Robin and I arrive at the restaurant at the same time. Today is her thirty-second birthday and she’s chosen The Love, one of her late father’s favorites and the last restaurant we’d eaten at together. She reminds me how he’d loved the starkness of its exposed brick walls, the warmth of its wooden tables, and the heart, perfectly branded into the center of its Loveburger’s bun.
Minus her slightly poppy eyes and perfect curves, she is her father’s spitting image: tall, slender, dark skin with a mahogany undertone. She’d been a freshman at Cheyney University when she’d cut her hair short and started wearing dreadlocks. “They’re called locs now, Momma,” she’d politely corrected me. “Our hair is not and has never been dreadful.”
Today her long twisted locs, tips dyed red as fire engines, are coiled into a huge bun sitting regally atop her head. “You’re beautiful,” I say now, as I always do. “Inside and out.”
She scans the menu with her phone while I look over the paper one.
“Loveburger?” I say, an inside joke because Robin hasn’t eaten meat since that freshman year.
“Not even for Daddy,” she quickly replies. We both chuckle.
She orders the ricotta ravioli, and me, “The Lovebird”—the chef’s twist on fried chicken and collard greens, with a side of buttery corn grits.
A father and daughter sit across from us, and as the waiter walks away, I watch with Robin as the little girl crawls under the table to sit next to her father.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about Daddy lately,” Robin says, a sadness in her voice.
“Me too,” I sigh.
Cliff, my soft-spoken, strong husband. Lover of God and us. Cliff, who came home every night, who made sure that Robin and I never went without a meal, a warm home in the winter or a cool one in the summer.
Cliff, my loving husband who also left behind a pile of old shit. A pile of shit that managed to smear my shoe no matter how careful I was to step around it. Just today, my aunt Dorthea reminded me how fortunate I was to have had such a good man. “Girl, you were lucky. Not many women get the luxury of not having to worry about much. Plus, it’s been six months since he passed, and no children have surfaced from the woodworks.”
None recently, is what I wanted to say.
Instead, I gave a slight smile, the one that I perfected during those years when people would ask, “When are you going to give that man some babies?” A smile that concealed my grieving spirit, my failure to conceive, a smile that was much easier to etch than to say, “I would if I could, but these fibroids…”
When Cliff’s tour with the Air Force ended and we returned from Germany with two-year old Robin, no one seemed to notice that the smile never fully reached my eyes. If they did, no one ever asked why. What was said, though, was: “About time you had that child.”
Only one other person knew, and she’s dead now too. How could I not tell my mother?
“Cliff’s a good man, not a perfect one,” she had said. “You do know that he loves you.”
Love. That’s the first reassurance Cliff gave me. Then, that it was brief. Nothing serious, not an affair. More a fling that time I went home to visit my mother. Then, that none of this was on me or because of me. So, I buried it. And, finally, that this woman, whoever she was, didn’t want her.
“Would you…can we,” he had asked, unable to string the request together.
It hadn’t taken much for me to agree. “A man wants more than a wife,” Aunt Dorothea had once cautioned me.
So, three days after Robin’s birth, April cherry blossoms in full bloom, Cliff brought her home. Unnamed. I named her Robin after the orange bellied bird that showed up outside my bedroom window every spring when I was a little girl, thinking, “Just for me.”
And so it was with Robin.
Robin is watching the little girl, now hugging her father’s neck. I think of the evenings after dinner when she would climb onto Cliff’s lap or interrupt his thoughts. “Read me a book, Daddy” or “Let’s watch Nickelodeon” or “Sing Bingo with me.” Each time he did, clapping after her song. He’d tell her she was brilliant, that her voice was strong and important.
Cliff had been in the Air Force close to three years and home on a brief leave when we met in the checkout line at the Acme supermarket. “You go first,” he’d said and stepped aside. He paid for my groceries, bagged them, and put each one carefully into the trunk of my car. It was that kindness, that attentiveness, and, when Robin arrived, his love for us both, that atoned for his indiscretion.
That day, it was his smile that exposed the dimple in his left cheek that captivated me. “Soft on the eyes” was how my grandmother Blanche described him, his skin the color of rich coffee, his eyes a light brown, soft curls hiding in his Army-cropped hair. I was more than willing to give him my telephone number when he asked and equally happy when he gave me his. We talked that night and every night afterward.
The waiter stops by to let us know that our food will be out shortly. Robin, blinking away her tears, requests a cocktail menu. He hands us two.
“So, how are things going with you and Darren,” I ask.
She glances through the menu. “Umm, not so good. He’s just—”
I know. I’ve always known. That’s she’s looking for someone created in her father’s image, one of trustworthiness, loyalty, and strength. Mostly, but not entirely honest, because he’d left no blemish for her to see, not even the tiniest piece of chipped stone to remind her that he was merely a man.
“Not your father, Robin, and he never can be.”
“I know, Mom. But he lied about something so trivial.”
“Trivial to you, Robin, but it must have felt significant to him.”
“He was supposed to come over but got caught up binge watching You he finally said. But first he’d said he’d fallen asleep.”
Her tone is harsh. I pick up the cocktail menu hoping something would settle my shaking hands. Then I say, without looking at her, “You know, your father once said that a lie is usually a weak band-aid to cover fear.”
“Really? Maybe Darren was afraid to tell me, but anyway, I can’t imagine Daddy ever downplaying a lie.”
Lie. It stabs in a way it never has before because I had absolved myself, saying it was his burden to bear, his sin to confess, his wrong to right. He’d promised to explain it all to Robin. “When she’s sixteen,” he’d said. Then, because he didn’t want to distract her from her studies, it was eighteen. After that, she was headed for college, and he didn’t want to weigh her down emotionally. Then, it was after graduation. But that time came, and he didn’t mention it. Then it went, and neither did I. Because I’d reasoned, he could explain it best. What did I know? Only that he didn’t love her, Charlotte Peters, and that the court order making Robin ours, mine, was buried away in a safety deposit box in the bank.
I feel tension rising in my throat, feel my skin warm and my teeth clench. Then I remember what she knows about her father. And what she doesn’t, that he did waver and fall, that he didn’t live up to his end of this one deal.
I almost come out with it. But I can’t. Not yet.
“Oh, Robin, he was human. A decent man, yes. Perfect—“
“No, Mom, but he was honorable.”
Our food arrives. I take a few small deep breaths until my body relaxes. The waiter sets my plate in front of me. Then the side of grits and a spoon.
“Oh darn,” I say after he walks away. “I forgot to sub the grits for something else. Fried chicken, collards, and corn grits? Doesn’t seem like a good combination.”
She examines my plate and shrugs. “Maybe not traditional, but the grits look rich. Try it.”
I stir them and take a spoonful. I’m surprised how much they taste like my grandmother’s. Just enough butter to compliment the corn without being too oily. A little cheese would be perfect, I now think.
“Hmmm, it’s not bad at all.” I slice a piece of the chicken, scoop a tad of the grits onto it, and end with a small bit of the collards. “It’s pretty good actually.”
“See, Mom, things are never as bad as we think they’ll be.”
I’m relaxed now, and each bite feels like a hug. The waiter returns and asks if we need anything else.
“A Black Manhattan,” I say.
Robin smiles at me, then says, “Classic and true, just like you.”
Monique D. Clark is a Philadelphia native with a MFA from Drexel University and a MA in English from Arcadia University. She co-chairs the Drexel MFA Alumni Association, and when she’s not writing about the most common thing ever—the complexities of humans—she’s attempting to bake a cake that actually rises.
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #44.