Mae hops on the swing at our local park. “Push me super high!” she tells Hunter, our neighbor.
We met Hunter when we moved to Berkeley two years ago. Mae and I were on an afternoon walk. Hunter was bent over a well-known “art car” around the corner, gluing plastic fruit to its side. Mae was immediately drawn to him (and the car). As time passed, Hunter and I developed a deep platonic friendship. Nowadays, he often drops by our apartment with books and clothes for Mae.
Just as Hunter is pulling the swing back, ready to let go, Mae turns her head.
“Are you my Daddy?” she asks him.
Hunter grips the swing tighter. “I’m kind of like your Daddy, because I care about you,” he answers. “I guess you could call me your Godfather.”
“What’s God?” Mae asks.
Hunter laughs, knowing that he’s in for it now.
* * *
I am at the courthouse, staring at the clerk in front of me. The fluorescent lights shine across her forehead. She just asked me if I’m filing for physical custody, sole custody, or both. The clock above her points to noon. I lean into the beige counter. It is too tall for me. A line of people snakes behind me.
“Excuse me?” the clerk says, impatiently.
“Both,” I say, immediately unsure about my answer.
“You’ll need to run a summons in the newspaper,” she says, shooing me away. “Next!”
“A summons?” I want to ask her. “What is that, exactly?”
I’ll summon you to come back here and face me like a man. I’ll summon you to pay up for four years of diapers, shoes, groceries, rent, and preschool. I’ll summon up the courage to erase all your rights.
I take a step backwards and go into the dim hallway, where I sit down on the cold tiled floor. I hold my knees to my chest and look up. The hand on the clock points to five minutes after twelve. I watch the minute hand go round and round, pointing to every little black line.
You’ve missed every point in her life. Her first steps, her first song, her first “I love you,” her weaning, her hair done up in little braids, her first day of preschool, her first time spelling her own name.
Back at home, I call the newspaper and pay $800 to run the summons four weeks in a row: “You are being sued . . . . You have 30 calendar days after this summons and petition are served on you . . .”
Over the next few months, I submit pages to the judge, with all the lines filled in. I detail the points chronologically: when he left us, the attempts I made to reach him, the futility of it all. Two days before Mae’s fourth birthday, the judge pounds his gavel in front of the court room. He calls out my name. As I rise, my face goes red with worry.
“Sole and physical custody granted!”
I feel his voice resonate through me.
* * *
“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” Mae chases Grandpa around my apartment.
He laughs uneasily: “I’m not your Daddy!”
But immediately, I notice a pang of regret in his face. Mae has never called my father “Daddy” before. Yet he and I know that it is not supposed to be like this. The truth is that my father is the man in her life: the one who takes her to the toy store, buys her new shoes, and catches her on the slide.
After Grandpa leaves, I wait for it. That question: “Mommy, who’s my Daddy?”
I’ve been waiting for four years for that question. Framed on our living room wall is a little picture of her father. He sits with three-month-old Mae on a friend’s sofa. He stares ahead blankly, looking distressed.
The last time Mae and I were looking at the photos on our wall, I told her, “This is your father. He helped bring you into the world and–”
She leapt up, leaving my sentence hanging.
“Let’s play Chutes and Ladders!” she said. Evidently, it was not the time to talk about it.
I try and put myself in her world. All the dads she knows push their daughters on the swings and toss them high into the air. She does not know who this bald man in the picture is.
The next day, one of Mae’s four-year-old school friends comes over to play. I am making dinner in the kitchen. Mae’s friend bounds over to me: “Does Mae have a Daddy?”
What hurts at a moment like this is the fact that she does have a biological father, but not one who cares about her like a Daddy should.
“Yes,” I say, my fingers tightly squeezing the wooden spoon.
“Then where is he?”
“He lives far away,” I say. “But she has her Grandpa here,” I add, a bit defensively.
That night, after reading Mae’s bedtime story, I bring up the subject. I want to know if her friends at school have asked if she has a Daddy.
“Yes,” she whispers.
I hold my breath, waiting for her to ask me that huge question.
“What do you say?” I whisper back.
“Mom, I just say that I don’t have one!” she puffs back at me, all matter-of-fact and cheerful.
I sigh, relieved that she seems so confident with her single-mama family. But I know this won’t be her answer forever.