New York Fall
The flight had been a noisy, arid cross-country red-eye. I brushed my teeth and hair in the dim bathroom while Marcus waited in line for the rental car. Then we joined the slog out of the city. The first leg heading upstate was a tedious crawl. Marcus closed his eyes each time he braked, drowsing for a brief moment whenever the car wasn’t moving. This made me nervous, and I was already anxious, just a few hours from meeting his children for the first time.
“Want me to drive?” I offered.
He looked over, smiled, and squeezed my knee. “I’m exhausted.”
“I can tell.”
He pulled into the next rest area and we switched seats. Within moments of reentering the interstate, his head was thrown back, his mouth open, his breathing a steady slow rhythm.
“You can’t really sleep, because I have no idea where I’m going,” I said.
He gestured before us with a double flick of two fingers. Onward. And with that, he was out.
I stayed on the same route, hoping I wasn’t lost. The industrial structures of the city receded, replaced by trees thick with changing leaves, the beauty of New York fall, a season we didn’t have in California.
Marcus woke, briefly, just in time to tell me to take the next junction, as if his body had memorized the topography of the route upstate, every bend in the highway, and knew just when I’d need him. For all the times he’d made this very trek, perhaps it had.
I nudged him after another stretch of sluggish traffic, when the signs he’d warned me to look for started appearing: Fishkill, Plattekill, Spackenkill, Fallkill.
“What’s with the ‘kill’ places, anyway?”
“It’s Dutch. Means stream,” he said without opening his eyes. “We’re getting close.”
My stomach tightened. I was stiff from flying and driving, ready to be out of the car, to properly clean up and rest in our hotel room, but I wasn’t ready to be in the same town as his ex-wife and two kids. I thought I was ready, after seven months together, to know everything about him, but the intensity of our early romance seemed casual in comparison to the leap coming. The term “step-mother” loomed before me and I swept it aside. We were a good match, our twelve-year age difference never an issue, our views on the world in perfect sync. But he had a past, and this was the first time I’d had to address it. Accept it, if I wanted to continue seeing him.
At our hotel, Marcus negotiated for the first shower. He’d clean up, go get his kids, and by the time he’d made it back with them, I’d be done getting ready.
“In other words, your ex won’t like seeing me with you?” I’d heard his half of phone calls with her, knew she was a bundle of rage, still railing against him three years after the divorce.
He smiled and shrugged, unapologetic. “Pick-ups are dramatic enough without adding fuel to the fire.”
As he gathered his coat and keys, a new thought dawned on me.
“You told your kids though, right? They know I’m here?”
He smiled, all boyish charm, his left dimple on display, his blue eyes twinkling. “I told them I was bringing a friend, yes.”
“Friend?” I gestured around the hotel room, with its one bed, which they would be seeing in a half hour.
“They’re practically teenagers. They know what that means.” He kissed me and left. My agitation and I took a scalding shower, racing to get ready before they returned. A half hour later, there was no sign of him. He’d warned me that sometimes she refused to honor his visitations. Sometimes he had to show up with his lawyer, once even with the police, to insist that she allow the kids out of the house. I settled on the bed with my book, trying not to worry about it.
I awoke to the sound of the door opening, unable to place my surroundings. A beige hotel suite, a tacky blue bedspread beneath me, a novel on my lap, and Marcus’ smiling face peeking in the door.
“Decent?” he asked. Behind him I could see two tall blond children. I held up my book as if to throw it at him, and he laughed. “All clear,” he announced over his shoulder.
The children were not children. I’d been having visions of park outings, singalongs, story time at night. I knew their ages, 11 and 13, but I’d expected younger, for no particular reason. They stood before me, both as tall as me, and looked around the room, unimpressed.
“Where’s the remote?” his son asked.
“I think you mean, ‘hello, it’s nice to meet you,’” Marcus said. I held up my hand to stop him. My parents had divorced when I was 8, the same age this boy had been when Marcus packed up and left their childhood home. After that, I’d made every new girlfriend or boyfriend of my parents earn my trust. It seemed fair that I’d receive the same treatment.
The boy, gangly awkwardness with messy hair, turned to me with exaggerated attention. “Hello. Nice to meet you. Where’s the remote?”
I shrugged and pointed toward the armoire hiding the TV. “Maybe with the TV?”
“Duh,” his sister said. He turned and feigned hitting her, and she ducked dramatically. “Dad!” she yelled, although she had not been touched.
Marcus sighed, rolled his eyes, and put his arm around my shoulders. “Welcome to my life.” It weighed more than usual, his arm, pressing me down into the unwieldy moment.
“I’m Deanna,” I said to no one in particular.
“This is Kurt, and this is Rachel,” Marcus said.
Rachel slid her eyes toward me, the same sapphire as her father’s, but set off by rosebud lips, flushed cheeks, a heart-shaped face. She was breathtaking. She gave a half-wave and I tried not to stare. As I looked from her to Marcus and failed to see a strong resemblance, I had to wonder, was Marcus’ ex that beautiful?
Kurt battled the remote, unable to get off the hotel menu to the TV channels, smacking the device repeatedly on his knee in frustration. I held out my hand and he slapped the remote into it. I switched to a random TV channel, which happened to be showing Pirates of the Caribbean.
“Cool,” he said, settling down to watch some swashbuckling.
Marcus laughed. “Just like that, you’re in.” But I knew from experience that it wouldn’t be so easy.
Following one hour of allotted TV time, the kids spent two hours doing homework in the room, as their mother had instructed. Marcus bristled at the fact that they hadn’t done it the night before, whispering to me that his ex frequently sabotaged his time with the kids that way.
Marcus was a methodical, in-control programmer. I wasn’t used to seeing him at odds with his situation. I was charmed by his fallibility, relieved to see he wasn’t as perfect as he often appeared.
I read my book, Marcus worked on his laptop, and the quiet hours slid by to the sounds of rustling papers and dramatic sighs of kids forced to do homework on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
After that, we took a driving tour of the area. The kids wanted to show me their schools: their classrooms, where they ate lunch, where they had PE. Marcus asked questions about their studies and sports, and got back detailed answers about their friends and enemies. They were quintessential teenagers. I was awash in nostalgia for my own simpler days, before juggling student loans and grad school applications with my mother’s new heart condition and the demands of a glorified secretarial job that I’d grown to resent.
We settled on an early dinner at Denny’s. Or rather the kids did, and Marcus agreed without asking what I thought. The kids ate chocolate chip pancakes with strawberry milkshakes and I had to hide a smile at the memories it brought back, at how my brother and I had manipulated our own post-divorce father into feeding us nothing but sugar.
We debated possible movies. Marcus lobbied for a sci-fi picture despite Rachel announcing that robots gave Kurt nightmares. Kurt wanted the latest Pixar film. Rachel wanted a teen romance. The group looked to me for the tie-breaker. I finished my text message to my brother about the sugar rush down memory lane, then took an unnecessarily long sip of my diet Coke.
“I’m no help. I’d prefer the new vampire movie.”
“Me too!” Rachel yelled, sliding toward me on the booth bench. Marcus nixed it, as too bloody for Kurt. Rachel sighed with annoyance, then asked to see my play lists on my phone.
“Do you have a lot of games?” Kurt asked.
“No, but she has awesome music!” Rachel said. She looked me over with appreciation. Maybe she didn’t realize that I was only a decade older than her.
By the end of dinner Rachel and I had discovered a similar taste in movies, music, and books. When I told her I’d seen American Idiot back in Berkeley, on its pre-Broadway run, she slammed her fist dramatically against the table.
“Dad! That’s the Green Day show I wanted to see!”
Marcus looked at me, opened his mouth to say something, and I shook my head. Too much drugs, sex, and darkness, I thought, for such a sweet girl. Marcus nodded, looking out the window.
“Okay, so the sci fi movie then?” he announced.
His kids moaned in unison. One thing about Marcus, he always got his way. The movie was a special-effects bonanza with no plot and cardboard characters. Kurt spent the entire picture hiding behind his hands. There were robots everywhere.
Back in the room, Marcus folded out the couch into a bed for the kids.
“No way,” Rachel said. “I’m too old to share a bed with my baby brother.”
“Rachel, don’t be so dramatic,” Marcus snapped, throwing two pillows onto the bed. I pulled him aside.
“I wouldn’t have shared with my brother at thirteen. She might share with me, though. And you with Kurt.”
“No,” he said flatly. “She’s getting to be a sassy spoiled brat. Her mother’s doing. I won’t have it.”
“She’s thirteen. For thirteen she’s an angel.”
Marcus eyed me, unused to my challenging him, then gave a one-shouldered shrug. He called the front desk for a cot for Kurt. We settled down for the night, three beds crammed into a space that barely fit one. I resigned myself to not be getting up in the night for the bathroom, as the only path there involved crawling over Kurt.
As soon as I slid between the chilly starched sheets, my body started slipping toward sleep. I’d been up for thirty-four hours, not counting a brief nap on the plane. Marcus threw his leg over me and kissed my neck. I pushed him away.
“Don’t worry. They’re asleep,” he whispered. His hands found their way under my shirt.
“Goodnight,” I whispered back. I pushed his hands away. He tugged me closer.
“Goodnight,” Kurt said.
“Goodnight!” Rachel sang.
I elbowed Marcus and rolled away from him. I was jarred awake by a shriek in the dark. I sat up, with no idea where I was. It was quiet, cold, dark, and I had to pee. I scooted to the end of the bed, only remembering Kurt when I ended up on his legs.
“Oh, Kurt! Sorry.”
“I’m awake,” he whined. “That stupid movie.”
So, he was the one who shrieked, having a nightmare about the robots, as promised by Rachel. I scowled at Marcus’ snoring figure.
“Can I get you something? Water?”
“I’m kinda hungry,” he said. Growing boys were bottomless pits. My brother could eat a full dinner then chase it with two sandwiches back when he was Kurt’s age. I pulled a bag of trail mix from my carry-on bag and watched Kurt shovel handfuls into his mouth in the dimness. He finished, handed it back. “Now water?” I gave him a cup and he slammed it. “Okay. Goodnight,” he said, laying back down.
Within moments he was back asleep. I sat on the edge of the bed, watching him. It wasn’t easy, this new role as a father’s girlfriend, but it came more naturally than I’d expected. Who wouldn’t want to befriend these kids, who reminded me so much of my brother and I at the same age?
The next day we went to Roosevelt’s mansion, which Marcus thought was an important history lesson. It was a beautiful collection of grand antiques, so the kids were antsy with boredom, racing to get through it so that we could move on to something else. We finished the tour and stood on the lawn out back, on the bank of the gray Hudson River, braced against a chilly wind.
“The Vanderbilt mansion’s not too far from here,” Marcus said. His kids grumbled.
“What would you like to do?” I asked them. They looked at me with surprise, as if unused to the question. Being Marcus’ kids, it was possible they weren’t. He was a leader, not a follower.
“Swim at the hotel pool,” Kurt said. Rachel was quick to agree.
“No way. We didn’t bring suits, and your mom didn’t pack yours,” Marcus said.
Rachel sulked. Kurt kicked the ground until he’d knocked a few clods of grass free.
“Actually, I did bring mine,” I confessed. “Hotel frequently means hot tub, and I hate to travel unprepared.”
“You can buy one at the gift shop. And we’ll just stop by home to get ours!” Rachel cheered. Marcus gave me a flat look, unreadable. Usually he was an open book.
We stopped outside the house, an unremarkable brown ranch in a row of similar homes, not the spacious Victorian I’d expected from Marcus’ complaints about the beautiful home he’d lost in the divorce. Marcus sent Rachel in to fetch the suits. A moment later she emerged, her mother in tow, the woman’s tiny frame dwarfed by a huge hooded coat.
“He’s not a good swimmer, you know!” she yelled at Marcus through the windshield. Marcus waved his hands as if to say: I know, I know. His ex ducked and hurried back into the house. I didn’t get a good look at her, and the moment passed peacefully enough, but I was rattled, left with a sense of having been accosted.
“She wanted to check you out,” Marcus whispered to me before putting the car in gear.
Marcus and Rachel swam laps in the muggy indoor pool, racing each other. She shared his athleticism and competitive streak. Kurt was happy to simmer in the hot tub with me. When I got overheated I slid out, my legs dangling in the water. I noticed Kurt staring at my legs, mouth open. Later I mentioned it to Marcus, asked if he’d ever had the talk with Kurt. He waved me off.
“He’s too young. Legs are just legs to him.”
Later, as we took turns ducking into the bathroom to get ready for dinner, I sat next to Kurt.
“So, do you like any girls?” I asked.
He laughed, a nervous whinny, and looked at Rachel. “Shut up.”
Rachel stuck her tongue at him. “Claire Hudgins.”
“Shut up!” He threw a pillow at her and she laughed as she caught it.
“How about you?” I asked her, to keep it fair. “Any boys you like?”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “Boys are stupid.”
I nodded. “Yes, especially at thirteen. But they get smarter as they get older. Hang in there.”
After my shower, I stepped out of the steamy bathroom and into a fight. Kurt wanted pizza for dinner, but Rachel had some sort of aversion to cheese, and Marcus wanted a steak house. Again, they looked to me to make the call.
“Anything but Denny’s,” I said. “But I’m not sure I can eat at a steak house.”
“Why?” Rachel asked.
“I’m a vegetarian.”
“Really? That’s so cool! You’re such a Californian, huh? I’d love to be a vegetarian.”
Marcus narrowed his eyes and picked up his keys. I could just imagine how thrilled the hostile ex would be if her daughter came home wanting to be a vegetarian just like her father’s new young girlfriend. After all, that’s how I’d become one, and my mother was still pissed about it.
“So, I guess it’s pizza,” Marcus said. I looked at Rachel, watched her mouth drop open in slow motion.
“But she doesn’t eat cheese,” I said.
“Thank you,” Rachel snapped.
“Well what the hell do you expect me to do? Drive to four different places for everyone?”
“That’d be awesome!” Kurt said.
“What about Italian?” I suggested. “You can get meat, Rachel and I can get pasta, Kurt can get pizza.”
As we settled at Olive Garden, the kids were hyper and chatty, wanting to know all about growing up in California, but Marcus was unusually quiet. He ordered a beer, finished it, ordered another one. The kids tracked his every sip. Kurt wadded up some bits of napkin and tossed them in the general direction of the beer, eventually making a few shots into the frosted mug.
“Dammit Kurt!” Marcus snapped. He snatched the beer off the table and headed off. I watched him go, sinking into the tension of the moment.
“Are you guys upset that I’m here?” I asked.
“No,” Rachel said. She and Kurt eyed each other sullenly. “Why do grown-ups drink?”
The question caught me off-guard. I reviewed my time with Marcus, but couldn’t think of a single incident of him being out of control drinking, or even drunk.
“My dad used to drink too much,” I said. “Does your dad sometimes do that, too?” I waited them out patiently. Thirteen wasn’t that long ago for me.
“Our mom,” Kurt said, and I heard the dull thud of his sister kicking him under the table.
“It’s okay,” I said. “All secrets are safe with me.”
Rachel shredded her napkin, making little balls, ammo for the next attack.
“She’s better now, but…” she whispered. She stirred her soup, selected a bread stick, shredded it into a heap of crumbs on the soup.
Marcus didn’t return, so I excused myself to the rest room and set off in search of him. I found him at the bar, sitting before something stronger than beer.
“They’re upset about the drinking,” I said. “You should talk to them about it, rather than storming off.”
“I know what they’re upset about. They’re my kids.” He stared at the mirrored row of bottles before him and sipped his drink.
I returned to the table and did my best to entertain the kids with tales of a California childhood. Just as we finished picking at our dinners, Marcus returned to pay the bill. I insisted on driving, and he held out the keys to me without making eye contact. Rachel directed me to her house, and in the driveway she climbed out without ceremony. The kids disappeared into the night with barely a goodbye.
Marcus set up the GPS, and I let the authoritarian British lady’s voice direct me back to the airport while he gazed out the window.
“Is it hard leaving them each time?” I asked.
“It is what it is,” he said. I watched the red and gold trees disappear from the stroke of our headlights, before the well-lit brick tenements took over the landscape.
“It’s never long enough to really reconnect before they go back to her,” he said.
“It’ll get better as they get older.”
“It did with my dad.”
He rested his hand on my knee, gave it a little squeeze.
We settled into our seats, ready for another long red-eye flight home. Marcus dozed as we climbed in altitude, leaving behind New York, his kids, his past. I watched him rest, head back, mouth open, typical Marcus. Except that he wasn’t just my Marcus anymore. He was a father to two kids who needed him more than forty-eight hours a month.
“Maybe we should move here,” I said. “I could just as easily go to grad school in New York.”
His eyes popped open. “Seriously? I don’t think you could survive it. They have winter here. You know what winter is?”
“Yes, I know what winter is. They need their father.”
“No,” he laughed. “You know what a ski trip is. Living in snow is a different matter. It’s not for you.” He patted my knee, squeezed it gently. “My little California girl.”
He tipped his head back, slid off to sleep. I pushed his hand off my knee.
Cassandra Dunn was a Glimmer Train Short Story Award finalist, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award semifinalist, and Clapboard House’s Best of the House finalist. She’s published 11 short stories. She is represented by Harvey Klinger. Her debut novel, The Art of Adapting, is forthcoming July 2014 from Touchstone/Simon & Schuster. Her website is cassandradunn.com.