“So. What’s on your mind?”
Anthony’s shrink looks a little bit like one he’d seen on HBO, except it’s harder to get a good look up this one’s skirt. They are half a mile from Federal Hill, where the old restaurants don’t have windows in the dining room.
“You must have some wiseguy patients.”
“You’re not the first to wonder about that.”
She smiled, without any teeth but with plenty of lipstick; looking out at him over her glasses, which Anthony couldn’t be sure were real. Women are always wearing at least one thing that’s only there so that you can imagine what they might look like as they’re taking it off.
“Tell me why you’re here.”
“I have an appointment.”
“Of course. And you have an appointment for a reason, yes?”
“Yes. No one remembers me.”
“Tell me about that.”
“No one remembers meeting me. I go to a party, or a work function, and talk to someone for an hour and the next time I see the same person they have no idea who I am.”
“So you feel like you’re not making an impact socially?”
“It’s a bit further than just that.”
“In what sense?”
“In the sense that this is my third appointment with you.”
She does not lose her composure.
“And we had this same conversation last week.”
Something comes over her face and leaves just as quickly.
“And the week before.
“I’d like to help you. Anthony.”
“How can you help me if you’ll never know who I am?”
It was a rhetorical question.
On his way out, he snatched up a back issue of The Atlantic Monthly from the magazine table in the waiting room. He opened it to a random page and began reading the words aloud; through the hallway, down the elevator, out into South Main Street for three-and-a-half blocks until he reached his car. Then he sat down on the hood and read some more until a security officer from one of the government buildings politely asked him to keep it down. So he slid into the driver’s seat, and making sure the windows were shut tight, he kept on reading for a while longer until he came across a story that interested him enough to read it silently to himself. It was about a peace-loving tribe of chimpanzees in the Congo. Theirs is a matriarchal society that uses sex in place of aggression to resolve conflicts, and there has never been a recorded homicide within the tribe. Genetically speaking, they are 98% identical to humans. Which really isn’t such a big deal, if you know anything about genetics, or humans. European logging companies have built roads deep into the jungle because tropical wood is considered something of a delicacy within the industry. Naturally, this throws off the ecological balance of the bonobo’s habitat and many are not surviving. Even if they could, the new roads give access to ruthless bushmeat hunters in the outlying areas. So, in ten years or so, these delicate, sexually voracious creatures will likely be extinct.
Clara, their daughter, wasn’t old enough yet for anyone to know if her father would always be a stranger. He and Janine would have to wait a little longer to see. The pre-verbal years were a steady installment of worries, worries allayed, and new worries in their place.
—Does she have an extra chromosome?
—Does she have enough chromosomes?
—Does she have arms and legs?
—Does she have too many toes?
—Can she feel pain? (Reye’s syndrome; rare)
—Is she too sensitive?
—Is she ugly?
—Is she too pretty?
—Will she get into preschool?
—Will she get molested at preschool?
—Can we afford a nanny?
—Will the nanny turn out to be like Rebecca DeMornay in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle?
—How will it work if this thing doesn’t go away?
He’d played out some of the scenes in his head already: Janine asks him to pick Clara up from kindergarten because her highlights are taking an extraordinarily long time to set. The usually malleable Clara is indignant that he satisfactorily identify himself; she’s spent the afternoon listening to lectures about The Danger of Strangers. Particularly the kind of strangers who stand at the edge of schoolyards and tell five-year-old girls to get inside their car: “You’re not my Daddy!”
A few years down the road; Clara is old enough let herself into the house. There’s a bomb threat at school and they’ve let everyone go while the FBI combs the premises. Mom’s out getting her nails done, and Clara finds Anthony in his office working on his memoir. There is screeching and diving for a kitchen knife; she calls 911. How do you tell a local police officer that your 11 year old daughter has no idea who you are?
Of course, there was always the chance that it wouldn’t be an issue. It could go away; but even if it didn’t, maybe Clara would turn out like her mother. Janine always knew who he was. And so did most everyone who knew him “Before”. Maybe he was one of the really important things that are supposed to be in breast milk. Every time he thinks about this, he thinks about the pro-life people and why they say it’s wrong to kill unborn children.
Clara was named after a supporting character in the book Heidi, about an orphaned German girl with pigtails who lives with her crotchety old granddad and does good deeds. Clara was Heidi’s best friend — her only friend, really — and she was in a wheelchair because of some congenital defect. Probably myalgic encephalopathy; Anthony couldn’t remember for sure. Janine didn’t know the part about the wheelchair. He just told her Clara meant “bright light”. And it does. And so do about one-third of the popular girl names in America, according to any of those name-meaning books.
Anthony had read a study about how good-looking couples are likely to have girls as their firstborn child. So when they found out that’s what they were having, Anthony was flattered. Janine was a knockout; anybody could see that. But he had never thought of himself as particularly good-looking. Smart, sure. Janine told her friends from Sarah Lawrence that she’d married him for his mind. But they didn’t believe her.
It was never a perfect marriage, but there was never a good enough reason for either of them to leave. Anthony felt a bit like the leather club chair Janine had bought on impulse at a fire sale, soon after they moved into their East Side apartment. She needed something to sit on, and it was right there in the window, at 40% off. Why keep looking?
The thing that happened to him happened quite suddenly; and naturally, he was the first to notice. In the beginning, before Janine believed him, it was almost fun: He’d drag her around the Providence Place mall, visiting and re-visiting sales clerks with memorable requests like solar-powered toilet brushes and bicycle helmets built for two. Eventually she couldn’t deny it any longer. She tried to make him feel better; she told him she’d always wanted an imaginary friend.
As soon as Clara was old enough to recognize faces, Anthony would keep vigil by her crib while she slept: She’d barely have opened her eyes when he’d shove his face a half an inch away from hers, chanting “Who’s your Daddy? Who’s your Daddy?” over and over again until she grinned and gurgled. Eventually Janine made him stop; so he started putting photographs of himself wherever he knew Clara would see them: He stapled his face to a parakeet on her Fisher Price Rainforest Musical Mobile and Scotch-taped his image to the pages of Goodnight Moon.
Janine starting telling people that Anthony had left her. She said he couldn’t handle the responsibility of being a father and that he was jealous of the attention she gave the baby. The other moms told her that she was better off, and volunteered to set her up on dates with eligible men who knew a good thing when they saw it; a pretty girl like her. Janine filled out the role of jilted wife with a relish Anthony had scarcely seen in her before. She’d spend hours a day on the phone with new friends, inventing underage mistresses and a prescription drug habit and embarrassing performance issues. When he realized how much fun she was having, and how easy it was and how it made so much more sense than any other explanation, he realized what he was going to have to do. Eventually. But he’d wait a little while longer. After all, he could always re-appear tomorrow. He could wake up any day now and everything could go right back to normal. He’d just give it a little more time.