Monday morning. I blinked. My vision slowly focused on the clock. Seven fifteen on the dot. I was now apparently conditioned to wake up at this precise time. I hadn't heard anything, or felt anything. Not anything physical, anyway. Perhaps just a presence. Perhaps just a breath. Perhaps just a pair of soft, brown, almost-nine-year-old eyes.
Tshirt. Legs beneath. Legs too long, but then not. Perfect, actually. Stephanie's face. Also perfect, but anxious.
I smiled. She chewed her lip. I knew what she'd seen and could only imagine what she was thinking. I didn't let myself imagine some of what she might be thinking. I throbbed anyway. My lizard brain was awake too.
"I don't know what to do," she said.
"Stephanie. Precious. You don't have to do anything. Not ever. You just have to be. That will always, always be enough."
Her features relaxed a bit. I pulled back the sheet and patted the bed. She climbed up. I covered us, her back to my front, my arms around her tiny frame, across the plane of her chest and tummy. Fuck. The smell of her hair.
She was uneasy in my arms, restless. I just held on. Finally, "I don't want to hate Mommy."
Oh God. In retrospect, it wasn't surprising that I'd utterly misinterpreted what she was wrestling with. The real trauma of last night for her wasn't the shock of witnessing her parents engaged in oral sex. She was forced to confront a relationship that her mother had with me that she didn't.
"Why would you, princess? How could you?"
Of course this was exactly the wrong thing to say. She was already wracked with guilt about her feelings. I exacerbated.
"I knowwwwwwwww. Daddy. I know. It's awful. I hate it. I can't help it."
I kissed her hair. Smelled it again. I can't help it.
"What do you hate, kitten? Think about it. Tell me."
This was better. Her body quieted.
"I hate that she went back to work and left us."
"So you miss her."
She nodded. I pressed on. "But that's not all of it, is it?"
She shook her head. I felt her breath catch. A sniffle. "She doesn't... love you... like I do."
I was in a love affair with my daughter. Honestly, until she said it, I hadn't absorbed this fact.
One builds barriers around dangerous and frightening things. I wasn't cheating on Carol with Stephanie. This was all just a somewhat innocent exploration. Okay, less innocent lately. But still, within bounds of what one might explain... Ya. So. All of that is bullshit. I was heart and soul and body in love with Stephanie in ways that a father shouldn't be. Apparently the feelings were mutual. Duh.
Carol had said she was terrified. In that moment I joined the club.
But here was my daughter, my perfect, compelling girl, irrefutably in my bed and in my arms.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.
"It can't be a contest, Stephanie. We can't let it be. Because I need you, completely. And we all need your mother, completely. Do you see that, sweetheart?"
"Sometimes I see it, Daddy. Sometimes I just see... your door. And she's in there. With you. And I'm not."
"I know about doors. I look at yours, too."
"But I'm alone in my room, Daddy. All alone."
I pressed her to my chest. Her breath was ragged. Another sniffle. In a tremble of a voice, "She'd hate me if she knew."
"I don't think your mother could ever hate you. It's just not something that can be."
It seemingly didn't occur to Stephanie that her mother would probably direct her hate at me.
"Do you love me, Daddy? That way? Do you love me that way?"
"How could I not, Stephanie?"
I could argue that I'd never touched her sexually. I could say that we'd just watched each other. Been in the same room. The Family Changing Room. It's what you do there. You change clothes. You're a family. It's the most natural thing there is. Anybody who says different must have a dirty mind. How could you assume that just because we change clothes together that there's something else. She's curious. She had questions. I answered them. Maybe I let things happen, but only because she's curious...
While I was thinking all this nonsense, my hand was between her legs. I don't remember putting it there. Yet there it was.
She wasn't wearing underpants. When I realized what was happening, my only thought was... softness. It's the softest thing in the world, my daughter's sex. And warm. And perfect.
She parted her legs. An invitation. Her small hand on top of mine. On top of her. She pressed me into her bareness with the barest of sighs. An insistence.
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
My fingers worked slowly. I learned her, that morning. I'd watched, but now I felt. How her body responded. Smallness. Nothing huge. No grunting and moaning. Breath and gasps and squeaks. Her small round face turned to me, cheeks like apples. To the edge and back, once. And once more, almost. Her bottom in my lap, its every inflection fueling my insanity. Then her miniscule nub between my thumb and finger, rolling to and fro, and her face, her lithe frame, taut with pleasure. I kissed her lips like a lover, the deepest depravity. A shudder rolled through her. My fingers slipping in slick softness. Soft scent. Scented hair. And not just.
Then quiet. Entwined. Melted. Delicious. Gooey grilled cheese with tomato.
"You do, Daddy. You really do."
"Yes, Stephanie. I love you. That way."
Her impish grin. Perhaps a victory smile. "No, Daddy. I mean you know about girls."
I wondered for a moment what she meant. Then I remembered. She hadn't thought to ask me how girls did it. She'd gone to her mother with her questions about sex with yourself. I chuckled despite my terror.
There were noises from the kitchen. A new source of terror. Caroline was up and potentially trying to make breakfast. One last deep breath. Stephanie's hair. Stephanie's gentle aroma from beneath the covers.
"We're late, pumpkin. Let's stop your sister from burning down the house."
I'm not submissive. Not hardly. When other women started talking breathlessly about Christian Grey, I read the book. Then I read parts of it out loud to Rick. We laughed until we cried. Needless to say, we didn't waste any money on the movies.
Rather, I've always thought of myself as shameless. Unafraid to say to my husband, I need your cock. I need it inside of me. I need it now, and often. I love how it feels in my mouth, when it swells and tenses, the moment before the storm. There are empty places where Rick belongs, in every way that can mean. There's nothing weak about that. It's just honest, and safe, because I know that he needs me too. I feel it in his touch, in his hunger.
Shame was an unfamiliar and uncomfortable mantel for me to wear. So, I shed it. I let my husband know that I was sexually aroused by my daughters. Watching Caroline masturbate, her lips at my breast. Outside Stephanie's door, her sounds. Almost nine. Going on 20. Terrifying. And impossible to ignore. Part of us now. We can't control our feelings, only what we do about them. And not even that.
My lawyerly mind is relentless sometimes. In this case, it forbade me from believing that the truth wouldn't come out. It was inevitable that Rick would know. Better to plead than to be found guilty. I stood at Stephanie's door and pleaded for mercy.
And mercy was granted. I didn't want it to be gentle, and it wasn't. I was pinned to the wall by Rick's hand when I came or I would have collapsed.
Somewhere inside I knew that this was too easy. Something in me wanted him to be shocked, repulsed, disgusted. That he wasn't was both a relief and a puzzle. But I wasn't done judging myself. How could I judge Rick, my angel of mercy? I went to my knees at his feet, a supplicant. I drank his acceptance, consumed his warmth, filled my lungs with his familiar musk. I would have stayed there forever if he'd wanted, an eternal penance of fellatio.
I slept much more soundly than I should have. I kissed Rick's unfurrowed brow as I left for work in the morning. Could everything be okay? In the morning, it often seems more likely. In that moment, I was even able to convince myself that I hadn't really heard, the night before, a child's footsteps running away from our bedroom at the moment my husband flooded my mouth with his forgiveness.
I had to call later that day to say that I wouldn't be home until very late.
"The timing sucks, Rick. But I have to make this court appearance."
"I understand, Carol. You know I always will."
I was quiet for a moment. Rick relieved the silence.
"Do you have what you need? Should I pack a bag and bring it to you?"
"I'm not staying the night. I'll just get home at oh-dark-thirty. I... don't want to be away from you right now."
"I'm not going anywhere. I'll be here when you get home. I promise. We'll miss you. Call me from the train."
It's unlike me to choke up because I was going to miss dinner with my family, but I did. Was I changed somehow? Or just figuring out something that's been true all along, something about the consequences of choices. They all seemed rational, my choices. Explicable, at least. Until recently I'd always been happy to live with the consequences.
"I love you, Rick." I heard the strain bleed through into my voice.
I laughed. Bless him. "Fuck you, Han Solo."
His gentle chuckle. "There's my girl."
I didn't want to hang up. My need stirred obscenity. I glanced up, just to be sure that my office door was closed. "I loved sucking your cock last night. I loved you, in my mouth. Filling my mouth."
He cleared his throat. "Errmmm. Feel free to wake me up when you get home. Whatever oh-dark-whatever it is."
"You're my only hope, you know."
"I love you too, Carol. Knock'em dead, or whatever you're trying to do to them."
I held the phone for a good minute after he'd gone.
You know how it goes in the movies. Love triangles get resolved. A guy has these two girls that like him. One is the obvious one, the girl everybody would expect him to be with. Then there's the not-obvious girl. The one that he should really be with, the true love of his heart. Think Jerry Maguire. At first he doesn't realize the truth of the true love. Circumstances conspire. Inevitably the girls encounter each other. Awkwardness and confusion and hijinks ensue. In the end, he realizes the error of his ways. He rushes into the arms of the one true love. He had her at hello. We knew all along but we cry anyway.
Our story wasn't likely to resemble one of those movies. I had to find a way to end up with both girls. It would be too easy to wind up with neither, driving aimlessly on the streets of Ramsdale. Humbert is not my role model.
After Carol called, I picked the girls up from school. A normal afternoon. We ordered pizza. Had to get three different ones to make everybody happy. Hawaiian among them, of course. There were leftovers. Carol would sigh at the lack of balanced nutrition. I would say that pineapple is fruit.
Stephanie and I watched each other. Her scent still lingered faintly on my hand. Between her morning visit and Carol's unexpected provocation on the phone, I was chronically stiff. Stephanie seemed to know this and was visibly gloating. If there had been any doubt, it was erased when her mischievous little hand groped me under the kitchen table, tracing and squeezing the hardness that extended down the leg of my pants.
My daughter was exploring a new sense of power. I can see how it would be irresistible for a child. For your entire life, you've been at the mercy and command of adults, of parents and teachers and bus drivers and lifeguards. But suddenly there's something about you... who you are, what you do... that makes an adult see you in a different way. Lets you affect them and changes how they treat you. Gives you a voice in your life for the first time. That this experience can get a bit out of control isn't surprising.
I wasn't helping with the control thing. I covered her hand with mine when she started to fondle me. I fully intended to fend her off, gently but firmly. She persisted. Smiled at me in mock innocence with a mouthful of cheese and ham and pineapple. I relented, let my fingers rest on hers as they moved, my hand a tactile voyeur to the molestation. Victory was hers.
There was relative calm and sanity after dinner. The girls did their homework together, Stephanie for once being helpful. Her relationship with me seemed to diffuse her competition with her sister. "Put it in your backpack now so you don't forget it in the morning," said my eldest to my youngest. It could have been Carol talking.
I offered a movie. Anything but "Frozen." I wasn't sure I could handle the girls singing "Let It Go" at the top of their lungs just now. We went with "Brave," which reminded me that I should buy stock in Disney. We'd already contributed enough to their corporate earnings to deserve a seat on the Board. There was a time in my life when the last six movies I'd seen were The Lion King.
I sent the girls to get ready for bed. They'd found a way to share the sink and brush their teeth at the same time, a small domestic miracle. I dressed down to sweatpants and poured some goldfish crackers into a bowl. My aspirations as a homemaker are modest. Martha Stewart is not my role model either.
Caroline padded into the living room in her usual knee-length sleeper. It wasn't as long as it used to be. Children frustratingly refuse to remain stuck in time. Just when you think you've gotten to know them, they're different. Stephanie appeared in a much shorter tshirt, which I recognized as one of mine. She claimed shotgun and plopped herself next to me on the couch. Caroline took her mother's usual spot on the attached chaise with a smirk, shamelessly exploiting Carol's absence.
I raised my eyebrows at Stephanie.
"What?" She knew my face well.
"You've been pilfering my drawers." The double-entendre struck me only after I'd said it. I wish I was that clever.
Her expression was sheepish and therefore irresistible. "It smells like you, Daddy."
Our movie blanket is big enough to cover the whole couch, an emblem of family togetherness. Stephanie arranged it over our three laps. Caroline was sitting perpendicular on the L-shaped extension and pulled the corner to her mouth, thus exposing her bare toes. She chewed the corner thoughtfully, considered the merits of this compromise and decided that it was okay.
Merida is the only Disney princess who doesn't end up with a Prince. I've always appreciated the movie for this, and hoped that my daughters would grow up to be fiercely independent, unafraid to make their own choices. I felt Stephanie's hand slip into my lap under the blanket. Be careful what you ask for, I thought.
Stephanie put her feet up onto the couch, making a tent with her knees. Her hand moved subtly, seeking. And finding. And holding, gently through the soft cotton of my sweats. I stiffened. She watched my face and was rewarded with my expression of utter helplessness. I glanced at Caroline. She was absorbed in the movie. Her thumb had joined the corner of the blanket in her mouth. I did not correct her. Instead I turned off the lamp, the only light in the room besides the flickering of the screen. We were reduced to silhouettes, two-dimensional shadows of ourselves.
I could still see Stephanie's face. She met my eyes as her hand moved up to my waist, and then back down. Inside. Seeking finding holding. Her look was unmistakable. This is mine, it said.
I claimed her too, my hand seeking finding holding. Knees parted. No underpants, no longer a surprise. Softness. Warmth. Inside, a thin slickness. I probed below the delicate petals and found the inner cleft. Impossibly small. I worked at it nonetheless, stretching in small circles until the folds held me to the first knuckle. Her eyes closed. My thumb brushed over the tiny bump and my finger wormed deeper... so so so careful... back a little then forward, ever millimeter resisted by the tight embrace of her nascent sex. A slight noise... my finger at her inner gate. Not to be passed, only approached with each rhythmic penetration.
The sound of the phone was jarring. I startled... disengaged from Stephanie and reached for it, her scent wafting along with my hand. I could hear from the background noise that Carol was on the train.
"Hi sweetheart. On your way home, I hope. How did it go?"
Stephanie watched me. Her hand did not disengage.
"Of course you did. Because you're the best."
Slender fingers tugging. Squeezing. I tried to hide the hoarseness of my voice.
"We're watching Brave. All quiet on the home front."
I leaked. Stephanie smirked and spread it over me with her thumb.
"Pizza. I knowwwwwww. It was good though."
Relentless mauling from her diminutive hand.
"I'll see you then.... I love you too... we all miss you..."
I put the phone down. Cast my eyes to my eldest daughter. Her face was resolute, determined. Merida was besting all of the would-be suitors, claiming her hand for herself. Unthinkable heresy. My gaze wandered to the other end of the couch. Caroline looked sleepy, her eyes half closed. She rarely made it though an entire full-length feature. Her own little knee-tent under the blanket. Her bare feet tiny, sticking out from under. And something else there? I squinted.
Her underpants, bunched around her ankles.
I soaked myself and Stephanie's hand, barely stifling the deep guttural sound that tried to escape my mouth.
We stayed that way for some time. I had no words. The scary part with the big evil bear. Stephanie was restless. I kissed her hair and was finally able to whisper. "Bedtime, sweetpea." She did her best to wipe her fingers on the inside of my sweats. And slid out from under the blanket. I heard her in the bathroom, washing her hands.
Caroline was asleep. I pulled the blanket aside to find her sleeper up around her waist and her hand... there... holding... still. I moved it gently. Her mons almost featureless but glowing pink in the light of the TV. For the briefest moment, I imagined Carol's hand there. Unwillingly but needfully blinked the image away. Lifted my daughter's short legs and slid her panties back into place at her hips as her eyes opened a little. Gathered her up with care. "Noooooo Daddy I want to see the eeennnnnddd..." A soft whine, her face buried in my shirt on our way to her room. I tucked her in and kissed her forehead.
Stephanie had her covers up around her chin when I came to her room. Sheepish again.
"Was that weird, Daddy? Was that... bad?"Yes and no and no and yes and yes and yes and no and no.
I kissed her forehead. "I love you, Stephanie."
"I love you too, Daddy."
I got into the shower with my sweatpants on and let them thoroughly soak, then stripped them off and wrung them out. Scrubbed my hands. Got out and threw the sweats into the drier along with some other clothes. My brain was working, at least a little.
I tried to stay awake until Carol got home. Closed my eyes, just for a moment. Next I knew, she was slipping into bed beside me. I think she was asleep before her head hit the pillow.
Carol slept in the next morning. I got the girls off to school and brought her coffee in bed. She seemed relaxed when I left for my day. I let myself imagine our family life as long stretches of blissful normalcy, punctuated by episodes of... the other, somehow woven together in a perverse but harmonious tapestry.
Ha ha ha.
In the afternoon I picked the girls up and headed home. Carol was still there, working from her desk in the extra room we shared as an office. I put my arms around her from behind. She was tense. I sat in the other chair.
"What's up?" I ventured.
"I got a call from Andrea's mother."
"Oh." Stephanie's altered shorts were in her lap. I felt blood drain from my face. She read my expression.
"So you knew."
I just nodded, but immediately sensed that this minimal response wasn't going to cut it. "I should have told you. Just... with everything going on..."
Carol looked down. That had been cruel on my part. I'd implied that I couldn't tell her because it would just be more evidence of her failures as a mother.
"She said that Stephanie left with you, wearing these." She held up the shorts, the legs nonexistent, the hems ragged from amateur scissoring.
I nodded again. Less said the better, was my thinking.
"She didn't have them on when you got home."
"I told her it was unacceptable, Carol. I made her change."
"In the car?"
"Yes. I went to an empty parking lot. Nobody saw anything."
She was silent for a time. Clearly angry, but also sad.
"Nobody but you," she said. Dangerously quiet, with a subtle edge.
"Carol." With effort, I held my voice steady. I met her gaze.
"We don't hide things from each other, Rick. You know... you know... the things I h-haven't hidden... from you." Her eyes were wet.
I thought about reminding her how I'd found out about her interactions with Caroline. She hadn't told me, at first. I chose not to go there, not now. "I do know. I do. I'm sorry. I should have told you. I knew it would upset you." True enough, that.
Her breath seemed to ease a little.
"According to Andrea, it's about some boy."
My breath eased as well. Carol sounded skeptical, but only slightly.
"Nine going on sixteen," I offered.
"Not even nine. Not even."
I reached for her cheek. She let me touch it. "You'll talk to her, I guess? I tried. But I've never been a girl not-even-nine."
She swallowed and nodded. I took her hand in mine. She let me.
"How old were we? The first time we held hands," I asked, as gently as I could.
"You know how old we were. You were 12. I was 10."
"Did you love me, even then?"
She smiled a little, eyes still shiny. "You know that too. You know that I did. And every day since. But I never cut up my shorts for you." The edge was gone from her voice.
"I wouldn't have known what to do if you had."
I leaned in and kissed her. She let me.
How many women can say that their first love was their forever love? Not many, I know. Rick and I were a lifelong story and I felt blessed by it. He filled my eyes and my brain and my heart and my diary from fifth grade on. We broke up twice in high school, each of us at different times thinking that there just had to be more to explore. But neither of us ever found anyone else with whom we could be completely at ease. It was like breathing, being with him.
Our first time was so like us. We were both naive, awkwardly making out and petting with increasing urgency but constrained by shyness and the warning voices of adults echoing in our heads. Between these trepidations and our brief separations, we found ourselves virgins on his seventeenth birthday. With his graduation looming and the uncertainty that implied, we both had an uneasy sense of impending loss.
The night of his birthday we were sitting on his bed in his room. His parents were used to us being together and there was some sense of trust, or a notion that we were good for each other. We were. I gave him a goofy card and I kissed him and we talked about what was going to happen about school and at some point he just said, "I really want to have sex with you." It was abrupt and simple and I could tell he was nervous but to me it came across as charming. My lens when looking at him has always been liberally coated with vaseline.
My words came without thinking. "Me too." Just that. I blushed only after I'd said it.
And so like him, he said, "Do you know how?"
And so like me, I said, "Are you asking because you don't know, or because you think I don't?"
He laughed. "I think I know."
I said, "I think I do too." The way we'd said these things made us sure that it was the first time for both of us. The act itself was further evidence. It was sweet and tender and awkward and for me, pretty painful. But never in any way regretted. My clearest memory from that night is holding his cock for the first time, feeling his heartbeat in it, the intensity of his hardness, all because of me. It entranced me then and has ever since.
These thoughts ran through me like a current. I knew very well how intensely a young girl can love, how utterly consuming it can be. I knew that times are different now, that girls know much more than we did at their age. That sex is everywhere and the physical and emotional are chronically conflated, that there are thongs designed for ten-year-olds.
I was angry when I knew I shouldn't be. I was confused when I knew I was confusing myself. I was disappointed in Rick for concealing this from me. I wanted to be angry with him. I tried it on, but it didn't fit. For Stephanie, I had fear. It's just too soon. Her first love can't be like mine, my forever love. The world isn't full of Ricks. And I wouldn't let her be that way, yearning for his attention to the abandonment of her modesty and self-esteem. It wasn't like she had unsupervised time where anything could really happen. Not yet, anyway. It was just heartbreaking to think of her losing herself that way.
Her door was open. I stepped in. She looked up from her book and quickly read my face. "What?" As though I was going to yell at her again for not picking up her clothes.
I sat on the edge of her bed and laid the shorts out between us. Her eyes darted over them and then away. "So?"
"Nice try, Stephanie. We need to talk about this."
"So I cut them. So what? You can take it out of my allowance. It was Andrea's idea. It was just... goofing around..."
Had I let her continue, the string of excuses would have run on. I touched her cheek. "Stephanie. I know. I know about the boy. Don't lie to me. It hurts me very badly when you lie to me."
She swallowed, her face reddening. "I just made him up. I hate boys. Andrea said it would be funny..."
"I was ten when I fell in love with your father."
She looked at me, really looked, for the first time in a while. Blinked. I pulled her into my lap and held her, my arms over her chest, my cheek against her hair. She stiffened for a moment, but she allowed it.
"Tell me about him," I said.
"I don't want to."
"But you do want to show him your butt, apparently."
Mistake. She tensed and squirmed. I retreated.
"Sorry. It's just... if he's the type of boy that's going to like you because of that... well... you deserve better, sweetpea."
"Daddy doesn't like your butt?"
Gaahhhh. "He doesn't like me because of it. Or only because of it. Or mostly. Because of it."
"But it's okay for him to like it. Like yours. Or like mine. For somebody to... like mine."
"Yes, it's okay. But that's not the point." I paused to regroup. "Stephanie, please. This is about what's most important, which is who you are. You're smart and kind and clever and funny and any boy would be lucky for you to look twice at them. Your butt should be the last thing you or him worry about." Especially at your age, not-even-nine. I wanted to say it, but stopped myself.
"Maybe I want him to look twice at me." After a moment, "I like it... when he looks at me."
Of course she did. I'd wanted that too. I wondered for a moment if the reason I'd never cut my shorts for Rick was because I'd never thought of it.
"Is he nice? Is he smart? Is he a bully? Does he like the same things you do? What do you talk about?"
A tiny tremble. Her voice caught. "The nicest. The smartest. And no, not ever. And all the things. And everything." Her heart speaking. I could hear it. Mine melted. I hugged her to my chest.
"He sounds like a fine boy. How old is he?"
She hesitated. "Older."
"Daddy was twelve when I was ten."
She nodded. I pressed on. "How old, love bug? I'd like to meet him, if he's going to be your friend."
She shook her head. I relented. "I know. I'd embarrass you."
She seemed relieved. I'd hoped for a contradiction, but none was forthcoming. Just a sniffle. I kissed her hair.
"Your body isn't you. It's just the costume that you wear. Share yourself only with people that care about you, that know how to treasure what you share and how to return your feelings. I was the luckiest girl ever, to find your father when I did. I never had to show him my body to know that he loved me too. When things like that did happen, it was all the more special."
"Maybe I'm lucky too."
"Maybe, sweetheart. Maybe. But be sure."
She was quiet for a long moment. "I'm sorry that I cut up my shorts, Mommy."
"Forgiven, Stephanie. You can talk to me about these things, you know. I know about boys."
Scrunchy face. I sighed. "No more secrets, okay?"
She chewed her lip. I raised my eyebrows. "Stephanie?"
"I cut up my top too."
I just held her for a long time.
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