What-If?

by Ali Levenson, age 14
What-If? Ali Levinson is a 14-year-old Freshperson at Eleanor Roosevelt High School. She enjoys writing, playing guitar, and singing.

“I am always watching…”

I have always been waiting

for my big “what-if”

where an option,

maybe our final phone call,

swoops in

and I can just

grasp it, the way Dad

used to grip the steering wheel

of our blue Toyota and steer

my life in an entirely new

direction.

 

But as I wait

my fingers quake,

my body hovers, and

I am always watching

and waiting

and watching

but never seeing

and as I wait

life passes me by.

 

It’s all I can do

not to cry.

I have seen everyone

get up and move on

and still, I am waiting

for my big “what-if”

and waiting for John

to come back.

 

John went out

to look for Dad,

who left nearly

ten years ago,

with a woman

who was Not-Mom

but could have been

in another world

with another

what-if.

 

And sometimes I wonder

what it would be like

to have Not-Mom as a Yes-Mom?

to come home to her

baking brownies

for the next PTA meeting

or going shopping with Not-Mom

and getting a shirt that hasn’t

been stained and torn and re-sewn

and adjusted to be five sizes bigger.

 

Because Real-Mom can’t afford

to take me shopping for a new shirt

so my precious shirt,

the shirt Dad might have adored

had it been torn one less time,

because he loved anything that was stained

and ruined, but I guess he got sick of us.

This shirt is all I have, but

Not-Mom would scoff at it

and buy me a better one

with the money Dad enjoys spending

on his alcohol and not-shirts.

 

Sure, there are the shirts

from more fortunate girls

that the thrift store gives to us

when no one else wants them

but they are scratchy

and choking me

and Not-Mom’s daughter

wouldn’t wear anything

like that.

 

I’m not even sure that Not-Mom has a daughter

but she must have one,

or else Dad wouldn’t have left.

Dad is a Natural-Dad,

and he can only go

where there are children

to take care of and love.

 

I’m all grown up now,

15 years old and taking care of myself.

Real-Mom told me Dad needed children

and since I am not a child anymore

Dad couldn’t stay and take care of me.

 

Sometimes I wish

that I was eternally a child,

that I could stay and play on the

rickety swing set

and not have to worry about

a big what-if

and not have to worry about

John or Dad or Not-Mom

or if Real-Mom will get out of bed

today, or if she’ll stay in

for the seventeenth consecutive day

this month.

 

Real-Mom has a habit

of not getting out of bed

or caring about her appearance.

Sometimes the people on the street

outside the thrift store

where we get the scratchy clothes

will judge us

and I will be quick to apologize

with a shy smile and a slight shrug

saying

 

“What can you do?”

as if there is anything that

any of us can do

to fix the old habits

that haven’t died yet

and fix her broken heart

that has spread to the rest of her

broken body and broken life

and I suppose

 

That is why John left

he was looking to make

stained glass windows

out of the broken

fragments of his childhood

while I am only cutting my hands

on the glass.

 

My hands

have always been

too big and callused,

and cold,

but Dad used to tell me

“cold hands, warm heart”

as he blew on my fingers

and cooled down my heart

until all that is left for him

is a big slab of ice.

 

It’s only felt right

when Dad held my hands

because he doesn’t laugh at them

and he doesn’t try suggesting

lotion for me or ways for me

to make my hands more lady like.

Not-Mom must have had

more nimble hands than Real-Mom

and a much more nimble waist.

 

Because Real-Mom was never perfect

and neither was I, but Dad craved

perfection and money and alcohol

to dull the pain

that we had no power

to take away.

 

On the day that I met Not-Mom

her hands were pale and small

and soft, with long, slim fingers

and carefully trimmed, manicured nails

bright red nail polish screaming out.

Her hands were entwined in Dad’s

and I kept my hands on my elbows

digging my nails into the dead skin.

 

Dad was loading his car with all of his stuff

putting the possessions

that he cared most about

in the trunk of the car,

locking it and pushing past

a broken Real-Mom, who was

screaming and crying for him

not to leave, with an empty

bottle that she kissed more often

than she kissed me goodnight.

 

And I kept on wishing

that Dad would put me in the trunk

and he would look at me and John

and say something, anything

and I kept on wishing that he said

he would come back

and I kept on waiting

and looking out the window

for that dark blue Toyota that

probably still had my Barbie’s heads

shoved in between the seats

and John’s cars broken and abandoned

in the cupholders.

 

And as I looked out the window

I looked down at the ground below

and I swore that I could fly

and I would fly into Dad’s arms

and Not-Mom’s kitchen

and she would be baking brownies

and he would be playing piano

and I would be singing

and we would be a family.

 

Real-Mom doesn’t bake brownies,

she sold the grand piano in the living room

for “emergency money,” as she told me

but I noticed the jar of money

hadn’t increased in months

but Real-Mom always went out

and came back with things for her

forcing John to buy food for us

and I wanted to ask him for another shirt

but I could never find my voice.

 

Dad always loved my voice

So maybe he bottled it up

and put it in his car

because I haven’t been able to sing

my voice is raspy and burns in my throat

so I have decided to stop talking

and Real-Mom doesn’t talk to me

and John is gone

and I am fleeting

but I don’t quite know it yet.

 

I’ve got a song on my lips

and a war on my mind

only I don’t know how to soothe both

so I let them rage on and it’s eating away

at my heart, until slowly

very slowly

there is nothing left.

 

Dad used to talk to me all the time

he used to talk with John, too,

and I would love to watch John’s

eyes light up the way they used to

with Dad, because Real-Mom and I

could never give that to him

 

And maybe that’s why John left

to get another twinkle in his eye

for a smile to dance on his lips

and to finally feel appreciated

because no one feels appreciated

in this house.

 

Maybe, with the chance of a

What-If

John will come back and

tell stories and he’ll

barely be able to contain the

excitement of his voice,

and he’ll murmur,

stumbling over his words

saying, “oh yeah,

and look what else!”

 

And Dad will walk in

with his arm draped around Real-Mom

and we will be smiling

and we will be a family

and we will be…

 

But it’s time to stop daydreaming

because fantasizing about things

that will not happen are unhealthy

and unfair to the heart, who only yearns

for fantasies, for those what-if moments

that will one day be reality.

 

My last conversation with Dad

was at a coffee shop

miles away from our house

as I was trying to escape

and he already had.

 

He tried to cut me in line

ordering a coffee–

black, although I knew

he despised the taste

of tastelessness. He

always needed sugar and milk

or his cup would go untouched.

 

He craved sweetness

and eventually, Real-Mom

ran out of smiles to sweeten his day

and he ran out of spontaneous kisses

in the middle of the street

or when she was making pancakes

or applying more things to her tea, like

 

Sugar and spice and everything nice

was what he used to tell John and me.

He used to bounce me on my lap

as John stared up at him from the

dirty, carpeted floor with nothing

short of adoration in his eyes.

He would repeat these mantras to us

getting in our heads

and the worst mantra of all was

 

“I love you”

I was just short of telling him

in the coffee shop

but I knew how he cringed

hearing it from Real-Mom

as he stepped on our

carpeted floor in his

dirty boots and drove away.

 

But the coffee was not for him

I watched Not-Mom watch him

from the counter by the window

bringing her long, slim fingers

up

and

down

her red nails

striking the linoleum countertop

drumming out the beat of my heart,

 

amplified by the blood

rushing through my ears

and suddenly, I wasn’t craving

green tea, just his attention

and I knew I couldn’t have either.

 

I pulled my guard up

along with my hood

stepping out of the door

and I barely heard the twinkling of the bells

but by then they were sitting at the window

watching me

their eyes open and

Dad left Not-Mom with her coffee

and stood across from me on the street

that wasn’t familiar under my feet

and he opened his mouth

but had nothing to say.

 

I shrunk back against the window

it wasn’t John’s stained glass,

but the glass was forever stained

with this memory, though I’ve been

keeping it to myself for three years,

and I had dreamed of this moment

this was perhaps a what-if I was searching for.

 

He held out his hand

and I wanted to take it but my body was stiff

and he stepped closer while I wanted my distance.

In his hand was a five dollar bill and if John saw

he would have thrown a fit,

kicking and screaming that it wasn’t enough

for the seven years he had been gone.

But he placed the bill in my hand

his fingers lightly brazing the blisters on my sweaty palm.

He dropped his arm to his side and I wrapped my fingers

around the crumpled bill, he opened his mouth again.

 

“You dropped this,”

he told me, his voice dead

and his eyes unknowing.

My what-if window of opportunity slammed shut

almost closing on my fingers and locked

and I realized

 

He didn’t recognize me.

Three years have come and gone

and I’ve never told anyone

and he hasn’t come back for me

and now, as I look in the mirror,

and think about that day

 

I don’t even recognize myself.

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