(Originally published on The Coachella Review.)
My family and I have this ritual. Once a month, Teresa, my wife, my second one, and my kids, from the first one, make the trek from the valley to come meet me at my office in the city, and we have dinner. We treat it like it’s a big deal. Don’t go to any chain restaurants. It’s all very exotic. Afterwards, we let the kids pick who they want to drive home with. Hannah’s hand went up before her brother’s this time, and she chose me. Truth is, the winner always picks me. I don’t say this to sound like an asshole. It’s simply the truth. I’m not sure if their stepmother notices or not. I’m not sure she cares. It is what it is.
Hannah sat shotgun. When she was younger I’d let her sit on my lap and steer while I drove. Steer in quotes. Of course I had my hands on the wheel. I’d only do it in safe situations. On certain off-ramps that I was well acquainted with or when we entered the cul-de-sac that led to our home. Now she was too big for all of that. Besides she got her grown-up fix sitting up front. “Side by side like Bonnie and Clyde,” I said, realizing the comparison didn’t entirely fit. The rhyme was tight though. That much was clear.
We cruised the boulevard heading west. The sun intermittently took out my sight as it made its way down, slipping in and out from behind the high rises and palm trees. It stayed light too late this time of year, in my opinion. Stretched out the already long days.
I guess we were both feeling restless. Hannah reached up to open the sunroof and I started hitting buttons on the radio to find a song we both liked. She was still at the age where she’d listen to my music and seemed to by osmosis make out the lyrics to everything.
The weekend before, we were driving somewhere, another family outing, both kids in the backseat, and “Satisfaction” came on. Hannah was singing along, only slightly flubbing the words, “…I can’t get no satisfaction, I can’t get no girly action….”
Her stepmother sort of laughed at her and asked, “What’s he saying?”
Hannah, more self-conscious then, said, “He’s frustrated because he can’t get what he wants.”
That she seemed to get the overall gist of the existential dilemma the song’s lyrics raised pleased me. All she was missing were subtleties and she had plenty of time for that. Her innocence, to have that clean of a slate, I wanted to wrap her up, put her in my pocket and not let her out until the coast was clear.
A commercial came on so Hannah turned down the sound. We’d veered on to the 405 by then, heading north, back towards home. I started thinking about the obligations that were on our agenda for the weekend. None of them what I’d choose to do with my free time. We hadn’t passed Sunset yet. I had an idea.
I told Hannah I needed to make a quick stop and see a friend.
“It’ll be fun,” I said. “He plays piano and sings.”
She got quiet and her face started to form that worried expression she was prone to inhabit. Her eyes searched me like her mother’s used to. No one tells you that. No one tells you that once you have kids you’ll always be looking at the person you made them with. Like a ghost that haunts you, reminding you who you were and what you did.
“He’s an old friend,” I continued. “He’s been wanting to meet you.”
She began chewing her pinkie nail.
“We’ll pop in, hear a couple songs.”
She asked if we were going to a bar.
“It’s a restaurant. They play music in the bar area,” I said.
“Teresa says when you don’t come home at night, that’s where you go and meet women.”
“I don’t know why she tells you those things,” I said aloud but also under my breath. “That’s adult stuff, between her and me. Not for you to worry about. We’re going to see my friend. It’ll be fun. Besides, I think I left something there last time I visited.”
Hannah started to tear up. She’s a sensitive kid and unfortunately has taken a lot of the familial discord to heart. Ever since her mother left—and I tried to instill that it was because of me, not her and her brother—she’s been in a suspended state of raw. I wish for her sake she could shut some of it down. Life is full of so many disappointments and things that are out of our hands. The only thing I know for sure is we’ve got to find a way to transcend.
“I’ll see if the hostess found my sunglasses, you’ll have a Shirley Temple, we’ll hear a couple of songs, and then we’ll go,” I told her. “You can make a request. That would be cool, right? It’ll be an adventure.”
I pulled off the freeway at Sunset and backtracked east towards the strip. Hannah wept quietly through most of The Who song about the squeezebox, even though I was singing along with it hoping she’d join in. I hated that the weekend was kicking off this way but I figured it would turn around once we got inside and she experienced the scene. She used her sweater sleeves to wipe her eyes until I handed her my handkerchief. I asked her to take the wheel while I took off my sport jacket, in an attempt to distract her, then reminded her it was Friday night and she didn’t have school the next day. By the time we pulled up to the restaurant she was sedated, seemed to have exhausted herself.
The valet greeted me and asked, “Who’s this? Is this the pretty little daughter you’ve told me about?”
I put my hands on her shoulders and introduced them. “Hannah, this is José.”
Her eyes met the ground as she shrugged and mumbled something resembling an exhale.
I told José that she was tired. “We’re just going up to hear Bobby sing one song.”
“Oh,” José said, “Hannah will like that.”
I’ve climbed the stairs to the restaurant lounge more times than I could possibly remember but climbing them with her made them seem strange, more substantial. Leaving was usually the problem, not arriving. It started to take on a sort of funhouse feel. I’d forgotten how dark it was inside. And how it’s all adults.
When we reached the top, Candace, the hostess, embraced me with a hug and a kiss.
“Hey, handsome,” she said. Then she looked down. “Is this your girl? Hi, there. I’m Candy.”
Hannah started the crying again. I told Candace that Hannah was learning to play the piano so this could be inspirational for her. Hannah’s glasses dropped to the floor while she was attempting to dry herself out. I reached down to pick them up and would have kept them for her but it suddenly hit me that she wouldn’t have been able to see in the dimness.
Off to the side, Bobby was at the piano. He was in the middle of the last chorus of a jazz rendition of “Baby, It’s You.” Candace escorted us over to the bar, just feet from the piano, and Hannah and I climbed up onto our stools. She was momentarily enthralled with the scene. Bobby smiled at me, then Hannah, and sang the last few lines directly to her. After a smattering of applause, he told the audience he was going to take a short intermission. A Spanish-language version of “California Dreaming” began to play over the sound system.
I asked Hannah if she wanted the Shirley Temple. She did. “Extra cherries.” I ordered it that way and then a Vodka Gimlet, no sweet, for myself. The bartender must have been new, or worked only weekends, I’d never met him before. He was a little standoffish. Which is fine. We didn’t have to be friends, no illusions here. I introduced myself and Hannah, he gave a sort of terse smile, said his name, which I now forget—Mitch? Kevin?—then got to work on our drinks.
Bobby came over and as we shook hands he said, “This has got to be Hannah.”
The bartender placed our drinks on the counter and I handed Hannah hers. She began sucking it down.
“Your father has told me so much about you,” Bobby said, “but I forget how old you are.”
“Eight,” she said with the straw still in her mouth.
“Eight is a great age,” Bobby said. “Better than forty-eight, I tell you that.”
I asked him how the night had been going, how the crowd was.
“Pretty good, pretty good. It’s still early.”
Hannah slurped down the last of her drink. “I’m done,” she said, kicking her heels against the legs of the barstool. “Time to go.”
I wasn’t halfway through my gimlet. I told her we’d come all this way, that we should hear at least one of Bobby’s songs. “He’s having a little break but he’ll be back at the piano soon.”
Hannah started tearing up again, then crying. In a burst. By the light of the bar I could see that her eyes had grown puffy.
“Hey, hey,” I told her, “Here are your extra cherries.”
The bartender slid the entire container of maraschino cherries that he kept on the counter towards me.
She tried holding back her tears and began gasping a bit.
Bobby chimed in, “Hey, what song would you like to hear, Hannah? I’ll play whatever you like. You like ‘Up, Up and Away’?”
She shook her head “no” and continued the waterworks. I downed the rest of my drink and signaled for another. I put my arms around her and pulled her onto my lap.
“You want to show everyone how well you play ‘Heart and Soul’?” I asked her.
It was all she knew how to play besides “Chopsticks” which we all know would only serve to give everyone a headache, and “Greensleeves” which no one enjoyed hearing in any setting.
She looked towards the piano like she was considering it.
“Hey, you know who sat in that seat last night?” Bobby said. “The very one you were just sitting on?”
Hannah turned her face into my shoulder.
“Raquel Welch. Raquel Welch sat there. She drank a White Russian and she requested ‘The Look of Love.’”
This made Hannah start crying harder for some reason and now she was causing a scene. People were looking at us, wondering what was going on.
I took a mouthful of my new drink and told her, “Stop. It’s fine. We’re fine. We’re leaving soon.” She continued to shake into my chest.
“You’re no fun at all,” I said.
She let out a muffled wail and I could feel her tears and saliva on my neck.
Bobby said he was going back to the piano.
I grabbed some cocktail napkins and turned Hannah to face me.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. You’re fun. It’s just, this is Daddy’s fun and I wanted you to enjoy it, too.”
I picked up my glass. “Here, I’ll finish up and we’ll go.” I threw back the rest, showed her I was keeping my promise, as she stained the napkins with her tears.
Bobby, back at the piano, started tickling the keys and said, “This song is dedicated to Hannah.” He started a tune that sounded vaguely familiar, but it was too late. I moved her from my lap onto Raquel Welch’s stool, paid the tab, then helped her to the floor.
We made our way down the long, dark stairway. When she saw the opened door at the bottom that led outside, she stopped sniffling. José gave me a nod as I handed him the ticket and he went to retrieve the car.
I do this thing sometimes. It’s internal. I look out at the world like I am a horse. I see the world through a horse’s eyes. I traverse the pavement with an imperceptibly slow gallop, like a horse might, picking up steam in my mind, my mane blown back by the breeze my movement creates. I move past people, taking them in, but not truly. We don’t connect on any real level because we don’t understand each other. I feel other and they barely notice me. I started doing this when I was around thirteen. Our family was breaking down. I didn’t want to be there. It soothed me, was my escape, it cleared a path. I never told anyone. It’s hard to get just right. And anyway, some things are just ours.
I told Hannah I was sorry she didn’t enjoy the place like I hoped she might. She said she was sorry, too. Which broke my heart a little. I wanted to tell her more. That one day she’d get it, one day she’d understand.
She took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. “I didn’t want you to get in trouble,” she said blindly to the sky.
“Too late for that,” I wanted to say. But instead I pulled her close and she sunk into me, wrapping her arms around my waist.
“You forgot to ask about your sunglasses,” she said with a hint of being on to me.
I regretted mentioning it. “Yeah, they’re probably at the office anyway.”
I pulled out a smoke.
“We’ll pick up some ice cream on the way home,” I told her. “A little something for everyone.”
She asked if she could light my cigarette. I struck a match, bent down, and handed it to her. She sparked me up then closed her eyes to make a wish and blew out the flame.
“Don’t tell me, or it won’t come true,” I told her.
“I know,” she said.
Then we held hands silently and waited for the car.