I turned to watch the Ohio sign fade, merging with the endless road carrying me away from home. What am I doing? The thought swirled around my head, ricocheting off the few other ideas that popped up, shoving them away Restless, I picked up a book and then threw it aside. I loved to read but was too miserable to do any such thing at the moment. I shifted my favorite toy, Kelly, a dolphin, and spread out. My eyes scanned the car for anything of interest to do, skimming over the notebooks, books, Kelly, and the car upholstery till my eyes settled on the back of my dad’s head.
“Remind me why I’m moving?” I asked my father, longing to ask a different question: You left when I was two, why are you taking me away from Mom NOW? But the question remained in my head, jumping around. My father half-turned, lowering the volume on the radio but remaining silent. I flipped through memories in my head, trying to recall something of Dad from when I was two. But I’ve got no memories from before the divorce, before my mom swore she would never see my father again, before my father left in the first place. I knew some things, like the way my parents got into a huge argument and weren’t talking for weeks before the divorce. As far as I was concerned, I never heard of my father except when my aunt told stories, which my mother discouraged. Mom had refused to speak of Dad, hear of him, everything he did was wrong, and I agreed. No nice man would forget his two-year-old; no nice father leaves his daughter behind.
I tried to block Mom and Aunt Suzy out of my mind. I didn’t want to think about them or the house or Suzy’s garden. I didn’t want to think about walking home from school with my friends, or alone with a book in hand. I didn’t want to think about our cat, Tiggy. But I was thinking about all this quite a lot. The vision of Suzy in the flower garden behind the house, Mom with Tiggy on the porch reading yet another book, pushed away even the question What am I doing here? That was home. So why was I on the way to Pennsylvania with the father who once left me behind?
“Danielle, you’re moving to Pennsylvania.” It was my mom who had said it, her tone short and blunt like I’d never heard it before. “You’re going to live with your father. I’ll see you at Christmas.” Suzy had come in then, holding an empty packing box. She’d set it down, frowning, and left, silent. My mother pushed graying hairs from her face, shifting her weight, and then sat on my bed, not looking at me. She didn’t say anything as she looked around my room. Then she stood and left.
“Did you tell her?” my aunt had asked, and I had heard Mom brush past.
I lay my cheek against the cool car window, watching the autumn leaves swirl downward. Cars sped past, trying to avoid the cloudburst that was just beginning, causing the drops to fall like tears on the window. Rain had always been comfortable back home. My Aunt Suzy, my mom, and I used to curl up and watch one of my mom’s favorite movies, call a friend, and play games. Stop it! I ordered. Suddenly words rang in my head: Did you tell her? Why would Suzy ask that? Of course Mom had told me I was leaving.
“I guess I just thought it was time you and I got to know each other. It’s been eleven years since I last saw you.” I snapped back to reality, turning to look at my dad’s back, wide and sturdy.
“You could have done something before,” I told him, doing nothing to keep my voice low. I willed him not to reply, to let me go back to my misery No, actually, I wanted him to turn around and take me home.
“Danielle, you’ve got to understand!”
I tried to shut him out. I tried to think, I tried hard, but he kept talking, saying a bunch of nonsense. I was so happy in Ohio—why did Dad take me away? In my head I skimmed back to the beginning of the school year, Mom’s smiling face as I came home. “Danny,” she had said, never Danielle, always Danny, unless things got hard. She had hugged me then, and I’d groaned, pulling back so I could toss away my backpack and book. “How was school?” she asked simply, but then began to chatter like an excited schoolgirl; sometimes I’d thought she was one. I saw Aunt Suzy coming down the stairs then, looking at me strewn across her favorite red chair.
“Your dad called.”
Those words rang in my head. I’d never remembered this part before, the few times I’d shuffled through my memories. My head had always skipped this part, but now that I thought about it, Aunt Suzy always said it, every year. I frowned the same way she had, sweeping up my own brown hair and pulling it back into a meager ponytail.
Dad was pulling into a gas station, having fallen silent. My mind decided on something. Aunt Suzy must have been trying to make me think better of my dad— that was probably all. I skipped the fact that Aunt Suzy didn’t try to make anything of anyone.
“I’m in the mood for a Three Musketeers and Vanilla Coke. You up for it?” I looked at him. He’d named my favorite drink and candy. Ironic, I thought as I nodded, trying to cut off the conversation. It didn’t work.
“Do you still love dolphins?” he asked, shoving a ten across the counter where a cashier took it, talking into a cell phone while she made the wrong change. He ignored my silence and went on. “I remember when you were very little, you were so dolphin-obsessed that for your birthday one year you made me take you to see a dolphin act. You were so… bouncy. You fell in love with this little dolphin toy, called it Kelly or something like that.” He smiled and started the gas pump as I got into the car. Kelly sat in the seat, her gray-blue fur stuff going in every direction. I looked blankly out the car window and then shrugged. So what if he bought me Kelly? He still left me. All the same… Aunt Suzy had once said I got Kelly when I was three, a year after the divorce.
The dark came in fast, the rain evaporating as we drove. I could no longer say what state I was in. Once more I settled my cheek against the window, Kelly slipping from my grip as I began to revisit my last birthday.
I sat on the couch downstairs completely alone. Suzy was out getting the cake from the nearest Giant, and Mom was upstairs, probably trying to wrap a present before she came down. I could hear her rummaging through the closet, where she always hid things. I stared at the gifts on the chair across from me, trying to figure out what they could be. The doorbell rang. I found myself opening the package the tall UPS man had handed me; it had my name on it, after all.
I can still remember exactly how that package looked as I ripped off the traditional brown paper and pulled out a small blue Tiffany’s box. The paper fell in a heap, the return address crumpled but facing upward. I hadn’t looked at the address, or at least at the time I hadn’t seen it. The card was plain white, no balloons or puppies or cute phrases, just a plain white card that read: “Happy Birthday! I love you!” I opened the box quickly, and the heart necklace slid into my palm, cold.
I had assumed Aunt Suzy had bought it on the Internet and had it shipped from New York.
I pulled myself out of the daze, scooping Kelly back up and turning to look towards the front window. My dad blocked my view of the road that way. He was smiling, his fingers tapping the steering wheel in time to the song on the radio. I wanted to be angry at him for taking me away from Mom, for having Suzy lie to me.
It was only a few calls, that’s not enough for a father! I told myself time and time again without much success. He half-turned to look behind us before he switched lanes. I looked over at him. You never asked Mom about Dad… maybe he tried hard to know you. I couldn’t silence that voice. Finally I sighed and spoke.
“Did you send me a heart necklace for my birthday?”
He nodded, looking confused. “Of course, I sent you something every year. It was your birthday!”
“And did you call every year?” I asked, feeling the question bubble out of me and finding myself unable to resent that. “At the beginning of the school year?”
Once more he nodded, but the confusion had ebbed away and understanding seemed to be dawning. “Did you?” I wanted to hear it, maybe… maybe then I could believe him.
“Yes, I did.”
Outside, a Pennsylvania road sign went by Four hours had passed. I was so confused— or was I?
“Did you try to get to know me?” I watched the sign fade as we kept driving.
“I went to court over you. We were planning to divorce anyway, but we stopped talking because of you.”
I sat back hard, a feeling of overwhelming dizziness pulsing through my veins. Half of me wanted to scream—I wasn’t happy about leaving Ohio, wasn’t happy at losing Suzy and Mom, wasn’t happy about being taken away from my friends, but the other half wanted to jump for joy—Dad had tried to get to know me! We were half a block from Dad’s house and I was no longer sure whether I was happy or sad.
Just take it one step at a time, I told myself. Slightly nervous, I looked out to see my new home.