When Lisa saw Dan her heart throbbed so fiercely she almost toppled over and out of her chair. She hadn’t seen her former husband for nearly forty years and certainly wouldn’t expect him to be waiting here, like her, for a plane’s arrival. He was standing before the large screen with its information about departures and arrivals. He shouldn’t have been in Portland. On the last envelope she had received—enclosed with a child support check—it had been postmarked in Houston. But that was back in 1983.
He’d be seventy-two in three months, May 9. She remembered the date: after all she made him a party nearly every year of their marriage—seven years altogether. No doubt he forgot the next day was her birthday. He probably forgot about her. He was tall and lanky, not quite as well built as in the past, and stooped slightly. His hair had been brown but was now white peppered with gray and swept back away from his forehead. He was clean-shaven but that didn’t surprise her. He had shaved off his mustache and beard soon after their marriage. He was nicely dressed in a corduroy jacket over jeans. She wished he wasn’t still handsome.
He turned away from the screen and she feared he’d choose a seat near her and maybe recognize her. She ran her fingers through her silver hair, which she hadn’t dyed in nearly a decade. It had been a natural auburn until she was forty, when her first gray strands appeared. She also gained twenty pounds since he last saw her. He remained standing at a distance, and fortunately a large family, including a man in a wheelchair, blocked him from seeing her.
Over the years, she was committed to hating him but when she’d look at the one photo she kept of him she’d be stirred with longing—even at her age. At UC Santa Barbara, girls had always turned their heads to look at him. Even the child she tutored back then had said, “He’s what we call guapo.” No doubt he remarried.
Lisa met Dan Hennessey while they both volunteered in the Children’s Project, sponsored by the university’s graduate school of education. She had first seen a notice about it on a kiosk near the student union. The project called for volunteers to tutor children in the near-by town of Carpinteria. They had come with their families from Mexico a few years earlier. She was an English major and hoped someday to teach on the college level but she believed she could effectively tutor a young child in reading and writing. She was idealistic and wanted to do something valuable in the community. She removed a pad from her handbag and wrote down the phone number.
From the apartment she shared with three roommates, she called the number. A girl with a perky voice gave her instructions about attending an important meeting. She would join other prospective tutors in Parking Lot Ten on Friday at three p.m. where there would be a van to transport them. Sure enough on that day Lisa saw a VW bus, with a sign Children’s Project in one of its windows.
As they traveled south on Highway 101 she saw the glimmering Pacific Ocean on one side and on the other, dusty brown hills dotted with sagebrush and chapparal. When they turned off the highway, they drove passed an orchard of avocado trees and a scattering of plain stucco houses in various colors and into the little downtown, the street lined with palm trees and Torrey pines. The van parked in front of a stucco building with a sign by the door, Carpinteria Community Center.
Parents crowded the room, all sitting on metal folding chairs that faced a podium. The front row of chairs was left vacant for the student volunteers. When everyone was seated the mayor, wearing a suit and tie, spoke about how much the community appreciated working with the university to help their children succeed in school. He then introduced Dr. Ed Franklin, a professor at the graduate school of education. He was a short, round man, wearing a too-tight striped jersey top over bell-bottom jeans. He looked like he should be swabbing a ship deck rather than discussing academics. He gave a quick speech about how happy he was that the university and the graduate school of education in particular could contribute to the community. Then he introduced the student coordinator for the volunteers.
That was the first time she saw Dan, who stepped up to the podium. He towered over the professor and the mayor and she noted he was stunningly handsome. The features of his face were perfectly proportioned and his neatly trimmed beard and mustache suited him. His brown hair was long, flipping slightly above the collar of his flannel shirt. His big dark eyes showed a seriousness of purpose. Lisa was riveted to his eyes.
The volunteer who sat next to her elbowed her and whispered by her ear, “He’s cute. I’ll do my best to bump into him.”
“He probably already has a girlfriend or maybe a wife,” Lisa said. “He seems so serious he might not even be interested in dating.” This possibility came to mind because she was reading Euripides’s Hippolytus at the time in her Seminar in Classical Literature. And Lisa felt like Phaedra—struck with instant love.
At the podium Dan explained that each volunteer would be assigned a child and would work with that child for the length of the college quarter. “This way you’ll get a chance to bond, which is essential for success.”
The following Friday afternoon the volunteers returned to the community center to get their assigned child. A graduate student, in a peasant blouse over a long sweeping skirt, was in charge and introduced Lisa to a small girl with long coffee-brown hair pulled back with barrettes and wearing a white blouse tucked into a skirt with ruffles, white ankle socks, and patten leather shoes. “Lisa, this is Clara Gutierrez, who’s eight and in the third grade,” the graduate student informed her.
Lisa showed Clara a wide grin and said, “I’ll remember your name because my sister’s name is Claire.”
Clara brought Lisa to her home, which was in walking distance from the community center. It was a simple stucco house, with bougainvillea creeping along a wall on one side. Rosebushes with withered roses lined a picket fence, and a drooping sunflower stood on the parched front lawn. When they stepped inside they entered a room with a massive oak dining room table surrounded by several oak chairs, which occupied most of the space. Many people probably lived in this small house.
Clara’s mother greeted them and offered Lisa iced tea. She accepted not just to be polite. It was a hot day and she was thirsty.
They then entered a living room with a sofa and several stuffed arm chairs. Lisa also saw a bookcase packed with books in Spanish. This gave her an idea. “Why don’t you read a favorite story in Spanish before we start a book in English?” she said.
Clara giggled. “You won’t understand it.”
“I might. I took five years of Spanish in school—mi escuela. I even read Don Quixote. And if there’s something I don’t know I’ll ask you.”
They sat together on the huge velvet sofa. Clara opened Cenicienta—Cinderella. The illustrations were familiar: pretty stone houses, the relevant castle in the distance, and the usual depiction of Cinderella—or Cenicienta—with long blond hair.
Afterwards, Clara asked if she could show Lisa the beach just a few blocks away from her house. It was such a warm day Lisa agreed. After all, they would have many opportunities to read books in English and this would help them to bond.
Another way to bond was to allow Clara to be Lisa’s tutor as well. As they walked on a road without sidewalks Lisa said, “Please help me improve my Spanish. We’re going to la playa, right?”
“Si, la playa.” Clara giggled.
She pointed to her blouse. “This is a camisa, right?”
Clara shook her head. “No, that means shirt. Blusa is the word for blouse.”
Lisa noticed Dan entering the road with a small boy. They were only a block behind her and Clara. She forced herself not to be distracted by seeing him. “Okay, let me try again.” She tugged at her pants. “These are pantalones.”
This time Clara nodded. Then she pointed to Lisa’s big leather handbag. “Tell me what this is called.”
Lisa noted that Dan and the boy were catching up to them but she smiled at Clara and said, “I don’t know. Please tell me.”
“Bolsa. It’s your bolsa.” She lifted her small pink vinyl handbag and said, “This is my bolsa.”
Suddenly Clara’s face brightened and she waved at the boy. The two were walking on the other side of the street, now parallel with them. “Luis, we read Cenicienta today,” Clara shouted to the boy.
He merely shrugged.
Dan and the boy approached them while Lisa did her best to subdue the fluttering of her heart.
He extended his hand to shake Lisa’s. “Hi, I’m Dan Hennessey, as you probably already know.”
When their hands touched his was pleasantly warm. “Lisa Turner.”
“Thanks for becoming a tutor, Lisa,” he said.
That same Friday just as she was about to step into the VW bus to return to the campus Dan rushed over to her and said, “Let me give you a ride back. I have my car.”
They dated every weekend since then and occasionally she slept with him at the apartment he shared with another roommate. She wondered why he chose her. Dan was often encircled with attractive grad students at UCSB who doted on him. Not only was he good-looking and charismatic he was the creator of the successful Children’s Project. Perhaps he was attracted to her—her roommates assured her she was pretty. She needed assurance.
One night while she lay in his arms after sex he said, “I’m excited about my chosen field, Lisa. I’ll make a difference to kids. I’ll help them achieve their goals in life.”
It was dark but she imagined that serious glow in his eyes as he spoke of his vision. She was in awe of him and said, “You’re amazing.”
Yet she wished he’d be more serious about her interests.
“Don’t expect me to read some boring as hell guy from the nineteenth century!” he had said to her when she suggested he read her favorite author, George Eliot. She didn’t bother to tell him George Eliot wasn’t a guy. Once she dared to read to him a poem she had written but afterwards he kissed her forehead and said, “No offense, but I’m not into metaphors. I only understand straight facts.” She never shared her poems with him again. Besides, her pursuits were frivolous compared to his.
On the Thursday morning of Thanksgiving, he called her at home in Glendale to invite her to dinner at his parents’ house in West Covina. “They want to meet you,” he said, “So they told me to ask you to come Saturday night around six. Please come, Lisa.”
“Sure, I’d love to,” she said but she dreaded going. They’d be accessing her, deciding if she was a fit girlfriend for their special son. She feared they’d be disappointed.
For the rest of that day, she was so jittery in anticipation of meeting his parents that she could hardly enjoy being with her relatives, including her cousin Judy, who arrived from Cornell, and meeting her sister’s new boyfriend, Brian. After she and Claire set the dining room table for the big meal, she grabbed her sister and brought her into her bedroom so they could speak alone. “Dan invited me to dinner at his parents’ house on Saturday,” she said. “I’m dreading it. They’ll expect me to be perfect—like Dan. They’ll be disappointed.”
“Don’t put yourself down, Lisa,” Claire said. “Dan’s lucky he met you: you’re adorable, you’re intelligent, you have a great sense of humor, and most of all you’re sweet and kind. What more can he want? Besides, I doubt he’s perfect. No one is perfect.”
“You mean not even you?” Lisa asked to be funny.
“Especially me. But I’m right about this. Stop putting him on a pedestal. You’re the one who should be on the pedestal.”
Nevertheless, Lisa had grandiose expectations about Dan’s family as she drove east on I-210 from her home in Glendale toward his in West Covina. She imagined a mansion on a slope with a view and a large backyard swimming pool. They’d be elegant and erudite people with an enormous library, packed with classics. Yet as soon as she drove through his parents’ neighborhood her notions altered: these were all modest tract homes. She pulled up in front of a plain ranch house, stucco with red brick trim. The lawn was mowed and in front of it were two squat palm trees.
As soon as she entered the house, his family didn’t dazzle her, which surprised her. His father was rod-thin, tall, and slightly bent. Like Dan, his sister had inherited his height and was a head taller than her rotund boyfriend. Dan resembled his mother yet her appearance was bland. Perhaps it was the clothes she wore: a beige jersey top over brown polyester pants and no jewelry. She showed only a slight grateful smile when she took Lisa’s gift, a box of See’s candy. His father gave Lisa a broader smile and said, “Nice to meet you.”
For her benefit, the main dish was vegetarian lasagna. She appreciated that Dan had told his parents she didn’t eat meat. She had feared she’s be forced to eat turkey leftover from Thanksgiving or maybe roast beef or pork chops.
His sister, named Amy, giggled with her boyfriend at one end of the table and they seemed preoccupied with each other. Amy had blond hair with brown roots and wore makeup too thick on her eyes, which were an icy blue. Her boyfriend had thin blond hair and lambchop sideburns that looked silly across his full cheeks.
Lisa braced herself for their many questions but none were forthcoming. Dan’s father stared at her but said nothing. Then his mother began, “We’re so proud of Dan and his accomplishments. Aren’t you, Lisa?”
“Oh, yes,” she said and smiled at Dan.
“He’s going to be called doctor by this summer. His grandparents and aunts and uncles are all so happy. Isn’t that an enormous achievement?”
“Oh, yes, it is. And his project in Carpinteria has done so much for the kids who live there.”
His mother brought a forkful of lasagna to her mouth then dabbed away sauce with her napkin. “Really?” She turned to her son. “What kind of project, Dan? I haven’t heard anything about it.”
Lisa was surprised that he hadn’t told his parents before about the important project. When they were back at school she said to him, “Why didn’t you tell your parents about the Children’s Project?”
He shrugged. “I didn’t see the point. They only care that I’m a success—that I’ll be called doctor.”
That June a new world was open to them. They both graduated, Lisa with a B.A. degree in English, Dan with a Ph.D. in Education, specifically in Counseling, Clinical and School Psychology. While they celebrated dinner at their favorite restaurant, Arnoldi’s Café, in Santa Barbara, Dan proposed to her and she accepted. Dan wanted the wedding to be small and Lisa agreed: they were poor, still without jobs, and couldn’t expect their families to splurge on their behalf—though Lisa’s mother wanted a big celebration and was willing to pay for it. They invited only immediate family and were wed in a small chapel in Pasadena. Dan’s community involvement strengthened his resumé so Lisa wasn’t surprised that he quickly acquired a position at Portland State University to teach at their education college, starting in the fall. She immediately applied to the university’s graduate program in English and was thrilled to be accepted.
They packed up their belongings and headed for the Northwest. Nearly two years later when she was finishing her Master’s degree, she discovered she was pregnant and they both were excited about having a baby. But in her third month she had a miscarriage. She was depressed for weeks but Dan was depressed for much longer. She had failed him.
Claire had to convince Lisa that she did take good care of herself while pregnant and she didn’t fail Dan. Claire had made the emphatic point that the opposite was true: he failed her. This thought renewed Lisa’s anger. She should pop up now and stomp over to him, shout for everyone around them to hear: he failed her—and their daughter. Yet at this late date she’d gain nothing by humiliating him—and herself.
A group of travelers were coming through the terminal doors. Claire’s plane wasn’t due for another twenty minutes. Lisa had checked about forty minutes earlier and discovered then that the flight would be delayed for an hour. But maybe it arrived sooner than expected. She dared not check the screen and have Dan see her. Yet now that she looked at the passengers, she noted that they were tan, several men wore bright shirts with blazing prints of palm trees and hibiscus flowers, and both men and women wore leis around their necks. These people obviously arrived from Hawaii. She hoped that whomever Dan was waiting for had been a passenger on that plane and then they’d be gone and he’d once again be out of her life.
But that wasn’t about to happen yet. As the group dispersed, she saw him sitting in a chair on the other side of the big screen. She could hardly breathe.
A year after her miscarriage Lisa was happy to discover she was once again pregnant. Dan was cautiously happy and kissed her. Then he said, “This time you might consider eating more protein. At least fish.”
He could never reconcile himself to her being a vegetarian. She had been a vegetarian since she was a high school senior. Her friend, Karen Ridley, became one first and had given Lisa a book about the horrors of the slaughterhouse. After only reading a few pages, she announced to her parents she’d no longer be eating anything that walked, flew, or swam. Her mother, a great cook who prepared a meat dish for dinner almost every night, wasn’t happy about this but said, “Then you’ll be cooking your own meals.”
Which Lisa readily did and learned from vegetarian cookbooks how to make tasteful dishes with tofu, various other bean sources, and nuts. Family members predicted this was a mere phase that would end, but they were wrong. During her first pregnancy Dan had made her ask her gynecologist if being a vegetarian was harmful to the fetus and the doctor had assured her it was fine as long as she ate nutritiously, balancing protein with vegetables and not eating too many fats and carbs. After the miscarriage she had called the doctor and asked, “Did it have anything to do with my vegetarian diet?”
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I believe it had to do with your cervix. It’s what we call an incompetent cervix, which means it opens too early in the pregnancy. We’ll have to watch over it during a future pregnancy.”
Something about her had been incompetent but it hadn’t been her diet.
Lisa was nervous throughout her second pregnancy and times when she spotted blood sent her and Dan into a frenzy of worry. She was glad she had stopped teaching at Portland Community College. She spent much of the time off her feet either reading or watching television. Dan had even bought a stereo unit so she could listen to her favorite records.
Just as she began her seventh month of pregnancy she went into labor. She gave birth to a tiny baby girl, pruned faced and jaundiced but still beautiful. She was immediately placed in an incubator. Lisa hated leaving the hospital without her baby, whom she and Dan had named Jennifer Marie. That same night they returned and watched tiny Jennifer in the incubator and Dan moved close to Lisa and folded his hand over hers. She smiled at him gratefully.
When Jennifer was eighteen months old the pediatrician told them she had cerebral palsy. This didn’t surprise Lisa. The child couldn’t stand yet, dragged one foot when she crawled, toppled over when she sat, and thrust her arms out for no reason. She drooled and had trouble saying mama. She could not say dada.
Yet when the doctor had put the diagnosis into words this stunned Dan and he paled.
With tears in her eyes, Lisa said after the appointment, “I know how painful this is to hear, Dan, but Jenny is lucky to have you as her father. In your field, you know all about kids like her and how to help them.”
His dark brown eyes showed despair that troubled her and so did his silence.
When Lisa found placement for Jennifer, at aged three, in a special program for young handicapped children at Portland Child Growth and Development Center she called Dan at his office on campus. “The director is really enthusiastic and very supportive. She gave me a tour of the center. It’s an amazing place. They’re all special kids under the age of six. They’re being potty trained and learning to eat by themselves and how to do say words and do simple puzzles. They also have a staff physical therapist and speech therapist who will work with Jenny. You’ve got to see for yourself. Anyway, the exciting news is Jenny can start this Monday morning.”
His reply surprised her. “Don’t make me dinner. I’m working late tonight.”
After she had fed and bathed her daughter and put her to bed she sat on the living room sofa and sobbed. Her relationship with her husband was strained by this child coming into their lives. Maybe it was her fault—an incompetent cervix or her no meat diet. Yet she loved pretty little Jenny, who looked like her father, except that she had Lisa’s red hair. They could still be happy.
He gave her no eye contact when he arrived home that night. A somber look was on his face and he went straight to their bedroom. She remained on the sofa, a novel unread on the coffee table. She couldn’t follow him into the bedroom, as if a heavy weight pressed down on her. A sense of doom overwhelmed her and she felt chilled. She finally forced herself up and left for the kitchen to boil water for tea. She was pouring the water into her mug when she heard him say, “Lisa, please come in here.”
She returned to the living room and was shocked to see that he held a bulging suitcase. She trembled so badly she grasped hold of a side table to steady herself. “You’re leaving us?” she managed to say.
“I can’t stay here any longer. I’ll send papers for you to sign. And money. Please don’t contact me.” In a softer voice he added, “This is just too much for me.”
Through blurry eyes she looked up at him. “Don’t you love us at all?”
“I … I can’t deal with it.” He turned and left.
Stunned, mortified, and scared Lisa knew she needed to call her sister. Through sobs she managed to tell Claire what had happened.
That weekend Claire left her home in Canoga Park and her husband, Brian, and toddler son, Justin, to be with Lisa at her time of despair. “I’ll hunt him down and kill him!” she said that evening after Lisa put Jennifer in her bedroom to sleep. In a slightly calmer voice she added, “You’ll get the best divorce lawyer and make him pay up—the bastard!”
Lisa sank onto the sofa and sobbed in her hands. “He’s left us—me. And it’s my fault!”
Claire plopped down next to her and grabbed her chin. She lifted Lisa’s face and their eyes met. “This is not your fault. Never ever say that again!”
Claire was her savior over the years, even though they remained living at a distance. She visited when she could, especially during summers while they both weren’t teaching. Sometimes Brian and Justin came too. Brian would walk through the house looking to see what he could repair, rewire, or repaint and Justin would make some effort to entertain Jennifer.
Fortunately, Lisa received help with Jennifer from school and community programs so she was able to work fulltime, teaching at the Sylvania Campus of Portland Community College, not far from her home. The money was needed: Dan had stopped sending money after three years. As far as he was concerned, she and Jennifer no longer existed. Then Jennifer died of pneumonia when she was fifteen. Lisa’s parents and Claire and Brian came to her funeral. Lisa was crushed and only her sister and brother-in-law had saved her from driving her car off a cliff.
Claire was coming to help Lisa celebrate her sixty-eighth birthday. Regrettably, Brian wasn’t joining her. He had suffered a mild heart attack a few months earlier and explained apologetically on the phone that his fear of flying might trigger another.
It occurred to Lisa that if Claire spotted Dan she might rush up to him and slap his face—but she’d prefer to strangle him. Lisa would get some satisfaction.
Yet, so much time had passed since that day he left her and their daughter that there was no point in trying to punish him now. It had been a long time since she felt exhausted from caring for Jennifer and also teaching. Then for years she mourned the loss of her daughter and struggled with loneliness. She dated but never lasted in a relationship. She enjoyed her friendships and participated in a writing group and went to poetry readings. She continued to write poems and had managed to get a few published in literary journals. That was her life.
Her hands were sweaty and she felt so agitated she couldn’t remain in her seat. Besides, she no longer cared if she came face to face with Dan. She stood and headed toward the Starbucks next to the terminal doors. She could easily see passengers arriving.
She was standing on line to order when she heard, “Lisa?”
She recognized the voice. This triggered the heavy beating of her heart. She was about to turn to face him but then the barista said, “Ma’am, what can I get for you?”
“A twelve-ounce coffee, please,” she managed to say. Then she faced him. That serious glow in his eyes was gone and he managed a smile. Perhaps he mellowed over the years.
“How are you?” he had the nerve to ask.
With a trembling hand she gave the barista a five-dollar bill for a $1.85 coffee and told him to keep the rest. She forced her hand to hold her hot cup steadily. “Fine,” she answered, deciding this exchange was absurd.
He stepped out of line and followed her to the counter where she poured half and half into her cup then stirred it and stirred it again and again.
“I didn’t recognize you at first,” he said.
“It’s been a long time,” she said, not looking at him. “What are you doing in Portland?”
He let out a nervous chuckle. “I missed the wet weather so I came back. Actually, I live in Lake Oswego.”
That was an affluent suburb. He was doing well. “Which plane are you waiting for?”
“The United flight from LAX. My wife went to visit her mom in a nursing home in Long Beach. We’re going to have her move up here so we can keep a better eye on her.”
This information about his wife made Lisa’s stomach twist even though years had passed. No doubt he had a family, with healthy kids and grandkids, too. She didn’t want to know about them. “She’s on the same plane as my sister.”
“That must be Claire. How is she?”
“Fine—just like me.”
He didn’t mention the unmentionable.
These moments were unbearably toxic and she had to flee. She glanced toward the exit doors and saw some passengers coming through them. The plane had arrived. Claire would be here momentarily to save her— once again. She tossed the cup full of coffee into a trash bin. She glanced at him for the last time and said, “Your daughter died a number of years ago.” She rushed by him and toward the doors.
When she spotted Claire, pulling a carry-on suitcase, she ran to her and hugged her. “Dan’s here,” she said by her sister’s ear.
Claire hugged her tighter then released her and said, “It’s too late for murder so I have a better idea: let’s go to dinner and order an expensive bottle of wine. It’s your birthday so it’s my treat.”
“Yes, I’d like that.”
Hillary Tiefer has a PhD in English and has taught at various colleges. Her short stories have been published in Descant, Red Rock Review, Mission at Tenth, Blue Moon Literary Review, Gray Sparrow Journal, Poetica Magazine, Poydras Review, Crack the Spine Literary Magazine, JuxtaProse, The Literary Nest, Smoky Blue Literature and Art Magazine, Five on the Fifth, and The Opiate. Her stories were finalists in contests for Folio, Hidden Rivers Press, Homebound Publications, and Glimmer Train. Her novel, Lily’s Home Front, was published in October 2018 (Moonshine Cove Publishing). Her essays on the author Thomas Hardy have been published in scholarly journals.