"Mom, can I go over to Jaime's house after school today?" Daniel asked at age six, standing on his tiptoes on the counter as he pulled down a box of cereal.
"No," she answered immediately, taking the box from him. "Get down. You're going to fall and crack your head open. Get down, I said!"
He got down reluctantly.
"I just want to play a little, Mom," he said. "For an hour? Jaime said his mom would have snacks."
"I said no and I mean no."
Marjorie sighed and put her hands on her hips. The skin under her eyes was grey, her face lined, her hair tied back in a tired ponytail. "Friends will always leave you, Danny. Best to keep to yourself. You can always trust yourself."
If he were older and wiser, Daniel would have responded with, Sometimes you can't.
And that's why you need friends, his father would have added.
Instead, he turned and walked away. Upstairs he would change into his uniform, comb his straw-colored hair, gather his books into his ragged backpack. He'd go and wait for the bus, which always brought others: bullies and never friends.
"Mom, I'm going to stay half an hour after school today and look at the science fair," Daniel said at age ten. He straightened his backpack in the mirror and ducked when his mother came forward with a comb.
"No, you're not. You're coming straight home."
"Please, Mom! They're taking them down after today and I want to see where mine placed. I might've won!"
"You're going to let ambition get to your head, Daniel," Marjorie said impatiently, grabbing him by the shoulder and holding him in place so she could comb his hair. "You'll turn out puffed up and prideful and I didn't raise you that way."
If he were older and wiser, Daniel would have responded with, A little ambition is a good thing, Mom.
And if he were alive, his father would have added, It makes a person's heart a little stronger. Makes someone wiser.
But instead, Daniel put his head down, went outside, and waited for the bus. Which brought him to people he dreaded.
"Mom, Jaime's having a birthday party at his house. Can I go?" Daniel asked, age sixteen. He had just surpassed his mother in height and was very conscious of that fact. But they both knew who was taller, in the sense of who was boss. He dared not talk back to her.
Sometimes, alone at night, he wondered how tall his dad had been.
"Of course not."
"Mom, please. It's a sleepover but I'd come home at ten."
"Ten? Daniel, how'd you think I raised you? Ten's an unholy hour. Is it a co-ed sleepover?"
He nodded dumbly.
She rocked back on her heels, against the stove, in satisfaction. "I thought so. I don't want you associating with people who party like that. Who knows what happens at parties like that? You're not to go to Jaime's house again."
"You heard me. Not even for homework. I can't stop your friendship in school but I can by God stop him from turning you into another good-for-nothing partying teen. You're better than that."
"I guess you'd say that fun's overrated?"
"Friendships are overrated. So's fun. It only weakens you for the grim reality of life."
If Daniel were older and wiser he would have responded with, So let me see the grim reality of life, Mom. Otherwise I'm unprepared.
If Marjorie's husband were alive he would have added, It's good to let him see both the good and the bad of life, hon. He'll grow up a pessimist if he doesn't. Let him grow.
But instead, Daniel put his hands in his pockets and went to call Jaime to tell him he couldn't come. And to wish him a happy birthday.
"Mom, I've applied to Humboldt -- guess what! Jaime and I both got in!" Daniel, age eighteen, sat on the floor with a sandwich while his mother made worried notes in her checkbook.
"Did you get a scholarship?"
His shoulders sagged. "Full ride. Science and tech. Is that all you care about?"
"Don't talk to me like that. Where is Humboldt?"
"Hell no, kid. You're going here, in Spain."
"Mom! I've got a good scholarship in Germany -- where else am I supposed to go?"
"Complutense has a good financial aid program. Apply there."
She stopped scribbling in her checkbook and stared at him. "Yes you are."
"Daniel! What do you think I've been trying to do your whole life?"
"Keep me in a cage."
"Raise you right! Every time, every friend you've ever made, I've reminded you what life has shoved down my throat all my life: Friends betray you. Ambition wounds you. Life hurts the whole time. I've tried to show you -- prepare you -- life! For life!"
He stood, sandwich unfinished and dripping mustard, and said, "You've kept me alone all my life, not a friend, no one. You hate me. Well, so be it. I hate you too."
"Don't you walk away from me, young man!" she shouted, standing.
He rounded. "I'm leaving! You've got your wish."
Daniel ran upstairs, shoved clothes and money into his backpack, threw on his shoes, slammed the front door. Marjorie stood, empty checkbook in hand, watching the glass vibrate in the front door.
If Daniel had been older and wiser, he would have returned, and said to her, Mom, I'm sorry.
And if he were alive, Daniel's dad would have said, Let him go, Marje. You've done what you could.
Instead, the house was empty and silent.
"Hi, this is Daniel," Daniel's voice said, age twenty-four.
"Hi, Dan," Marjorie said quietly. "I was calling just to say hello and to ask -- "
"Mom," Daniel said patiently, anger buried in his quiet voice. "There's a reason I haven't called in six years. I love you. Please don't call me again."
"I -- oh!" she gasped as Daniel hung up.
If she were older and wiser, she would have called right back and said, I'm sorry. I never meant to hurt you.
Instead, she blinked back tears, shoved her phone into her pocket, and said nothing. Around her, the kitchen was dark and cold and lonely.
"Hi, you've reached Daniel," Daniel's voice said, age twenty-six. "Leave a message and I'll call you back. Thanks!"
"Hi, Dan," Marjorie said quietly. Around her, the hotel room was cold and quiet. She wondered where he was. He'd graduated from Humboldt four years earlier, and she knew that he was living somewhere in England. But that was all. "I -- just wanted to wish you a happy birthday."
She paused. Outside the window, a tiny shrike bird lighted on the sill, wings outstretched. A larger shrike, its mother, lighted next to it and began to pester it, beating it over the head with its wings and letting out shrill, sharp screeches. Marjorie burst into crazed laughter.
Then she got a hold of herself. "Listen, Daniel. Um... I'm sorry. I'm -- proud of you."
She blinked away tears.
"I was wrong. I was too overprotective, and I'm sorry. It's my fault we're apart like this."
She sniffed and looked around the room.
"Please give me a call, Daniel. I love you. Bye."
She hung up.
If she were older and wiser, Marjorie would have said on the phone, I was wrong about the friends, the ambition, life. Are you ruined because of me?
And if he were alive, her husband would have said, He isn't. He's all the better because of what you've done.
You've done better than I ever could.
"I was just trying my best," she told the room and herself. "I don't even know where he lives."
She choked back a sob and looked sadly at the cold hotel room.
"It's Mom," Daniel told Clare later that day, listening to the voicemail. He sat at the sunny kitchen table, watching a starling peck at rotten apples on the ground.
"Oh. How's she?"
"She sounds okay. She says happy birthday."
"That's sweet. You should call her back." Clare leaned over Daniel and put put her chin on top of his head.
He thought, If I were a wiser man I'd call her back --
"Daniel," Clare said.
Daniel set his phone down on the table, hesitated, and then picked it up.
He looked at Clare.
Then, sighing, Daniel dialed the number, waited, and said, "Mom? Hi."