I remember when I told you I was pregnant. I had just slipped back under the sheets, still holding the test. You were asleep, and I lay there for a few moments, just watching your chest move up and down. I thought I couldn’t have kids, and so did you, so this was going to be a big deal. “Hey,” I nudged you. “Hey, I need to tell you something.” I didn’t have anything planned-out to say, I just knew I needed someone else to know as soon as possible. You rolled over, and your half-opened eyes landed on what was in my hand. “Is that…” you slurred, but you were drifting in and out of sleep. “Dave, I’m pregnant.” There. Your eyes opened wide for a minute, but there was no panic. Actually, there was almost no emotion. I wondered if you thought for a moment that you were in a dream. “Wow,” you mumbled, staring. “That’s crazy.” We lay there, side by side, staring together at the ceiling, each deep in our own thoughts, trying to figure out how to fit this new piece into the puzzle. I wish we had compared notes. I don’t remember the rest of that day very well, but I also don’t remember you or I really sharing what we were thinking. I know we talked through things later on when decisions forced themselves upon us, but I think I talked to my mom and my friends about it more than I talked to you. That was a mistake, I know. For the first few years of Kimmy’s life, I thought maybe if I had tried harder to get you to talk about it, to help you get a different perspective, we could have done it, and maybe been good parents, you know?

Chris is calling me. I don’t pick up. One, because I’m in the car with Kimmy, and two, because I know what he wants. He’s been on me for a few weeks about this trip to Fort Meyers with his parents. I keep putting off answering him. I said no last year–I wanted to go, but I said no–and I just keep feeling a little guilty every time he asks. Because he’s such a great guy–so good and not weird around Kimmy, understanding about our situation, and super patient with me, which, I’m realizing more and more, is very necessary. Gosh, I sound so needy.

You never had to be patient with me. If anything, it was the other way around. Do you remember when we were first dating, and we went to the quarry with a bunch of people after work? The whole hike up to the cliff, my heart was pounding with anxious excitement. I could tell you were nervous, but I thought once you saw how much fun it was, you wouldn’t have a problem jumping. Of course, I was one of the first ones to go. Just ran straight off the edge and fell into that beautiful, freezing water. When I had climbed back up, you still had your clothes and backpack on. I egged you and teased you and encouraged you and begged you, and about a half hour later, you finally did it. You even liked it! I felt like I was always dragging you into things like that, knowing that if you just engaged with what was going on a little more, you might have some fun. Actually, I felt like you felt like I was dragging you. Which wasn’t true all the time. Like parenthood. In my head, you felt like I was forcing you into it; I felt like we were falling into it. You had a level of detachment I just couldn’t have due to the simple fact that I was the one whose body was changing, who both felt and read up on every little change our baby was going through. My stomach grew, our friends and parents gave toys and onesies and your aunt gave us that hideous Noah’s Ark-themed quilt, we went together to all those appointments, and the whole time, it felt like you were just in the background. Like you didn’t want to commit 100% to being a parent. But you didn’t have a choice. For the record, I didn’t either.

I think part of it is that I don’t know how I feel about Kimmy spending a whole week with you while I’m ten hours away at the beach. I haven’t even asked her. She’s only done that one time in the past nine years, and she seemed kind of off when she came back. She also wasn’t eager to do it again. And neither were you. Sometimes she gets kind of excited to go see you, but most of the time–like today–she’s ambivalent about the weekends. It’s just a part of her routine as much as school and soccer are. She’s got her earbuds in right now, probably listening to Hamilton (again). Most of the time this annoys me (I start to miss her before she’s even gone and want to make the most of our car rides), but it sounds like it was a hard day at school, so I let it slide.

I can’t really say that you were a bad dad. You never complained about switching to a warehouse job to make more money while I was on maternity leave (waitressing meant no extra pay for that time off). You bought diapers, rocked her to sleep, and even did laundry. But it was like you were only there because someone was paying you to be there. Towards the end, I actually asked your grandma if she had been paying you to stay with me. You were so clearly unhappy. Or apathetic. I’m not sure which one. You didn’t become cruel or violent (thank God), but you stopped trying to connect with me. I realized somewhere in the third trimester that our Friday night take-out-and-Seinfeld-binging had just kind of stopped. You slept in the same bed as me (until I got to the stage of pregnancy where I couldn’t get comfortable), but you rarely pulled me in tight to you or kissed me on the neck from behind like you used to. I noticed it, but it didn’t really hit me until Kimmy was a few months old. And then I got angry.

I pull into the Cineplex parking lot–it’s mostly empty, of course, because it’s 4pm on a Friday, and there’s definitely better movie theater options around the mall anyway–and into the second-to-last parking spot in the very back. I’m surprised you’re not already here – you almost always are. I guess we’re a couple minutes early. It’s the best part of fall right now, so I roll down the windows and turn the car off while we wait. Kimmy looks out the window and sees you’re not there. She doesn’t seem fazed.

It was me. I picked the fight. “What’s wrong with you?” I shouted, knowing full well I would probably wake up the baby. I didn’t care. I was tired of living with the shadow of you. I missed the real thing. This is something I’ve only really realized over time–I don’t think either of us were very good at communication; you never tried to talk out your feelings with me, and I guess I didn’t either. Mine just built and built until I couldn’t keep them inside. “Are you sleeping with someone? Are you doing drugs? Do you hate me?” Those were the questions I asked–yelled–, but they weren’t the questions I needed to ask. You didn’t yell back, you didn’t raise your voice. You just looked at me. Into me. In that pause, I began to soften. Surprisingly, I wasn’t mad at your silence. I knew you were making a decision, whether or not you were about to say what you were really thinking. Regret immediately made my stomach churn, and I wanted to take it all back, to forget this night and continue with our weird, dysfunctional but stable normalcy. But you opened your mouth and spoke quietly, the most honest you had been in our whole relationship. “This isn’t what I wanted.” That’s all you said. It wasn’t what I had wanted either, but I was beginning to like it. Before the pregnancy, we had both been so okay with our status quo–working doubles at Miller’s, driving all over the southeast on our days off, living together in my first apartment after high school–that we didn’t bother to dream too much or make plans beyond the weekend. And so as much as I didn’t want to have a kid, when Kimmy came into my life, it pushed me and challenged me more than I had been in a while. I had to learn how to do life in a brand-new way, and once I stopped sulking and worrying about the independence I thought I was losing, I kind of liked it.

We’ve been here for fifteen minutes, and you aren’t responding to my texts. Kimmy’s still got her headphones in. Chris texted me–“Dinner tonight?” I respond, “Can’t, sorry.” And then I wonder if Chris keeps track (like I do) of all the times I say no, and I panic for a moment and text back, “Maybe tomorrow? Would really like to see you this weekend.” I set my phone down and rest my arm on the open window. I look at the parking spot next to us. There’s a dark spot in the middle, and I’m pretty sure it’s a permanent oil stain from your rust bucket of a truck sitting there Friday upon Friday for all these years. There’s something reassuring about that spot. It’s another shadow, another innocuous imprint of you that’s in my life where before you showed up in vibrant colors and sensations. Of course, I don’t want the colors or sensations anymore (not from you, at least), but for some reason, I hold onto those shadows.

If I thought you were fading out of my life before, you really did become like a ghost after that night. It was hard to move in with my mom and let you keep the apartment, but I guess it felt fair since I knew you weren’t going to fight me for custody of Kimmy. And even though living with mom felt like one step back, I was making more and more decisions on my own for me and Kimmy. I didn’t ask for your input, and you didn’t offer. You said you still wanted to see her, though–sometimes–, which gave me some hope. I think it may have been more out of a sense of expectation. You seemed fine having her for a few hours and sometimes a whole day at a time. I guess she was five before she started spending the night with you, right? That was hard for me. I was worried you were going to tell her things like, “Your mom forced me out,” or, “Your mom is the worst.” I know you didn’t, but I was paranoid. Still am.

You’re never late. It’s been 45 minutes. No phone call, and you won’t pick up when I try to ring you. Kimmy has asked twice now, “I’m still going, right?” I think she was looking forward to showing you the collage she’s been working on in art class. She’s got your creativity. I’m worried now. I call Bud, I’m assuming you two worked together today. The phone rings twice. “Crown Heating and Air, this is Bud,” in his quick, twangy voice. “Hey Bud, it’s Kelly. Sorry to bother you. I’m with Kimmy waiting on Dave, and he’s not here. Have you seen him today?” There’s an uncomfortable silence. “Well…no, I haven’t.” Bud’s voice is hesitant. “To be honest with you Kelly, I haven’t seen him for a few days. He said something about taking a trip. I had a job by his house yesterday, drove by, and it looked…empty.” Bud’s emphasis on that last word is strange and throws me off. Kimmy can hear most of the conversation, and she’s staring intently at the phone, her eyebrows scrunched seriously, trying to figure out what’s happening. “I’m sorry, Kelly, I thought he would have said something to you,” Bud continues. I take a shallow breath. “Not your fault, Bud. It’s okay. Thanks for letting me know.” I hang up with Bud and bite my nails again. You’re never late. Kimmy knows this, too. She looks at me and says, “Dad’s not coming, is he?” I turn in my seat to face her and do one of those cheesy, parent-y attempts at comforting and stroke her hair. “I don’t think so, baby.” I don’t have another answer; I need an explanation just as much as Kimmy does. It’s heartbreaking to watch her slouch against the door, her head on her hand, staring out the window.

I start the car up again. She doesn’t talk to me the whole way home. I keep looking at her though, and when I catch her reflection in the side mirror, I can see two tears sliding down her chin. I wish I could explain what’s going on, even though I don’t know myself. Chris said the house looked “empty.” I feel something in my gut that says why. Kimmy is probably making some logical assumptions herself–she’s a smart kid. She taught me something I didn’t know about turtles a few weeks ago (she loves turtles): box turtles (the kind you can find around here) have “routes” that they take every day. They live their whole lives in one area, going to the same places–they don’t really deviate from their area or travel far away. I had thought that was a good description for you. Something must have gotten into your little turtle brain to make you break out of your habitat. I need to ask Kimmy if turtles ever just snap.

You’ve never said it again, but I know that for the past nine years, it’s been true. “This isn’t what I wanted.” You didn’t know what you wanted, not when we were dating, not when Kimmy was born, not this whole time you’ve been on your own. I don’t think you’ve known the whole time I’ve known you. But I get the feeling that you must have figured it out this week.

I sit on the porch with Kimmy. We’re both a little bewildered and trying to reconcile ourselves to the fact that this weekend is going to look different than each of us was expecting. I ask her, “Do you want to go see a movie tomorrow?” and she says, “No, I don’t wanna.” “Are you sure?” She doesn’t look at me and says No, and I wonder if it has to do with the fact that we just came from a very disappointing experience in the movie theater parking lot. I’m probably over-analyzing that one. She’s playing on her iPad again, and aside from the faint sounds coming from her game, it’s quiet outside. I let myself smoke even though she’s out here. I tell myself there are worse ways to cope.

Maybe it wasn’t me. I pushed you out, I really feel like I did, but the truth is that you had left a long time ago. Even before Kimmy was born–maybe as soon as we had found out I was pregnant–you had made a decision, a quiet, maybe subconscious decision. You didn’t want this. And you decided to make that the one fact you knew and stuck to. It’s sad, because I can’t really think of many things that have brought you true joy in life. You seemed to really love me, at least for a while, but as long as I’ve known you, you’ve always been a little impassive, like a pond. You get rained on, and life happens all around you, but your water never flows anywhere. For a long time, I thought maybe I could dig a channel, find somewhere for your waters to go, a way for you to change. I thought that was my responsibility. But I guess if that’s what you wanted, you could have picked up a shovel yourself.

I watch Kimmy for a few more minutes. It’s ironic–we named her Kimberly after your mother, even though you barely knew her, you were so young when she passed. I wonder if Kimmy’s going to know you any better. She’s got your ears and some of your personality–she’s a little quiet and pretty creative–but aside from that, she really does look like me. I love her. With or without the reminders of you. I know it’s a little corny, but it’s always been hard for me to understand why you wouldn’t ask to spend more time with her than the weekends. For nine months, I tried to wrap my brain around what a mini version of you or me would be like. I tried and couldn’t picture how she would look, what I would think and feel when I met her. As soon as my labor was over her and I was holding her squishy, pink self, all I could do was cry and say “wow” over and over.

I grind my cigarette into the ashtray, get up, and walk inside. I call Chris. I bite my fingernails while the phone rings.

“Hey babe,” he says.

“Hey Chris.” I chew my fingernails. “Um, so I’ve decided that Fort Meyers sounds good. But only if Kimmy can go too.”

In the short silence that follows, my heart sinks. This might be pushing it for us. My chest feels a little cold, but in the next moment, I think–I think–I hear relief in his voice when he says, “Awesome, that’s great, that’ll be so much fun. Does she like dolphins? We saw a lot of dolphins down there last time.” We chat for a few more minutes, and he asks me where we want to go for dinner tomorrow. Crap. I had forgotten. “Well, there’s been a change of plans, and Kimmy’s here this weekend,” I explain uncertainly. “She’s not with her dad?” Chris is almost as surprised as I am. “No,” I say, and then I hesitate. “He didn’t show up.” We’re gonna have to talk about it sometime. “Dang it, Kelly,” Chris says sympathetically, and then he pauses again. “Hey, what if I take you two ladies out for pizza tonight? Do you think Kimmy would like that?” I know I would, and I figure it’s worth a shot to cheer her up. “That sounds great. We can meet you in a half hour or so.” I feel a little lighter when I hang up.

I figured out what I wanted. For a long time, I wanted you, and if you had wanted me back, I think we could have kept going. But your wants will forever remain a mystery to me. Hopefully you’re figuring them out. Me? I want to do what I’ve been doing–to take whatever life gives to me and make it the best I can. To be a good mom to Kimmy. To accept the things I can’t change and to try to find joy in them. To lean into the parts–and the people–that I know do make me happy, really happy. That’s what I want.


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