1. If You Answer the Door for Strangers… If You Answer the Door for Strangers…
You see it all the time on television. There’s a knock at the front door. And, on the other side, someone is waiting to tell you the news that changes everything. On television, it’s usually a police chaplain or a firefighter, maybe a uniformed officer from the armed forces. But when I open the door—when I learn that everything is about to change for me—the messenger isn’t a cop or a federal investigator in starched pants. It’s a twelve-year-old girl, in a soccer uniform. Shin guards and all.
“Mrs. Michaels?” she says.
I hesitate before answering—the way I often do when someone asks me if that is who I am. I am and I’m not. I haven’t changed my name. I was Hannah Hall for the thirty-eight years before I met Owen, and I didn’t see a reason to become someone else after. But Owen and I have been married for a little over a year. And, in that time, I’ve learned not to correct people either way. Because what they really want to know is whether I’m Owen’s wife.
It’s certainly what the twelve-year-old wants to know, which leads me to explain how I can be so certain that she is twelve, having spent most of my life seeing people in two broad categories: child and adult. This change is a result of the last year and a half, a result of my husband’s daughter, Bailey, being the stunningly disinviting age of sixteen. It’s a result of my mistake, upon first meeting the guarded Bailey, of telling her that she looked younger than she was. It was the worst thing I could have done.
Maybe it was the second worst. The worst thing was probably my attempt to make it better by cracking a joke about how I wished someone would age me down. Bailey has barely stomached me since, despite the fact that I now know better than to try to crack a joke of any kind with a sixteen-year-old. Or, really, to try and talk too much at all.
But back to my twelve-year-old friend standing in the doorway, shifting from dirty cleat to dirty cleat.
“Mr. Michaels wanted me to give you this,” she says.
Then she thrusts out her hand, a folded piece of yellow legal paper inside her palm. HANNAH is written on the front in Owen’s writing.
I take the folded note, hold her eyes. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m missing something. Are you a friend of Bailey’s?”
I didn’t expect the answer to be yes. There is an ocean between twelve and sixteen. But I can’t piece this together. Why hasn’t Owen just called me? Why is he involving this girl? My first guess would be that something has happened to Bailey, and Owen couldn’t break away. But Bailey is at home, avoiding me as she usually does, her blasting music (today’s selection: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) pulsing all the way down the stairs, its own looping reminder that I’m not welcome in her room.
“I’m sorry. I’m a little confused… where did you see him?”
“He ran past me in the hall,” she says.
For a minute I think she means our hall, the space right behind us. But that doesn’t make sense. We live in a floating home on the bay, a houseboat as they are commonly called, except here in Sausalito, where there’s a community of them. Four hundred of them. Here they are floating homes—all glass and views. Our sidewalk is a dock, our hallway is a living room.
“So you saw Mr. Michaels at school?”
“That’s what I just said.” She gives me a look, like where else? “Me and my friend Claire were on our way to practice. And he asked us to drop this off. I said I couldn’t come until after practice and he said, fine. He gave us your address.”
She holds up a second piece of paper, like proof.
“He also gave us twenty bucks,” she adds.
The money she doesn’t hold up. Maybe she thinks I’ll take it back.
“His phone was broken or something and he couldn’t reach you. I don’t know. He barely slowed down.”
“So… he said his phone was broken?”
“How else would I know?” she says.
Then her phone rings—or I think it’s a phone until she picks it off her waist and it looks more like a high-tech beeper. Are beepers back?
Carole King show tunes. High-tech beepers. Another reason Bailey probably doesn’t have patience for me. There’s a world of teen things I know absolutely nothing about.
The girl taps away on her device, already putting Owen and her twenty-dollar mission behind her. I’m reluctant to let her go, still unsure about what is going on. Maybe this is some kind of weird joke. Maybe Owen thinks this is funny. I don’t think it’s funny. Not yet, anyway.
“See you,” she says.
She starts walking away, heading down the docks. I watch her get smaller and smaller, the sun down over the bay, a handful of early evening stars lighting her way.
Then I step outside myself. I half expect Owen (my lovely and silly Owen) to jump out from the side of the dock, the rest of the soccer team giggling behind him, the lot of them letting me in on the prank I’m apparently not getting. But he isn’t there. No one is.
So I close our front door. And I look down at the piece of yellow legal paper still folded in my hand. I haven’t opened it yet.
It occurs to me, in the quiet, how much I don’t want to open it. I don’t want to know what the note says. Part of me still wants to hold on to this one last moment—the moment where you still get to believe this is a joke, an error, a big nothing; the moment before you know for sure that something has started that you can no longer stop.
I unfold the paper.
Owen’s note is short. One line, its own puzzle.