Wrong Girl


When Don sees her in the diner, she is sitting alone, drinking a cup of coffee and reading a magazine. She doesn't look up. Still, he recognizes her instantly. Her hair is Maura's same baby-fine white blonde. Her features soft, her skin peached, her lips plump like ripe berries. She doesn't look a thing like him, with his knobbed joints, leather skin, hawk nose.

          Seeing her makes him think about Maura, something he's spent ages avoiding. Over twenty years ago—hard to believe, though he knows it's true—they met in a Laundromat on a drizzly Sunday afternoon. Maura was a college junior; he was working a construction job on campus. They sat next to each other in front of the dryers. And something happened. Maybe they were sucked in by the spiral of shirts, shorts, sheets. Maybe it was the scent of fabric softener and stain remover. Bad or good, it felt like some kind of fate. He loved her jingly laugh. Tried to tell her every funny story he could think of, just to hear it. After the Laundromat, they went to a bar he knew a few blocks away. Split a pitcher of beer, bags of clean clothes wedged underneath their barstools.

          He doesn't remember much of what they talked about or did when they lived together. Aside from age, they had little in common. She was a suburban girl studying for law school. He was a high school dropout learning construction work. He does remember the way his buddies would watch her cross a room. When she walked, her hips had a liquid sway that made her look like she was underwater. It was hypnotic.
Her parents hated the whole thing. Her father used to phone Don in the middle of the night, threaten him with nonspecific lawsuits. Her mother refused to speak to him at all. And in the end, they were right. A sexy walk could only account for so much of anyone's time.

          He and Maura had big arguments about little things. How to squeeze the toothpaste. Who left the milk out. But they went down swinging. They moved into a two-bedroom duplex just outside of town. He signed on for a full-time job with a contractor. She dropped out of college, got pregnant.

          Don was never very good with the baby. She cried whenever he came near, like she knew he wouldn't be sticking around. In the end, she was right. The marriage sputtered and failed. Maura took the baby, moved in with her parents. Finished school, got a job. Don let the whole episode fade away, allowed himself to disappear in her rearview mirror. He doesn't know much about her life after the divorce. What he does know is that his child-support checks went out to the same address every month for nearly seventeen years. And they were all cashed.

          On a rainy night, heating up some Stouffer's lasagna and listening to the heavy feet of the guy who lived in the apartment upstairs, Don found himself thinking about Rhiannon. Maura had insisted on naming the baby after that song playing on everyone's radio. At the time, Don thought it was a mistake, but he couldn't come up with any better ideas. He was sure that someday there would be a fleet of Rhiannons—younger sisters of all the Brandys that came along a few years earlier. How much fun could that be for a kid?

          On a whim, he took out the legal pad he kept next to the phone and wrote a letter to Rhiannon, care of her grandparents' address. Apologized for being out of touch. Lied a little—said he'd been thinking of her all these years, but hadn't wanted to be a bother.

          To his delight, she responded. Sent a short little handwritten note to him on mashed-looking grey paper she claimed to have made herself. Her handwriting was puffed and curvy, like it was full of helium. Looked as though she might be a lefty, same as him. She was in art school, worked part-time cashiering at a CVS. And, yes, she had wondered about him, too, but her mother would never answer her questions. On the corner of Chestnut and Miller was an old pharmacy converted into a kind of retro-diner. Could he meet her there on Wednesday for lunch?

          At the diner's counter, Don finishes up his coffee. His heart presses against his chest. He takes a deep breath to give it more space. It's time. Waving off the approaching waitress, he strides across the coffee shop, long legs eating up acres of the linoleum checkerboard. Pulls out a chair, sits down at the blonde girl's table.

          Arching one brow, he curls his mouth up slightly in the corners—the face he uses with strangers, his idea of a confident look. "Rhiannon, I presume?"

          "Huh?" The girl flattens her magazine, squints at him. "Do I know you?"

          "I'm your dad, sweetheart." He leans forward, reaches for her hand.

          "My what?" The plush mouth collapses. "You've got the wrong girl, Mister. And this 'dad' thing is kinda creepy."

          Heat presses on the back of his neck. Why is she acting this way? He is about to pull out his wallet, brandish his driver's license, when a different girl taps him on the shoulder.

          "Excuse me." This girl is a collection of strange bones. The mechanism of her jaw prods against her cheeks when she opens her mouth. Fingers elongated and spidery. Teeth jutting out like a whitewashed fence. "Are you looking for Rhiannon?"

          Without getting up, Don looks at her. "I might be."

          "Well, she—she said to tell you she couldn't make it. Maybe another time, okay?"

          "Who are you?"

          "I'm a friend of hers. Shannon. She said I should tell you she'd like to take a rain check. She's not feeling well."

          "But I took the day off. I'm a contractor. I have clients to deal with. Stuff to do. Besides which, I don't even have her phone number. All I have is her address—and that's a post office box."

          "Hey, don't shoot the messenger." She sits down at an adjacent table.

          Don forgets about the blonde girl, shifts over to face Shannon. "Did Rhiannon tell you about me?"

          "Well, a little. She said she's hardly seen you since she was a baby. Not even a picture. By the way, she'd much rather be called Rhee. She hates her name." The waitress hands them menus. They both ask for black coffee.

          Don taps a finger against the side of his cup. "So Rhee, huh? I never liked that name either, but her mother insisted. I bet she got sick of people singing it to her when she was a kid. You know, 'will you ever wi-in?'" He gropes around for the right notes, gets close.

          "Yeah. She's mentioned that. But you get used to it. I mean—probably you do."

          Shannon, it turns out, is an old friend of Rhee's. In his mind, Don rolls the name Rhee around. Tries to absorb its shape and sound, so when he finally meets his daughter he'll get it right. He offers to buy Shannon lunch, hoping he can coax some more details out of her. She orders a veggie wrap and sweet potato fries. Don has the pastrami on rye and a side of coleslaw.

          "So you've known Rhia—Rhee—for how long?"

          "Oh, since we were little. Her mom's friends with my mom." Shannon picks up her wrap. Hummus glops out, making little hillocks across her plate.

          Don bites into his sandwich. The meat is gristly, greasy. The mustard stings the roof of his mouth. His eyes water. "Mmmm—nothing like a good old-fashioned deli sandwich."

          Shannon shrugs. "Not many people come here for the food. It's just cheap. Plus, they won't rush you out if all you have is coffee." As if she's just remembered something, she suddenly smiles. "But I'm definitely glad you like yours."

          Don tries to reorganize all the questions he'd had for his daughter. Rephrase them for this other girl, her stand-in. He finds out that Rhiannon is finishing her second semester at art school, majoring in printmaking. She is an okay student, somewhere in the middle of the pack. She lives in an apartment with three other girls. Shannon makes a point of explaining that she isn't one of them—she is living with her boyfriend and going to community college. Don tries to get Shannon to describe his daughter—is she tall, short? Does she look like her mother? Does she look like him?

          She studies his face. The hair—he does have the same hair. She can use that. "Hmmm—she doesn't really look like either of you. Maybe she has your color hair, but it's hard to say. Yours has some grey in it." She hopes no one will come in the coffee shop while she's sitting with this guy. He's scruffy and dried up looking, like beef jerky. She can't believe he's her father. She tries not to fixate on the mustard clumped into one corner of his mouth.

          He keeps asking questions. Does he suspect what she's up to? She didn't plan to do this, but when she saw him, his mouth in a weird twist, telling that little blonde girl he was her father, Rhee got a strange queasy feeling. He looked like some kind of perv, leaning over the table like that. Reaching for the girl's hand. It was disgusting. Still, she felt responsible for making him come here. She had to do something. So she pretended to be a friend of hers. Made up a name on the spot and played the part like she had planned it all out ahead of time. She's surprised how easy this is—not having to be herself. She gives herself a boyfriend, sends herself to community college. Maybe she should take some theatre classes. This is fun.

          While he grinds away at his sandwich, she unrolls her wrap and picks out the vegetables with her fork. The tomato slices are like cardboard coasters, the onions are shriveled, and the hummus tastes like paste smells. The fries are okay, though. She'll remember that the next time she has to eat here. He's telling her stuff to pass along to Rhee. It's weird, having to refer to herself in the third person like this, the way basketball players and rappers do. She finds out he is in construction—a contractor. He isn't married, lives alone, has an apartment on the south side of town.

          Rhee can't imagine her corporate mother, in her tailored suits and sharp heels, being attracted to this guy. He looks old and worn-out. Nothing like Carlos or Ben, the two guys her mom dated the longest. Both of them were typical attorneys, with crisp haircuts and smooth skin. Rhee can't believe this guy is her father, though she has to admit his thin, grasping fingers look familiar. And of course, the hair. They do have the same straight brown hair.

          The funny thing is, when she saw him, she'd expected to feel something. The pull of a common bond, the tug of a loosened thread. But there's nothing. Maybe you can't miss something you've never had. Plenty of her friends were in split families and it was actually kind of nice that she never had to have bedrooms in two separate houses, or spend her summers hundreds of miles away just to fulfill some court order. Meeting this guy is like meeting a stranger. Or an old family acquaintance. She wishes he'd use his napkin, do something about that mustard. She can't stop staring at it.

          Lunch is almost over. Don feels a trickle of desperation seeping in. He's so close to meeting his daughter. This girl, Shannon, is his best chance. He needs to keep talking to her. Would she like dessert? She shakes her head, declines the offer. Has to get to an afternoon class and can't hang around much longer. She dodges his request for a phone number, hers or Rhee's. That's fair enough. They don't know him, not really. It's understandable.

          He gives her a couple of his business cards—one for her and one to take to Rhee. Writes his home number on the back of both. If Rhee's still under the weather, would Shannon keep in touch with him—maybe call him in a few days? He's enjoyed meeting her. They should get together again for lunch—his treat, of course. Maybe Rhee could come, too. Being with a friend might make the whole thing more comfortable for her.

          When she starts to leave, he jumps up and pulls her chair out. Like something in an old movie. It's cute, in a way. She says goodbye, ducks into the restroom. Counts to 100, tidies her hair, washes her hands. Goes back into the coffee shop, scans the tables. He's definitely gone.

          As she walks down the street, she folds the two business cards into squares, tears them up. At the crosswalk, she drops the pieces into a green metal trash can chained to a lamppost. Spiraling down to the bottom, they settle on top of yesterday's news.