Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Subtrahend, or What's Left Behind

The last time I saw my daughter was a Thursday morning, seven months ago. It was probably ten a.m. And I was probably wearing the same plaid pajama bottoms and the same faded “Queers” t-shirt that I wear as I type this—my standard lazy morning gear. Strangely, the rest of that last brief meeting is less clear. Of course I didn't know it would be the last time I'd see her.

E's mother and I separated when she was seven months old. That is, we ceased cohabitation. We had been, in effect, broken up since before she was born in February; we spent the next half-year negotiating our way around each other, physically and emotionally—inhabiting the same spaces but not sharing them in any real sense. The days were divided into chores and interior time zones, an arrangement that became more pronounced when I lost my job soon after E's birth. I put E down in the evening and after her morning feeding, took over around 7 am so that S could get a few hours of sleep. The afternoons usually involved me alone at home—E and S on this errand or that. Because of an extensive breast-feeding schedule, E was rarely left alone with me for more than an hour. So for 50 minutes at a time—when S was teaching, or when she darted off to pick up groceries, or when she went for a run—E was mine. We bonded in the ways an infant and a new daddy can. I played her music and she “danced,” I read her poetry. We took naps together.

By the time S and I separated physically, after a summer of petty arguments, semi-accurate accusations on both sides, too many late nights alone in the TV room with cable movies and Miller High Life, we were both more than a little broken, but also, I like to think, hopeful. We took every step to ensure that our own alienation from each other—our derangement—would not interfere with our co-parenting. Nightly bath-time? The same. As she got a bit older, favorite stories before bedtime? Check. Family dinners? Of course. While S and I weren't always on best terms, we made every effort to convince ourselves we were making every effort to nurture our child and protect her from our own petty differences and insecurities. We would talk about inconsequential minutiae, spout neat phrases like amateur meteorologists, pretend to discuss politics and film. I'd offer S thoughtful commentary on her teaching; she'd generally keep quiet about her dissertation, always almost finished. (A failed PhD myself, I wondered if she was trying to protect herself or my feelings by refusing to discuss her academic work). On the surface, we had a very imperfect but workable relationship. And most importantly we were ensuring that our daughter had both parents in her life—what I thought we both wanted.

That Thursday morning in June was out of the ordinary but not completely unprecedented. My visits with E usually took place in the evenings, with the occasional afternoons added when S needed “me” time—usually the gym. But this morning, S called and informed me they were just on their way home from an errand and asked if they could stop by. E was in a bad mood—fussy, as two-year olds tend to be, and they didn't stay long. I assumed we'd reconnect later in the day or the next day; I had learned by this time that matters of scheduling were best left to S as she approached all events in her life with a greater sense of urgency than I did, no matter the occasion. It was simply easier to defer to her on some matters.

So Thursday night came and went. Then it was Saturday. I waited, watched a lot of television, made countless short jaunts to the supermarket, to walk the aisles, to pretend I was shopping, anything to shake off the feeling that something was wrong.


On Monday evening, I received the phone call, wishing me a belated Father's Day. They were, it seemed, in the mid-west, visiting friends, “just a short vacation,” S assured me. “We'll probably be back in a week,” said the receiver. S's voice was chipper, assured, relaxed. Annoyed but relieved, I rationalized that this small getaway would be good for all three of us and next week we'd return to business as usual, but refreshed.

But something kept eating at me. It just didn't seem right. It was, as they say in the detective movies, hinky. A few days after the phone call, I strolled by S's house—something I would do most days anyway, as she lived only a few blocks away and was on the way to most places I'd normally find myself walking. Gone was her new SUV—I was nonplussed when, a week earlier she suddenly had a new car, since her “old” car she'd owned for scarcely 2 years, and this one was definitely more expensive—and in its place was a U-Haul. Strange people moved from the truck to the door, hauling boxes, furniture. I tried to speak to the new tenant but the woman was reticent to reveal much; she'd only say that they were moving in today, that the old tenant had moved out last week. I went next door to the landlord's house. Becky and her husband confirmed that S had moved out last week, had given her notice a month before. She didn't seem to find it curious that I had no idea about any of this. Was I the only one in my sphere, the only one in E's life who didn't know?

I guess E, in all her two years, didn't really know either. And that's what I think about now. It's the small questions that keep me awake at night, gulping coffee and obsessing over Twitter, or “culture” and politics blogs, afraid to sleep because sleep, well, sleep is always difficult. The question that I ponder most frequently is what she told E. How do you tell a two-year old that you are leaving Daddy behind? What did she say when E asked for me? When I asked why she left, every time I asked it, until after a few months I silently resigned myself to not knowing, S would only clear her throat, change the subject, or simply pretend not to hear me. If you ignore something long enough it often does go away. It worked, I suppose.

In just over a month E will celebrate her third birthday. I, most likely, will not be there. For the time being, I'm still a known presence. I'm “Daddy” but what that is coming to mean as the weeks wear on is that I'm “that man in the computer who reads me books sometimes and says nice things.” I don't know if she has any memories of me as a flesh and blood person. Does she still ask about me? Is it too late to matter?

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