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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.