She asks me if I miss my father, and I say, "Yes, sometimes."
She's known for quite a while that she's never met my father because he's not around.
That is, he's not around on Earth.
"Do you miss him a lot?" she asks.
"Not a lot."
I have mixed feelings, but I don't want to go into them. My father was present in my life, but when he left for good, I wasn't totally unhappy. However, that wouldn't make sense to her. "He passed quite a while ago," I say.
"What did he look like?"
"He had gray hair."
"Like you. Your hair is silver."
Perhaps she's saying she doesn't need to meet my father, because she has me, and I look like him. The thing is, I look like my mother, not my father.
"He really liked children," I say.
I don't say that he liked children in the wrong way.
"But he never saw me."
She means that if he'd seen her, he would have liked her. I can't argue with that.
Later, I ask my wife if our daughter is really curious about my father, or if she's just worried that I'm going to pass away and no one will be around to take care of her.
My wife says, "She asks if I miss my father, too."
"I know how we could have more space," she says. "We could use the ceiling as the floor."
I see that the top of her head is resting on a couch cushion and her back is arched over the back support. She's looking at the room upside down.
"We could have black benches," she continues.
I see that the stereo speakers mounted high on the walls are black. Yes, we could sit on them, if the ceiling were the floor.
The problem would be making the ceiling into the floor. We could try to bend the space-time continuum and put the ceiling on the same plane as the floor. Or we could leave the ceiling and floor at opposite ends of the apartment's vertical axis and alternate between sitting on the floor and clinging to the ceiling. Or we could wait for the solstice—when the sun reaches its northernmost or southernmost point on the celestial equator—and hope the ceiling and floor somehow switch places along with the seasons.
Or, I suppose, we could apply for a bridge loan based on our current equity and use the money to move to a bigger crib, maybe even in our now-expensive neighborhood. It might be easier, though, to put our heads on the floor, look up at the ceiling, and imagine roaming in new territory.
I guess we'll cross that bridge loan when we come to it.
"I like professional people," she says. "I don't like silly people."
She's referring to a fictional mother and daughter on a television show. The daughter is serious, and the mother is goofy. I happen to like the mother better.
But I wonder if our kid is referring to us, her parents. I'm a pretty silly person. I spend a lot of time working for no money, for example. In fact, I spend more money than I make on my own creative work. I'm always taking a financial loss so I can do my crazy thing.
When I was a teenager, one of my friends told me, "You got no sense," meaning, "You got no sense of practicality." He said it more than once, and maybe he was right.
My wife isn't as silly as I am; she's a practical person. But she can be casual about a lot of things. Housekeeping, for example. But then, I can be lax, too, about housekeeping and other things, like clothes shopping.
On the bright side, maybe our daughter will grow up to be a professional—one who not only makes money but doesn't have an identity crisis while doing it. That would be a seriously good development.
I wouldn't compel her to do that, though, because I'm not a licensed, wool-suited, certified professional.
"Are my thighs fat?" she asks.
I take a look at her legs in jeans. "No, I don't think so," I say.
She squeezes her legs together at the knees to show me what she means. "My friend says my thighs are weird," she says.
I've seen her friend many times. She's a tall, thin kid, and she has thin parents, one of whom is tall. As parents go, I'm neither tall nor thin. I'm not a lot of things. But I'm supportive. I want to strengthen her self-esteem. I don't want to agree with her and say her thighs are fat. That would like telling a grown woman there's something wrong with her body.
Who am I to talk? My primary-care physician has been on my case about my weight for a while now. More pounds mean higher blood pressure as the heart works harder. Higher blood pressure could mean cardiac disaster.
"Don't worry about what your friend says," I say
"I don't want to grow up to be chubby," she says. "I don't want to be a hundred years old and a thousand pounds."
I don't point out that what she's described would be a kind of hellish miracle.
As we do most mornings, we walk through our neighborhood on our way to day camp. We pass many residential buildings, most of them turn-of-the-20th-century structures. A few, however, are new. "How come they get a nicer apartment?" she asks.
"Because they qualify for subsidies," I say.
"They don't make a lot of money," she says.
We're not poor enough for a better apartment, but I don't say that. "Someday, we might move to another apartment," I say.
I mean a bigger apartment. What I don't say is how we'd swing it financially. Would we go broke to pay for a bigger place? Or would we move away from the center of town, to another borough or a suburb?
"Maybe we'll just stay where we are," I say. "You have your own room. I can walk to my workspace. Everything's close to us."
"Someday, I'm going to move out," she says. "I might be a wife and have a job, and that would be weird if I'm living with you."
"Ewww!" she says. "I see your hair! Gross!"
At first, I think she means the hair on my head, but I don't know what's gross about that. I mean, she and many other people see it every day. I know it's becoming a possibly unattractive gray. And I know it's wet, because I just got out of the shower, but I don't see anything wrong with strands plastered to my scalp.
Then I realize she means the hair under my arms, my pit hair, so to speak, the hair exposed when I reach up, shirtless, to find her gloves. I haven't put on a shirt because I just got out of the shower. But at least I'm looking for her gloves—a helpful gesture, since it's cold outside.
I look at her face to find out what she really means. She has the intense expression she has most mornings, the expression that signals she's about to snap. I want to say, "Are you out of your young mind?" but I think better of it.
Luckily, her mother comes to my rescue. "Leave Daddy alone," she says.
We walk away from our standoff. I don't plan to shave under my arms, but I'll try not to make her look at those spots again.
Her gloves remain lost.
Does she see me as a father figure or a booty butt? A trusted adviser or a stupid head? I guess it depends on the mood she's in. If she's feeling frustrated—maybe the polish on her nails isn't drying neatly—she won't tolerate any suggestions from me. She won't want to hear me say, "Just leave the polish on. Don't mess with it." That would cause her to swing something in my direction—the sleeve of her winter jacket, perhaps—as if to shut me up. Then she will use the nail polish remover and get pink color everywhere. Well, actually she won't be able to use the remover, because she doesn't know how, so she will ask her mother for help.
But when she's in a good mood, as when she's wearing her mother's hat with earflaps, she will make dog sounds and ask for a mirror to see if she looks like a hound. She'll sing in dog words as she prances down the sidewalk. I may be ignoring her, but suddenly I'll notice an odd human/canine chorus of yips. I'll see a little kid in the posture of a jumping, begging spaniel. And I'll look into the dark window of a building at her reflection. She'll trust my judgment then. "Do I look like a beagle?" she'll ask.
I won't want to disappoint her. "Yes," I'll say, "you have the pup thing going."
That won't be enough to earn me the status of father figure. "Thanks, weirdo," she'll say.
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the novels Tetched and Roughhouse. Both books were finalists for an Asian American Literary Award. His writing has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, Randi Hoffman, and daughter, Shay. His Web site is www.thaddeusrutkowski.com.