortably, though safely, around minutiae. It takes all my willpower not to stare at Denny, lest I turn to stone. Yet all I want to do is take him in. Eye for eye. Nose for nose. My father. The missing mirror.
But what does he see in me? Her hair is too big. Everything about her is too big. Why didn’t she put on a little lipstick?
It’s only when the waiter returns that the spell is broken, and I’m reunited with my body just in time to hear my father order a Diet Coke and a hamburger well done with master-of-the-universe confidence. “And hold the roll,” he adds.
My god, the man can even resist bread.
I order my burger medium rare, with cheese, on a roll — and a diet soda which, so far, is our only connection. Perhaps, like me, Denny struggles with his inner fatty (though, from what I can see, which isn’t much, he’s only mildly chubby). At least we have that in common. The fat gene. Some girls have all the luck.
Suddenly, I have this overwhelming urge to tell the waiter to cue up the orchestra, bring on the dancing bears. Because after all these unbearable years of waiting, it strikes me like a heart attack — is this it? Just this? I want to stand up and scream something vulgar, like “Fuck!”
“Excuse me,” I say, hoisting myself up. “I need to use the ladies room.”
Sitting on the toilet, I feel the muscles in my face begin to relax. I do a few candle-blowing breaths for good measure, the kind my midwife taught me, and hold my palms against the sides of the growing ball of chemistry inside me. “You are real,” I whisper to my child, “even if the people on the other side of the bathroom door think we’re invisible.” Then I throw open the stall door and turn sideways to trace our magnificent profile in the mirror above the marbled sinks, my sandaled and swollen feet planted against the floor like a Valkyrie. Together, we are 200 pounds of love sheathed in a brilliant yellow jumpsuit.
As I cut across the pastel sea, I tell myself I can do this. I can rescue us from this lousy day. All I need to do is ask for his medical information. Why should that be so hard?
But when I sit back down, Denny is in the middle of explaining “junk bonds,” whatever the hell they are, and my husband is listening to him like a teenager with a hard-on. Where is the part in this movie when the hero asks (with dripping sarcasm) Won’t you be excited to meet your first grandchild, Mr. Lane?
My resolve instantly deflates.
After inhaling a mediocre cheeseburger and ordering tea instead of the chocolate mousse cake, I look to the wife with one last shred of hope. She’s a mother of two, so if anybody at this table would understand the importance of knowing one’s medical history, it would be her, right?
And that’s when she asks, “Do you play bridge?”
I nearly choke. Do I look like a bridge player? “No,” I say.
“Candace is a champion bridge player,” my father says. He pats her soundly on the back and looks at me as if I should be proud of her, too. But I’m not. I am not proud of Candace. I’m thinking, screw her. Because that should have been me. It should have been me that my father patted on the back. Congratulations, kid, you got this far in life without me, and you’re a winner!
The tea arrives, weak and tepid. I take a sip and of all the things that have gone wrong today, this makes me want to cry.
I hold back the tears and wrap my arms around my belly. And just like that, the Valkyrie is back! I’m no longer 3-year-old me, the girl who wished for a daddy on Jewish Christmas Eve. I am a force to be reckoned with. A mother-to-be who knows, like she’s never known anything else about herself, that she could never walk away from her child.
And then, as the waiter starts to clear off the tea and coffee cups, my father looks at me. I mean, he really looks. And I see the glint of a smile. Like, for the first time, he sees me, like this thing between us, this connection, is real. That’s all it takes to turn me around again and my little-engine-that-could brain springs back to life and I’m thinking: Maybe this is it. Maybe this is when he tells me how wonderful it is to finally meet me, how he’s been thinking about me since the day I was born, how much he missed out on, how he can’t wait to meet his grandchild, and about that medical history—”
“Well,” my father says, setting his crumpled linen napkin on the table like a period at the end of a run-on sentence. “We’ve got quite a drive back to Princeton.”
I wish I could say that once I’d learned Denny Lane was truly a dick, I washed my hands of him. But I didn’t. For the longest time, I wasn’t sure why I held on, why I continued to chase after him, rejection after rejection. There was the medical history, of course, which I eventually, mostly procured — though there would always be tremendous gaps in my knowledge of him — and there was that smile and that look, so unexpected at the end of our lunch, a glimmer of possibility that maybe he could see me as his daughter. Or maybe it was just the power of DNA that held me to him, a cord I believed was too precious to cut, even if he did not.
But there was also a seed planted inside me that day in the yacht club. It was the seed of a new story, one that was watered and fed by the child growing inside me. And in this story, I was also a human worthy of being loved. For all of me. Because that’s the point, right? Which is why, five years and a second son later, I would ask Stefan for a divorce while he still felt guilty about cheating on me with a skinnier, younger, childless woman who was loaded. Which, as it turns out, didn’t last long. The guilt or the woman.
It wasn’t until I was 57 years old, however, that I thought I was finally ready to let go of Denny once and for all. Which is a good thing since, less than a year after that, after I’d written to tell him I was done, I took a DNA test for the hell of it, and discovered he wasn’t even my father.
It wasn’t logical, but that accidental finding seemed as good an explanation as any for the failure of us. At the very least, it was an enormous relief to know I’d gotten nothing from him.
I have an actual father now. A man with whom I share not only genetic material, but who chooses to be in my life. He calls me his “new daughter.” It’s the fairy tale ending I could never have written.
Still, can one go back and revise a true story? Dennis Lane may have no place in my future, but he occupies my past. If nothing else, he was my first father.