Like She Never Left

My girlfriend Dawn had moved back to Michigan.

She had I had had a huge fight during our senior year of high school.  It was completely my fault, as I recall, though I don’t really recall the details.  We had been as close as two friends could be since sixth grade; spending overnights at each other’s houses, sharing every detail about our changing bodies, boyfriends, parents, families.  She knew absolutely everything about my brother, my history, my father; I knew about her much older siblings, her parents employment woes and their later eviction from their home in our neighborhood.   I spent days at her older sister’s house without my mother batting an eye, and Dawn spent weekends at my house routinely.

But yet, while we agreed on many things, we were very different people.  Dawn had a sense of tough confidence that I envyed and couldn’t understand.  While her life was difficult, she was able to work hard on the things that she was good at and become great at them.  She didn’t care what other people thought (or if she did, no one else could tell).

Me, I was a perfectionist in everything.  Instead of conserving my energy to hone one or two things, I tried to be good at everything.  In high school, this meant starting to dislike those who were my competitors for academic exellence, teacher attention, placement in band.  I took all of my failures personally and took as a personal affront someone achieving more than me.

Which is why I had a hard time with Dawn excelling at writing, something I too thought I was good at.  And I was good, but not great like her.  So the fall of my senior year, I dropped her like a hot potato.  Horrible.  Horrible, horrible words and actions that I can never take back.  She wrote me a letter one day, in response to my irrational behavior and I read it once before tearing it apart and throwing it away (mostly because I didn’t want to admit anything in it was true).

So we missed things.  I missed knowing what colleges she was applying to.  She missed knowing my low point that year and helping me through it.   I missed her meeting and falling in love with Todd, a boy a year younger than us but funny and smart.

I ended up contacting her at some point, tail between my legs, during our freshman year in college.  She had gone far away to a school in Massachusetts on a full scholarship.   I was away at MSU and missing her.  We exchanged long letters across the miles.  I heard of how hard a time she was having conducting a long distance relationship with her boyfriend, and how they’d decided to go to MSU and move in together.

I liked Todd.  I visited them on campus in their tiny, basement apartment and found a couple happy and in sync.  I felt badly that I’d lost knowing the beginning part of their relationship but they told me all about it in late night conversations shared on their breaks home.    Todd was kind and understanding of our friendship despite not experiencing it right from the start of their time together.

Dawn called me one chilly day that winter as I folded laundry during Zach’s nap.  I had been trying to to finish my children’s lit homework and get everything done, but I stopped in my tracks when she told me the news.  Her story was strangely familiar to me; it included a drug store, a pregnancy test and a lot of big decisions.  She had questions.  Lots, and lots of questions.

I hoped, for her sake at least, that some of the answers in her story would be very different than the ones in mine.

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Questions

What the hell did he mean by that?  “She’ll have to come after me with a needle.”  I didn’t understand the comment at all.

Dean explained it further.  “Well, he is angry.  He thinks that you made all of these decisions on your own.  You said you’d have an abortion and then went back on that.”

Whoa.  I was shocked to hear this.  “No, I said when I wasn’t sure that I was pregnant that I would think about it, that maybe I could, but when I actually found out that I was pregnant for sure, I felt like it just wasn’t something I could go through with.”  He wasn’t seriously upset that I hadn’t terminated the pregnancy, was he?  It hadn’t even been mentioned after I balked at the idea.

“Well, he thinks that he should have had more of a say in that then you just getting to decide.”

“More of a say?  More of a say?” I can feel my blood pressure rising.  “It’s not like I was there alone doing the thing that got us in this situation in the first place.  How is it fair that he gets to decide whether or not I handled this right?”  I stopped, knowing I was going to get too angry to stay rational if we kept going down this road.

I didn’t talk to anyone about Joe these days.  He was a quiet shadow that no one acknowledged any more.  Everyone loved Zachary.  When I closed my eyes, I just wanted to believe that Joe would love him too, if he would just show up.  I was still stuck in time back when we were together and talking about the baby as a vague idea down the road.  That had been so long ago.  I had forgotten, perhaps, that Joe’s feelings and personality might have undergone a bit of a change since I last spoke with him.

“Whatever, it’s water under the bridge now.  Zachary is here, he’s real, and he’s growing every second.  Is he really going to deny that this is his child now?  After everything, that’s the stand he’s going to take?”

I knew I was going far, maybe too far, but I couldn’t help myself.

I should have been more careful, more measured.  Dean was the only person I knew who was still in contact with both Joe and I that would talk to me about him.  Everyone else had scattered like rats, going to one corner or the other.  No one else had any current information to give me, so I shouldn’t be so quick to go into a rant with Dean.  He might cut me off just like the rest of them.

“Well, to be honest, yes.”

It was a bombshell that took my breath away.

“How could he even say that?  He knows what we were to each other.  You know it.  Everyone who was there knows how in love we were.  How could he even…that’s like questioning everything we had.”

The silence was deafening.  He knew.  He knew exactly what that meant.

“Zach is his child.  He knows it, I know it, and so does everyone else.  If he wants to walk away and stay away from us, then I suppose he’s lucky enough to get to make that choice.  He can go on with his life as if we never happened.  But every time he looks in the mirror, he’ll know.  He’ll know that we’re still here, that this is his child, and that he left us.”

It was small consolation to me.  I felt alone, finally, for the first time.  Up until that moment, I really did think that maybe Joe would come back, that he would realize that his son was something to be proud of, that he would want to be a part of his life.

Now, I knew better.  It was a bitter, bitter taste in my mouth.

Pins and Needles

My mother convinced me that we needed to do something about my son’s birth certificate.

In the hospital, when I’d filled out all of the forms, I listed Joe’s name in the area for the father.  I knew his birthdate:  1-27-1970, I knew his middle name, I knew his legal address (his grandparents’ house).  What I didn’t have was his social security number.  I had hoped that the rest of the information, being complete and verifiable, would be enough.

I was horrified when I finally received a copy of Zachary’s birth certificate to see the information regarding Father left completely blank, as if I didn’t know who it was or had left it intentionally blank.  This rankled me.  I didn’t want my son to see that document one day and feel unwanted.  I knew what it was like to feel like your father didn’t care about you, and I’d had mine around sometimes.  I didn’t want him to ever feel one ounce of shame or hurt based on his parentage.

My mother told me that if I filed to establish paternity a new birth certificate would be reissued.  I just couldn’t imagine going on like this; at some point wasn’t Joe going to come around?  It was starting to feel maybe like he wasn’t.  I knew that things had been awful last winter, but enough was enough.  Z was here, and life was moving on.  He was growing, quickly.  Before we knew it he would be three, and four, and five, and there would be school paperwork to fill out.  Was Joe really going to just pretend that this didn’t happen?  Was he really going to walk around living his life like Zachary didn’t exist?

Every time I asked Dean, Joe’s one friend who still kept in touch with me, he was evasive.  I asked after my letter came back and he confirmed that Joe planned on living with his mother and going to school there this year.  Why didn’t he tell me before, I asked.  Why was this a secret?  Didn’t he care about us anymore?  Was our whole relationship something other than what I remembered?  I was so confused.  I wanted this all to be resolved.  I wanted my son to be able to know his father.  I loved my son; Joe would too if he would just come around.  My mother told me that often absent fathers, once paternity is established, often started wanting to see the child and be a part of their lives.  I couldn’t imagine Joe wouldn’t want that too.

When I told Dean what I was doing, he told me that Joe was expecting it.  Apparently one time last winter when Joe had called my house for me, my mother asked him point blank if he planned on being a part of our lives, financially and otherwise.  He had all suspected that at some point I would indeed file for paternity.  This surprised me, but it shouldn’t have.  I felt uncomfortable knowing that Joe was indeed discussing me and our baby with Dean, or anyone, rather than with me.  But what made me more uncomfortable was what he told me was Joe’s response.

“She’ll have to come after me with a needle if she wants to get anything from me.”

What????

Back to School

Having passed his colicky newborn stage, Zachary was growing quickly into a happy baby who ate well, traveled well and lit up everyone who came by with his toothless smiles.  Friends slowly came home from college that year for the holidays, and while I felt a pang when they talked to me about their fun times going to bars and what they were studying, I let it go as they smiled and cooed at my son.   I’d made the right choice, even if it wasn’t the easy one.

I was, in fact, getting ready to go back to school myself.  I’d been admitted without incident to Wayne State, and most of the credits I’d taken during my freshman year transferred without an issue.  Of course, the full scholarship that I’d turned down the year before was no longer available.  It was going to cost us nearly as much to go to school at Wayne as it had at MSU, minus the room and board.  I was going to start back just two days a week, but twelve hour days.  Our former neighbor, who ran an in home day care, was going to watch Zachary for me while I went.  I’d drive down with my mother in the mornings and home with her in the evenings, since the campus was just a few miles away from her work downtown.

I was ready to get back to work academically.  I loved school; always had.  That was why I’d decided to become a teacher in the first place.  I loved learning, loved moving forward.  I wanted to be the teacher like the teachers I admired and relied on.

My counselor and I plotted out my coursework from now until graduation.  If I went to school in the summers, I’d be able to graduate right on time, as if I’d never taken any time off.  That was my goal.  My mother had said that she would help me out with school and daycare as long as I graduated within four years.  My father agreed and offered to give me book money and pay for some of Zachary’s things as long as I met my mother’s terms.  I wanted to do them one better and get it done in three.  I wanted to prove to everyone who’d told me that my life was over and ruined that I could make it work, that I could graduate with all of my peers.  I was determined.

It was the winter of 1990.

Wedding Day

My sister was finally getting married.

She and her fiance Chris had been engaged since my junior year, three years ago.  They’d settled on November, 1989 as the date for their dream wedding long before my pregnancy had come into play.  She admitted to me that her first thought when I’d announced it was that I wasn’t going to fit into the aqua bridesmaid dress I’d already chosen and ordered in a size 8.  I assured her that I planned on dropping my forty pound weight gain as quickly as possible so I didn’t mar her special day with a dress catastrophe.

Everyone in our whole family came into town for the event.  It was the first time, I think, all of them had been in the same place at the same time since my parents’ divorce twelve years prior.  My grandparents were gracious with my mother, my mother’s brother was kind to my dad’s sister, it was all just what my sister and I would talk about in our quiet moments together:  “normal”.  What typical families do.  She was over the moon.

My brother even came back from the Navy, having requested a leave from his job working on engines for submarines, or maybe it was aircraft carriers.  My mother couldn’t have been prouder of him walking her down the aisle in his dress blues.

I dressed two month old Zachary in a tiny baby tuxedo I’d found at the Children’s Place store I used to work at in the mall.  I had to take him into the bathroom at church to nurse him just before the ceremony, so that I could be sure I wouldn’t leak breastmilk onto my bridesmaid dress.  I had planned to have my friend B hold him during the service, but she had gone into labor the night before with her own baby, so instead my cousin held him as he slept.

The pinnacle of the event was my parents.  It was my sister’s wish that rather than just the traditional father of the bride walking her down the aisle, that both of my parents do the honors.  My sister wanted to symbolize all that my mother had given us and done for us; certainly more than our father had after the divorce.  Things were certainly better now, much better, but the fact was our mother did all of the day to day grunt work of parenting for us, and my sister wanted to acknowledge that in the ceremony.  For my father’s part, he didn’t bat an eye and was completely understanding and gracious about my sister’s wish.

Seeing my parents together as they walked my sister down the aisle, and later that evening as they danced the first dance together, was a healing moment for all of us.  My parents had come back together to give my sister what she wanted, what I needed, what my brother needed.   Their marriage might have not been meant to be, but my sister’s wedding showed that they were able to come together and be happy again.

It gave us all hope.

Return to Sender

“Not at this address; No forwarding address.”

I stared the envelope.  I’d written Joe a letter to tell him of Zachary’s birth.  Finally, I had put down on paper all of my words of regret and apology for my part in our breakup.  I wanted him to know that I would take whatever time and energy he was willing to give to the baby; if he had moved on, I wouldn’t stand in his way.  I wanted him to know that I realized I’d screwed up.  That I understood his fear and reticence and it was wrong of me to have pushed him into committing more than he knew he could give.  That I should have taken on faith his reassurances and given more weight to his thoughts and wishes.  I also told him of the sweetness of our child, of how much I wanted him to see the beauty and wonder I was seeing every day.  It was a hard letter to write, but also cathartic, and I hoped it would be the starting point to where we could talk and find a new path from here.

Except that he never received it.

I had assumed Joe had returned to our old dorm at Michigan State that fall.  In our conversations, when we were still having them, that had been the plan.  He would stay at MSU, I would go home and take the fall term off, and then I would start again at Wayne State, our local commuter college.  It had never occurred to me that he would deter from that path.  So when I penned my letter, I sent it to his old dorm room at MSU.

I called my friend Laura, still at MSU for her second year of school.  She confirmed that Joe wasn’t there; that he wasn’t enrolled in any of her music classes.  She went to his dorm and asked after him, and his old room mates said he’d never shown up that term. None of his friends, when they’d visited me and the baby at the hospital, had said anything about him not going back to school.

What was I going to do now, I wondered.

My New World

The little black and white TV was balanced on my dresser.  It used to sit in my dorm room, but I lived at home now, and it took up residence on my dresser, opposite my bed.  At two in the morning, “Love Boat” reruns were playing on the snowy screen.

I was marching back and forth with my three week old baby boy, soothing him.  I was nursing, which meant that my mother couldn’t help me out in the middle of the night when he was hungry.  Plus she worked and I wasn’t about to ask her to sacrifice sleep when she had to be up and out by seven in the morning anyway.  I felt guilty enough as it was; everything was upside down.

Taking care of my little boy was harder than I thought it would be.  I knew he’d be up a lot in the middle of the night, but the sweet images of my quietly nursing my child next to a tiny lamp with a teddy bear motif as he snuggled in for warmth and comfort seemed very far away.  He ate, all of the time.  And when he didn’t eat, he cried.  He hated to be laid down in the bassinet I’d borrowed from one of my mother’s friends.  He wanted to be held, all of the time.  My nightgown was soaked in dried breastmilk, my room smelled of the soiled diapers I’d changed overnight, and I hadn’t slept for more than half an hour so far this evening.

Finally, his crying ceased and he grew still and heavy in my arms.  I laid down in my twin bed with the baby, knowing that if I put him down in his bassinet now, he would wake up and cry and I’d be up marching across the room well into Fantasy Island, which came on at three am.

This had to get better.  Soon.

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