The man who was supposed to be Finny’s father has written me back. He’s agreed to my terms.
I have an occasion to wear that black dress after all, especially since the restaurant he suggests sounds like a place my father would like, the sort of place where it’s easy to feel like the waitstaff is dressed better than you.
I think about pinning up my hair, but I decide that’s too formal and go with a ponytail. I keep my makeup understated.
I want to look like an adult.
I don’t want to look like I’m trying to look like an adult.
For perhaps the first time ever, I wish that I was able to drive myself somewhere. Mom is dropping me off, perhaps as penance.
She and Angelina seem like Angie and Dave; they’re having conversations that are necessary and good, but the relationship takes effort right now.
I’ve actually found it a bit easier to forgive Mom. Maybe there’s too much going on in my brain for me to be able to sustain anger, but somehow, I’ve managed to shrug off her subterfuge by telling myself that she and I are both trying to do what’s best for our children while muddling through a complicated situation.
“I’m going to the botanical garden,” Mom tells me as she slows down to drop me off outside the restaurant. Mom doesn’t parallel park in the city. “But I’m not going to stay in the Climatron, so I can be back in a flash to pick you up if you need me. Honey, are you sure—”
“I’m doing this alone,” I say. “Because this is my decision.”
I open the car door. “Thanks,” I say before I get out. Before opening the door, I square my shoulders and raise my chin to make myself look more confident than I feel.
It’s dark on the other side of the restaurant door, as if the patrons wished their lunches were taking place at night. The lighting fixtures are artfully set to a dimness that evokes candlelight without the fire risk. I hold Mom’s little clutch I borrowed confidently in front of my baby bump as I stride up to the hostess.
I look directly into her expertly done eye makeup and say, “There’s a reservation for two, Smith?”
“Yes,” she says without looking down at her list. “Your party is already here.” It’s obvious that she was told to look out for a pregnant girl pretending to be a grown-up, but I smile and thank her before following her deeper into the pretend evening of this place.
At the last minute, there had been a shoe emergency, which is luckily the sort of thing for which my mother lives. Apparently, along with everything else that pregnancy can do to you, like changing the color or texture of your hair, giving you allergies you never had before, or even losing your teeth, pregnancy can change your shoe size.
So it’s in Mom’s unfamiliar heels that I’m following this woman to meet Aunt Angelina’s former lover, which is an easier way to think about him than as Finny’s father.
The thought withers within me as I approach the table, because that is Finny’s father sitting there.
That’s Finny sitting there, Finny at age fifty or so, with gray streaks in his blond hair, with deep smile lines from decades of flashing his crooked grin. And there it is, that familiar smile that I know better than my own, greeting me.
He stands, and I know his height before I see it. I know the length of his legs. I recognize the head tilt as he says, “Autumn, hello.”
“Hi.” I’m trying not to stare at the ghost before me, but the hostess has pulled out the chair, and everyone is waiting for me to sit. To compensate, I sit too quickly as she tries to push in the chair for me, and I end up four inches too far from the table. I adjust myself as she assures John that a waitress will be by shortly.
“It’s good to see you again,” he says when we’re alone.
“Yes,” he says, his uncanny features still mesmerizing me. “When you and Phineas were seven or, no, nine? It was after my father died. I had a short visit with Phineas, and when Angelina came to pick him up, you were with her.”
“I don’t remember that,” I say. I will myself to look away.
Sometime later, I’ll have to figure out what to do with this knowledge, the knowledge of how Finny would have looked as he aged, the way that the boyish charm of his face would have stayed even as markers of maturity occurred. I allow myself to feel just enough of the hurt to keep myself sharp.
“It’s strange that I don’t remember it,” I say, raising my chin, “considering how rare it was for Finny to see you at all.”
John Smith nods and takes a breath. He adjusts his posture as he takes my verbal blow, and I try not to be haunted by the width of his shoulders as he shrugs.
“And that’s why we’re here. So thank you for this.”
I’m about to thank him in return, reflexively, when I catch myself and simply say, “You’re welcome.”
“Yes, well,” he says, and the befuddled, eager-to-please look on his face, which is almost Finny’s face, is almost breaking me. “I’m incapable of expressing how much I regret not knowing and appreciating Phineas when I had the chance.”
The waitress is suddenly there, and I’m agreeing to lemon in my water and being handed a menu that looks like a wedding invitation. John already has what looks like a dirty martini, but it appears untouched. Condensation is beginning to form under the chill of what’s probably incredibly expensive vodka.
“So what is it, John?” I say after we’ve ordered strange-sounding appetizer salads and the waitress has faded into the shadows. “Why did you stay away for most of his life?”
“I was trying not to be a terrible father.” He laughs bitterly. “I understand that I failed at that, spectacularly, but at the time, I thought if I wasn’t there, then I couldn’t mess him up.” John lifts the martini to his lips and takes a sip, then stares into the liquid. “The few times I got the courage to ask to see him, Phineas always seemed so happy. Not happy to see me, just happy, thriving. He’d tell me about you and playing soccer and the things he was learning in school that excited him, and I’d tell myself, ‘See, he’s doesn’t need you.’”
“You had to have known, on some level—”
“Yes, of course,” he says. He sets the martini glass down and looks me in the eye, urging me to believe his sincerity. “I was a coward. Being a real father to Phineas would have meant going back and facing all the ways my own father had failed me. Have you ever had something like that in your past, where when you look back, your feelings are so obvious and your own thoughts were clearly lies to yourself?”
“Yes,” I say, because I owe him honesty in return, even if he hasn’t earned my trust yet.
John nods gratefully. “It all fell apart after my daughter was born,” he explains. “Somehow, my ex-wife convinced me to have a child with her, and the moment I saw Stella in the NICU, I wished I could go back in time and see Phineas when he’d first come into the world.”
“Why do you call him Phineas instead of Finn or Finny?” I ask. There’re so many other questions that his story has inspired, but this one keeps nagging me.
He blushes the way his son would, not turning red but pink in the cheeks in a way that highlights the delicate bones of his face, offsets the gold of his hair.
“As I’ve talked to people, I have come to learn that no one called him that,” he says. “But Phineas was my grandfather’s name.”
“Angelina named him after your grandfather?” The idea is shocking enough to be suspicious.
“Not exactly,” John says. “I never knew my grandfather, and my own father was an alcoholic. But all through my childhood, my good-for-nothing dad would tell me stories of his own amazing father, the fishing trips and poignant life advice he’d given. I told Angelina that I’d grown up with only the mythology of a father and that any good in me probably came from that man who I had never met.”
“So she named her son after what good there was in you,” I finish for him.
He nods. “Perhaps she thought her son was the only good that was going to come from me. I knew when I saw the name on the court papers that Angelina was being poetic, not malicious.”
“And after your daughter was born, you couldn’t lie to yourself anymore?” I don’t want us to lose focus on his failings.
“No, I couldn’t.” He fiddles with the martini glass on the table but doesn’t take another drink. “But he was almost fourteen, and I thought that it was probably too late. I went into a depression. I bought him that car the year after that…”
We pause then, reflecting on that little red car, the car he had loved and that had been at the scene of his death. That little car where I had stared at his profile in the dashboard light and wanted so much to whisper those three words that would have changed our lives.
As you wish.
“Are you all right?” John asks.
My vision is blurry from unspilled tears. I take a steadying breath that sounds more like it’s going to become a sob instead of calm me.
“For the record,” I whisper, “he loved that stupid fucking car.”
“At least I did one thing right,” he says.
My laugh makes the tears spill but also stops more from forming. I touch my fingertips to my eyes for the sake of my mascara and look back at John. The gentle concern on his face almost melts my resolve to continue to hold him to the fire.
“I know there’s still so much to talk about, but can I ask you how you’re feeling? Is everything going okay with the…”
“Tomorrow is the big ultrasound,” I say. “The one where they make sure the baby has everything it needs to be viable.”
“Are you going to find out the sex?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t decided.” I remember that information like this is supposed to be part of a financial agreement between us, and I try to get us back on track. “So in addition to the car, every time you felt guilty, you were putting money away in Finny’s name?”
“Yes. I have documents here with me if you want to look over—”
“Last Thanksgiving, you had Finny over to meet your wife and daughter, but then you disappeared again. What happened with that?”
“He didn’t tell you anything about it?” he asks.
“No. Somehow I’d known the hurt was too much for me to touch, and so I’d never asked.”
This time, John takes a big gulp of his drink before he answers me.
“My ex-wife had always known about Phineas. I think she thought of him as an amusing anecdote from my playboy days. But when she saw us together, it became real to her.”
I can only imagine the shock it would have been to see Finny and John standing together, to see a youthful version of her husband sitting at her table, next to her daughter who she’d thought of as an only child.
“She was”—he takes another small sip from his glass and sets it back down on the tablecloth—“cold to him is I suppose the way to describe it. She went out of her way to word things so it was understood that she and Stella and I were the real family. And I did nothing, Autumn.” His gaze is firm as he admits it. “I should have done or said something, at least to him alone. But the marriage was already half-dead, and I was envisioning losing my second child by trying to reconnect with my first, and I—”
The waitress appears with our salads. Mine is seaweed and shavings of cucumber, which looks like a pile of green spaghetti. John’s salad is red somehow. I find myself ordering both steak and lobster and wondering if the waitress will faint if I ask for a doggy bag at the end of the meal. Before she leaves, she asks John if he would like another martini. He hesitates and says no but to ask again after the entrées have arrived.
After she leaves, we look at each other. Our conversation was interrupted at a point where it does not need to be continued. We both know how he abandoned Finny again. We both know he didn’t attend graduation or reach out all summer. We both know how the story ends.
“I don’t want to feel like I’m selling my child to you,” I finally say.
He closes his blue eyes and nods. “The more I think about it, the more I see how it was a desperate and manipulative move, Autumn. To dangle money that by rights should belong to your child anyway. That’s why I brought the papers today. The money is yours and the baby’s, even if you choose to never see me after this.” He takes a briefcase from under the table and pulls out a manila envelope and sets it on the corner of the table.
“Thank you,” I say. I’m still unsure whether I can trust him. Perhaps this is still a manipulation.
“Whatever you can give me,” he says, “I’ll take it. And if you never want me to know your child, I’ll accept that. All I ask is that today, you stay for this lunch and tell me about my son.”
“Tell you about Finny?”
He swallows, and his eyes are beginning to look wet.
“I’ve been meeting with different people who knew him. I’ve been taking notes and even recording some of the conversations. I had lunch a couple of weeks ago with his soccer coach and a couple of his teammates.” He reaches back into the briefcase and pulls out a much larger file that he opens and flips through. “I’ve met with teachers, some from all the way back to elementary school, who’ve given me insights into his character. There’ve even been classmates and parents who’ve started reaching out to me with stories, and then Sylvia Whitehouse and I—” He glances up at me.
“How is she?” I ask.
“Healing,” he says. “I hope you know she hopes the same for you.”
“I’m honestly surprised that she doesn’t hate me,” I say. “It seems like she should.”
“She is incredibly mature beyond her years,” John says. “She told me that she understood what I meant about looking back and knowing I was lying to myself about Phineas, because when she looked back, she always knew she was standing in the way of you two.”
“If you see her again, tell her that we were standing in our own way. And I’m glad to know that she’s healing.”
He nods, and I can see that he’s wondering whether he’ll ever see me again.
“I’m going to need those stories that you’re collecting,” I tell him. “And Jack’s been working to get all sorts of pictures from people. Maybe we could put them together as a book for the baby.”
“Phineas always said that you were an amazing writer.”
“Well, for authenticity, we should try to keep the original voices as much as possible, but I can edit for clarity, maybe help with the timelines,” I say. “I think your insight into how the mythology of a good father can help shape a child will be very helpful to this project.”
When the waitress comes with our entrées, John doesn’t order another martini. There isn’t space at the table anyway with all the documents spread out. Together we build another inheritance for Phineas’s child.