If You Could Be

A Short Story from We Miss All the Great Parties

BY DAVID HOPKINS

Angela and I dated five years ago. I can’t remember who stopped calling. Probably me. Fantasy Football and my post-college career demanded more time than I would ever admit. Commuting left me useless at the end of the day, and the responsibility of a career created this counter balancing force of sloth. I had enough energy to watch Sportscenter and drift through the Internet on my laptop. That was it. Discarded pizza boxes, DVDs, fast food wrappers, and unopened junk mail spiraled across my living room, originating from my couch like the Fibonacci sequence. Yeah, I flaked on dates.

In time, I acclimated to my job. I cleaned my apartment. I learned to cook meals for one. I sold my futon and bought real furniture. Life became a manageable process, not as daunting as people had always warned. If Angela and I had started dat­ing in the summer, it would have been different.

I ran into Angela, much later at a 7–11, and the encounter appeared amiable. She smiled, gave me a hug, and asked about my life with genuine interest. We talked for a polite duration. She bought her coffee and left. Angela was beautiful and nice. I don’t know why we never got serious. I should have called her more.

We dated during Valentine’s with the unspecified rule of “keeping it casual” during this incommodious holiday. But I bought roses, yellow ones that she preferred to red. We went to this hippy res­taurant I read about in a magazine. We dated on and off for a month. Eventually, we lost touch.

On those dates, I remember talking a lot about myself — my job, my life and my in­terests, my future. She nodded with the pa­tience of an introvert who was happy for me to dominate the conversation. I rambled like an idiot at the slightest provocation, and she maintained eye contact encouraging me to say more.

I wish I had learned more about her. I wish I had more photos of Angela. Her face escapes me, and I can’t easily recall specific features. I remember she was slightly shorter than me and had thick brown hair, almost black. I wish I had some anecdote that spoke volumes about who she was. (“That’s so Angela.”) Something I could now share with her son. When he starts asking, I feel so damn empty handed.

Candace and I broke up after a year, when I asked her to move in. She hesitated for only a moment. I jumped on it, accusing her of everything that wasn’t there. The ar­gument went places neither of us antici­pated. The move-in issue was only a catalyst for debate about much larger problems. I talked about “commitment.” She talked about “control.” By the end, we were no longer together.

I immediately started looking through Facebook to fill the gap left by Candace. I searched for girls I had loved in high school and in college, ex-girlfriends, and almost girlfriends — friends of friends who might like me. This desperate move didn’t feel desperate. I reduced and rationalized relationships to grocery shopping. I had run out of milk. I needed more milk.

I thought about Angela. We had seen each other at 7–11 and that would be enough for a hello and friend request. I typed her name in the search box. Fortunately, Angela’s obscure last name made her easy to find. Her profile photo wasn’t a picture of herself. I hate that. The image was of a baby, her son — I looked at the page.

Angela was dead.

Her friends posted condolences and memories, R.I.P.’s from a month ago. I read post after post, scrolling farther down. Peo­ple shared their thoughts on the afterlife and the better place where Angela resided. Some friends posted that they didn’t “have the words” and the ubiquitous OMG. Some friends posted oddly inappropriate gifs of flowers, sun­rises, and candles. An odd cathartic mess. Nothing from Facebook in­dicated how she died. I assumed something sudden, possibly a car wreck.

Scrolling farther down, like descending into the past, scraping away layers of time, I came to the most tragic and primary post. A friend Julie wanted to know why Angela hadn’t responded to text messages and phone calls. “Where are you? Remember tonight? Call me!” Directly above and hours later, Julie posted: “I’m going to the hospital. I’ll check on Chris.”

Past that, everything was the usual Facebook pap. Angela’s last post was a link to a parenting article about three year olds doing household chores. Most of her posts were links to other sites, humorous and helpful. I scrolled down to the day when we ran into each other at 7–11.

She wrote: “Saw him today.”

I stared at those three words, trying to divine meaning and intention. I assumed I was him, and I hoped seeing me was a good thing. I never thought we were serious. Did I mean more to her? Did I do something to hurt her? I was looking at the words of a ghost. Her words lingered, her face forgotten.

I ascended to the top of the page, back through the condolences. I looked at the photos on her Facebook profile. She only had a few photos and not a single one of herself — mostly photos of her son Chris. He’s at the park, feeding bread to the ducks on a spring afternoon. He’s happy as only a kid with his mother can be.

Now, her presence only remained on a glowing screen. Closest friends and family would visit the cemetery to lay flowers and pay respect. For everyone else, we type a few words and click. Our debt is paid to the dead. It’s pathetic. I could do more. I felt this im­pulse to connect with the tragedy.

I wondered about her son’s father. (It wasn’t me. We never did anything.) I didn’t see any photos of the dad. Her Facebook relation­ship status listed her as single. Nothing on her page mentioned another man.

I scrolled to the post from Julie and sent her a message. It took an hour to write three short para­graphs. I explained my connection to Angela. I asked if we could talk about what happened. I apologized for bothering her. My desire to be appropriately understood forced me to read what I wrote over and over. I put myself in the mind of Angela’s friend. I pondered the etiquette of inquiring about the dead. It’s normal and not at all weird to want to know these things.

Julie responded within a few minutes. She posted her phone number. I called.

“Hello. Is this Julie?”

“Yes?”

“I was wondering if you could tell me about Angela and how she, passed?” I stumbled on this last word. I could have said “died.” I don’t like that I fell into euphemism.

She told me about the car wreck. The details were horrific, and ruined any illusion I had about death being a peaceful walk through the doorway.

“How do you know Angela again?” Julie asked.

“We dated a few times about five years ago. We lost touch. I wanted to get back in contact with her, and then I saw on Facebook.”

“Do you live in Chicago?”

“No. I live in Dallas near Angela.”

“Sorry. It’s — “ She decided there was no harm in sharing. “Angela has a son Chris. He’s three. She told me the father lives in Chicago, but doesn’t know he’s the dad. I thought you might be him.”

“And if I was?”

“I’d tell you to go rescue your son.”

“Where is he?”

Julie paused.

“Chris is with his grandfather, Angela’s dad.” I couldn’t respond. Julie was hinting at a story where I didn’t know the subplot. I didn’t know the significance of this information. After a de­lay, she filled in the blank. “He’s not a good man. Abusive. He made Angela’s life hell, and now he’s Chris’s only family.”

I thought to ask about Child Protective Services or foster care, but I’m a stranger trying to solve a problem with the most obvious and useless of answers. These options were considered and, for whatever reason, they didn’t work.

“I’m sorry I’m not him. I’m not the father.”

“If you were, if you could be,” she did not finish the sentence. She hung up.

I’m sure her abrupt exit was for dramatic effect. The next day she messaged me with the address of Angela’s dad. Julie was hoping for a monumental commitment on my part — that, after death, I might take my relationship with Angela to a much more serious level. It was a Hail Mary pass, one absurd effort to save her friend’s son. She had no reason to trust me, which made wonder how dire the situation must be. Or maybe her gesture meant nothing; I was reading too deeply into it. She wrote: “In case you want to visit him.” I ignored her message, but I did not delete it.

A week later, I knocked on the door of Angela’s dad’s house.

The house was small. The lawn looked like an abandoned yard sale. Household items, dilapidated furniture, and sundries were arranged in rows. Grass overgrown filled in the gaps. The window closest to the door was partially covered with cardboard. I heard his voice in­side.

“Hold on. Hold on.”

Why does knocking on doors fill me with such dread? Even under the most innocent conditions, I can’t knock on a door without feeling something horrible is about to happen. Did my grandparents feel weird about knocking on doors? No, in their day, front porches were larger. Back porches were nonexistent. The large front porch was welcoming. It said, “My world is open to yours. Stay a while.” A few decades later, the front porch diminished and the back porch expanded. Privacy and security reigned.

I should leave.

He opened the door a crack.

“Can I help you?” I couldn’t see him. It was too dark in the house.

“I’m Mark. I dated your daughter Angela at one time.”

The door opened wider. I saw his fat face. As Julie warned, nothing about his countenance was welcoming or kind. His skin defined itself in patches, patches of discoloration, patches of unshaved scruff, patches of crust and scabs. He could not take care of himself, and could not take care of anyone else. I looked away.

“You dated Angela.”

“Yes.” I was there to check on Chris, to offer peace of mind to Angela’s friend. And yet, I had no plan for how to invite myself in. Then, he opened the door wider.

“Come in. I guess.”

I took three steps into the house. The interior was too dark, and my eyes couldn’t adjust. With my sight limited, my only accounting was the smell. There wasn’t one particular odor that overpowered or could be identified, but the smell was heavy and present. Breathing took effort. He walked past me, and I heard him push something out of the way to clear space, a pile of laundry in the entrance.

“You can have a seat.”

He walked into the living room. I followed and sat on the couch. I saw piled at one end a small pillow, a blanket, and a teddy bear. This was where Chris slept for the past month. Or was I making assumptions to build the case against Angela’s dad?

The boy stood across the room.

He wore a Dallas Cowboys t-shirt with the words “Little Champ” underneath the white star. He had no pants on. His underwear was stained. I could tell from here. I felt such a tremendous pain in my chest, impossible to hide. I started crying; gulping sobs came without warning.

The dad spoke. “Is he yours?”

Of course not. None of this was mine. I did not know Angela or her life, not really. I had no claim to any of this. Instead, I felt this tremendous need to save something, someone, this three-year-old boy.

Some time ago, when I filled the application for my current job, one question asked, “What is your greatest accomplishment?” An odd question for someone in his twenties, my accomplishments at that point were predictable. I graduated from college with minimal effort and had never been fired. If I was honest at the time, it might have been winning my Fantasy Football bracket. I put more effort into that than anything else, but it’s not something to boast about.

This moment in this stranger’s house, this was not me at my best or most moral — what I did was wrong. The cause confounded me, but the effect was monumental. This singularity exploded outward to create my whole universe, my life. I simply nodded my head while trying to compose myself.

A minute passed in silence.

Chris stood there. He had no idea I was stealing him.

The dad shrugged his shoulders. “Are you here to take him?”

I kept nodding my head.

“Good.” He left the room without even acknowledging his grandson.

Chris walked across the room. Everything in me vibrated. I have never felt so nervous and overwhelmed. He looked me straight in the eye and held out his arms. I picked him up. “Hi Chris. You’re going to stay with me. Is that all right?” He rested his head on my shoulder, and I knew I could never go back.

The next few years, I had legal loose ends to contend with. The birth certificate was a problem. I tried to obtain it from the hospital, which only lead me from one agency to another. Chris’s social security number was also difficult. He had one. I couldn’t get it. All of these things were necessary when Chris was old enough for kindergarten. I’m glad there were no other family members contesting my identity as the biological father, no one to ask for a damning DNA test. For the first year, I couldn’t think of anything else.

Chris quickly attached to me as his father, his provider. That first weekend, I bought clothes, socks, shoes, underwear (all of it he outgrew in another two months), toys, a bed, comforter, sheets, night light, children’s books, and food he would eat. He had trouble sleeping, and would often tell me how much he missed his mother. Over time, those conversations disappeared. If he had a nightmare, he would climb into my bed. I’d let him fall asleep, and then I could carry him back to his own room.

I introduced Chris to my family with the lie that became his truth. Angela and I had dated for a while. We were in love, but it didn’t work. We lost touch, and she didn’t tell me we had a son. Three years later (not five), we met at 7–11 and she told me about Chris. A blood test confirmed paternity, or so I said. Soon after, Angela died in a car accident, hit by a person texting while driving. Chris was mine to raise. My family and friends had a mix of opinions, but overall, they embraced me as heroic. I turned into a great parent.

When Chris was seven, I had been his “father” longer than Angela had been his mother. But that’s not true. Angela would always be his mom — parenting him from within his DNA. His disposition revealed the Angela I never knew. She was part of him. I could see it in his eyes and his smile. The maternal ghost hovered over my conscience and kept me in line. I had to be worthy of her, stealing him the way I did.

When Chris was in 3rd grade, Angela’s dad died. He had a heart attack. When he died, I was the one the coroner called. I made his funeral arrangements and cleaned out his house so it could be sold. Around this time, I was dating the woman I would eventually marry and who would also raise Chris. She was patient with me and my obligations to Angela’s dad.

While digging through his house, I came across his exhaustive National Geographic and Playboy collection, several unreturned VHS tapes and library books. I trashed the Marie Callendar meal boxes, quite possibly hundreds of them, piled in his kitchen. I realized this could have been me had I not learned to clean my apartment and cook meals for one, had I not sold my futon and bought real furniture. I could’ve hidden away. I understood the appeal of surrender, but fatherhood did not permit me to be a recluse.

The house had three bedrooms. The master bedroom and the guest bedroom were both packed with junk. It took time to clear enough space so I could enter those rooms. I have no idea how he got to his bed.

The other room was Angela’s, the only clean room. It was untouched, or ignored, since she left this house for college. She had posters of her favorite things hung and perfectly centered, stuffed animals arranged along her bed. She had a small TV on a small table. In her closet, a purse lay on the ground, the kind an adult would own. This purse was out of time with the museum to her adolescence, probably left on a visit home. I grabbed the purse and looked through it. I knew women occasionally transferred items from one purse to another, moving to larger and larger purses until they go through a purging and return to a smaller purse. This purse was a vestige of such a purging. I discovered a paperback of Glove Pond by Roger Thorpe. I opened the book to the marked page. A 2x6 photo booth picture fell to the floor. I remembered it instantly.

On our second date, Angela and I went to this bar that had a photo booth. We squeezed in there, and tried to create the silliest poses imaginable. The first image, we’re wide-mouthed, wide-eyed, screaming at the world. The second image, we’re play-fighting each other. She’s smiling while choking me. I’m snarling in defiance. My arms are in the air, fists clinched. The third image is completely different. We’re staring at each other, only an inch apart, serious and intimate. The fourth image, we’re both smiling. She has her head on my shoulder and her arms around my chest. She was beautiful and perfect.

I sat in the closet, staring at this photo.

I had proof to support my great deception. Angela and I were something once. Forever how briefly, we were something.

This short story originally appeared in We Miss All the Great Parties by David Hopkins, copyright 2015.

Want to read more stories by David Hopkins? Buy the book. Available on Amazon.com.

(Note: For some odd reason, the color of the BLUE cover is wonky on the Amazon site. I promise it looks much better in person.)