I was sipping coffee in my brown leather chair at JumpStart, typing a post to my Harley’s Dad group, the online support group that had become my lifeline since Carolyn’s death, when my iPad beeped to alert me to an email. It was from my supervisor, Gene, at the pharmacy. We’re looking forward to having you back a week from Monday, the email read. I guessed that was his way of not so subtly reminding me I was expected back. I was dreading my return to work, but now it was a matter of money as well as what my therapist called a “need to re-engage with the real world”. My Harley’s Dad friends were my real world, I told her. Nobody realer than the people who understood exactly how it felt to lose a child.
I was still a little afraid that I’d screw up at work the way I did the first time I tried to go back, when I’d given a customer the wrong medication. My head was clearer now and I wasn’t totally numb like I’d been in the beginning, but I was still overwhelmed by sadness and the thought of “re-engaging with the real world” tired me out.
Right, I answered Gene. See you then.
I was reading a post written by Harley’s Dad himself when, from the corner of my eye, I noticed a man and little girl come out of the men’s room and head for the counter. I sat up straight. Carolyn? Of course not. She didn’t even look like Carolyn, but in the irrational and sometimes scary part of my mind, I could manage to see my daughter in any little girl. Carolyn had been blond, though, while this child had brown hair. She held the man’s hand as they walked toward the counter. He was in his early twenties, I thought, barely. He was dressed in old jeans and a gray t-shirt with a dirty, once-white canvas bag slung over one shoulder. It seemed strange to see a man and child together in the coffee shop, especially on a weekday morning, and especially coming out of the men’s room together, although my husband, Michael, had taken Carolyn into the men’s room any number of times. Still, could this guy have kidnapped her? Was he abusing her? Maybe she needed me to rescue her?
Stop it, I told myself. The girl seemed perfectly at ease with him, holding his hand, leaning against his leg as he ordered something I couldn’t hear. Her hair was a little straggly and her bangs hung low over her eyes. She wore pale blue shorts, red sneakers, and a blue and white striped shirt. I could see a couple of stains on the front of it even from where I sat. A small pink purse hung from her arm, the same arm that clutched a stuffed animal to her chest. She was so darling. I didn’t want to look at her. The way I felt scared me. Seeing a little girl whole and alive filled me with such longing it was almost unbearable, and this one, with her straggly hair and dirty shirt, needed a little more TLC than she was getting. She looked like she needed a mommy.
I forced my gaze back to my iPad and started a new post on the support group.
I’m in a coffee shop, I typed, and a little girl just walked in with a man (her father?) and even though she doesn’t look like Carolyn, I thought it might be her. Guess I’m in crazy grieving mom mode right now! I hit send. I knew I’d get responses within a few minutes, and I could even predict what they would be. Other parents would relate similar experiences. Similar feelings. And I would feel less crazy. Less alone.
I looked up. The man and little girl were walking toward my small circle of furniture. The man sat down on the sofa and the girl climbed up next to him. He smiled at me and she tipped her head back a little to look at me from beneath her long bangs. Her eyes were huge and gray. The same gray as his, only his were fringed with thick black lashes. He was handsome, though tired looking, and the little girl was equally pretty beneath her messy hair. Father and daughter, most definitely.
“How’re you doin’?” He slid the canvas bag from his shoulder and rested it on the sofa next to him. “Is it always this quiet in here?”
I could barely breathe. I felt the way I had when I first saw a horse as a child. I’d been both fascinated and afraid, longing to move closer but fearful it might hurt me. If I looked at this little girl too long, I was afraid of how I’d feel, so I only brushed my gaze over her as I responded.
“It’s busy earlier in the morning,” I said, “and it’ll pick up again around lunchtime.”
I looked down at my iPad. No response yet to my post to the Harley’s Dad group.
“We’re new in town,” the man said. “I’m Travis and this is Bella.”
“I’m Erin.” I should have just said I was working. Tuned him out the way I tuned out the other people in the shop. Even the barista rarely tried to talk to me now beyond a “good morning,” and I guessed he thought I was pretty cold. But the little girl–Bella–felt like a magnet to me and try as I might not to look at her, my gaze kept drifting in her direction. She had me mesmerized by those big gray eyes. “She’s your daughter?” I asked.
“Yes, ma’am.” He broke the muffin he’d bought into two parts, rested each half on a napkin, and handed one of them to Bella. She was almost dainty as she lifted the muffin to her mouth and took a bite from the corner.
I waited until she swallowed, then leaned forward in my chair. “How old are you, Bella?” I smiled at her and the smile felt anemic and shaky.
She didn’t answer. Shyly, she leaned closer to her father’s arm. The skin beneath her nose was a little red, the way Carolyn’s would get during allergy season.
“Answer Miss Erin,” the man said to her. “Tell her how old you are.”
Bella held up four fingers, a fat crumb from the muffin stuck to one of them. “Four,” she said. She noticed the crumb and nibbled it from her hand. Carolyn would have been four now, if she’d lived. Bella was a little small for four. Thin and waif-like.
“She just turned four a couple of weeks ago,” Travis said. Except for dark circles around his eyes, he was a very good-looking guy. If I’d been ten years younger, single and not completely miserable, he would have captivated me. Instead I was captivated by his daughter. “We didn’t have much of a party,” Travis added. “Things were a little rocky. So we’re going to celebrate when she turns four and a half, aren’t we Bella?”
Bella looked up at him and gave a nod. I wished she would smile. She didn’t look like a very happy child.
“She’s sleepy,” Travis said. We had a long drive yesterday and didn’t sleep too well last night.”
“Where did you move from?” I asked.
“Carolina Beach,” he said. “No work there, so we had no choice but to come to Raleigh.” He screwed up his face and I knew he wasn’t happy about the move. “I have a job lined up here, though. I interview with the guy tomorrow.”
“I hope you get it,” I said.
“Oh, it’s sewn up. The interview’s just a formality. A mutual friend hooked me up with him.” He handed Bella the cup of water he’d set on the coffee table. “Do you have kids?” he asked.
I shook my head. I felt Carolyn in the air around me, hurt and betrayed.
“Then you probably don’t know where I can find childcare for when I start working, huh?”
I shook my head again. It was the truth. I didn’t know the child care options in this new-to-me neighborhood. “Your wife’s not with you?” I asked.
“No wife,” he said. He pulled a handkerchief from his pants pocket and blotted Bella’s nose in a way that told me he’d done it hundreds of times before. “It’s just me and Bella,” he said.
Had there been a wife? I wondered. Were they divorced? Did she die?
“So, is it nice around here?” he asked. “Bella and I are used to the beach, aren’t we, Bell? We’re not used to all the trees and the big buildings.”
“It’s nice,” I said. I was thinking of the fun places we used to take Carolyn. Monkey Joe’s and the kids’ museum and Pullen Park, but I couldn’t talk about them. I couldn’t let the image of Carolyn riding the train at Pullen Park into my head right then. “I hope the job’s a good one.”
“Me too,” he said. “We need a break.”
Yes, that’s how he looked. How both of them looked–like they’d been to hell and back and needed a break.
“Excuse me, Miss Erin,” Travis said, “but it’s story time.” He pulled a picture book from the canvas bag. Cat in the Hat. Michael and I had read every Dr. Seuss book to Carolyn too many times to count. I had the feeling Travis had read it to Bella many times, too, because the book jacket was ragged looking and slipping off the book itself. I watched Bella climb onto his lap as he opened the book. I remembered how it felt to hold a little girl in my arms that way. How it felt to have her lean back against me while I read. I felt the injustice of it all over again. I wanted my baby back.
I lowered my eyes to my iPad, glad Travis’s attention was now on the book and not me, because whatever was in my face wasn’t meant for anyone to see. The screen of my iPad blurred in front of me and I had to blink a few times before I could read the first response to my post.
Carolyn’s always with you, Harley’s Dad had written. She’s in that little girl and in the little girl’s father and in the air that you breathe. Remember that.
Yes, I thought. I looked over at Bella and Travis where they sat together, absorbed in the book, and I felt Carolyn slip over all three of us like a veil of warm air.