When I was younger, someone showed me a video game—too weird for me, but it made her laugh, and she was pretty. You played as this little guy with a squishy hammer for a head, and you rolled a sticky ball around in front of you. As you rolled it, things got stuck until the ball was gigantic. And then... I don't know. I don't remember the point of the game, nor do I remember the name.
But that image comes back to me every time I am anxious. I am that little person running around, pushing a ball, and things stick to it. Only they aren't cows or trees or parts of buildings: they are things that make me nervous. The attention of people. My sparse resume. The way I can never look someone in the eye when we first meet.
Oh. And I don't have a squishy hammer for a head.
Regardless, today is like that. I've talked to too many people and some weird man had told me he was my father and my mother was on the back of a book with a different name but the same damn face.
While I was walking home, I think I stopped somewhere and leaned against a building until I got my breath back, but I don't really remember. I remember walking past a store window and seeing tear tracks on my face, so maybe it did happen.
At some point after my mother left, my father sold the house, and we moved into a nice apartment. It has a door with a guard and everything, but I do not go in through the front door. I climb the fire escape to get to my room through my father's window because he always leaves it unlocked.
I glance around my father's room, glad for the first time that he had removed all of the pictures of my mother. Could I even call him my father anymore?
Another thing to add to my ball: why am I so willing to believe that strange man? He had no evidence; he didn't look like me. He didn't look like the kind of man my mother would be interested in, either; he was muscular and tattooed, with dark circles under his eyes.
No. I do not believe it.
And yet the thought is still... there. Still digging into my heart, like a potato with a beetle larva in the center.
I go to my bedroom. I like my bedroom. Everything is laid out in straight lines. The desk is always clean; my bed is always made, as though I were the one who spent time in the military and not the man who raised me. I do not wish to muss this perfection, so I sit on the floor instead. I run my fingers over the lush area rug—laid parallel to the grain of the hardwood floor, of course—but it does not soothe me.
I press my hands to my forehead instead. I should talk to my father, but I cannot summon up words; every time I try to think, I just see that damn squishy-headed kid.
When I manage to leave my room, my father is waiting for me. He is in the living room, not his study, and though a book is on his lap, it is not open. "Annie—" he starts, a scream half-cut off.
He gets to his feet. I stand in the doorway, one hand clutching the opposite arm so hard I am leaving nailprints in my skin.
"Where have you been, young lady? You got off work three hours ago!" My father swallows and presses his hand to his temple. "Why didn't you answer my calls?"
I close my eyes. "You know I can't answer the phone." The "father" I would have inserted into that sentence any other day remains heavy in my throat.
My father swallows again. He knows that, too. He has never blamed me; I have never seen the wish for a less awkward daughter in his eyes. "...I texted you, too, sweetheart." He clears his throat. "I'm sorry. You—you aren't a child anymore. It's just... not like you."
My mouth twitches. I do not often laugh, but the idea of me changing a routine is certainly funny. Lord knows I would not have otherwise. "It isn't. I'm sorry." "Father" is beginning to pile up in my throat, like snow drifts that block a door.
My father lets out a deep breath and sits back down. "There. That's all right. Were you just... working late?"
I appreciate that he, like me, likes order. He likes sense, this man, and straight lines and routine and all the other things that make me happy. If I had to choose a father, I would choose him. Wouldn't I?
I shake my head. The truth is there, in my head, but I can't say it. "...No. I—I met someone, that's all. I had dinner at a friend's house, and it went late."
The last of the tension leaves his shoulders, and he smiles. This is the smile that matters more than a thousand stares, a thousand comments of she's weird or I don't like her. Then he blinks. "Annie? Annie, what's the matter?"
I touch my face, the way I must have when I was crying on the street, and find tears there again.
It comes out in fits and starts; my voice shakes, and my mind is too scattered to create a story that makes sense. I start in the right place—with my unwrapped toffee and the sun in my eyes and a man who looks like he doesn't belong—but then I'm on the roof, and someone is trying to talk me away from the edge even though I'm not going to jump.
And I'm still crying, because I don't know what to do anymore.
When I can see my father's face again—and it takes a while—he has one hand pressed over his eyes, and he is very pale. Has this emptied him out, too?
My father drags his hand over his face and drops it to his lap. "Come over here and sit down, Annie."
I obey, because my legs are weak from standing anyway, and pull my knees up to my chest. I want to find serenity somewhere in my heart.
"She never meant it to get back to you. Your mother, I mean." My father talks the way I was talking—with no mind to an audience. Just… words marching out of him. How long has he been keeping this secret? How long could I have known the truth about myself?
He clears his throat. "I knew she was having an affair for… a while. When you were born, I thought that—that you were mine. Biologically. You know what I mean. But having you was—hard on your mother. She was depressed for a long time, but she avoided me. I didn't think there was anything I could do, because she—she never listened to me." Every time he mentions her, his face twitches. Not pleasantly.
I run my hand along the line of my skirt and ask the question anyway. "Why did you get married in the first place?"
My father's mouth jerks—like a seizure. "Her parents wanted it. My parents wanted it. I was—" He shakes his head. "You were so young when she left. You don't remember what she was like—she just had this pull. So I said yes when she asked, and then you were born, and—"
Is explaining the dissolution of their relationship as hard as it is to hear it?
He straightens, as though he's trying to take command of the situation. "Anyway. Like I said, I knew she was having an affair. When you were six, she… she had a miscarriage. I knew it wasn't mine, but I didn't say anything about it. Still, I—I assume that's why she left."
I blink. "You mean she didn't tell you?" My father looks at me, his brows together; I rub my collarbones. "She talked to me before she left." I haven't ever told anyone this story, but apparently today is a day for secrets. "She told me she was going to do research. And… and that she was going to come back."
My father sighs, walks over to me, and kisses me on the forehead.
I always thought he would have a secret for me. That someday he would tell me he knew all along why my mother left. I should not be surprised. It was a stupid dream.
The dilemma of the digital age: you can find anything you want, but you, too, can be found. We traded easy information for a target on our backs. I am too aware of this target: I cringe whenever I must turn to Google, and the idea of my own Facebook page makes me cringe. I am a person, not a dummy for advertisers to aim at.
Still. Some things you cannot find in an encyclopedia or microfiche. I have my perhaps-father's name, and only Google can help me find more about him. Bradley Mains.
The first image result is of a custodian—him. The second is a mug shot. I feel better about assuming he was a convict.
Not that I felt bad before. He had one of those faces. And so many tattoos.
He works at my school—well, had worked. Now he lives in a diferent city, at least judging by the third picture of him in a group of construction workers.
I stare at his face. He has a shovel over one shoulder; the other hand rests on his hip. He's smiling; he is still not a man I could imagine my standoffish, magnetic mother loving. Not a man I could imagine fathering me.
I close the browser window, disgusted. What am I even trying to achieve? He'd just… left. No plan of action, no stated goals. I am trapped at point A with no letters ahead of me.
I am not accustomed to malaise. Little but anxiety can touch me deep at the core. I press my hand to my chest and massage, as though that will make the ache in my heart go away.
On impulse, I open the browser window and go to the library website. I can't look up his history the way I had that man's, since I don't have Xuan's last name, but I want to see his face again.
He is two people to the left of me in the staff picture. Did I remember him from before? But the only imagine that comes to me is a figure turned away, shoving those heavy headphones over his ears.
He'd seemed so personable. Maybe just because I'd been so afraid.
I look at his bio. Major in physics and biology. Member of HASEAAC. Likes music—obviously—and gardening. Not much I didn't already know, but I keep looking. His hair is long in the picture, pulled back in a ponytail. And he hadn't smiled, either.
I mean to just click away, like I had before, but I can't control myself today. I open Google again and type in my mother's name—her new name, the name that kept me from ever finding her when I looked as a child. Theodora Mains.
And there she is. The most common result is the picture from the back of Xuan's book—an expression I remember all too well. Challenging. Unhappy. Maybe even angry. A single streak of gray slips through the braid that frames her face.
I am crying for the third time today.
I shove my laptop away and stand—not because I have anything in mind to do, but because I cannot bear being toyed with like this. My mother has not spoken to me in fourteen years, and yet she controls my life as certainly as if she picked my schedule for me.
I remember the point of that game now. When the ball is big enough, it turns into a star. My ball is huge, but nothing's happening.