Essay For My Ten-Year-Old Daughter,
Whom I Haven’t Spoken To In A While,
Told In Reverse


I drive to your house, looking backward at where I’ve been. You walk into my arms and tell me goodbye. Your grandparents, who aren’t really your grandparents, wave from the door. We leave together in my rental car, headed to Denny’s.

We talk over lunch, and I’m happy. I stop, then start trying to act like a father — your father. After the waitress has taken away our plates, while we wait to leave, I struggle to think of something to ask you. I put my hat on and drive you to your house and walk you to the door. I drive back to the hotel, where I call to say I’m on my way. I fly home to Minnesota, still facing in your direction. On the phone I ask if you want to get lunch when I visit California. I listen to it ring. I dial your number. I wonder if you’re on summer break, if it’s a good time to call.

Months fold back up into the calendar. It rains, snows, rains. The dead leaves burn red-orange and sail back up into the trees, turn green once again.

I check my phone to see how long we’ll talk: twenty-seven minutes. We talk for precisely that long, and then the phone starts to ring, and you’re gone. Afterward I write down questions to ask you.

Several months pass. You turn nine. At the end of July I fly to California to see you, just like I did last year when you were ten. Then it’s May, April, March. Another year gone by. I think of how little I know about you: who your friends are, what your favorite TV show is, all that. You are eight, then seven, then six. You call me Michael instead of Dad.

An airplane brings me to California for your fifth birthday party. The sun rises in the west as the guests arrive. Kids play in the bounce house. Candy escapes from small hands and shoots up into the broken piñata. I pull on the rope from my spot on the roof, causing the piñata to sway and jerk. Kids take turns sealing it back up with a stick, then line up near you in the front yard. I drop the rope, climb down a ladder, smile and nod to Mr. Garcia when he asks if I want to man the piñata. An hour passes. From several tables away, I watch you wrap gifts. You sit in Alex’s lap while he unties your shoes, playing the role of father. Your aunt tells me you look like me in every way. I tell her you and I have the same smile, our top lip shaped like an m. She says she can see the resemblance. I try not to look upset when she says, “You must be the baby daddy.” Your aunt and I are introduced. I drive to my parents’ house.

You are four and think I’m your uncle. Then you are three and think I’m a cousin or a family friend. When I visit, you chase me around the avocado tree in your yard. All you need me to be is someone you can run after. You turn two. I move from Minnesota to California. I unpack the bed of my truck, unbox everything I own.

You have just stopped being two when I see you next. I tell Mr. Garcia I just wanted to meet my daughter before I leave California. My parents are here with me. You have your arms wrapped around Mr. Garcia’s leg. You do not call him Papa. You leave suddenly, disappearing back into the house. I listen for a child’s voice as I stand at the front door, trying to explain who I am, why I’m there. Mr. Garcia closes the door. I knock on it. My parents and I walk down the driveway, get into my truck, and drive away. At home I print directions to your house.

Months later your mother, K., gives me the home address of Mr. and Mrs. Garcia, the couple who have custody of you.

I run a marathon. I fill out a grad-school application. I volunteer to mentor at-risk youth. I run less and less until I am running just a few miles each day. It is summer again. I write poems that you walk through. I think of you. I try not to think of you. You are about to turn one.

I consider going to grad school. Days pass. I don’t want to think about you. I talk to K. on the phone. She tells me that the couple raising you are good people, that they think their son, Alex, is your father. She says you’re healthy. She says she fucked up and let another man think he’s the father. She tells me I have a daughter. I try to act like I don’t know why she might be calling me. K. apologizes for calling, says hello. I listen to her voice mail, where she says we need to talk. When she calls, I don’t answer the phone.


Essay For My Almost-Nine-Year-Old Daughter


Today we talk on the phone for exactly twenty-seven minutes. You tell me about your trip to the river, that you tried to swim but the water was “heavy.” You say chicken nuggets can be breakfast; breakfast is just whatever you eat in the morning. Your mama told you that. You say you get annoyed at your little cousins. I ask how much older you are than them, and you say four years, that this year you’ll be nine and you don’t want to become a teenager and get moody. You say none of your friends have parents as old as yours. You don’t want your mama and papa to get older, because then they’ll have to leave you, and you don’t want them to go. I don’t know what to say other than to agree with this fact. I say something about memories and photographs. You say you can’t wait to get more film for your camera.

You tell me you had a dream last night where your papa took you to a different school. He said, “This is where you have to go now.” You stayed there for years. When you woke up, you were glad it was a dream. Then you had chicken nuggets for breakfast. You ask what I am going to eat for dinner, and I say, “What do you think?”

I don’t know why — if there’s even a reason at all — but you say, “Let me guess: asparagus.”


Essay For My Eight-Year-Old Daughter,
Who Is Focused On A Painting


At the art museum’s Family Day we stop to get you a drink of water. On the wall by the fountain is a painting, and around the painting are several yellow Post-it notes. A sign on a table reads, “Activity: title the painting.” Beside it is a stack of Post-its, pencils, and nubs of putty.

Did I say, Go ahead, or were you already staring at the painting, reaching for a yellow note?

Is this what it’s like: to watch your child and see in them parts that are you but also parts that are entirely their own?

The painting is of an autumnal forest. There’s a lake in the center, a small body of water surrounded by trees and grass. Yellows and browns, splashes of deep green. Bits of blue morning sky. Someone stands along the lake’s edge, a blurred figure wearing a brown cap, white shirt, and blue pants. I watch you watch them watching the water. Other children pass behind us, uninterested in this activity, and I am caught by a sudden sense of pride: how much you seem to care about art. It’s a selfish feeling, I know, but I don’t ever want to lose this memory.

Is this what it’s like: to be a father, excited to witness what your child is drawn to?

You write something down on your Post-it, stick it to the wall. You tell me it’s called Sorrowful Lake, because it’s beautiful but lonely. I step forward and stare at the blur of a man in the brown cap. “It is,” I say, “isn’t it?” Then I put my hand on your shoulder, and you let me leave it there. Children flood the path behind us.


Essay For My Eight-Year-Old Daughter,
Ending With A Question


We find a room at the art museum where there are supplies for making paper crowns. I am the only father here, it seems. I wish one of the mothers would tell me what to do. You sit down at the table and look up at me. A mother walks up (lucky me!) and starts showing you how to fold the paper. She says the instructions on the handout don’t make sense. You ask me to pick my two favorite colors. We cut construction paper and crease lines as the mother says, “That’s good.”

Satisfied that we are all right, the mother leaves to help her own daughter. Some kids run out of the room, and more wander in. A few sit down at our table. I am still the only father here. I puff up my chest. The new kids look at us making our crowns and then hold the paper in their hands as if willing it to transform into what we have. I stand up and act like a father. Waving my hands in the air to get their attention, I tell them the instruction sheet is confusing; that they should fold the construction paper like so; cut here, fold again there; tape when ready. “Go ahead,” I say, “pick your favorite colors.”

You look up at me and say, “This one’s yours.” It’s yellow and brown, the colors of Minnesota in late October. You don’t say that last part, but I imagine you know somehow. I certainly know I shouldn’t think these thoughts, but it’s lonely in my head sometimes.

In another room kids make plastic stained-glass windows with Sharpies, yarn, popsicle sticks, and tape. I stand amid the mothers, and some fathers, and I blend right in. I cross my arms and say to you, “You’re doing great.” I watch you walk across the room to ask for blue, and I admire how you are assertive yet polite. (Lucky me!) You finish and say, “This one’s for you.” There is a small red heart on the bottom right corner.

Later, at Applebee’s, you produce a small photo of yourself from the pocket of your overalls and say, “Here.” I have gotten so many gifts today. (Lucky me!) I thank you and say I will put it on my desk at school. You say, “What if someone asks who it is?”

I say, “I’ll tell them it’s my daughter.”

You say, “What if they ask, ‘What’s her name?’ ”


Essay For My Eight-Year-Old Daughter,
Who Is Asking Who I Used To Be


I sit next to you in the booth at Applebee’s. Scanning the kids’ menu, you ask me what I think you would like to eat. I guess: Quesadilla? Tacos? Corn dog?

“No,” you say. “The hamburger.”

I nod.

“You would know if you were here more,” you say.

There’s no way around that truth, so I just swallow and say, “You’re right.”

Later, as we eat, you ask what you used to call me when you were younger, like when we first met.

How long have I been a mystery to you?

Whenever we spend the day together like this, I play the father. “Don’t eat too big a mouthful of food,” I say. “Five more minutes to play before we go.” “Put on your sweater; it’s getting cold.” “Because I said so. . . . I’m not asking” — lines borrowed from other parents. I’m trying out fatherhood, seeing how it feels on my shoulders. I affect a firm-but-I-hope-not-too-harsh voice. I make sure to kiss the top of your head.

For a long time you used to call me your “friend.” Then for a while you thought I was your cousin. Even now you switch between calling me Dad and Michael. I don’t mind, truly, though it takes me a while to prepare to be whoever I must be. And then, when I’m alone again and need to be just myself, that takes time, too.


Essay For My Eight-Year-Old Daughter
In A Different Time Zone


I ’m usually at school when I call to see if you’re home. Before I call, I charge the battery in my headphones. I use the restroom and wash my hands. I turn off the light in my office and prepare to go outside, where it’s sunny. I don’t call right at 4:00, but just after, at 4:19 perhaps. I have a book of poems by Carl Phillips in my back pocket — in case I don’t get to talk to you, or in case I do, and I want to read poems afterward. I can’t say why this helps, but it does. I take a drink of water. I set the water bottle down. I step outside and dial.

You tell me how much you love pizza, how you’ve already done your homework, how last night your sister kept you up until ten o’clock. You don’t remember anything after that. You opened your eyes, and it was 6 AM. You had a smoothie for breakfast. It had raspberries, strawberries, milk, and banana. You’ve been stacking Jenga blocks while we talk. You tell me you’re going to kick the block tower over, that I might hear it crash. I do, and we laugh. You do this again with dominoes. Then you tell me about a science project your cousin helped you with; it involved a letter you sent me in the mail two weeks ago — though your mama, in the background, tells you it was only a few days ago. I haven’t received it, I explain. Maybe the snow in Minnesota slowed it down, you offer. Before we hang up, I tell you I love you and listen in case you say it back.


Essay For My Five-Year-Old Daughter,
With A Game Of Tug-of-War Inside It


Another summer visit. Alex is home but stays in the garage.

You and I kick a ball back and forth and talk about I don’t know what. I make you giggle; I know that. I kick the ball over to you. You are standing by the garage window when Alex opens it. You say hi to him. He doesn’t say anything to me, and I don’t say hello to him. I kick the ball to you and wait for you to kick it back. From a radio inside the garage, we hear Latin cumbia music. You tell him not to change the station. Alex turns the music up, and you start dancing, the ball forgotten at your feet. Now I know you like to dance to cumbias.

I pretend to look around, then ask, “Where’s the ball?” A small “Oh” floats from your mouth. You kick the ball, but you don’t stop dancing, so when you kick it, it flies crooked across the yard. I walk over to the bush it bounced behind and pull it from the dirt, dusting it off until it is as clean as it will ever be, maybe even cleaner than when the factory packed it to ship. As I walk back, my steps are short and slow. I take stock of what clouds I can see.


Essay For My Six-Year-Old Daughter
In Which Reality Is Bent And Then Restored


It’s complicated, I know: the day you, my girlfriend, and I play in the front yard under the shade of the avocado tree. Your mama and papa are inside talking to my parents. It’s July, so I keep telling you to drink water. You run around, and Lissa and I look at each other as if none of this were unusual, as if we came over to play all the time.

I chase you around the tree while Lissa watches. I tell you to stay hydrated.

To get us both involved, you say, “Let’s play Mommy and Daddy.” Lissa looks at me, and the corners of our mouths lift toward the branches.

You offer us pieces of chalk. You take the pink, Lissa picks neon green, and I choose yellow. “Draw the daddy,” you say. So I do. “Draw the mommy,” you say to Lissa, and she does. You draw yourself between us. You tell me to go to work. You go to school. Lissa cleans the house. Afterward, in the dusty afternoon, we have dinner. There is a pink table with pink legs. We are a family like that for two minutes, maybe more.

Then Alex comes walking across the driveway. He doesn’t say anything, but you stand up, quick and sharp. You run over to him, and without turning my head I hear you say, “We’re playing Mommy and Daddy, and Michael is Daddy and Lissa is Mommy, but it’s not real; it’s just pretend.” Because I don’t turn my head to watch, I imagine you are waiting for him to tell you it’s OK. I imagine the face he is trying not to make — some paragraph of pain you already know how to read, young as you are.

You come back and draw a pink circle around our whole, tiny family — captured. We float over the cement the rest of the day.


Essay for My Five-Year-Old Daughter
Bearing Gifts


I say, “I have to fly home. Minnesota.” I say, “I have work. I teach at a school.” I wonder what you imagine when I say, “I have students like you, but a lot older.”

You look at your sandals, wiggle your toes.

When I’m gone, I’ll send letters. Stickers. A stuffed animal.

I say, “Be good.” I say, “I love you,” and think about how many times it might take before the words stick inside your head as a memory. I don’t remember much about being five.

Sometimes, when I leave, you don’t say anything. You turn back to the front yard and disappear into the shade, skipping.

But other times you tell me, “Come back tomorrow. There’ll be lemonade.” You tell me we can go to the park, and I wonder how far that is from here. Most times my departure is a big production: First, handshakes and hugs with your mama and papa. Then the walk down your driveway. The loose strands of conversation. When I leave, I always get something from you to take with me, a gift to carry to the car: boxed chocolates; fresh oranges; a jar of peanut-butter-filled pretzel bites. Your mama and papa are thoughtful like that. They give you something to give to me. I leave with my sunglasses on, waving my hand. Sometimes you call my name, your voice a taut string, and I think Michael might snap in half. But it’s strong — a tether. A song plays as I walk away, and I can’t quite catch the lyrics. I tell myself not to look back. There’s a baby avocado tree in my arms.