Two days ago my daughter cut her hair off. She is four. She loosed a cowlick that now curls like plumage from the crown of her head, adorable. Everything the child touches turns to gold.
It seems impossible that she could be the sum of Larry and me. His crabs, my clap. His bad breath, my teeth. Our habit, which brought us together long enough to make Stella and then wonderfully drove us apart. Stella doesn’t know about him. Sometimes when Larry comes through town, he and I see each other for old time’s sake, when Stella is safe with my sister.
My girl is not like me. She reads already, and dances. I told Larry about Stella’s pealing laughter when she, age one, encountered a soap bubble, and he said, “Cheap date.” I haven’t told him anything about her since.
He thinks I’m raising Stella wrong, and he isn’t the only one. Janice, my friend at work, asked me just what I’m waiting for. “Kids her age go to preschool. They have play dates. You don’t need to keep her in Fort Knox.”
“I give her tests. She’s scoring off the top of every one of them.”
“What’s going to happen when she starts school and finds out that she’s not the center of the universe?”
I haven’t told Janice yet about the home schooling. I’ll need to get my GED, which I started years ago and put aside when I didn’t see the point. Now I hit the books after Stella goes to bed, pulling out sample tests on math and social studies that I hide in a high cabinet during the day. No point in raising questions if Larry comes over. But I’ve got to be nimble. Stella will catch up with me before I know it.
She stampedes into day care, racing to see her friends and kiss the stuffed moose that is her favorite. She was three when Laura, who runs the place, pulled me aside and said, “I think she’s reading.” Her long face looked worried, as if I was going to be mad that she let my brilliant little girl read when I wasn’t looking. “I didn’t teach her.”
“I know,” I assured her. Laura doesn’t run the kind of day care where three-year-olds learn to read, but the kids are clean and she teaches them to share.
Stella can write her name and mine, and she draws the puppy she wants me to get for her. She resets the oven clock when we switch from daylight saving time, and she knows what daylight saving time is. She knows the names of our mailman and our neighbors, and though she doesn’t run up to them—I’m careful about what I let her do—she waves and says hello. She charmed Adele Burgess one snowy day when Adele came stumping up the street behind her walker, scowling at the slushy pavement.
“The snowflakes are dancing!” Stella said, not her usual kind of talk. I thought maybe she was afraid of Adele, and so let herself sound babyish.
Adele was afflicted with everything—bad feet and swollen knees and skin that caught and tore like paper, and she met everyone she saw with a long list of joints that pained her, but this day she smiled at Stella. I didn’t know the old bitch could. “You have quite an imagination!” Adele said.
After she was out of earshot, Stella leaned toward me. “The snowflakes are really just falling, but I thought she might like to hear about dancing.”
GED sample question: What is an opinion rather than a fact?
“It’s time for you to meet someone,” Janice tells me.
“I’ve got a kid at home. Guys would rather start fresh.”
“You have a pretty smile and long hair. Plenty of guys would give you a chance.”
“Did I say I was interested?”
“That girl of yours is going to want a daddy. Or a brother or sister. Maybe you could get a car with air conditioning out of the deal.”
“Got my whole life worked out, don’t you?” I smile, she smiles back. I have a better life than hers, so she’s allowed to be bossy. It was Janice of all people who made me quit smoking before Stella was born. I’ve seen that woman go through three packs in a night, but she kept taking cigarettes out of my fingers when we were on breaks. “You don’t want a dumb one,” she said. Her kids are with their dad’s mother.
Now she reaches out to touch my hair. “You can borrow my flat iron.” For a treacherous second I remember how it used to be, with music and beer bottles and hot hands against my waist.
Stella is used to hearing about Janice the same way I’m used to hearing about Louis at her day care who won’t drink chocolate milk unless graham crackers are crumbled into it. I don’t expect her to think much when I tell her that Janice and I might go out some night, and Stella would be able to stay with her aunt and watch whatever TV my sister thinks is right for a girl aged four going on nineteen.
“Is it a date?” Stella asks.
“Silly. Janice is my friend. We don’t go out on dates.”
“But you might, if you meet someone.” Her eyes are startlingly clear, the blue of swimming pools. “Louis’s mom goes out every Friday. He gets to eat Pop-Tarts.”
“If a date ever comes up, you can negotiate Pop-Tarts with Aunt Doreen.”
Stella grins. She loves me to use big words with her, and I haven’t stumped her yet, though as she twirls away chanting “negotiate,” I feel as if I’ve swallowed a cannonball. I can already hear the scorn in Janice’s voice when I explain there will be no night out.
GED sample question: If a savings account pays 5% simple interest, how much interest in dollars will $4,000 earn in two years? I have never seen $4,000 at one time in my life. I make up my own question. If a pack of cigarettes costs $5.30, how much is each cigarette in a pack?
Stella storms back into the room, her new cowlick bobbing on top of her head like a decoration. She’s holding a book she brought home from day care, and her finger is stabbing at a word. “What is this?” she demands.
“Sound it out,” I say automatically.
She can get as far as b-a-l-l-, but the rest stumps her, even though the drawing on the page is crowded with balloons and for God’s sake, it isn’t that hard. “Ballow,” she keeps saying. Tears are coming to her eyes. She hates being wrong.
“Come on.” I put her coat on, and we go outside, Stella not even asking where we are going. Janice is on shift, and she’ll give us a balloon for nothing. Sure enough, her face breaks into a grin when she sees us.
“What happened to that kid’s hair?”
“Ten minutes when Mom wasn’t looking,” I say.
“You want to get some scissors to even it out?”
“Nope,” I say. “A balloon.”
“Balloon!” Stella whoops, finally getting it.
Janice looks at her oddly, but inflates a green balloon for her at the helium tank and ties it off with a long ribbon. She’s ready to tie the end to Stella’s cowlick, but I’m not having it. My girl and I walk home, her pretty face flooded with joy at the new word she owns, and all I can think of is pins, knives and scissors.