In those days Dawn was new to Chicago. She got a job at Starbucks, took a few drawing classes and made plans to apply to art school in the fall. She had never wanted to be one of those women who follows a man just to stay in the relationship, but when Charlie told her he was moving to the city, she couldn’t think of anything better to do. She didn’t want to work a desk job or pop out babies; she wanted to paint, but knew the world was not kind to women who painted, not accepting of the way they squinted at objects to study their shadows, the way they stared at people’s noses thinking about the shapes and planes created by bone and cartilage. So she had left Ohio and followed Charlie.
Dawn and Charlie had dated on and off for the last three years. Charlie, unlike Dawn, had a life plan, a ten year plan, and money he’d been saving away since he was twelve. He knew he wanted to be an attorney (part of the plan), and started law school straight out of undergrad. Dawn reveled in the order he imposed on her life. His desk was clear, his closet neat, his bed always made. Compared to Charlie, Dawn felt unkempt: like she always had paint on her nose.
Charlie’s anal-retentive neatness had served him well in law school. His books were alphabetically ordered and he always returned them to their shelves. He highlighted court cases with five different colored highlighters: one for facts, one for precedents, one for plaintiff’s arguments, one for … Dawn could never remember the rest. When he was asleep she would take the books from their shelves and run her fingers over the interlocking blocks of color the way she would run her fingers through his long hair after they made love. The highlighted lines never wavered.
Halfway through his first semester he began to argue at her. The first time they fought he had railed about her bringing home “light” margarine. He called it preposterous that one tub of fat should be healthier than another tub of fat. Just before he took finals he cut off his ponytail. Told her that he no longer had time to bother with it.
Dawn took odd jobs. Not because they needed more money, but to keep busy while she was alone. One of Charlie’s professors hired her to paint murals in the bedrooms his kids used when they weren’t with their mother. She baby-sat for the family downstairs. Sewed custom curtains for their landlord. Edited an erotic novel written by their across the hall neighbor, Brenda.
The novel’s main character was conspicuously named ‘Brenda.’ Dawn did not mention this. Instead, she suggested a more sensual name for the male lead, to which Brenda protested: “But it’s Steve Perry.” And when Dawn blinked but did not reply, “Steve Perry, from Journey.”
Dawn kept taking jobs. No longer to keep busy while Charlie was away, but to keep away while Charlie was home.
The day Dawn packed to leave him, she emptied drawer after drawer into boxes brazenly marked not yours. When she unpacked them she found she had confiscated his deodorant, two pairs of socks, tiny shells from a trip up Lake Michigan that he refused to throw away, his high school yearbook and a brush he hadn’t used since he’d gotten his hair cut.
Instead of throwing the things out or returning them she piled them into a single box, shoved it into the back of her closet, and tried to forget.
Dawn moved north of the city and got a teaching certificate. She gave up smoking (the cool art student thing) and took up drinking red wine (the single woman thing). She ran. Worked a garden. Worked a soup kitchen. Road her bicycle to work. Prided herself on being the cool art teacher, the fun one who had her students work on great big funky projects. That fall the fourth graders were making a six foot wide braided rug out of clothing scraps and the fifth graders were embarking on a mural of bugs and nature. Her only rule was that they couldn’t paint any bugs that were dead or getting squished. It was a simple rule and a far cry from the rules of the art teacher she had had as a child. That old bat had covered the entire chalkboard with carefully printed instructions about how they weren’t to make a mess, any mess. It was art, and art was messy like life was messy. And art, when you’re seven, is even messier. Life, however, was simpler.
Dawn prepared materials for twenty-five first graders to make plaster seashells molded by their cupped hands. Dawn had seen Brenda’s name on the roster of in-classroom parent volunteers, but she hadn’t recognized it as that of the woman who had lived across the hall from her and Charlie.
Brenda crooned Dawn’s name when she walked into the classroom and held her palms up and out to encourage Dawn to embrace her. Multiple bracelets clinked on each of Brenda’s wrists. They hugged and Dawn breathed in the scent of hair dye and Coco Chanel and tried not to get plaster on Brenda’s clothes.
Brenda complimented Dawn on how youthful she had remained in their time apart. “Not a day over thirty-three,” she said with a smile.
Dawn was only now thirty, more than ten years Brenda’s junior.
“Which one’s yours?” Dawn asked.
Brenda indicated a slight girl whose hair was slipping out of a ponytail. Brenda winked at Dawn. “Charlie’s little gift.”
Brenda hung around after the first graders had finished their project and left to retrieve lunch boxes and backpacks before heading home. Dawn wiped down the tables, and attacked spots of plaster with an old wash cloth before the plaster could adhere permanently. Brenda watched her work and insisted they catch up on everything that had happened since Dawn “ran out in the middle of the night.”
As Dawn recalled it had been 2:00 p.m. on a Friday when she left Charlie. Not even close to dusk, not even in December.
Brenda made it clear Charlie didn’t know. She had also been seeing her boss at the tax processing center that winter. The moment her boss found out she was pregnant he put two carats on her finger and whisked her out to the suburbs without ever asking if the kid was his.
“You know,” Brenda said, “I’d had my eye on Charlie since you two first moved in.”
Dawn thought of all the adjectives Brenda would have used in her erotic novel—lusty, knowing, wanton—to describe the smile Brenda now wore. Dawn settled on slutty.
“Such a strong nose and all that dark hair, he looked just like Steve.”
Dawn did not comment on the fact that Brenda thought she was on a first name basis with the former lead singer. “But Charlie cut off his hair,” she said.
“I know.” Brenda waved off the thought and her bracelets clinked. “But a fantasy’s just a fantasy, right?”
The day after Brenda’s visit, Dawn toyed with her coffee mug and didn’t notice patterns made by the creamer as it spiraled inside. She should have put together a lesson plan, but didn’t. When she got to school she laid out crayons for the younger kids and watercolors and newspaper for the older ones. “Fill the page with shapes,” she told them and roused herself enough to talk about color and pattern and repetition. To smile and praise them for way they wove wobbly streaks of color over the fat blocks of text.
The next week Dawn purchased a paternity test. Getting a sample of the child’s hair was easy; the elastic bands grasping her ponytail always slipped out taking long strands with them. Opening the box of Charlie’s old things was harder. Not yours, it taunted her in her own handwriting. Inside she found what she needed: the hairbrush she doubted he’d ever missed.
The reply from the paternity test company contained an apology and a full refund. Something had gone wrong at the lab: the samples were compromised.
Dawn lifted the receiver to call Charlie anyway, then thought of him and Brenda twined on Charlie’s perfectly made bed, “Any Way You Want It” blaring in the background, and put the phone down.
Two days later she tried again.
“I thought you should know you have a daughter.”
She waited out his silence.
“How could you have taken this long to tell me?”
“I’ve only known for a couple of weeks.”
Then she realized what he thought.
Charlie took an entire afternoon off work and drove up to Dawn’s school. The parent volunteers were back again, this time helping the students iron crayon shavings and fall leaves between two pieces of wax paper. Dawn didn’t have to ask Brenda to stay behind; she remained in the classroom unbidden and tried to chat like the old friends she thought they were.
Dawn saw him over Brenda’s shoulder. He hovered in the doorway, his tie loosened but still on, shirt sleeves rolled up. He’d kept his hair short all these years. Brenda followed her gaze and gasped. Dawn excused herself.
On the far side of the classroom, Brenda’s daughter doodled seashells with colored pencils while she waited for her mother.
“How about we paint something,” Dawn told the girl. She went to the supply cabinet and came back with acrylics and brushes.
“But those are for the big kids.”
Dawn nodded. “We can pretend just for today.”
The elastic band slipped out of the girl’s hair. Dawn picked it up and fixed the ponytail for her.
Brenda was gesturing, her clicking bracelets punctuating her words. Charlie crossed his arms over his chest.
When Dawn looked back, the girl had smudged paint on her nose. A nose that had the same shapes and shadows as Charlie’s, though thankfully in much smaller proportions. Dawn made no move to wipe away the paint. Instead, she stroked the girl’s hair with a possessiveness she never before allowed herself to show.