Authors: Laura Dave
“I didn't agree to this,” Bailey said.
We were standing outside a flea market in Berkeley. And Owen and Bailey were in a rare standoff. He wanted to go in. The only place Bailey wanted to go was home.
“You did agree,” Owen said. “When you agreed to come to San Francisco. So how about sucking it up?”
“I agreed to get dim sum,” she said.
“And the dim sum was good, wasn't it?” he said. “I gave you my last pork bun. As a matter of fact, so did Hannah. That's two extra pork buns.”
“What's your point?” she says.
“How about being a good sport and heading inside with us for thirty minutes or so?”
She turned on her heels and walked into the flea market, ahead of usâthe requisite ten feet ahead of us, so no one would guess we were all together.
She was done negotiating with her father. And, apparently, she was done celebrating my birthday.
Owen gave me an apologetic shrug. “Welcome to forty,” he said.
“Oh, I'm not forty,” I said. “I'm twenty-one.”
“Oh, that's right!” He smiled. “Great. Then I have nineteen more chances to get this right.”
I took his hand, his fingers locking around mine. “Why don't
we just go home?” I said. “Brunch was so nice. If she's ready to go homeâ¦”
“Owen, I'm just saying, this isn't a big deal.”
“No, it isn't a big deal,” he said. “It isn't a big deal for her to suck it up and enjoy a lovely flea market. She'll be fine walking around for a half hour.”
He leaned down to kiss me and we started to head inside. To find Bailey. We were just through the front gate when a large man on his way out stopped walking and called out after Owen.
“No way,” he said.
He was wearing a baseball cap and a matching jersey, stretched out over his stomach. And he was carrying a lampshadeâa yellow, velvet lampshade with the price tag still on it.
He reached out to hug Owen, the lampshade awkwardly knocking Owen on the back.
“I can't believe it's you,” he said. “How long has it been?”
Owen pulled away from him, careful to disentangle himself in a way that kept the lampshade safe.
“Twenty years? Twenty-five?” he said. “How does the prom king miss all the reunions?”
“I hate to tell you, pal, but I think you have the wrong guy,” Owen said. “I've never been king of anything, just ask my wife.”
Owen gestured to me.
And the guy, this stranger, smiled in my direction. “It's good to meet you,” he said. “I'm Waylon.”
“Hannah,” I said.
Then he turned back to Owen. “Wait. So you're telling me that you didn't go to Roosevelt? Class of 1994?”
“Nope, I went to Newton High in Massachusetts,” Owen said. “You got the year right though.”
“Man, you are a dead ringer for this guy I went to school with. I mean the hair is pretty different and he was more jacked than you. No offense. I was more jacked too, back then.”
Owen shrugged. “We all were.”
“A dead ringer though.” He shook his head. “It's probably a good thing you're not him though. He was kind of a dick.”
Owen laughed. “Take it easy,” he said.
“You too,” Waylon said.
Then he started to walk toward the parking lot. But then he turned back.
“Do you know anyone who went to Roosevelt High in Texas?” he said. “Like a cousin or something? You've got to at least be related.”
Owen smiled, gently. “Sorry, buddy,” he said. “Hate to disappoint you, but I'm not even close to the right guy.”
Jake's words pound in my head. Owen Michaels doesn't exist. Owen isn't Owen. He's deceived me about the most central details of his life. He deceived his daughter about the most central details of hers. How is that possible? It feels entirely impossible, considering the man I thought I knew. I
know him. I still believe this, despite the evidence to the contrary. And this belief in him (in us) will either show me to be a steadfast partner or a complete fool. Hopefully those don't turn out to be the same thing.
After all, this is what I thought I knew. Twenty-eight months ago a man walked into my workshop in New York City wearing a sports jacket and Converse sneakers. On the way to the theater that night, he took me to dinner at a small tapas restaurant on Tenth Avenue, and he started to tell me the story of his life. It began in Newton, Massachusetts, and included four years at Newton High followed by four years at Princeton University, a move to Seattle, Washington, with his college sweetheart, and then a move to Sausalito, California, with his daughter. There were three jobs and two degrees and one wife before me, who he'd lost in a car accident. It was a car accident he could barely talk about more than a decade later, his face cloudy and dark. Then there was his daughter. The highlight of his storyâthe highlight of his lifeâhis headstrong, inimitable daughter. He moved with her to a small town in Northern California because she'd pointed to it on a map. And said,
let's try ther
e. And that was something he could give her.
This is what his daughter thought she knew. She'd spent the majority of her life in Sausalito, California, in a floating home with a father who never missed a soccer game or a school play. There were Sunday night dinners at restaurants of her choosing, and a weekly trip to the movies. There were lots of jaunts to San Francisco museums, plenty of neighborhood potlucks, and the annual barbecue. She didn't remember their life before Sausalito, except in vague snapshots: a birthday party with a great magician; a trip to the circus where she cried at the clown; a wedding somewhere in Austin, Texas. Bailey filled in the blanks with what her father told her. Why wouldn't she? That's how you fill in the blanksâwith stories and memories from the people who love you.
If they lie to you, like he did, who are you then? Who is he? The person you thought you knew,
favorite person, starts to disappear, a mirage, unless you convince yourself the parts that matter are still true. The love was true. His love is true. Because, if it isn't, the other option is that it was all a lie, and what are you supposed to do with that? What are you supposed to do with any of this? How do you put the pieces together so he doesn't disappear completely?
So his daughter doesn't feel like she is going to disappear completely too?
Bailey wakes up, shortly after midnight.
She rubs her eyes. Then she looks over to find me sitting in the crappy hotel desk chair, watching her.
“Did I fall asleep?” she says.
“What time is it?” she says.
“Late. You should go back to bed.”
She sits up. “It's kind of hard with you staring at me,” she says.
“Bailey, did you ever visit your father's childhood home in Boston?” I say. “Did he ever take you to see his house?”
She looks at me confused. “Like where he grew up?”
“No. He never took me to Boston. He barely went back there himself.”
“And you never met your grandparents?” I say. “You never spent any time with them?”
“They died before I was born,” she says. “You know that. What's going on?”
Who is going to fill in this blank for her? This kind of hole? I don't know where to start.
“Are you hungry?” I say. “You must be hungry. You barely touched your dinner. And I'm famished.”
“Why? You ate both our dinners all on your own.”
“Get dressed, okay?” I say. “Would you get dressed?”
She looks at the fluorescent hotel radio-clock. “It's midnight,” she says.
I put a sweater on and toss her sweatshirt to her. She looks down at it, splayed across her legs, her Converse sneakers peeking out beneath the hood.
She pulls the sweatshirt over her head, pushing the hood all the way down until her purple hair is sticking out.
“Can I at least get a beer?” she says.
“I have a fake ID that says otherwise,” she says.
“Please get dressed,” I say.
Magnolia Cafe is an Austin institution, famous for all-night eats, which might explain why it is still busyâmusic playing, every booth takenâat 12:45
We get two large coffees and an order of gingerbread pancakes. Bailey seems to love the sweet, spice-filled pancakes dripping in butter and coconut sugar. Bananas on the side. And watching her take them down, if nothing else, makes me feel like I'm doing something good for her.
We sit by the door, a neon red
SORRY WE'RE OPEN
sign flashing above our heads. I blink against it and try to find the words to tell her what Jake told me.
“It seems that your father hasn't always gone by the name Owen Michaels,” I say.
She looks up at me. “What are you talking about?” she says.
I speak softly but unapologetically, filling her in. I let her know that her father's name isn't the only thing he's changed. The details of his lifeâthe story of his lifeâare something he has apparently altered as well. He didn't grow up in Massachusetts, he isn't a graduate of Princeton University, and he didn't move to Seattle at twenty-two. At least he hasn't done those things in a way that we can prove.
“Who told you that?”
“A friend back in New York. He works with an investigator who focuses on this kind of thing. The investigator believes that your father changed his identity shortly before you moved to Sausalito. He's sure of it.”
She looks down at her plate, confused, like she's heard the words wrongâall of it feeling impossible to compute.
“Why would he do that?” she says, not meeting my eyes.
“My guess is he was trying to keep you safe from something, Bailey.”
“Like what? Like something he did? 'Cause my father would be the first to say that if you're running from something, it's usually yourself.”
“We don't know that for sure.”
“Right. All we know for sure is that he lied to me,” she says.
And I see it start to rise up in her. Her anger, her justifiable anger at being excluded from the most basic details of her life. Even if he was doing it for her own good. Even if he was doing it because he didn't have a choice. One way or another, she is going to have to decide whether that's forgivable. We both are.
“He also lied to me,” I say.
She looks up.
“I'm just saying, he lied to me too.”
She tilts her head, like she is trying to figure out whether she believes that, whether she can take that at face value. Why would she? Why would she believe anyone at this point? But it feels critical to try and assure her anywayâassure her that she can trust meâthat I didn't deceive her too. It feels like everything hinges on her believing that.
She looks at me with such vulnerability, it's hard for me to speak. It's hard for me to even hold her gaze without breaking down.
Which is when I understand, in a flash, what I've been doing wrong with herâwhat I've been doing wrong in how I've been trying to connect with her. I thought if I were nice enough, sweet enough, she'd understand she could count on me. But that's not how you learn you can count on someone. You learn it in the moments when everyone's too tired to be sweet, too tired to
hard. You learn it by what they do for you then.
And what I'm going to do for her now is what my grandfather did for me. I'll do whatever it takes for her to feel that she is safe.
“Soâ¦ it wasn't just him, right?” she says. “If he did this, I'm not who he said I am either then, right? My name and everythingâ¦ at some point he changed it.”
“Yes,” I say. “If Jake's correct, then, yes, you used to go by something else as well.”
“And all the details are different too, right?” She pauses. “Likeâ¦ my birthday?”
That stops me. The heartbreak in her voice when she asks that question.
“Like my birthday's not really my birthday?” she says.
“No, probably not.”
She looks down. She looks away from me. “That seems like something a person should know about themselves,” she says.
I fight back tears, gripping the table, the small table in this happy Austin restaurantâpaintings on the wall, bright colors, all of it completely antithetical to how I feel. I will myself to stop, blinking the tears back. A sixteen-year-old girl, who apparently has no one but me, needs me not to cry. She needs me to be there for her. So I pull myself together, giving her the space to fall apart. Letting her be the one to do that.
She folds her hands on the table, tears filling her eyes. And I feel nearly leveled by it, watching her in that kind of pain.
“Bailey, I know this feels impossible,” I say. “But you are you. Whatever details are around that, whatever your father didn't tell you, that doesn't change who you are. Not at your core.”
“But how can I have no memory of being called something else? Of where I lived? I should remember, shouldn't I?”
“You just said it yourself, you were a kid. You were just coming into consciousness when you became Bailey Michaels. None of this is a reflection on you at all.”
“Just on him?” she says.
I think again about the guy at the Berkeley Flea Market, the guy who called Owen a prom king. Owen's calm reaction to him. He was completely unfazed. Could he have faked that so well? And what did it say about him if he did?
“You don't remember anyone ever calling your father anything else, do you? Before Sausalito?”
“Like a nickname?” she says.
“No, more likeâ¦ by another name completely?”
“I don't think so. I don't knowâ¦” She pushes her coffee across the table. “I can't believe this is happening.”
She starts twirling her hair in her hands, the purple getting mixed up with her dark nail polish, her eyes blinking wildly as she tries to think.
“I have no idea what anyone called him,” she says. “I never paid attention, why would I?”
She sits back, done guessing about her father, done guessing about her past, and completely exhausted from feeling like she has to. Who can blame her? Who wants to be sitting in a strange Austin restaurant trying to figure out who the most important person in your world was pretending to be? And how you missed it. Who he actually was.
“You know what? Let's just go,” I say. “It's late. Let's go back to the hotel and try to get some sleep.”
I start to stand up, but Bailey stops me. “Waitâ¦” she says.
I sit back down.
“Bobby said something to me a couple months ago,” she says. “He was applying to college and wanted to ask my father for an alumni recommendation for Princeton. But when he looked him up in the list of alums, he said he couldn't find an Owen Michaels anywhere.
Not as a graduate in the engineering school, not as a student in the regular college either. I said obviously he looked it up in the wrong place, and then he got into University of Chicago and just dropped it. I never even remembered to ask Dad, but I just assumed it was Bobby not knowing how to work the alumni database or whatever.” She pauses. “Maybe I should have asked him.”
“Bailey, why would you? Why would you assume he was lying to you?”
“Do you think he was ever going to tell me?” she says. “Did he plan to take me for a walk one day and let me in on who I really am? Honestly, was he going to tell me that basically everything I knew about my life was a lie?”
I look at her in the dim light. I think of my conversation with Owen, the conversation about taking a vacation to New Mexico. Was he actually thinking of letting me into some of this then? If I'd pushed a little harder, would he have?
“I don't know,” I say.
I expect her to say how unfair that is. I expect her to get upset again. But she stays calm.
“What's he so scared of?” she says.
It stops me. Because that's it. That feels like the crux of all of this. Owen is running from something that he is terrified of. He has spent his life running from it. And, more important, he has spent his entire life trying to keep Bailey from it.
“I think when we figure that out, we'll know where he is now,” I say.
“Oh, well, easy enough,” she says.
Then she laughs. But the laughter turns, fast, tears filling her eyes. But just as I think she is going to say that she wants to get out of hereâthat she wants to go back to the hotel, to go back to Sausalitoâshe seems to find her center. She seems to find something like resolve.
“So what do we do now?” she says.
We. What do we do now. We are in this together, it seems, which warms my heart, even if it's taken us to this all-night diner in South Austin, far from our home. Even if it's taken us into territory we never wanted to be in. That I would give anything so that Bailey didn't have to be in. We are here together and we both want to keep going. We both want to find Owen, whatever he has been hidingâwherever he is now.
“Now,” I say. “We fix this.”