I miss my father, a strange thing to say, because I've never known him, never laid eyes on him. My mother and grandmother conspire to keep information about him to themselves. "You have all of his good qualities," Mom says from behind the stack of AP English papers. She is defined by her English-teacher objects: the green desk lamp, her antique reading glasses, the black fountain pen. I don't remember a school night when she wasn't writing in margins with that Waterman pen she received from my grandmother the night I was born. "You have his red hair, his ability to put words together, to draw, to appreciate beauty and silence." The pen is poised at her lips when she turns her head toward the window and the sound of a barking dog. "His seriousness." She turns back and looks at me directly. "Those compelling green eyes." She smiles.
"Except for the looks and the drawing, those sound like your gifts," I say. I sit against the sofa arm, my head resting on my raised knees.
"You think?" She pushes a strand of hair away from her eyes and returns to the papers. The hair falls back. She is growing it out and it will not stay put. My father's bad qualities seem suspended in the air between us. It is no use asking about them again. She will not tell, nor will my grandmother, who says, "He always loved my Belgian waffles."
So does the dog.
My mother says, "He's not someone we want in our lives," and leaves it at that. I was never part of that decision.
Once, in a moment when I had worn her down, she told me his first name: Ambrose. Not his last. Her name is the same as her mother's: Kent. As in Clark Kent. Only she is Charlotte Kent. My grandmother is Mirabella Kent (I call her Bella) and I am Mira. We are a matriarchal household. No basso profundos bellowing here. Our tensions are strictly female and since the three of us are "amiable"--I like that Jane Austen word--there is little conflict. It's boring.
So I miss my father the same way I miss a howling wind that forces a placid ocean into crushing waves, even though I've never seen it. I miss him like tiramasu and escargot and all the other exotic-sounding foods I've never eaten. What can I say? I just miss him.
Bella lets the caramel syrup drip from an oversized wooden spoon onto the Belgian waffles. As long as I can remember, she has fixed Belgian waffles on Saturday mornings, accompanied by berries, syrup (often chocolate), and whipped cream. She wears a Williams-Sonoma apron over a designer pantsuit, because she always has a couple of open houses on Saturday. She is a trillion-dollar real estate broker--Mirabella Kent and Associates. Her signs are posted in front of pricey homes all over the city. It's because of her that we live in upscale Federal Heights, an old tree-lined neighborhood in Salt Lake City.
My two best friends, Sarah Sullivan and Dylan Madsen--actually, he's my boyfriend now--and I are sitting at the kitchen table in our pajamas. This is an old tradition that goes back to seventh grade. They both live on the block and come over each Saturday still wearing their jammies. We brush our teeth but we don't fix our hair, so we look like a family. Bedraggled. I think Bella made up that rule. Now that Dylan and I are together I feel a little self-conscious looking so sloppy in front of him. Maude, our dog--think conventional fluffy white ball--begs at Bella's feet for bacon.
"Has anyone let Maude out this morning?" Bella asks.
"Not me," I say.
"She's probably peed in your office," Sarah wisecracks. "Twice."
"I let her out when I got here," Dylan says.
"You're too sexy for your shoes." Bella smooches
the air in Dylan's direction and he blushes. I blush a sympathy blush. She drops a bit of bacon for the dog. "That's it!" She shakes an index finger at the dog. As if.
"You're the sexy one," Dylan says, going on the offensive with Bella. "I have to take a cold shower when I leave this place. Can't stop thinking of you."
Bella doesn't turn her head. "I know that," she spits out. "You've had the hots for me for years."
Sarah heehaws. "It's love. L-O-V-E." She mimes the spelling across the table. "Everyone's in love." She flutters her eyelashes at Dylan and me.
"Give me a break," Dylan says.
I kick her foot under the table.
"Okay, we've got a stack here." Bella turns with a plate of waffles. "This one's for you, Sarah Smartlass," Bella says.
Sarah ogles the waffles and the choice of toppings and gushes, "I want you to adopt me. I'll even be your slave. Please, Bella. I'll do the paperwork."
Bella's laugh is low and sultry. At sixty-five, she really is the sexiest woman in our house. "There's no need to adopt you," she says. "You're here almost every day as it is. If you lived here officially you'd get bossed around. Ask Mira."
"You would," I said. "She's a witch."
"She is the angel of waffles," Dylan says. Bella has loaded his plate.
"Kiss-up," I say. He gives me the cutest look. I still can't believe we're actually a couple.
Bella sets a plate of waffles down in front of me. "There you go, Red." A reference to my hair.
"Witch!" I say.
"Red, Red, Red."
"Witch, Witch, Witch!" It's an old game and we both smirk.
With her mouth full, Sarah says, "See, now that's why I want you to adopt me. My mother never lets us joke around like that. She'd say, 'Stop calling each other names.' " She swallows. "No sense of humor."
"She's got to have a sense of humor living in your house. Your dad is the funniest guy I know," I say.
"My mother doesn't think so. She thinks he's a dork."
Dylan's lips form an O. "Oh, let's put that through the neighborhood rumor mill."
Sarah shrugs. "It's no secret. She's always saying she thought she married a thoracic surgeon, not Red Skelton."
"Who's Red Skelton?" I ask.
Bella releases a loud ha. She pries a waffle loose from the iron and onto a plate. "Your parents are both lovely people," she says, a half smile on her lips. We watch her swirl the caramel sauce with the wooden spoon. She is an artist. She spoons strawberries and cream onto the top and sets the plate on a tray. "Otherwise"--she leans her face up close to Sarah's--"they wouldn't have such a wonderful daughter--a daughter I would gladly adopt as my own." She swivels around, picks up the tray, and heads into the hallway. The dog follows her. "I'm taking this up to Charlotte," she says.
"The house is full of kiss-ups this morning," I yell after her.
"You could learn something from us," she yells back.
"Who is Red Skelton?" I ask Sarah, but before she can answer, the clock in the hall dings the half hour and Dylan is on his feet. "I've gotta go. I have to help my father paint my grandma's garage and I told him I'd be ready at eight-thirty, sharp." He takes his food with him. "I'll return the plate!" he yells, and he's out the front door. Then the door opens, and he calls, "You guys want a ride to the yearbook signing party tonight?"
Sarah and I yell yes in unison.
"Meet me out in front at seven," he calls, and the door shuts again. My mood falls a little with his sudden departure. I was hoping we could laze around this morning.
"Okay," I say to Sarah. "Now, who is Red Skelton?"
Her shoulders slump and she makes a face that says Duh. "Do I have to teach you everything about American popular culture?" She talks with her mouth full, which I will never get used to.
"Just tell me, okay? I don't need a lecture."
"Do you even know who Chubby Checker is?"
"Is it important?"
Her eyes roll heavenward. "Red Skelton is a comic from the fifties--he had a very popular television show called The--" She waits for me to finish.
I play along. "The Red Skelton Show?"
"Very good." Really, sometimes I'd like to punch her. "Anyway, he wore goofy clothes, talked with a lisp, and did a lot of fall-down stuff. My dad has all the DVDs of him, and my mom can't stand the guy." She sips orange juice. "He had red hair about the same color as yours."
I sit up then. "Maybe he's my father!" I say.
Sarah rolls her eyes. "Obsessive. It's all you talk about lately. You have a father fixation." Her eyes bug out at me.
I lower my voice. "Well, no one in this house will tell me anything about him."
"You have a picture of him in your room."
"What can I tell from a picture?" I lick whipped cream from my spoon. "They were divorced when I was three. Why did they divorce? Why are Mom and Bella so uncommonly sweet about him and so vague at the same time? Wouldn't that drive you mad?"
"I guess." She pulls a scrunchie out of her pocket and gathers her hair back. "But you never seemed worried about it before."
"I know. I guess I've just been wondering about it more lately, and when I ask a question, they're so mysterious it makes me curious. I don't even know his last name. Why can't they tell me his name?"
She leans forward and says in a stage whisper, "Maybe he's a criminal."
I nod. "I've thought of that."
Her dark hair is back in a ponytail now. "What about your birth certificate?"
"What about it?"
"His name would be on your birth certificate."
My jaw drops. "It would--"
"Duh--mine's in my baby book. Mom made a pocket for it, so it can come out when I need it--oh, oh, oh--" She bobs up and down. "You need it when you get your learner's permit! I remember. You need to show your birth certificate!" Sarah clasps her hands. "That's only a month away."
"June eighteenth," I breathe. "June eighteenth and I will see my father's full name." I hear Bella's footsteps on the stairs. "Shhh," I say. "I mean it, shush."
"I can keep your dirty little secret," Sarah scoffs.
"Was Mom up?" I ask when Bella returns.
"She is now. Eating like a lioness." She looks at Dylan's empty seat. "Where's my lover boy?"
"He had to help his father," I say. "He took the plate with him."
She smiles. "Love me, love my waffles," she says. "Do you girls want more? I have plenty of batter."
Sarah shoves her chair back. "No, thanks, I've got to go home or Mom will throw a hissy fit." She busses her dishes to the sink. "Thank you, darling Bella, as always." She kisses the air.
Bella kisses the air in return. "G'bye, Sarah Bear."
I walk Sarah to the front door. "See ya."
"I'm babysitting Josh today. Come over if you want."
I nod and watch her run down the street toward her house, which has a mother and a father and an eight-year-old brother. So normal. I sigh. I know I'm feeling sorry for myself and have no reason. I love Bella, and Mom. I love this street lined with mature budding sycamore trees and this big old redbrick house with the black shutters and the heavy brass knocker on the front door. It's the only house I've ever known. I love spring with the late tulips bursting into bloom next to the waxy green leaves of the euonymus bushes. I love the stretch of yellow roses along the side of the house. I should be grateful. I sit down on the front step. The smell of lilacs wafts through the air. Dylan backs out of the driveway in his dad's pickup and gives the horn a short toot. I smile back. His father waves. I hug my knees and call through the open front door to Bella: "I'll do the dishes."
"I know you will, Red," she calls back. "I've got to get going."
It's not like I haven't had a father figure in my life. Dr. Sullivan used to take both Sarah and me to the daddy/daughter parties at the church when we were young, and I've been to their cabin on Bear Lake a jillion times. Dr. Sullivan taught me how to water-ski and how to fix a flat on my bike. He taught me to play tennis and how to do push-ups. And he's stitched me up a couple of times, once when I split my knee after falling from my bike and another time when Sarah and I were wrestling and I cut a gash into my arm at the edge of their Ping-Pong table. He's even yelled at me a couple of times, like when I took the kayak out on the lake without wearing a life jacket. He about had a cow. Sarah said he was shouting at me from shore, but I was too far out to hear him. When I did get within hearing distance, I really got an earful. Swearing and all.
Dr. Sullivan is like a father to me, but he isn't my father. Big difference.
"Oh, you're out here--" Mom is in the doorway wearing her Old Navy sweats and holding Maude in her arms.
I turn. "I was just saying good-bye to Sarah, and spring caught me by surprise," I say. "It's a beautiful day."
She hovers in the doorway, looking up and down the street, her hand stroking Maude's head. "It's a perfect day," she says, and sits on the step next to me. "I thought I'd go shopping at Gateway. Want to go?"
"Sounds fun," I say, "but I told Sarah I'd come over and help her take care of Josh." I'm surprised by my easy lie. "He minds me better than her."
A half smile, half nod from Mom. She puts Maude down on the sidewalk and the dog lies in our shade, her head resting on her paws.
We turn when the garage door opens. Maude growls. Bella in her Mercedes backs out into the driveway. The driver's side window is open. "I'll be at the Openshaw house over on Wolcott until one and then that monstrosity out on Cottonwood from two to four. You want to go for Chinese tonight?"
"Great!" I say. Mom nods and waves.
"Toodleoo, then." She kisses the air and backs recklessly out of the driveway.
"Is she wild or what?" I say.
Mom laughs. "You should have seen her and Daddy together. They were a real pair." She pauses. "I wish you could have known him."
For a second I think she means my dad, but before I say anything I realize she is talking about her own father, who died suddenly when she was in college.
From the Hardcover edition.