Four years ago this summer, I met an exotic dancer named Isabelle, whose stage name was Anna and who received mail addressed to Cynthia. She smelled like jasmine and loved to eat French fries. A tribal tattoo stretched across her lower back, all black and gray with sharp edges. Another tattoo, in the shape of a cross, adorned her shoulder. The names of her son and his father were stenciled inside the religious symbol. “He went to jail right after our son was born.” She said it like he used prison as an escape from responsibility.
We saw each other for six months and never talked about the future. Time spent with Isabelle consisted solely of the moments we inhabited together. I used our arrangement as an escape. My soon-to-be fiancée, Mary, never suspected a thing. “I don’t care that you love somebody else,” Isabelle said, more than once. Her apathy intrigued me.
Our clandestine relationship ended when Isabelle got pregnant and I gave her money for an abortion. We never spoke again.
Three years ago this summer, I emptied my bank account—five thousand one hundred and sixteen dollars—and used the money to buy Mary the most beautiful ring I could afford.
“Look at this,” the jeweler said. He handed me his conical magnifying glass and placed a diamond in front of my magnified vision. “This diamond has a flaw, towards the bottom of the stone,” he said.
I squinted and convinced myself that there was the merest cloud somewhere deep in the diamond’s core.
“If it weren’t for that flaw, this diamond would be worth twice as much,” he said. “And by the time I’m done with the setting, it will be impossible to notice. Unless you already know it’s there.”
Two years ago this summer, Mary and I got married. Our mothers cried. Her father never looked at me when he handed off his only child. My father wasn’t at the wedding. He died when I was eight years old, just when I started Little League. My father reused garbage bags and let the car coast in neutral on any downhill slope. He worked six days a week and dropped dead of a heart attack on a Sunday.
One year ago this summer, Mary gave birth to our daughter, Emily. To celebrate the occasion, I bought Mary a diamond necklace—three hearts intertwined—to match her engagement ring. The first night home from the hospital, I placed the necklace around Mary’s neck, while we watched Emily sleep. “Oh, my god, it’s perfect.” Her eyes twinkled with tears, matching the brilliance of the necklace.
Today, Mary and I brought Emily to church with us because that’s what people do. We expose our children to the same rituals and routines that we know without much thought for the alternatives. I doubt we will make the gospel before Emily starts wailing. For now, she is fascinated with the stained glass windows depicting the twelfth Station of the Cross: Jesus Dies on the Cross. I read the accompanying inscription: Jesus surrenders his last breath. “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” The church organ signals the start of Mass. My daughter rests her head on my shoulder.
Rocking my sleeping daughter, I am reminded that next week is Father’s Day. And I don’t know why I’ve never considered this before, but I wonder that maybe this really won’t be my first Father’s Day as a dad. Could Isabelle have had a child, our child, my child, and not told me? The only thing I knew for sure about Isabelle was that I really knew nothing about her, not even her name. As the congregation recites the Lord’s Prayer, Emily begins to stir.
The following morning, while driving to work, I take a detour. The towns change progressively. The paint on the buildings gets older, more flaked. The fences list and sag. I arrive in a familiar neighborhood, on a familiar street. The apartment building where Isabelle used to live seems in disrepair. On impulse, I get out of my car. The name on Isabelle’s apartment has changed, but I ring the buzzer anyway. And then I see a little girl, walking down the street, holding a balloon in her right hand while her left holds the hand of a man about my age. My heart thumps as they approach the building. A voice from the intercom startles me. “Who?” the female voice asks. Whether it is Isabelle’s voice, I don’t know. It could be. Instead of answering, I shove my hands in my pocket and hurry for the car. On the drive home, I take another detour, this time to the jewelry store.
Grant Hettrick lives in New Jersey with his wife and two children. He spends an inordinate amount of time playing Words with Friends on his Kindle Fire.