I have always been waiting
for my big “what-if”
where an option,
maybe our final phone call,
and I can just
grasp it, the way Dad
used to grip the steering wheel
of our blue Toyota and steer
my life in an entirely new
But as I wait
my fingers quake,
my body hovers, and
I am always watching
but never seeing
and as I wait
life passes me by.
It’s all I can do
not to cry.
I have seen everyone
get up and move on
and still, I am waiting
for my big “what-if”
and waiting for John
to come back.
John went out
to look for Dad,
who left nearly
ten years ago,
with a woman
who was Not-Mom
but could have been
in another world
And sometimes I wonder
what it would be like
to have Not-Mom as a Yes-Mom?
to come home to her
for the next PTA meeting
or going shopping with Not-Mom
and getting a shirt that hasn’t
been stained and torn and re-sewn
and adjusted to be five sizes bigger.
Because Real-Mom can’t afford
to take me shopping for a new shirt
so my precious shirt,
the shirt Dad might have adored
had it been torn one less time,
because he loved anything that was stained
and ruined, but I guess he got sick of us.
This shirt is all I have, but
Not-Mom would scoff at it
and buy me a better one
with the money Dad enjoys spending
on his alcohol and not-shirts.
Sure, there are the shirts
from more fortunate girls
that the thrift store gives to us
when no one else wants them
but they are scratchy
and choking me
and Not-Mom’s daughter
wouldn’t wear anything
I’m not even sure that Not-Mom has a daughter
but she must have one,
or else Dad wouldn’t have left.
Dad is a Natural-Dad,
and he can only go
where there are children
to take care of and love.
I’m all grown up now,
15 years old and taking care of myself.
Real-Mom told me Dad needed children
and since I am not a child anymore
Dad couldn’t stay and take care of me.
Sometimes I wish
that I was eternally a child,
that I could stay and play on the
rickety swing set
and not have to worry about
a big what-if
and not have to worry about
John or Dad or Not-Mom
or if Real-Mom will get out of bed
today, or if she’ll stay in
for the seventeenth consecutive day
Real-Mom has a habit
of not getting out of bed
or caring about her appearance.
Sometimes the people on the street
outside the thrift store
where we get the scratchy clothes
will judge us
and I will be quick to apologize
with a shy smile and a slight shrug
“What can you do?”
as if there is anything that
any of us can do
to fix the old habits
that haven’t died yet
and fix her broken heart
that has spread to the rest of her
broken body and broken life
and I suppose
That is why John left
he was looking to make
stained glass windows
out of the broken
fragments of his childhood
while I am only cutting my hands
on the glass.
have always been
too big and callused,
but Dad used to tell me
“cold hands, warm heart”
as he blew on my fingers
and cooled down my heart
until all that is left for him
is a big slab of ice.
It’s only felt right
when Dad held my hands
because he doesn’t laugh at them
and he doesn’t try suggesting
lotion for me or ways for me
to make my hands more lady like.
Not-Mom must have had
more nimble hands than Real-Mom
and a much more nimble waist.
Because Real-Mom was never perfect
and neither was I, but Dad craved
perfection and money and alcohol
to dull the pain
that we had no power
to take away.
On the day that I met Not-Mom
her hands were pale and small
and soft, with long, slim fingers
and carefully trimmed, manicured nails
bright red nail polish screaming out.
Her hands were entwined in Dad’s
and I kept my hands on my elbows
digging my nails into the dead skin.
Dad was loading his car with all of his stuff
putting the possessions
that he cared most about
in the trunk of the car,
locking it and pushing past
a broken Real-Mom, who was
screaming and crying for him
not to leave, with an empty
bottle that she kissed more often
than she kissed me goodnight.
And I kept on wishing
that Dad would put me in the trunk
and he would look at me and John
and say something, anything
and I kept on wishing that he said
he would come back
and I kept on waiting
and looking out the window
for that dark blue Toyota that
probably still had my Barbie’s heads
shoved in between the seats
and John’s cars broken and abandoned
in the cupholders.
And as I looked out the window
I looked down at the ground below
and I swore that I could fly
and I would fly into Dad’s arms
and Not-Mom’s kitchen
and she would be baking brownies
and he would be playing piano
and I would be singing
and we would be a family.
Real-Mom doesn’t bake brownies,
she sold the grand piano in the living room
for “emergency money,” as she told me
but I noticed the jar of money
hadn’t increased in months
but Real-Mom always went out
and came back with things for her
forcing John to buy food for us
and I wanted to ask him for another shirt
but I could never find my voice.
Dad always loved my voice
So maybe he bottled it up
and put it in his car
because I haven’t been able to sing
my voice is raspy and burns in my throat
so I have decided to stop talking
and Real-Mom doesn’t talk to me
and John is gone
and I am fleeting
but I don’t quite know it yet.
I’ve got a song on my lips
and a war on my mind
only I don’t know how to soothe both
so I let them rage on and it’s eating away
at my heart, until slowly
there is nothing left.
Dad used to talk to me all the time
he used to talk with John, too,
and I would love to watch John’s
eyes light up the way they used to
with Dad, because Real-Mom and I
could never give that to him
And maybe that’s why John left
to get another twinkle in his eye
for a smile to dance on his lips
and to finally feel appreciated
because no one feels appreciated
in this house.
Maybe, with the chance of a
John will come back and
tell stories and he’ll
barely be able to contain the
excitement of his voice,
and he’ll murmur,
stumbling over his words
saying, “oh yeah,
and look what else!”
And Dad will walk in
with his arm draped around Real-Mom
and we will be smiling
and we will be a family
and we will be…
But it’s time to stop daydreaming
because fantasizing about things
that will not happen are unhealthy
and unfair to the heart, who only yearns
for fantasies, for those what-if moments
that will one day be reality.
My last conversation with Dad
was at a coffee shop
miles away from our house
as I was trying to escape
and he already had.
He tried to cut me in line
ordering a coffee–
black, although I knew
he despised the taste
of tastelessness. He
always needed sugar and milk
or his cup would go untouched.
He craved sweetness
and eventually, Real-Mom
ran out of smiles to sweeten his day
and he ran out of spontaneous kisses
in the middle of the street
or when she was making pancakes
or applying more things to her tea, like
Sugar and spice and everything nice
was what he used to tell John and me.
He used to bounce me on my lap
as John stared up at him from the
dirty, carpeted floor with nothing
short of adoration in his eyes.
He would repeat these mantras to us
getting in our heads
and the worst mantra of all was
“I love you”
I was just short of telling him
in the coffee shop
but I knew how he cringed
hearing it from Real-Mom
as he stepped on our
carpeted floor in his
dirty boots and drove away.
But the coffee was not for him
I watched Not-Mom watch him
from the counter by the window
bringing her long, slim fingers
her red nails
striking the linoleum countertop
drumming out the beat of my heart,
amplified by the blood
rushing through my ears
and suddenly, I wasn’t craving
green tea, just his attention
and I knew I couldn’t have either.
I pulled my guard up
along with my hood
stepping out of the door
and I barely heard the twinkling of the bells
but by then they were sitting at the window
their eyes open and
Dad left Not-Mom with her coffee
and stood across from me on the street
that wasn’t familiar under my feet
and he opened his mouth
but had nothing to say.
I shrunk back against the window
it wasn’t John’s stained glass,
but the glass was forever stained
with this memory, though I’ve been
keeping it to myself for three years,
and I had dreamed of this moment
this was perhaps a what-if I was searching for.
He held out his hand
and I wanted to take it but my body was stiff
and he stepped closer while I wanted my distance.
In his hand was a five dollar bill and if John saw
he would have thrown a fit,
kicking and screaming that it wasn’t enough
for the seven years he had been gone.
But he placed the bill in my hand
his fingers lightly brazing the blisters on my sweaty palm.
He dropped his arm to his side and I wrapped my fingers
around the crumpled bill, he opened his mouth again.
“You dropped this,”
he told me, his voice dead
and his eyes unknowing.
My what-if window of opportunity slammed shut
almost closing on my fingers and locked
and I realized
He didn’t recognize me.
Three years have come and gone
and I’ve never told anyone
and he hasn’t come back for me
and now, as I look in the mirror,
and think about that day
I don’t even recognize myself.