“That was at my third birthday party,” she tells me, pointing to the collage on the bathroom wall. We are at my future sister-in-law’s house and the frame is filled with pictures of a two-years-ago Chloe and her cousin. They are grinning in nearly every picture, taking their turns down a Slip-N-Slide in a backyard I don’t recognize. I file this under a Before Me (BM) header and tuck it away for safekeeping. She had a Slip-N-Slide party when she was three and her swimsuit was covered in little butterflies.
“Oh! Did you have fun?” I ask, helping her out of her muddy pants. She grips my arms and steps out of the jeans, staring at the pictures.
“Uh huh. Mama and Daddy got me a Barbie Jeep,” she tells me. My fiancé and his ex-wife. “That was at our old house. The white one. How come you weren’t there?”
I pull off her dirty t-shirt and stuff it into the pants. “I didn’t know you then, baby. I didn’t know you until after your fourth birthday, remember?”
She nods. “My fourth birthday party was a Dora party at Nana’s. But my third birthday was at our old house, the white house. When Mama and Daddy were still married.” She lets me wipe her face and brush out her sweaty ponytail. I say nothing, not because it bothers me, but because this happens often. Chloe loves to talk about old memories and stories, loves to hear about someone else’s past and I, eager to know everything about her and her brother, gobble up every story she tells me. I heave her body over the side of the tub, legs disappearing under a sea of strawberry scented bubbles. She looks back at the pictures and then to me before asking, “How come he loves you now?”
Oh God. I hold the washcloth tight in my hand, wringing cold water from the night before out into the tub. She’s still looking at the pictures, her blonde head cocked to the side. She asked her daddy once if he still loved her mama, but that was a father and daughter talking about big life changes, not a future stepdaughter asking why a new woman has infiltrated her family.
My mind immediately wondered if she had heard that before, maybe someone had made a passing comment to her that “Daddy doesn’t love Mommy anymore because he loves Sam.” My heart ached. What if she thinks I’m the reason she has two homes? What if she thinks I’m the reason she has two birthday parties and a stepsister and Christmases split up between her parents? And what if she thinks her daddy replaced her mama and one day he might replace her? I felt awful, like the stepmother Disney warned us all about.
“How come he loves you now?” Her question rings in my ears and I just don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to tell her it’s OK, that no matter who Daddy loves or what happens, Daddy will always, always love her and her brother.
I watch her pick at her fingernail polish, occasionally glancing at me to see if I heard her. She dips her hands back into the soapy water and finds a sad looking Barbie missing half of her hair.
“Well, baby,” I begin, praying she will understand. “Sometimes that happens. Sometimes people love someone else that makes them happy. Just like Mommy loves your Stepdaddy, right? She’s happy with him and Daddy is happy with me. Does that make sense?”
She stops messing with the mullet-headed Barbie and stares at me. Water drips from her eyelashes forming little triangles that look like wet crepe paper. She glances at the picture and then back to me, opening her mouth like she’s about to ask me a question.
“Sam?” She asks, reaching forward to grab onto my arms. She lifts herself up out of the tub and pushes her forehead against mine. It is a total and complete cliché, but I swear she can see right into my soul, can hear every thought I’m having, can see every image of her in my mind. I realize I’m holding my breath again and let it out slowly.
She pushes her forehead harder against mine and wraps her arms around my neck before asking, “Can you please move? I really have to poop.”