The man was signaling from the park bench. He stood as we approached. “Hey, you,” he said. “Come here.”
Tessa stepped closer to me. I drew my books tight against my chest and kept walking, head up, eyes straight ahead like I didn’t see him.
“It’s my dog,” he said, as we drew closer. “I need some help. I’ve lost him. Come on.”
“Don’t look, Jane,” Tessa said. I walked by. Didn’t turn my head, didn’t look. We were late for class, and Tessa ran ahead. I hung back a bit, enjoying the warm air on my skin. I could feel his eyes on me. There was a tingling along my neck and the back of my bare legs. With every step I felt I was moving through water. My skirt flapped around my thighs, my ponytail bounced in its clasp. I knew he was still watching. When I reached the door to the school, I turned, slowly, swaying my head to see him.
He was standing there, staring at me. Tall, with dark hair, shot through with gray. There was no dog. It’s hard, now, to say his age, but he was old—maybe thirty, forty. He waved. I stood a minute, my hand on the door, kids streaming around me. Like I was a stone in a stream, and he was standing on shore, fishing. I raised my hand, and waved back.
“How’re things at home?” the woman behind the desk asked. Vice Principal, the desk plate read.
I didn’t know her name, didn’t care. “Am I in trouble?”
“Why would you think that?” she asked.
“You pulled me out of class.”
“No, no.” She smiled a thin-lipped smile, and rolled forward in her chair. “We’ve had a bit of a disturbance. A man was here, asking for you. He knew your name. He had a picture, something he’d taken today in the park.”
I slumped in my chair. “Do you know who this man is?” she asked. “Any ideas?”
“Maybe?” I coughed into my fist. I could picture the man in the park with amazing clarity. His eyes, I now remembered, were the lightest blue, almost a white blue. His shirt was wrinkled, and his pants were dirty and frayed at the hems.
“Well?” she asked, picking up her pen, ready to jot down a name.
“My real dad?” I asked. My voice broke, and I looked away, embarrassed.
The vice principal dropped her pen. She steepled her fingers before her chin. “I notified your mother of this by phone. She’s coming to pick you up.”
“I wish you hadn’t.” I sat up. “I’m fine.”
The vice principal left me alone in her office, and I stretched out on her couch. There was a strange whirring from the air conditioning. The sound was like a waterfall, and the sofa like a raft. I floated past the man from the park. He appeared as I’d always imagined my dad to be: kind, and hopeful of seeing me again.
From my bedroom window that night, I saw him. Same wrinkled shirt, same frayed pants. No dog. Standing on the sidewalk, looking up at my room. I pushed back the curtains and waved to him, and he waved back, signaled for me. I let the curtains close.
Out behind the school the next day I told Tessa I’d seen my real dad. “My mom got a restraining order, years ago, so he couldn’t see me.”
“Why?” she asked. “What did your dad do?”
“Nothing.” I lit a cigarette and passed it to her. She took a drag, coughed, and handed it back.
When she stopped coughing she said, “There must be some reason.”
“She just wants my stepfather to adopt me.” I blew smoke from the cigarette from the side of my mouth. “My real dad is poor, but he’s a nice guy.”
“What are you going to do?”
“He’s been trying to find me for years,” I said, and held the cigarette back out to her, but she shook her head no. I stubbed it out against the brick wall and then ground it beneath the toe of my shoe. “I’m going to talk to him. He might want me to live with him.”
“Wow,” she said. “Nothing cool like that ever happens to me.”
I lost my nerve when I saw him again, after lunch, sitting on the low stone wall across from the school. He waved to me, calling out, “Let me give you a ride.”
I walked by, not looking, pretending I didn’t hear.
But the school bus was crowded and dank smelling. Kids were throwing things near the front; I stood back, wondering how I’d get through to find a seat. Finally I climbed onto the first step. A wad of gum was melting on the metal handrail. A pink wet blob. The bus floor was littered with tissues, torn notebook paper, crumpled straws, and bits of sandwich. I looked back over my shoulder at the man. He was still waiting for me. He looked cool and sweet, like a river. I backed down the steps. He wanted me, and there was nothing to fear.
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