Suitcase in hand, you’re headed to the downtown San Diego train station. The streetlamps flicker as you make your way down the side alleys that wind to the backside of platform B. You know the way by heart, as if a Volkswagon-sized magnet locked onto your chest and drug you there. You pull out your pack of Camels and tap out a single and light up. You take a long drag and think about Benji and what you’d like to say to him if only you had the chance. The prick still haunts you. What he did to you and your girl.
You’re fourteen and you’ve got those red velvet short-shorts on—the ones that hitch up your crotch and make you feel steamy and scorching hot. It’s the night you meet Benji, in the cul-de-sac near Menlo and Dwight. He’s got those nut-brown dusky eyes and sunbaked torso that make you ache. He’s sixteen and prattles on—inexperienced, tactless talk about how sizzling you are and you buy it—instant, like hot water added to oatmeal. He’s got the lewk and allure that reels you. You’re his prize.
“S’up?” he flexes.
Before you can even answer he’s got his arm around you and you are leaning in to him. He’s like a drug you can’t unload. You want him and he knows he’s got you. The moon is big and full, like his ego, his bravado, his youth. Your red velvets are off before you can even say boo. The dark singes with the smell of burnt adolescence. The yard dogs howl.
You’re fifteen and your dropping out of high school. You’re carrying and the creature is low and heavy. Benji says you’re his girl but he’s never around when you need him. The baby will come, but will he be there? You feel duped and lost. When your friends ask you cap, “It’s all good” but you know it’s not because it isn’t and it probably never will be.
You name her Caitlyn.
When she turns five Benji shows up with a life-sized purple teddy bear. His lewd trash talk is gone and is replaced with something else. Something coherent and expressive that feels like stale chalk when you taste it. The eloquence finishes bitter when you roll it on your tongue and yet it’s there, articulate and free flowing and you feel lost in some shit-show farce where you are just wrong and lost and excused from life.
“How are you?” he asks.
And you just stand there wordless, because there are no words.
He’s in her life again. In Caitlyn’s life. While you were scraping by, he managed to turn his life around. He got his education, a good job, a home, and even a wife. Now he is there for school pick-ups and weekends and then entire weeks with Caitlyn. You are lost without her but he’s her father and so what can you do. You wanted him involved, didn’t you?
Your best friend Gigi assures you this is a good thing. That it will be good for you and for Caitlyn. Your head knows it is, but your heart feels painfully crushed.
Caitlyn has just turned thirteen. She tells you when you return from your job at Sunrise Juice Bar, that she wants to go live with her father, her step-mom and her new baby brother. Benji will become her full-time parent, relegating you to second tier, back seat, side-lined. You were her life and she was yours but now he is her moon, her stars, her sky, her ticket to somewhere else. Somewhere you can never go to or know.
“Why?” you ask her in a tone that comes out impatient and small.
“Because he’s my dad. He can give me things you can’t.”
You think she means to say, He is everything you are not.
When she turns sixteen, Benji throws Caitlyn a birthday party and you are invited to their home for the first time. When you arrive, you park around the corner so no one will see the heap of metal you drive and call your car. You stomp out your cigarette and march to their front door where Benji’s well-dressed and shapely wife greets you. She’s nice enough but you can’t help feeling uncomfortable in your cheap JC Penney sundress and Payless shoes. You grab a drink and a plate of the catered Asian fusion and endeavor to make small talk and fit it.
You track down Caitlyn and give her a hug and a card with a coupon you’ve made for a mother-daughter date on the town with lunch and a nail polish appointment at your friend Gigi’s salon. Caitlyn politely thanks you and then takes off with her cavalry of friends you’ve never heard of before. How did you not know her bestie was Cheyenne with fire engine red hair? Or that she is dating Christopher, the son of a prominent journalist?
You learn that Benji has given her a used red BMW coupe for her sweet sixteen. The car costs more than you will make in a year at the juice bar. He’s clearly doing well.
Benji informs you Caitlyn is getting straight A’s in school and he’s been shopping around with her for colleges. They’re looking mostly in state, up north actually, but they’re also considering the east coast. The news makes your stomach roll and you manage to will yourself not to wretch up the organic spring rolls and sushi you’ve just eaten.
Caitlyn tells you she’s been accepted to UC Berkeley up in the Bay Area of California. She’ll be leaving in the fall.
“But it’s so far honey.” You tell her.
“Mom, it’s not that far. Christ, you can drive there in a day if you ever want to visit me. But of course, I’ll be studying all the time, so I can see you when I come back to visit during the holidays and summer, okay?”
You settle with the holiday and summer visits, as infrequent as they are. When Caitlyn graduates four years later she informs you that she has secured a job in San Francisco and won’t be returning to San Diego as you had hoped.
“But I’ll be busy mom learning the job and getting settled so let’s hold off on you making any visits for a while, okay?
Four years later, Caitlyn phones you to invite you to her wedding. She’s marrying Stevie, an environmental scientist that she met by chance at a coffee shop in the city. You’re introduced to Stevie via a Zoom call a month before the wedding.
Caitlyn’s just too busy planning details to make a trip back home, although you hear through Gigi that Stevie and Benji have already met in person which somehow doesn’t surprise you. It registers as another marker for all of your inadequacies and makes you sad.
You take the train up to San Francisco when you can no longer trust your heap of crap car to get you further than your own neighborhood. You borrow something acceptable to wear from Gigi, a snappy little teal-blue number, and stay at a budget hotel outside of the city. Cab fare is expensive so you figure out the bus schedule and take the bus instead to the church on the day of the wedding.
You arrive early and sit in the first row as instructed by the usher when you tell him you are Caitlyn’s mom. Benji and his family arrive and start to file into the same row. They’ve had more children and Benji’s younger daughter moves in first and leaves a wide gap between you and their family. Benji smiles at you and waves.
As the wedding music begins to play, you think about how absent your own family was from your life, how your mistake of getting pregnant so young actually resulted in your biggest success, your largest treasure, your daughter. You sacrificed your education, and what may have been, to raise her. And now, she shines. She is intelligent, educated, successful. She’s everything you had wanted to be but never realized. But she’s none of these things as a direct result of you. She’s only these things because of Benji. He wasn’t there for you, but he was eventually there for her. And he transformed himself so that he could give those things to her and give her opportunity.
Your phone is ringing at 6:00am and its Caitlyn.
“He’s dead.” She cries into the phone. “My dad is dead.”
It takes you a minute to realize that she is telling you Benji has died.
“What happened?” I soothe.
“Heart attack.” She says. “Oh mom, it’s so unexpected and I’m devastated.”
“I’m so sorry.” You say, and you mean it. You don’t want to see her hurt so deeply.
The funeral is a week later and Caitlyn stays with Benji’s family. You are there to support her the best that you can. With concern, a shoulder, by listening, and with food you make and bring over.
The minister delivering the eulogy says Benji was only fifty-years-old and you pause to realize that had you not been at Menlo and Dwight thirty-six years ago there would be no Caitlyn and the outcome for Benji may have been so different. Perhaps he would never have become so ambitious and put a strain on his heart. Perhaps he’d still be alive. Perhaps you would have done something extraordinary with your life. There is no way to know.
Suitcase in hand, you’re headed to the downtown San Diego train station. You’re taking the train like you have every month for the past ten years to visit your daughter and her family in San Francisco. The streetlamps flicker as you make your way down the side alleys that wind to the backside of platform B. You know the way by heart. You pull out your pack of gum and extract a stick, popping the minty freshness into your mouth—you gave up smoking when Benji died so many years ago. You think about Benji and what you’d like to say to him if only you had the chance. The guy still haunts you. What he did to you and for your girl.