F and I went for “Girls Only” walks and she confided in me things she didn’t want her father to know, and he was jealous. She felt misunderstood by him and understood by me, which made sense—partly because like her, I am a child of divorce and understand what it means to want her own bedroom at her father’s house, and how hurt she was that she didn’t. She wanted him to be proud of her because she needed to make sure of his love. She was certain of her mother’s love, but not of her father’s, and the lack of certainty in L’s love was something else F and I had in common.
We made popsicles, played Boggle, and when her friend never showed for their sleepover, I held F as she sobbed. She was 10 then, shuttling between innocent awe and darkening thoughts, and I was open to both, because unlike her parents, I didn’t live with her. Years and years before I met her father, I chose a name for my own daughter should I one day have one. When I met L and learned he had a young daughter, it made me like him more, but when I learned her name, I read a lot into it, too much, probably. Down to the nickname, it was the one I’d been saving for my daughter. My middle name, “Bird,” and hers, “Bette,” were close enough to make the entire name almost identical. After meeting his F, I wondered whether it was her I’d been dreaming of all along.
In Maine, we stayed in her grandparents’ house, and I wrote in her grandpa’s writing carrel, tucked away in the back. L and I packed her lunch for school in the mornings and after school I took her to the library, and then to the candy store. We hiked in the woods and she taught me about moss and lichen. On the days I didn’t pick her up, she’d pop her little head into my writing studio to ask how many words I’d written. I told her my favorite time of day was F O’Clock.
I’ll never forget that month or the foggy island that bound us together under low chronic clouds. Spending time with L and F was the closest I’ve felt to having my own family, and it was and remains one of my most cherished memories. L already had a family. He’d been married, and together they had F, but what he hadn’t had yet was a career, and he wanted that as much as I wanted the family he already had. When we left the island, we left F behind with her mom. I did not yet know that L and I were going to break up soon after, and I did not know I would never see F again.
People have fantasies that their ex shows up after months or years of being apart, holding flowers and begging to get back together. In my fantasy, it’s F at the door, and instead of flowers, it’s a suitcase she carries when she asks to live with me forever.
I miss F all the time, and I think of her nearly every day. When L and I broke up, F asked if we had to break up too, and L and I both said no, but I knew that one day we would, and so I made a loose and secret schedule in my head for breaking up with F. I spaced out my letters and packages throughout the year, a strategy I hoped would wean her off me. I didn’t want to lose her, but I also wanted her to be open to L’s next girlfriend.
It’s been three years since L and I broke up. My last communication with F was two summers ago. I know she’s happy and moved on and away from me, one girlfriend of many to walk in and out of her life, but I’ve only ever had one F; the weaning may have worked for her, but it didn’t work for me. I still miss her. Three years on, I wonder if it will ever stop.
I worry that the closest thing I’ll have to a family was that month living with F and L on a small island off the coast of Maine. I wish I could go back there on my own, but I can’t. The island is L’s just like F is his, and here I am still looking.