Rachel rummaged through her suitcase, tossing a plastic bag of toiletries onto the bed. “I know, I always overpack,” she drawled. “But I’m better than I used to be. Look, I got it all in one suitcase this time. Remember that one time I had a suitcase just for shoes?”
“Yeah, I do,” I nodded. “Not many ten-year-olds pack like Imelda Marcos.”
“Hey, I needed them. Or some of them. I had that habit of jumping into puddles, if you remember.”
“Ever the country mouse in the city,” I agreed.
“Okay, here it is.” She turned and handed me a volume bound in fake brown leather with printed gold trim. “I was cleaning out some boxes and decided to make a photo album of all my trips to New York. Some other stuff got in there, too.”
“How great is that?” I smiled. I took the album and sat on the bed.
“You took most of those pictures,” she added, sitting beside me. “So there’s not much new.”
“Well, most of those pictures were left behind in the divorce, so it’s been a while. Let’s take a look.” I opened the photo album to see my girl as a toddler in a pale blue jumper. “Oh my God, look at you.”
“Such a baby,” she laughed.
She was a baby, and not so long ago. My daughter Rachel was in town for her annual visit to celebrate New Year’s Eve and her birthday. This year was a landmark, as she was turning twenty-one. She had big plans for a party back home, and enjoyed anticipating “legal beer.”
“Oh, this set of pictures is before your first trip to the city.” I pointed at a photograph in which we sat in a grassy field. “This is back when Lucy and I came to visit during your custody case.”
“Yeah, that was messed up, wasn’t it?” She tucked a strand of blond hair behind her ear. “Mom always talks about how you guys saved the day on that one.”
I turned the page. “Yeah, well, a lot of that was Lucy’s initiative.”
“Yeah.” Our eyes rested on a photograph of Lucy smiling as she held Rachel. “Sucks that she’s such a bitch now.”
“Well . . .” My voice drifted off. I hate to hear Rachel refer to Lucy in a negative way, but their relationship is what Lucy made of it. I am no longer the designated apologist for Lucy’s behavior. Still, it’s sad, given what once was.
As Rachel knew, Lucy had dragged me back to court for the third custody case of my parenting career. This time, having discovered my blog, Lucy hoped that my sexuality and writing would prove my undoing. The previous time, Lucy sought full custody during our divorce. She remained bitterly disappointed that she was unable show any cause whatsoever to get what she wanted, and the court did not simply acquiesce to her demands.
Among the saddest aspects of the two custody cases concerning our three children was the shift in Lucy since the custody case involving Rachel.
The winter of nineteen-eighty-seven was cold. One snowy night in a bar, I caught the eye of a freshman at our college. “You have really pretty hair,” she said. She began to braid my hair. Several braids later, we were kissing. I took her and my braids home. For the next several months, we had a nice arrangement. She would get high with her friends, call me when she wanted sex, and show up at my place in her pajamas. Nothing serious would come of it, she knew, as she had a “real” boyfriend back home. We parted at the end of the school year, each assuming we’d resume our arrangement come autumn.
Over the summer, I heard through the grapevine that she was pregnant. I called her and she confirmed that the baby was mine. She asked me to keep that a secret, as she wanted her boyfriend to think it was his. I agreed. I was going to have a child I would never meet. The child would call someone else “Daddy.” I kept this secret to myself. I gradually came to keep everything to myself. I studied, made art, listened to music, drank beer, stayed home.
Just after I learned that I was going to be a father who was not a daddy, my younger brother called with exciting news: he and his wife were expecting! My parent’s first grandchild was due around Christmas. I didn’t tell him that my own child might arrive sooner. When I was home for the holidays, his baby son was born. A week later, I was back at school when my child was born. Thankfully, the child we could acknowledge had come first. My child’s mother would call now and then to let me hear my daughter breathe.
I finished my senior year in near silence. My art had become elegiac. I cut my hair and grew a beard.
I started dating Lucy in the summer after graduation. We worked together at the same bookstore, but hadn’t talked much. She stayed in the back, smoking, opening crates and hiding from the customers. I stayed close to the information desk. She had heard that I was bisexual but thought I might be gay. I assumed she was lesbian.
Then, one day, my roommate brought her home. At the time, he and I shared my bed. He was in love with me but straight, so there wasn’t much to be done about that. I was annoyed that he had brought a date home to have sex in my bed, but discovered, once we were all stoned and nude, that he had brought her home to be with me. She had noticed me at a party, decided she was attracted to me, and told him. He insisted she come home that very night.
My friend eventually left us to ourselves. She and I fucked until dawn. I told her my secrets. She already knew I was bisexual—my friend had cleared that up when she expressed an interest in me—but she was surprised to hear about my daughter. So surprised, in fact, that she had to suddenly go home. I figured I had screwed up in telling her, but it was better to be honest up front rather than to keep a secret like that from your lover.
She later apologized for that reaction, saying it wasn’t so much the revelation as it was her own circumstances in hearing it. She explained that her father had left her family when she was four and her brother two. He went on to remarry and have another family, which only made it worse—he had rejected her and gone off to have another daughter. They had since repaired things somewhat, but she remained mortified by rejection and anxious about abandonment.
Hearing that I had a daughter I would never know, she identified with my little girl. “You have to know her, you have to,” she insisted. “It’s not fair that she doesn’t even know you.”
I knew she was right, but what was to be done? Another man was my daughter’s father. I asked my daughter’s mother if she would mind if I met our baby. She was agreeable and suggested that I drive out to visit one day while her boyfriend was at work. I arranged my schedule and visited the next week.
My little girl looked just like me. I know, her mother said. I looked into my own blue eyes, stroked my own blond hair, touched my own pale skin. She had her mother’s soft full lips. She was . . . real. Ours. But not mine.
I began to visit frequently. I had them to my place. All the while, her boyfriend knew nothing about our visits. He didn’t know I existed. Lucy made it clear that while she supported my relationship with Rachel, she did not want me to be intimate with her mother. I agreed. To tell the truth, I no longer felt that was appropriate. I was in love with Lucy. We soon moved in together.
One evening, my daughter’s mother called with shocking news: she was in love with another man and was leaving with him to move to San Francisco. She was sorry, but if I wanted to keep seeing Rachel, I’d have to travel to California to do so. Her boyfriend knew none of this and she planned to leave without telling him. At my recommendation, she left him a note explaining her plans. She wrote that he was not the baby’s father. With that, she was gone.
Shortly before Christmas, she was called by her now ex-boyfriend. He had found her phone number and wanted to call to say he forgave her and he understood that things had changed. To show there were no hard feelings, he wanted to send some presents for Rachel. He asked for her address.
The subpoena arrived soon after. He had filed for custody in Virginia. She had a few days before she needed to be in court with the baby. She panicked, contacted me and said she was leaving immediately to come back east. They were going to drive as fast as they could.
The first court appearance went badly. My daughter’s mother had a court-appointed lawyer who couldn’t get her name right. Her ex-boyfriend, a pot dealer, had assured her that he wouldn’t bring up pot smoking or anything that could get them both into legal trouble. His lawyer told the judge that the mother was a pot smoker who followed the Grateful Dead from show to show, putting the baby at risk. As she had absconded with the child, she was a proven flight risk. The judge granted temporary custody to her ex-boyfriend’s parents. I watched as the baby was taken from her arms. I watched the mother of my child scream in anguish.
I reported this to Lucy when I returned home. She threw up her fists. This was not fair, she yelled. That man was not the baby’s father! I was! How could the court be so fucking stupid? I agreed and added that when the ex-boyfriend’s parents saw me with the baby, they were astonished: their son’s baby was evidently not his baby, but mine. Someone they had never known about was the father of their grandchild.
Lucy called my daughter’s mother. She told her that she was going to pay for a real lawyer. Lucy made some calls. She found a lawyer. She called a broker and asked for six thousand dollars. I was shocked. Lucy could get six thousand dollars, just like that? I’d never had six thousand dollars in my life. No one I knew could make a phone call and get that kind of money. Lucy, embarrassed, told me that her family was well off. I told her that was okay. I would still love her.
The new lawyer changed everything. Soon, the ex-boyfriend and his family gave up. Lucy was willing to fund the case for as long as it took, and more, it was now obvious that I was Rachel’s biological father. Rachel was returned to her mother and new daddy. Rachel's family would grow to include seven more children, plus the three that Lucy and I bore. Lucy sat with me twenty years ago when I told my parents about their secret grandchild. My grandmother, parents, siblings, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews beamed in photographs made at Rachel’s wedding two summers ago. No one in Lucy's family was there.
“Yeah, that was a messed up time,” I said, turning another page in the photo album. “I remember this was just after the case was over. We were so relieved that you’d stay with your mother and Frederick.”
“Yeah, I’m glad it worked out that way,” Rachel said. “I mean, I love my first Dad. He’s always been so sweet to me. But it was right that I stayed with Mom and got to be with you and my stepmom and meet all my brothers and sisters.” She looked down at another photograph. Lucy was smiling, holding hands with Rachel at the Central Park Zoo. Rachel was nine, wearing a bright pink shirt and eating crackers from a plastic bag. “Well, ex-stepmom, I guess.”
When we divorced, my ex-wife decided to allow her relationship with Rachel to wither. As she saw it, family was divided into his and hers. She would no longer regard my parents as relatives. My brothers would become strangers. Rachel was the unfortunate outcome of some irresponsible thing I had done in college, born only because her mother was too religious to get an abortion. When informed of Rachel’s plan to marry, Lucy said, “I’m glad I don’t have to deal with her anymore.” She neglected Rachel’s invitation to the wedding, handing over an elaborately wrapped gift to take in her place.
Lucy’s behavior leaves me in an awkward place with Rachel. I never spoke ill of Lucy while we were married; indeed, I made excuses when she gave offense. I don’t speak ill of her now, and certainly not with any of the children. But she behaves as she does, and sadly, in these writings, these are the only stories I have to tell about her.
If I want to recall the good she could do within our family, I can only reflect on the past and ponder the photo albums that might have been.