We met when you were 5.
I was packing up my car to get you and your mother and me away from the city. Hurricane Irene was coming. The last time a hurricane hit the city, the subways flooded. It was a mess. This storm, we’d been told, was worse.
Your dad drove you up from Maryland as the storm approached the city. You spend summers with him. I walked in the apartment and there you stood, beside your mother.
“Maddie,” she said, “this is Mommy’s friend. Matthew.”
You didn’t say anything. Neither did I.
We drove up by Woodstock to stay with your mom’s friend, assuming it’d be safer there than the city. We got it backwards. The apartment never lost power during the storm, we later learned. Up by Woodstock we were cut off from the world for nearly two weeks because of the flooding. We had no power for what felt like a month.
You seemed to have fun with it. We all did. We were all dirty and stinky and alone. No computer access. Just we, us, and ourselves. We created epic meals out of whatever we could find. We made up stories. We barbecued. No one had more fun during Hurricane Irene than we did.
You and I didn’t talk much, then. If I was alone in a room and you happened to enter, we’d look at each other, and that was it. I gave you your space. You gave me mine.
When we finally got back to the city, your mom had a night class. This would be our first night alone together. I’d helped take care of my niece, who is your age, for years. I worked years with kids in daycare. I wasn’t worried.
I made you mac and cheese. You liked it. I felt the relief of a weight I hadn’t known I’d carried. You liked the mac and cheese.
When it was time for bed, I sent you to your room to get into your pajamas. Minutes later you paraded into the living room, naked, singing a song you’d made up about how you were naked. I pictured you falling or bumping into something and injuring yourself, and me having to call for help, and having someone in authority show up and finding a naked 5-year old girl with a grown man who wasn’t her father or her uncle. Finally, you got dressed.
You like to fall asleep to music or TV. Your mother had told me to just pop a DVD into your TV/DVD player. I looked and looked and looked and looked and couldn’t find where to insert the disc. You took it personally; figured I was choosing to not put in the movie. It was your first night in God knows how long without one of your parents around. You were 5, and only recently 5.
You flipped out. Started crying, then shrieking. I tried to reassure you. That made it worse.
“I want Mommy!” you screamed.
“I know, sweetie. Mommy will be home soon.”
“Stop saying that! I don’t want you to say that!”
“I want Mommy!”
“I know, Maddie. She’ll be here—”
“STOP SAYING THAT! I DON’T WANT YOU TO SAY THAT!”
“All right. I don’t know what to s—”
“I WANT MOMMY!”
You were so upset, and so tired. When Mommy got home and came in your room, you didn’t realize it was really her. You talked to her as if she was someone else, someone you didn’t know, yet trusted.
Soon after, I set up the living room as a play space. Moved stuff around so you could bounce off the big exercise ball onto the purple couch. I complimented your form. Told you when you landed on the couch you looked like the letter Y. That led to an entire afternoon of me giving you letters to pose as while you leapt.
You love anything peanut butter and chocolate. As do I. For almost a year, I tried to get you to try peanut butter with jelly. You refused. You only wanted peanut butter on toast. One day you were out with your mother and a friend at lunch. You came home raving to me about how good peanut butter was with jelly.
You grow so fast.
Your first day of kindergarten, your school didn’t know what class you were in.
Most of your first day was spent waiting to see where you belonged. I remember how you looked that day. So small. So big.
Your mom put you in the after-school program. A few days a week, when she had class, I’d come to pick you up. Every time, I had to sign the check-out sheet. Where it said “Name,” I wrote mine. Where it said “Relationship to child”…I wasn’t sure what to write.
One day I came down to the basement cafeteria where all the students waited for their parents. You were the only white face in a sea of Dominicans. What a face; que cara! As soon as you saw me across the room, your big blue eyes swelled and you gave me the biggest smile.
“Stepfather,” I wrote when I signed you out, then and ever after.
The first night we stayed in our new house, I wanted your room to be special and beautiful and just the way you’d want it to be, even though we didn’t have your stuff there yet. I bought Christmas lights and put a little Christmas tree in your room, just for you. You loved it.
You liked to watch programs about the wonders of outer space with me.
We watched the Batman/Superman/Justice League cartoons. You handled them better than I thought. Darkseid didn’t scare you. Granny Goodness did. (Granny Goodness scares lots of people.)
I saved Supergirl episodes for you, and Batgirl episodes. I bought you a Batgirl costume and you put it on right away. You rocked the gauntlets.
When I put on sports you found something else to do, but always something that kept you in the room, kept you in contact with me. Every time I put on a Manchester City game and you were there, they’d score within 5 minutes. The happiest moment of my life as a fan was when City scored 2 goals in the last 3 minutes of the season to win the championship. You spent the whole game building a fairy city with your wood blocks. When City scored in the dying seconds, I ran around the house, delirious, screaming. You got all excited. The winning goal scorer took off his shirt. You got used to that: soccer players taking off their shirts after a goal. You thought this was normal. I let you.
I never want you to think what’s magical isn’t normal.
You cried when I made you try peas. Now you proclaim, “I eat peas. Some. Not too many.”
You put your dishes in the sink now, without being asked.
You don’t interrupt anymore. You say, “Excuse me.”
You still won’t try broccoli.
Every time I asked you if you’d had a dream last night, you’d do that thing where you pause for just the sliveriest sliver of a second, then say “Yes,” and make one up. You’re a born storyteller.
When you’d trip and take a wicked fall and I’d ask, “You OK?” you’d always say “Yes.”
You’re tough. Tougher than you need to be.
Your laugh is like a clarinet doing scales.
You always remembered green is my favorite color. You began to seek out green things to give me, or make me, just because of that.
You’re the child I always wanted.
The last time we went to the supermarket together, as we walked in hand-in-hand, you announced, out of the clear blue sky (you’re prone to clear blue sky announcements), “You’re the best at telling stories.”
The last time I saw you, your mother and I had just split up. She was taking you to your dad’s for the summer. You didn’t know we’d split. She told you to say goodbye. You ran into my arms and gave me such a hug. You’ve really become a great hugger.
“The next time you see me,” you said, with that look where you’re talking to whoever’s nearby but focused on something far far away, “I won’t be six anymore. I’ll be seven.”
“And you won’t be a 1st grader…” I said, straining to keep my voice from cracking, knowing how much I’d miss our little game of spelling out the obvious.
“I’ll be in 2nd grade,” you said.
The first time one of your classmates asked you if I was your dad, you shot him down quickly. “That’s Matthew.” A few months later, it was “That’s Matthew. My mom’s boyfriend.”
The day after we said goodbye, your mom told me you were with your uncles. They were quizzing you about space, and you blew them all away with how much you knew about the planets, the solar system. About everything. Your mom told me what you told them. I can see your little face when said it:
“My stepdad Matt taught me.”