published in Volume 1, Issue 4 on September 15th, 1994
It's late afternoon, I'm waiting for the girl to arrive, and the cat is helping me make up the bed. The bed is too close to the wall and to the dresser at the foot, so when I need to go around it to stretch the fitted sheet up to the head I have to bend over the bed with my back to the dresser to avoid the windowsill next to the dresser. The cat watches until I'm balanced in this somewhat uncomfortable position, not quite leaning over enough to fall forward onto the bed, and then she jumps onto the bed near the foot, dead center, holding the sheet down to the mattress.
When I pull on the corner of the sheet she tries to catch the wrinkles as they float away from her like waves. This action of hers, this lying on the bed, will leave a wrinkled place on the sheet which will stay where she is now; I want the sheet to be completely, perfectly straight, flat, the Navaho pattern laid out as precisely as if it were a sand painting. I worry about the wrinkled spot even though another sheet and a comforter will go over the sheet.
I say "Shoo" to the cat, whose name is Murphy, and she looks up at me and meows. She's smiling, I think. I say it louder and make a shooing motion with the backs of my hands toward her, and she explodes off the bed and out of the room; I decide I was foolish to arrange the furniture like this, and of the two bedrooms this is the smaller, and why didn't I go ahead and set up the larger as a bedroom instead of as a combination library and office?
She doesn't bother me again, and I hear her in the hallway playing with her gray catnip mouse; the bell on its tail tinkles, and when the doorbell rings I stand there by the bed and wonder how she got the little round bell to sound so loudly and rapidly. The confusion passes, and I go to the door of the house which I rented when my wife and I divorced. As I walk to the door I imagine the house as it must look from an airplane: the small house with a pool in the back taking up the entire backyard and the tall wooden privacy fence around the pool; the front yard stretching out to the blacktop road in front; the driveway leading down to the road and the two large mimosa trees in the yard, one on either side of a cast-iron loveseat painted red.
At the door is my daughter Mandy. The afternoon sun frames her in the doorway, and when I stand back from the door to let her in I can see the outline of her body through the light cotton dress she wears. "Hi, Daddy," she says, and I stand for a second looking at her before answering.
"Hey, baby," I say, and she lets me hug her and kiss her on the crown of her head; her hair is long enough to reach her slender hips. "I didn't expect to see you today." When I say this she looks confused until I add, "But it's always good to have you visit," and then she smiles and goes over to the sofa to sit down. Her shoulders are tanned and lightly freckled. I worry about her, that she is too beautiful, that some man will hurt her, that she is sexually active already. Mandy is seventeen, almost eighteen, a young woman just graduated from high school and taking the summer off before college in the fall.
"Are you okay, Daddy? You look like you've got something on your mind."
"I was fixing up the house a little. I have company coming tonight." I sit down in the comfortable armchair which sits at an angle to the sofa.
She leans forward with her hands on her knees and the neckline of her dress falls open a bit, and I can see the upper swell of her breasts. "Hot date, huh?" she says, and I wonder if it's appropriate for me as her father to mention to her that I think she should be wearing a bra under such a sheer dress. Her mother takes care of her, I think, and then I feel better. No less protective, just less worried.
"Yes. A date," I say. "She'll be here in a little while."
"Good for you. I'm glad you're trying to have a social life." She looks at me and smiles. "Mom and I were afraid you'd lock yourself up out here and never do anything."
When she says this I think how much I love her and her mother and wish we could have stayed together. "What brings you all the way out here?" I ask. "Just want to see your dad?"
"Yeah, mostly. And to give you a message from Mom. She says you still need to sign those papers for me to get into school."
I am a history professor at a small university. It is an exclusive place, very expensive. They allow the children of tenured faculty to attend school for half tuition, and I have to sign a paper which states, among other things, that this is my daughter, and yes, that I love her, that I claim her as my own. "I haven't signed them, but I will, and you can take them with you," I say. I have forgotten about the papers, as if signing them is an avowal that I have wondered about the heritage of this beautiful young woman or ever doubted my love for her. "I'll get them for you," I say.
I go back to the larger of the two bedrooms and rummage through the student papers on the desk; the forms I must sign are under an essay by Monica Dodd, a sophomore in one of my just completed spring classes. I look at the paper, which is about George Washington's expense accounts. I sign the form which claims, certifies, declares, states that I love my daughter. I sign in triplicate for the academic advisement office, the business office, the dean's office, then fold the papers lengthwise and walk back to my daughter in the living room.
The cat is sitting in Mandy's lap when I return, and Mandy is scratching the cat's ears. "Nice kitty," Mandy says, though I am not sure whether she is addressing me or the cat. "How long have you had her?"
"A couple of weeks," I say. "She was an orphan, I think. I got her at the animal shelter." They have many cats there of all kinds, I want to tell my daughter, and she can have one if she wants. I will take her there to pick out a cat.
"She's sweet," Mandy says. The cat looks up at her and smiles. "What's her name?"
"Name? I haven't given her a name yet," I say. "What do you think?"
"Scarlett. Like Scarlett O'Hara." She rubs the cat's head and makes kissing noises. "How do you like that for a name, Scarlett-kitty?"
The cat doesn't seem to care one way or another, so I say, "That's a good name. It fits her personality to a t. Yes, to a t." I hope the cat hasn't gotten used to Murphy yet, but it is my daughter's wish that the cat be called Scarlett.
I have the papers still; Mandy reaches over and takes them. "I've got to go, Daddy. Kevin's taking me to a movie tonight and I have to get ready." She stands up and the cat jumps down. Mandy brushes black cat hair off her white cotton dress. "I'll see you in a few days. Maybe at school, huh?"
"It's too late to start the summer session," I say. I want her to stay and talk to me, my only child who is growing up too fast for me to bear.
"I was going to be over there for the Earlybird orientation next week. And besides, I can drop in and see you at the office, can't I? Just because I want to?"
I hadn't thought of this, how she could just want to see me, and I am glad. "Sure," I say. She reaches out to give me a hug, then kisses me on the cheek. I ask, "Do you need any money? For clothes or anything?" It seems a silly gesture, superficial somehow, but it is all I can offer her except my love, and she has that.
"No, but thanks anyhow. Mom and I went out three times in the last couple of weeks and bought clothes. All I'm going to need is books, and Mom says I could ask you about those."
"Certainly," I say. Books. I want to be a daily part of her life again, but all I can do is buy books. "Well," I say.
"Well," she says, and then she is gone. The cat tries to follow her out, but I stop her by putting my foot out, and she shies away from the foot and goes back to her food dish in the kitchen. I hear the crunching of the hard dry food. She is a good cat; I should be better to her.
Just as I'm hearing the crunching from the kitchen and the whine of Mandy's car leaving, the little foreign sports car I bought for her last year, there is a knock at the door, and I am standing right there, so I open the door and there is Monica Dodd, sophomore. "Hello, Dr. Lear," she says. "I hope I'm not too early, but you said seven-ish."
She is a pretty girl, and while I am not in the habit of inviting students, especially pretty female students, into my home, I did invite her here for dinner. She did well in my class, except for missing classes on Fridays when the sun was bright and the weather warm. Younger students will go out and socialize on Fridays, beginning the weekend early. This was Monica's problem, her only one, scholastically speaking. I hold the door for her. "I'm glad you could make it," I say. "Did you have any trouble finding the house?"
"You gave good directions. No problem at all." She is wearing tight, very short cutoff blue jeans and a peasant-style cotton top much like the top of the dress which my daughter was wearing. "I met your daughter on my way in," Monica says. "Does she go to college?"
"Would you like something to drink?" I ask. "She's starting in the fall," I say.
"Do you have some white wine? I love white wine."
I go into the kitchen and open the refrigerator and push aside mayonnaise and the pot of soup I cooked a few days ago. Lying on its side against the back wall on the top shelf is part of a bottle of Zinfandel, which I remove and open. I take two glasses and return to the living room. Monica has found a piece of string and is trying to get the cat's attention. When I walk in Monica looks up at me and the cat strikes with a forepaw. Scarlett the cat catches the string and runs away to hide behind the couch. "Ouch," Monica says. A bright drop of blood grows on her forefinger. "She got me," Monica says and puts the finger in her mouth and sucks hard on it.
The girl is not seriously hurt, but while I search the bathroom for disinfectant and bandages I wonder whether the cut can get infected and worry about my homeowner's liability coverage. In the living room again with Band-Aids and peroxide and a tube of something which is advertised to speed healing of small wounds, I attempt to administer first aid, but do a poor job it; I ruin one bandage when the tape falls across the gauze pad and cannot be removed. "Let me do this," Monica says, "and you can get me a glass of wine." I pour the wine into glasses. "It'll kill the pain," she says, and smiles.
I give her a glass. Her finger shows a neat pink band of sterilized plastic. "I'm sorry about the cat. She hasn't gotten used to people yet." Monica sips her wine, the bandaged finger sticking out like a rebuke.
"Don't worry. We have six cats at home, and sometimes they do these things." She shifts the glass to her uninjured hand and holds the finger up to look at it. "They usually don't mean anything by it."
"Okay. If you're not worried, that is." I, of course, am worried. I worry about her getting an infection, about a lawsuit over the infection, about the regents discovering that a forty year-old professor has invited a nineteen-year-old female student to his home for dinner and wine. I worry about my daughter, who is just two years younger. Soon she will be living away from home, and the world is full of dangers which I can warn her about.
"So do I get a guided tour of the house?" Monica asks. She stands up and holds the wineglass close against her chest and begins to look around the room.
"There's not much to see. It's a small house." The house is a long-term lease from a friend in the English Department who has moved to Africa, where he is teaching Kenyan students about James Joyce and William Faulkner. He still makes payments on the house, and I reimburse him each month. People have asked why I do not go ahead and buy the house, but I cannot tell them the answer. Perhaps I am looking for something else, perhaps not. I do not know, but my problem may be that buying a house would be an admission of failure in my marriage. I do not know. "I thought we could barbecue some steaks for dinner," I say.
"Neat. Lead on."
We go out into the backyard, where I have already prepared the gas grill and have the steaks in an ice chest next to the grill. The steaks are marinating in teriyaki sauce and a little garlic. "I didn't tell you about the pool, did I?" I ask.
She seems impressed by the pool. She goes to a lounge chair and sits on the edge sipping her wine. "No, you didn't. If I'd known I could have brought a suit." She is pretty, with long red hair tied at the back in a loose ponytail, and her eyes are green, much like the cat's.
"I thought my daughter could have friends over," I say. I turn away from her and open the grill. "How do you like your steak?"
"Medium-well, I guess. I'm not much into meat."
I turn back to her. "We could go out, if you like. Or there's salad. Lots of salad. A big bowl."
She laughs and shakes her head. "I live in the dorm, and the meat there is soybean. It's really gross. I love steak." She stands up. "Mind if I get another glass of wine?" She holds the glass out; it's nearly empty.
"Sure, it's in the refrigerator."
She starts toward the sliding door, then stops and turns. "Would you like something?" Her cutoffs are short, and in the late-afternoon light I can see very fine reddish-blond hairs on her thighs glowing like tiny fires.
"No." I hold up my glass, which I've barely touched. "There's a bottle of something in the cabinet under the sink." She stands there looking at me. "I think the corkscrew is in the silverware drawer," I say.
"Okay," she says, and leaves into the house.
The grill is easy to use. Turn on the gas and get the heavy cast-iron grill part hot, then put on the steaks. But for some reason tonight it won't start. I use up half a box of matches before I realize the gas is barely on, so I reach down and open the valve on the tank a little further. This cures the problem, and when Monica gets back the fire is started and I'm getting the steaks out of the plastic container in the ice chest. Below the ice are twelve cans of beer which I bought earlier in the day.
"Why don't I put this on ice and then we won't have to go inside until it's time to eat," she says. She's got a bottle of Burgundy and the corkscrew.
"Burgundy doesn't need to be too cool," I say. "But it's so warm outside it wouldn't hurt to put it on top of the ice."
"You've got beer, too," she says when she kneels down to put the wine away. Her legs are strong and well-shaped. She's a beautiful girl.
"Yeah. The beer. I didn't know what you'd like, and then I forgot it was here until I got the steaks out."
She stands up and looks at me. "You're not going to try getting me drunk, are you, David?" She must understand from my return look that this is not the case, because then she winks and says, "I was just kidding. You wouldn't do something like that, would you?"
"No," I say, but if the regents found out about Monica's visit, this would be the first thing on their minds. "I just figured you're used to beer at parties and things," I tell her. The steaks are beginning to sizzle, and this gives me the opportunity to check them with the long-tined fork.
"Yeah, beer's okay, but wine's sort of . . . more sophisticated, somehow."
"I like wine, but I don't drink much of it. It's for company." The two bottles have been here for over two months; I opened the Zinfandel two weeks ago and drank it with a microwave dinner. "The white's been opened for a while," I say. "How is it?"
She sits on the lounge chair again. "I wouldn't know if it's good or not, really. I don't drink it too often."
"The steaks will be ready in a little bit," I say. "If you'll watch them for just a minute I'll go get the salad. Unless you'd like to eat inside, that is."
"It's nice out here. Let's stay."
Inside I get the salad bowl and set it on the kitchen counter. The cat jumps up and puts her nose to the plastic wrap covering the top, and I say "No, kitty. No, Scarlett," and the cat looks at me and meows. I get her some dry food from the cabinet above the sink and pour some into her bowl. She jumps down and sniffs at the food, then looks up at me and opens her mouth as if she's going to say something, but she doesn't. The phone rings, and it startles me. I get the wall phone and answer, "Lear residence."
"Daddy? I just wanted to call and ask if everything was okay."
"Sure, baby. Things are fine. Why should you worry?" I feel good to think she's concerned about me, but her tone makes me feel like a child.
"I was just wondering," she says. There's another voice on her end, in the background, and she says something soft which I don't catch. "I met your friend when I was there a little while ago. She's kind of young, isn't she?"
"She's not a student, if that's what you're thinking," I say. I am not lying to her. Monica is an ex-student now. "We're just about to have dinner, in fact." I realize I'm not making much sense, but I don't want my daughter talking to me right now. "I thought you and Kevin had a date tonight. What happened?" I ask.
"We're here at the house. Mother offered to cook dinner, and then we're going to play Monopoly or something."
"That's good. In fact, if I don't get outside and check the steaks we'll have to go out to eat, so I'd better let you get back to what you were doing." The cat has wandered off somewhere, and I want to go ahead and get the salad outside.
"Be careful, Daddy."
"I will, baby. Tell your mother hello for me."
"She knows I called you. She doesn't hate you, you know?" There's a plaintive quality to her voice when she says this, and I am sorry all over for not being with them. I want to apologize somehow, but I do not know how. For the last two years of my marriage I had trouble communicating with my wife, and Mandy was trapped in the position of mediator and messenger, always having to translate for us.
"I'm glad you told her. I don't want you to have to feel guilty about being in touch with me." I think she's crying, but maybe it's just something in the line. "And if you want to come out here with your friends or anything," I say, "you can use the pool for a party or something."
"I'd like that, Daddy. Take care, huh? Please?"
"I will." I make a kissing noise into the receiver, only it comes out like a slurp. "Bye, honey," I say, and the line goes dead. I hang up before the dial tone starts and stack paper plates and salad dressing on a tray with the bowl of salad.
When I get outside, Monica is sitting on the edge of the pool dangling her legs in the water. She looks up and says, "The steaks smell good. I'm starved." She stands, and I see that water runs down in droplets off her calves, to her ankles, to the tops of her feet. She sees me looking. "It was so warm, and the water felt so good. You don't mind, do you?"
She is truly a beautiful girl. In class she was always quiet, but when I asked questions she was quick with answers. "Not a bit. I mean, not at all. That's why the pool is here."
"Let's eat," she says.
There is a small picnic table under the awning by the back door, and we sit there to eat. I turn on the bug zapper and it glows blue, begins almost immediately to snap and pop with the tiny gnats and mites which fly into its grill. As we eat our salads I have a momentary fantasy about being a bug drawn into the machine, and I wonder whether they feel pain. While I think this I look up at Monica sitting there across from me, her jaws working gently on lettuce and tomato and radishes. "I'll get the steaks," I say.
The grill has been off during salad, but the meat is still hot, and I serve the small t-bones on paper plates. Monica cuts off a small piece and holds it on the fork in front of her lips, purses them, and blows on the meat, as if blowing a kiss, then puts the piece in her mouth and chews with her eyes closed. "It's perfect," she says. The expression on her face says this is so. She cuts more and eats, and we don't talk, we just eat and sip wine and look up at each other occasionally.
I finish my steak first. "Would you like something else? I could run down to the store and get some pie or ice cream." She is just finishing, dabbing at her lips with a paper napkin. "I'm not prepared so well. I'm not used to company."
She stands and begins stacking up the paper plates. "Why don't you make yourself comfortable," she says. "I'll go do the dishes." She giggles. "Pour us a glass of wine. Sit down and relax. I'm not running off."
I start to protest, but she touches my shoulder and nudges me in the direction of the lounge chairs. When she's gone I pour wine and leave her glass on the table. I sit down and watch the water. The outdoor lights have come on, and they glow softly. Insects flit in and out of the light like tracer bullets in a war movie. The lights are small, more for atmosphere than illumination, I suppose. They highlight the pebbles imbedded in the concrete around the pool, but then the lights go off, leaving only the glow of the pool's underwater lights. I start to rise, but Monica comes out and gets the glass of wine from the table. She sits in the lounge next to me. She tilts her glass back and takes a long sip. "I found the light switch," she says. "I always liked the way a pool shines at night."
"I sit out here sometimes and watch the water. It's very peaceful," I say. There are a few small, white clouds moving in from the east, and I wonder if it's going to rain. "I hoped my daughter Mandy and her friends would come out and use the pool."
"I know," she says. I look at her. "You mentioned that before, David."
"Yes." As I answer I have a momentary thought of Mandy and her friends from the high school splashing in the water of the pool, while her mother and I sit back and watch them, then we get up to serve sodas and sandwiches. "I'm not thinking too well lately," I say. "Or maybe it's just the wine."
She stretches, her arms extended fully like a cat's legs when it's getting up from a nap, and the cotton blouse rides back up over her shoulders, then goes back into position when her arms are down. "I feel . . . delicious," she says. "The water felt really good earlier. I'd love a swim."
I look at the water. The surface is calm, broken only by the slight breeze blowing over the wooden privacy fence. "It's too bad you don't have a suit," I say. "And besides, you should never swim on a full stomach."
"I wouldn't worry, David. You're here."
Before I can answer, she's standing up, and she walks to the edge of the pool. "You keep the pool really clean," she says. "It's a lot of work, isn't it?"
"I suppose," I say. "I keep it clean in case my daughter wants to come by and swim."
Her shoes, white docksiders, are already off and lying by her chair; she dips one foot into the water, swishing it back and forth, and hugs herself, as if she's cold. She looks back toward me. "It feels wonderful," she says. She turns around again and stands for a moment moving her foot back and forth in the water.
"You could come here and use the pool this summer," I say.
"Maybe I'll do that," she says. "If you think it's okay, that is." She at me again and smiles, then she reaches down and unbuttons her cutoffs and pushes them down and steps out of them. She throws them toward me, and they land on the far side of the chair she's been using. I sit and watch, unable to say anything as she pulls the blouse over her head and throws it at me. She sits on the edge of the pool with her legs in the water and pulls off her blue panties, then she slides off into the water. It's the shallow end, and the water comes up to just above her navel. Her breasts are small, and her nipples are erect. "Put these with my things, please?" she says, and throws the panties. They land halfway between the pool and my chair. I go and pick them up and hold them, stand there watching her as she sinks into the water. Her hair trails off behind in a fluid mass, like a Portuguese man-o'-war. She reaches back and does something to it, and then her ponytail is gone and the hair spreads out across the water as she sinks deeper, until the water is at her lower lip. "I'm going to do some laps," she says. "Wait for me, huh?"
I sit down again and pick up my glass. It's empty, and I look into it for a moment, contemplating whether I want more. Monica's body cuts the water in smooth strokes, her hair flying straight out behind her. She makes three laps, then reaches the opposite end and stops, resting her arms on the edge. "Would you like for me to stay here tonight?" she says to the wooden fence in front of her. Her voice seems larger in the enclosed yard, as if it were a small room.
"That wouldn't be a very good idea," I say, and I wonder whether she can hear me. My voice sounds small and tense.
"I like you, David. I wanted you to ask me out months ago."
"And I like you, too, Monica. But it wouldn't be right, you see. I'm a professor. You might take another of my classes sometime."
She turns and swims back, then hoists herself up to the edge. She sits and draws her legs up and puts her arms around them. "I won't. I don't need any more history." She begins to wring out her wet hair. "Could you bring me a towel? I'm getting cold."
I get a large bath towel from the bathroom cabinet and go back. She's lying back in the lounge chair, watching the cat as she stands poised at the edge of the pool, looking into the water. The cat dips a paw into the water, then takes it out and shakes the water off. She begins to lick at the paw and bathe her face. Monica is rubbing the rim of her wineglass with a finger, and the glass gives off a high-pitched sound. She dampens the finger and tries again, but nothing happens. I hand her the towel, and she turns, putting her legs over the side of the chair. She sits up and starts drying her hair, flattening the hair between layers of the towel and pulling it down to the end. "Sit down, David," she says. "I'll be dry in a minute. Then we can go inside."
I sit and watch her; the cat comes over and starts rubbing on my leg. I reach down to pet her, and she rubs her head against my hand. She's purring. She enjoys what I'm doing, but then she seems to get bored and goes off into the house. "This isn't a good idea at all, Monica," I say.
She stops drying her hair and holds the towel up by a corner in front of her. "Come dry my back, David?"
I begin to stand, but hesitate. In the light from the pool her skin is darker, and its dampness shines like polished marble. "I haven't been near a woman in months, Monica. I think I'm afraid of you."
"Are you worried that someone will accuse you of sleeping with a student to change a grade, David? Do you think this is about a silly grade?"
I don't want to admit my thoughts; Monica should have been an "A" student, but her attendance was spotty during the last two months of the semester. "No, of course not," I say. "I'm just nervous is all. You're a lot younger than I am." She holds the towel against her chest, patting herself dry, but the warm air has nearly done the job for her. "I'm just confused, is all," I say.
She stands and holds out her hand. "Don't be. Let's go inside." She leads me into the house, and inside the door I stop long enough to turn off the pool lights.
I'm nervous when we get to the bedroom; Monica turns off the lights and turns down the sheets I placed so carefully on the bed, and then I lie down while she undresses me. When she guides me into her I seem inept, like a frightened teenager, but Monica knows what to do. Afterwards, when Monica is asleep, I lie awake listening to her, and to the cat playing with the catnip mouse I bought after I got her from the shelter. Monica stirs, and I feel her looking at me in the darkness. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"
I kiss her forehead in much the same way I would kiss my daughter. "It was nice," I say.
She puts her arms around me and draws me close. "You're a nice person, David. I like you a lot." She burrows her head into my chest and scratches my back lightly with her nails. I try to remember if they are polished or plain. "And don't worry about my grade in your class," she says. "If you want to change it that's okay."
We lie there until she goes to sleep, and in the early morning I get up and take the cordless phone out to the pool and sit there watching the rectangular blackness of it. I feel the cat rubbing against my leg, and then she's gone, and I hear a soft splash and then the rhythmic churning of her feet as she swims. When it's light enough to see the buttons on the phone I dial Mandy's number at her mother's house, the house the three of us shared until a few months ago. When she comes on the line I say her name over and over, perhaps a dozen times until she's awake, and I say, "Mandy, thanks for being concerned about me. I'll be all right. Everything will be all right." She says something in return, and her voice sounds worried, though I can't make out the words exactly. I want to understand what it is she's saying, as if knowing this is the most important thing in my life, and I listen, trying to comprehend what is wrong with me.