I’d been dating in New York for ten years. I’d had my misadventures. I knew that into every dating life a little heartbreak must fall. But this time I hit the exacta: I was not only dating an older man, I wound up breaking my heart over a six-year-old girl.
Of course, I fell in love with the little girl’s dad first, my older lover, D. Evie was his date to the wedding where we met, a little blondie in a floaty white dress. During the first blissful weeks of our relationship, D. and I talked a great deal about his divorce, and his daughter. She was the apple of his eye, despite his exceptionally bitter divorce from her mother. Despite soaring legal bills, he had wrestled a judge into granting him two weeks a month with Evie. When I was her age, my own divorced father chose to spend only seven hours a week with me. D’s devotion to Evie only deepened my love for him.
We were just beginning to strategize how and when I should meet Evie when D. called me at home one night, sounding both amused and a bit scandalized. He’d left Evie lying on his bed, watching a video, then headed back to the kitchen to wash the dishes. About a half-hour later, a small but insistent voice behind him said, “Daddy? Whose hair is this?” In the doorway stood Eve, one hand on her hip, holding up a strand of hair that she’d found on Dan’s pillow. She knew it wasn’t her daddy’s hair (too long) or her own (too dark). We had been busted by a five-year-old. D. knelt down and explained that yes, the hair belonged to a lady friend of Daddy’s who sometimes spent the night when Evie wasn’t there. Evie took this all in, shrugged, and simply said, “can I meet her?”
A week later, Evie and I met again, but this time as Daddy’s daughter and Daddy’s girlfriend. She hid slightly behind D. at first. But her shyness quickly melted, and within an hour we were playing games and making dinner. That night, when she woke crying from a nightmare, she snuggled happily in bed between D. and me and fell asleep almost instantly. Thus began the most intimate part of my love affair with D.–the part where I fell in love with his daughter.
The three of us settled quickly into a routine. On the mornings Evie was at D’s, she’d cuddle in bed with us, and when she left for school, she’d always make sure to kiss me goodbye when D. did. When she and D. had their nightly phone calls, she often asked to speak with me–soliciting endless stories about my adventures “as when you were a little girl too.” I spent hours spinning tall tales to satisfy Evie’s hunger for a good story. I found that while I loved the weekends D. and I spent alone, cooking, reading, making love, I also looked forward to the weekends with Evie, when she would sit next to me on the couch and ask to “just do needlepoint together,” which meant me stitching away and her carefully separating the different colors of silk.
As Evie became a routine part of my life, my mother–herself a stepmom of two–gave it to me straight up: “If things aren’t right with you and Evie, they won’t ever be right with you and D.” I dedicated myself to making things right with Evie and surprisingly, I found myself growing excited–not just about the prospect of spending my life with D., but about becoming a stepmother. Even more surprisingly, it was Evie who brought it up first. She began nonchalantly announcing to her playmates, “I’m going to have a new stepmommy, and her name is Becky.” Pretty soon thereafter, she started putting the screws to me and D. When she saw my clothes hanging in D.’s closet she scolded him: “why don’t you just marry her already” The kid was mouthy–a girl after my own heart. At breakfast one morning–about a month after we’d met–she looked me dead in the eye and said, “Are you and Daddy going to give me a baby brother or sister?” I nearly choked on my toast. D’s face turned bright red as he struggled not to laugh.
“I don’t know, honey,” I answered honestly, “Daddy and I haven’t decided whether we’re going to get married yet, and you have to be married to have a baby.” Hearing a retro-bullshit line like that from a self-congratulatory feminist like me almost sent D. into orbit. Lips twitching, he carefully set down his coffee and stared out the window, focusing on some distant point in the backyard until he’d regained his composure.
Now, I’ll freely admit that life with Evie was not always rosy. She was still a kid, and a precocious and assertive one. There were occasional meltdowns, and there were definitely nights when I did not fancy having a wiggly five-year-old crawl into bed with me and elbow my spleen as I slept. Still, by the divorced-dad-with-new-younger-girlfriend standards, we were in very, very good shape.
Spring arrived. One April day as Evie and I potted flowers in the backyard, she asked me if I loved her daddy. I told her without hesitation that I loved her Daddy with all my heart. She looked down at the clump of petunias she was holding and asked, her voice quavering slightly, “do you love me too?” It was a shot straight to my heart. I dumped my own petunias and hugged her, ignoring the mud that coated both of us. “I do love you.” I answered honestly, “and not just because I love your Daddy, but because I love you.” And by God, I meant it. It was as stunning a revelation as that first electric kiss from D.
In May, D. hosted a 30th birthday party for me. My family and friends came from around the country. D. and I were not engaged yet, but everyone at the party could sense the way the wind was blowing. My father shook hands with departing guests and said, “see you at the wedding.” He was only half kidding. I knew that D. had begun to think about how he might propose, and we both daydreamed about enlarging the house so we could have more space after we were married. It was the happiest time of my life.
But then my beloved dropped the bomb. Late one night, with Evie asleep nearby, D. confessed that he wasn’t sure if he wanted more children. He cherished his daughter, but he was 47, and tied to child-support payments for another 17 years. Uncertainty was starting to gnaw at him. He wanted to marry me, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to start another family as he turned 50.
I took the news as calmly as I could, trying to ignore the sudden, ominous churning in my stomach. I had never been one of those girls who dreamed of mommyhood. Still, I knew with absolute certainty that I wanted to have a child. I’d accepted the fact that by marrying an older man, I might be a young widow. The thought of losing Dan and being left completely alone was intolerable. I would always have Evie, of course, but Evie already had a loving mother of her own. And while I never wanted to admit it to D., I knew in my heart of hearts that I would grow to resent Evie if being her stepmother meant I couldn’t have a child of my own.
To D’s credit, he never tried to talk me out of my desire to have children. He agonized over the issue every day while I prayed that he’d come around. We were happy, I reassured myself. Evie was happy. It still felt like a winning hand.
But it wasn’t. My life slowed to a dreadful state of suspended animation as D. grew increasingly quiet and withdrawn. We were lying in bed together, my head on his chest, when he finally blurted it out: “I just don’t want any more children.” Once he said it, I knew there was no going back. “I think we should end it,” he said, even as he clutched me so hard I had bruises for days afterwards. “We can’t stay together if we don’t want the same future.”
That was a week before Evie’s sixth birthday. D. and I had been planning the birthday party for a month. He still wanted me to be there, but I refused. It would kill me to play the role of happy wife and stepmother knowing that I would never be either. I had needlepointed a special gift for Evie, which D. gave her, making a hasty excuse for my absence. He couldn’t bring himself to tell her the truth. For Evie’s sake, we agreed that I’d still go on a day trip we’d planned for after her birthday. Evie had a terrific time. She didn’t seem to notice that I was on the verge of tears the whole time and her father was a wreck. His face, his walk, his tone of voice, everything was so patently miserable that I could barely stand to look at him. I wanted to be angry at D. but it would have been like kicking a sad-eyed puppy. In the end, it was more than a month before he broke the news to Evie: no new stepmommy, or baby brother or sister. By the time he told her, I’m sure she already knew.
D. and I were still desperately in love when we broke up. Our relationship hadn’t ground to an indifferent halt, or ended in anger or betrayal. I wish it had. Indifference would have felt downright soothing. Anger would have been cleansing, or at least motivating. Instead, I lived with a constant, searing sense of loss that robbed me of sleep and appetite. I lost an unhealthy amount of weight. I could hardly drag myself to work in the morning. I would tremble and burst into tears for no apparent reason. A friend who was a recovered heroin addict diagnosed me in a flash: “Yep. You need methadone.”
So I went on vacation to Hawaii and got the methadone: a sweetheart of a guy who my friends dubbed “Mr. Rebound.” He was kind, funny, attentive, and is still one of my closest friends. But he wasn’t nearly as effective a cure as I’d hoped. Dating again didn’t quiet the phantom limb pain that kept dogging me. It took me a while, but I worked it out: I didn’t just miss my boyfriend. I missed his kid.
I had been unprepared for how much I would love Evie when I was with D. I was even more unprepared for how much I would miss her. I had to avert my eyes from store windows with little girl clothes. I got rid of the needlepoint pattern Evie and I had worked on. It was simply too painful to remember her sitting on my lap, patiently counting out the threads for me. After I moved my things out of D’s house, I found a sock of Evie’s mixed up with my clothes. I couldn’t bring myself to send it back. I stuffed it in the box that contained D’s love letters and photos, which sat on my dresser like a cremation urn.
It’s been three years now. I haven’t seen Evie since then, although her mother–with whom I had a cordial relationship–graciously sent me some pictures of her last year. I don’t talk with D. anymore. About a year after the breakup he held my hand in a Greenwich Village bar and cried about how much he missed me. He told me that Evie still talked about me. “She asks if you can come for a sleepover and I have to mutter something about how grown-up sleepovers are different than children’s sleepovers,” he confessed. “She still tells everyone that you taught her to needlepoint. I know she misses you.” Soon I was crying too. But we didn’t get back together. If I had pushed, I might have gotten him to marry me, and maybe to have a child. I could have been Evie’s stepmom after all. But I didn’t want to be the border collie herding the sheep through the gate. If D. wouldn’t do it with a glad heart, I wouldn’t do it at all. It was a good couple years before it stopped hurting, but it’s a decision I’ve never regretted.