So how could you be married and then unmarried, Mom," Charlotte asked me one recent Saturday. We were heading toward Hudson River Park, Charlotte beside me on her scooter. She dragged the toe of her navy blue high-top sneaker against the cobblestones, which is what she does when she asks a question she feels tentative about.
"Sometimes grown-ups make mistakes," I said.
"Like in math or something." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "That's a mistake."
Charlotte had only recently learned that before I married her father I had had a first husband. She had run across a photograph of a tall stranger in a gray morning suit embracing me in a wedding dress. It would have been a hard thing to try to obfuscate, so I had told her the truth.
"So then grown-ups can make bigger mistakes than in math homework. But it wasn't a mistake, after all. If I had stayed with Dean, I wouldn't have you."
"So he's not my father, then? Phew. 'Cause I was worried he must be, and I don't even know him."
"He's not your father. If he were your father you would have to be 20, and you're not even 10."
"I am 7," she declared, as if to end this discussion by making her own point.
"And who is my baby girl?"
Once we were safely to the other side of the treacherous West Side Highway crossing, Charlotte tore down the promenade south along the Hudson River, off to meet her friend Zeke on Charles Street; Zeke, who last week she had disdained and this week was her main man. She darted confidently through the oncoming traffic of baby strollers, couples hand in hand, dogs without their leashes, her penny-colored hair flying up behind. "Careful," I wanted to yell, but Charlotte was already well beyond earshot, riding high and free in the early spring light, the morning a seasonal whisper of what was to come. The sun made crazy diamonds across the water. It was going to be a perfectly glorious day. The next was china dinner plates. A dozen of them, pearly gray. I remember picking them out. Actually, I remember standing in the store, afraid to touch one, as if it would slip through my fingers, shatter right there on the floor and everyone would know the marriage was a joke. A facade. That we were not ready for adult things in life like fine china.
"You never used these?"
"Well, we never had cause to."
"You eat. God knows he ate."
"I don't know. It was safer to use the old stuff."
She waved her pen in the air. "Look. China breaks. You have to be careful, but it doesn't mean you don't use it."
Look, a heart breaks. You have to be careful, but that doesn't mean you don't use it.
"I don't know. I guess I was just scared," I admitted.
But if I don't have a heart, I'm going to die!
"Let him have the goddamn china then." She wrote it down: TIFFANY DINNER PLATES. ONE DOZEN. "Fine. Life goes on."
I closed the box. Goodbye, I was thinking. They looked so serene, lying there. I'd lost them and they didn't even break. The cause some ineptitude more abstract than slipping through fingers. Or just that exact. Just that dumb and tragic.
"You don't want these things sitting around haunting you forever," she said, "trust me."
Loss. Sometimes I pictured a box of the stuff, the consistency of powdered sugar, or ashes, stored away like all the items in the attic. If someone came along and offered me more, I'd say, "Loss? Thanks, but I'll pass. Got all I can use right here."
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