EMILY BURTON UDUWANA
If childhood bedrooms are filled with nightmares and dreams, mine was furnished with fantasies of Icelandic beauties and Midwestern pageant queens. My father raised me on tales of his ex-lovers: their voices narrated my bedtime stories, weaving together narratives of heartbreak and romance. Dozens of mothers—more beautiful and more present than my own—populated my dreams, vying to fill the gaps of my parentage. My real mother was never among them; she was unnamed and absent in my father’s stories. On weekends—when I was passed from father to mother like unsigned divorce papers—I carried these stories of almost-mothers with me. My own didn’t tell stories.
Caroline was my father’s first love, redheaded and fiercely independent. Freckles and bruises intermixed on her ivory skin, a map of all the reasons she was out of reach. My father always spoke of her in a whisper, as if her memory was too fragile to break the silence. Her life had been that delicate—she died before womanhood—at the hands of a man who wasn’t my father. I often stared in the mirror at my skin full of spots and wondered if I shared her face along with her name. When I became a woman, would it be for her as well as myself?
Alma was my father’s second love. Elegant and Danish, I knew her name before I could see over the counter at our local pastry shop. My father led me hand-in-hand inside on my fourth birthday, to pick up a cake decorated with butterflies. I peered into the glass cabinet and asked my father if the baker knew his Alma.
“Why would you think that?” my father asked.
I pointed to a cheese danish through the glass. “It’s named for her,” I said.
It seemed obvious to me then, too small to reach the globe in our living room and still convinced that the world ended at the California-Nevada border. My father laughed, and bought me a danish for the ride home. It was too sweet, I complained.
My father laughed again. “Maybe some things should stay in Denmark,” he chuckled.
Stories of Diane always accompanied our trips to the snow. She was blonde and suave and perfectly formed, and my father’s hands traced an hourglass shape in the air when he spoke of her. The two of them had huddled together through three Indiana winters, reveling in a warmth that defied the snow. Then my father found his way to Southern California, where temperatures never dropped below 65°. He bought his ticket and let Diane down easy. He told me that the tears froze right on her cheeks—another reason to get out of Indiana.
“I’m sure she’s married with her own kids now,” my father would say. He’d pause to blow on my hot chocolate, glancing out the window at the snow falling outside our hotel. “People move on.”
Diane didn’t. We ran into her at Walmart when I was twelve. I lost control of our overfilled cart—rammed it straight into the jewelry counter. The woman behind it gasped, but I don’t think she even noticed the impact. She was staring at my father. Later I understood why he’d said her tears froze when she cried; her eyes were the iciest I’d ever seen.
My father yanked me down another aisle before I had time to grab our cart back.
“Who was that?” I pulled my arm out of his grasp, trying to peek through the shelves at the woman in blue.
“She didn’t know I—how is she here?” my father whispered. He was looking past me, at the aisle between us and the jewelry counter.
“Who is she?” I demanded.
He met my eyes warily. “Diane,” he breathed.
Diane. I pushed past my father to stare at her between off-brand bottles of shampoo and conditioner. She wasn’t suave or perfectly formed. She was bent over our cart with a hand on her lower back, straining to check if the glass counter was scratched. With her head bowed I could see her roots, and they weren’t blonde.
My father backed away, further down the aisle. “Let’s go to Sears,” he muttered.
He took off without me. The orange glow of the exit sign reflected off his hair as he hurried toward it, looking back only to wave me through the door. His roots weren’t grayed like Diane’s were, but something about them looked unnatural under fluorescent lighting. I wondered for the first time if my father dyed his hair.
We didn’t go the Sears. My father drove straight home, silent and brooding. I knew we were preoccupied by the same thing, both of us cycling through a list of his ex-lovers. Caroline and Alma and Diane. There were others, too: he didn’t offer their names and I never learned them, but I knew their stories. The girlfriend who called for bail after she stabbed a different lover. The girlfriend he locked out naked after she tossed a hair straightener at his head. These were the crazy ones—the unnamed ones. If he’d known Diane would re-appear ten states over, would he have taken away her name, too?
We sat in silence for a long while, and I set to work erasing the images I’d dreamed up of a blonde, Midwestern beauty queen. We were almost home when I mustered up the courage to ask about her. Diane.
“Did she follow you here?” I wondered.
My father kept his eyes on the road. “No.”
“How do you know?” I pressed. All of my father’s girlfriends had loved him so deeply—it made sense that one would chase him across the country.
“I just do.”
My father sighed, squeezing the wheel until his knuckles went white. “She didn’t know I was here,” he said finally, “I didn’t tell her.”
“But she could’ve—”
“I never told her I was leaving,” he said sharply. It was his end of conversation voice.
We pulled into the driveway faster than necessary, and I almost hit my head on the dashboard.
“Rough landing,” my father muttered. He reached over to check that my seatbelt was still buckled. “Good kid. You need to get ready quick. Your mom’s picking you up for the weekend in twenty.”
He paused outside the car, holding the door impatiently. “What is it, Caroline?”
I stared down at my knees, pale and freckled and bruised. “Why don’t you ever call Mom by her name?” I asked. It took me a moment even to remember what it was—not Caroline or Alma or Diane. Victoria.
My father sighed. “She’s your mom, isn’t she? So I call her that.” He gestured towards the trunk. “Don’t forget the groceries when you come inside.”
He shut the car door behind him, heading into the house before I could yell after him.
I leaned back in the passenger seat, squeezing my eyes shut.
We hadn’t bought any groceries.
They were still in a cart by the Walmart jewelry counter, abandoned there with a woman who existed beyond bedtime stories and childhood dreams. As cool air leaked out of the car and summer heat rushed in, I realized for the first time why my name was Caroline. The others—Alma, Diane, my mother—they all had lives after my father.
Caroline didn’t get the chance. She got a grave, and another woman’s daughter named for her.
I wasn’t sure I wanted that name. I wasn’t sure she’d want me to have it.