by Betty Jane Hegerat
There were no vacant benches in the park, so I leaned against a tree. I watched the masked parents riding herd on their unmasked little bandits—no way were those kids safe-distancing on the playground equipment. I was glad Bridget hadn’t suggested a coffee shop where I’d have to take off my mask between sips of coffee. Bridget was not in my bubble.
Never in the past twenty years, had I expected this rendezvous would happen. I was listed as “father unknown” on the birth registration and adoption information. Inge phoned after the baby was born to tell me this just in case my family had any intention of interfering with her plans. As if. My dad said I should be relieved. If I was named and Inge decided to keep the baby, I could end up paying support for years. In spite of feeling relieved—no longer having my nuts caught in a noose, as Dad so delicately put it—my teenage mind took a secret swaggering pride in knowing I’d fathered a kid.
“How do you even know the kid is yours?” Dad said. Mom claimed I’d been lured. Dad liked “entrapment.” “For Chrissake, you’re only seventeen years old”
I glanced over at a guy kicking around a soccer ball with a kid who fell down every time he swung his foot too wide. The dad? He looked about my age. No parents in this group looked like they should have been in a high school physics class. When I was seventeen, little kids made me nervous.
I tugged at the brim of my tweed cap; this was the rose on my lapel that I’d told Bridget to look for. No sign yet of the yellow jacket she said she’d be wearing.
What was I feeling? Curious. Hearing my daughter’s voice made her real, lifted the lid on the tiny box in which I’d had her sealed away. I was curious about how she’d tracked me down. Inge was the only possibility. She’d found Inge, and Inge declared me “known” complete with contact info? But why?
Other than my mom and dad, the only person who knew about this little bit of my past was my husband. I’d told Tyrone because I didn’t want any secrets between us. He’d actually shuddered. “I hope you don’t mean that because you’re proven breeding stock, you want to find a mama vessel to produce one for us?” No! When we decided to get married, neither of us pictured a future as daddies.
Then the phone call. “My name is Bridget. You’re my birth father. Can we meet?”
“Are you sure you have the right person?” Could she be looking for someone else with the same name, I suggested. She snorted. No, I’d never met another Eldon Hildebrandt either.
Tyrone was not the least bit curious about my phantom daughter. “So your secret’s out—now put it to rest. Go meet her, tell her you had an experimental fling and left some sperm behind, and find out what she wants. Maybe she’s planning on having a kid herself and is checking to make sure there aren’t any genetic horrors in your family medical history.”
Ah, yes, the sperm that got away. In grade ten CALM class—Career and Life Management—the boys were filtered out for Sex Ed, and we got to watch Mr. Spencer’s demonstration of “safe sex.” With bad running commentary, he stretched a condom over a peeled banana. I found out with Inge that it wasn’t as easy as it looked. My fruit wasn’t nearly as compliant as a banana.
Inge worked in my mom’s bookstore. She was taking time off to make enough money for her next year of university. Mom thought this was a great arrangement for the summer; if I worked in the store as well, she didn’t need to be there every day. Surely Inge and I could look after the shop.
We got along famously. In the beginning just playing around, flirty comments. But then, “Just a bit of fun,” Inge said.
How could I decline a free-spirited, blonde woman? Inge was twenty. I was a virgin, curious about women and too shy to dare flirt with a couple of guys who’d been sending signals.
When I look back now and remember Inge’s teasing and laughter, I blush at the thought of her treating me like a pet. We did the deed maybe a half dozen times in all. During the last time, Mom made an unexpected appearance just to be sure that all was well. When she quietly opened the door to the back room, things were going very well.
Maybe if I’d been twenty and Inge seventeen, Mom would at least have given her a reference.
I’d wondered why Inge stopped at the store on a Saturday three months later with the news that she was pregnant. She made it clear, that after the baby was born, she wasn’t giving me any kind of access. She meant to make me feel guilty, make my mom feel . . . what? I’d gone next door to pick up some lunch and when I got back, Mom was standing behind the counter with her arms folded and a strange look on her face. “It appears,” she said, “that I’m going to be a grandma.” She turned away then and fumbled in a drawer for a tissue, blew her nose, and told me to get back to work.
The wind had picked up, and a lot of parents were rallying their kids to leave. There was a bench free, and I moved onto it. Not two minutes later, someone in a blue hoodie who’d been hanging around the fringes came towards me.
I stood up and from our safe social distance, I saw brown eyes sandwiched between a black mask and the hood of her sweatshirt. “I’ve been watching for a yellow jacket.”
She shrugged. “I wanted to get a look at you before you saw me.”
I sat down on the end of the bench. She sat in the middle. Too close. I wriggled down so far that my ass was hanging over the edge. She shook her head and slid to the other end. “We’re outside, wearing masks, and I have no intention of touching you.”
“Oh, no. No. I’m not afraid of that.” And I recognized that it wasn’t the virus I feared. Ever since the phone call, I’d been afraid of what she might want from me.
“Bridget,” I said. “That’s a pretty name.” It sounded like a name Inge would have chosen. I had no idea if people changed a baby’s name when they adopted it.
Silence. Brown eyes staring at me. What was I supposed to do next? Ask questions? About what? Bridget and her life were one big question mark.
“So. I guess you want some information—medical history and like that?”
“Yeah, something like that.” She shrugged.
Ouch. I hadn’t been expecting a joyful reunion. I didn’t know what to expect, but her voice and the way she was looking at me—indifference. So why was she here?
“I’m curious about how you found me. Was it through Inge?” She tilted her head
and blinked at me. Of course it was Inge, dumbass. Who else could point her in this direction?
Finally she nodded.
“Where is Inge living?”
“She was keen to be a teacher back . . . in those days. I hope that worked out for her.” I had to get my mouth off auto pilot. This was not about Inge. Bridget called because she wanted to meet me. Obviously she had questions. So let her ask the questions.
“She teaches at the university.”
“What—” No, I didn’t need to know what Inge was teaching. I clamped my jaw behind the mask. From the pull of the muscles in my cheeks, I knew I was squinting. How the hell to make eyes smile when the rest of the face was hidden. I hadn’t a clue what Bridget’s eyes were saying.
“And what about you, Bridget? Are you still in school?”
“I’m in my third year of general studies. Not sure where I’m going next.”
What did she know about me? Inge could have told her that I was a little shit and my family was the bigger pile, but that didn’t sound like Inge. Either way, why would this girl want to meet me? I was sweating under the rim of the damn cap. I took it off and ran my fingers through my hair before I clamped it back on.
“What do you do for a living?” she finally asked. “I know you used to work in a bookstore.” So she did have more of the story than just my name.
“Actually I still do. My mom owns the store, but I manage the place.” If she was looking for any kind of financial help, she’d know a small indie bookstore wasn’t the place to go.
Should I tell her Grandma has MS and can’t get around well enough to work? Maybe she needed to know because of the medical history stuff. Maybe I’d just offer to write it all down for her. Maybe she had some kind of sheet for me to fill in. Maybe I should get us the hell out of this interview. Ask her directly what she wanted—what Tyrone said.
“Where do you live, Bridget?”
“Did you grow up in Vancouver?”
“Yessss . . .” As in duh.
The blue hood slipped backwards. She wasn’t blonde, and there were no bouncy Inge-type curls escaping.
“Wow. Have you and Inge been in the same city all this time? That must have been a surprise?”
She cocked her head to the side, and I had the feeling that under the mask she was looking at me like I just fell off the turnip truck.
“Look, I’m sorry if I keep sticking my paw in my mouth, but I’m kind of lost here.”
“You’re surprised that I’ve lived with my mother all my life?”
“No, no. I just . . .”
What the fuck? Inge kept the baby? Did Bridget know that Inge considered giving her up? My mom wondered, a few months after the baby was born, who might have adopted her, where did they live. My dad said she needed to do herself a favour and stop wondering. I’d wondered too, but only briefly. Until the phone call and what might come out at this meeting.
I squirmed on the bench and pulled my cap lower. Trying to hide while I found a way to wriggle out of this gaffe. I felt a flash of anger at Inge. Had she deliberately misled me by mentioning adoption forms? Planned all along to keep the baby, but wanted to stir up guilt and keep me imagining an abandoned child?
“Well, I never knew exactly what Inge’s plans were. Oh hell, Bridget. I barely knew your mom, and I never imagined I’d meet you. What can I say?”
She pulled a wad of folded papers out of the pouch of her sweatshirt. “Actually, if you just answer these questions, I think we can wrap it up here.”
Her voice was flat. It had been all along. She held up a pen.
She wanted me to fill it out here? Don’t sign anything! I still heard my dad’s raspy voice. You know something, Dad? You might actually like this girl. She’s right up front—no bullshit. Just like you.
The papers shook in her hand. “The medical history you mentioned in about the second sentence after you saw me.” It hadn’t occurred to me that she might be more nervous about this meeting than I was.
“Right. Sure. Whatever you want to know.” I looked across the street at a Starbucks where people were huddled at the outdoor tables. Oddly, I wasn’t ready to walk away. Maybe we could sit down at one of those tables and have coffee while I filled this out.
“Oh, one more thing,” she said, and stood up. “Could you stand over there.” She pointed to the trash basket at the end of the bench. That put us at least ten feet apart. “Could you take off the mask? And the hat.”
A picture. She wanted a picture of me. I slapped the cap against my side and let it dangle from my hand.
She pulled out her phone and stared at the screen. A couple of clicks, and it was back in her pocket.
“Fair’s fair,” I said. “How about you take off your mask.”
A shrug, a flip of the hood, and then she unhooked the mask from her ears.
I stared at her, wishing I was still wearing my mask so she couldn’t see my chin drop and the big O of my mouth.
Holy shit. She looked like my mother. Like my sister would have looked if I had a sister.
I’d never doubted, in spite of all my dad’s ranting, that there were other possible fathers. But seeing Bridget’s face sent a jolt of certainty through me that this girl, this young woman, was a whole lot more than I’d imagined encountering.
Bridget began to mask herself again. “Wait! I’d like to have your picture?”
She tossed her head to flip the bangs off her forehead and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. Big wide-open eyes and a slight curve of a smile. “Beautiful,” I said.
Suddenly so many questions I wanted to ask her.
“Bridget, before you walk away, can we talk a bit more. I want to know more about you.”
She took out her phone and glanced at it.
Checking the time? Another appointment?
She sat again, but poised to go. “What do you want to know?”
“I was thinking more of another visit, maybe a more comfortable place.”
She shook her head. “I’m not here for long.”
Even though the sun was slipping through the clouds, the air felt much colder now. “Then I guess you have pretty much all you need.”
I held up the medical history. “How do I get this back to you? I don’t have your address.”
She stared at me. “I don’t know where I’ll be.” She rattled off an email address. “It’s stupidly long. You decide what I need to know and get back to me.
Why not c/o Inge? “Sure, if that works better.” I took a deep breath. “So you know a little about me, I don’t plan on working in a dying bookstore forever. I have an English degree and plan to get some more education. I’m married. We don’t have kids.” Her mask was still off, and so was mine. She was looking at me intently. “I’m queer.”
“I knew that,” she said. “But thanks for telling me anyway.” Bridget turned then, put her hands in her pockets, and began to walk away. She stopped and looked back. “I’ll think about it, Eldon. Maybe I’ll phone you again sometime.”
On my way out of the park, I paused to lean against the same tree. I could still see her, a small figure in the distance.