To say that I was stunned would be an inadequate expression of how I felt. The only experience I could compare it to was the night in Berlin that I suffered the only flash knockout of my career. We were trading punches - I might have even been getting the better of the exchanges – and everything was going to plan. Then I took a shot to the temple and the next thing I knew I was staring up at the ref as he counted to ten.
The time between the punch landing and the heavily accented numbers being shouted down at me did not, nor will they ever, exist for me. To say the least, it was a very unsettling sensation.
I’m not sure how much time I lost between Dawn offering her daughter’s picture and my nod of acceptance, but it was enough for her forehead to crease with worry and her eyes to fill with doubt.
My initial reaction was to feel guilty, not only for my delayed response but also for the concealment of my own daughter. There I was, caught up in bobbing around details and covering up lies in an attempt to avoid mention of Cara, and there she was handing over a wallet size glossy of a laughing raven-haired angel.
But that feeling passed very quickly, twisting itself into dark threads of suspicion that wrapped themselves around my throat and kept me silent. As a single parent I knew how delicately the topic of your child had to be handled during the opening stages of a new relationship – I personally had a rule that Cara was not mentioned until the third date. And, despite any pretensions to the contrary, we were most definitely on a date. I suddenly felt like I was being tested and I didn’t like it; so I decided to do some poking around of my own.
“She’s beautiful,” I said as I passed the photo back. I looked Dawn right in the eye as I added, “You and the father must be very proud.”
“Well, I am at least,” she said with a sad smile. “Sergio isn’t proud enough to visit or write her, but at least he’s never late on his child support payments.”
“I’m sorry… how long ago did you two split up?”
“Just over three years now, right after our little Annika turned seven months. We hadn’t been together very long before she was conceived and everything seemed to fall apart once she arrived. I don’t think he was ready to be a father, despite his promises to the contrary,” she said with a subdued laugh. “Most of the bitterness is gone, but some days it can be real, real hard.”
I nodded and took my time finishing the hot chocolate, unsure of my next step. I was having great difficulty deciding whether Dawn was just a naturally open person or if she was simply throwing me in the flames right at the start to see if I would run or stay. A part of me could understand the trial by fire option – time is tight for everyone these days and even more so when you’re raising a child on your own. There just isn’t much time to waste on dead end dates.
But there was a voice, pulsating at the back of my head, that was rankled by the thought of being judged before I had made any decisions about my interest in her, about how far I could see things progressing. Why should I have to prove myself worthy when she hasn’t done so herself? The voice was getting angrier and more indignant by the second and I didn’t know what to tell it as precious moments dragged by our suddenly silent table.
“Was she in the house during my lessons?” I asked just to have something to say.
“Oh. No, my neighbour watches over her in the evenings while I teach,” she told the tabletop as she rubbed at a nonexistent spill on the back of her right hand. “She’s got a couple kids of her own, and a puppy, so Annika doesn’t mind at all.” She looked up at me with a pained expression that tore at my heart. “Listen Nate, this is really, really hard for me. I haven’t dated anyone since Sergio left and I didn’t know how to tell you that I’m a two for one deal. I am looking for a partner but my daughter is in need of a father – if that’s more than you want to get into, I can understand. Completely and utterly understand. I just… didn’t want to get attached to you before you knew; I don’t know how I’d handle another man leaving me because of Annika.”
“You’re afraid you’d start blaming her,” I said quietly, “if you haven’t already.” Her head fell and she nodded slowly as she stared at her lap, too ashamed to look at me. After a moment I pulled out my wallet and plucked out a picture of Cara and myself, taken earlier that summer when we were at the beach. Cara loved that one: with a sun hat obscuring her hair, a cap concealing my baldness, and our matching green eyes, we actually looked related for once. I slid it gently across to Dawn, resting it against the tips of her fingers. “I know the feeling.”
She picked up the photo with her right hand, studying it while wiping at the corners of her eyes with her left index finger. It took her a couple of strained breaths to make the connection but once she did her body seemed to free itself of an unseen burden – her back straightened, her breath came more freely, and her head came up. I smiled and she returned it shyly.
“I guess we’re on even footing now,” she said.
“Yes, I believe we are. So how about we start over?” I reached across and offered my hand. “Hi, I’m Nathaniel McDaniel – but please, call me Nate.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you Nate,” she said primly as she took my hand. “My name is Dawn Connolly – but please, call me tomorrow.”