by Matt Izzi
His wife eyed him over her piña colada as he entered the hotel bar holding the hand of a girl no older than four.
“Didn’t we agree to run all kidnappings by each other?”
Peter forced a grim smile. The girl’s mother, he explained, had collapsed on the pool steps, struck her head, and been taken to the hospital.
“Jesus. I was gone ten minutes.” His wife stirred her drink with a novelty-sized straw. “Do you think it was an aneurysm?”
“Kara.” He did not want to speculate in front of the girl.
Her name was Ava. White sunhat, pink swimsuit, fanny pack illustrated with a new generation of Disney characters he didn’t recognize. She was shy, scared, or both. Under the hat, only her chin was visible. At least she wasn’t crying.
“Where’s her father?”
“That’s the thing.”
He’d met Vincent an hour ago. Fast friends: maybe you could call them that. They were poolside cabana neighbors. While Kara swam laps, they compared favorite local breweries and discussed Peter’s book of Hemingway stories. Within twenty minutes they’d made plans to get a beer together that night. Ava and her mother arrived in swimsuits after Kara went indoors to use the bathroom and get another cocktail. The accident thrust the two men into an abrupt intimacy.
“He didn’t want Ava riding in the ambulance and was too drunk to drive. So he asked me to watch her for a couple hours. What was I supposed to say?”
“You must have been too drunk to say no.”
“I’ve had two beers. How many of those have you had?”
His wife counted to ten under her breath. Ten had become a spiritual comfort for her: a number to replace God. Her therapist called it praying to ten. While Peter waited for Kara to make peace with whatever mistake he’d made, he squeezed Ava’s hand and watched the action through the window above the rum bottles. Teen pool workers had materialized with buckets of disinfectant. Blood spread through the chlorinated water like a red tide. The hotel manager, dressed in a blue blazer and salmon shorts, barked into a cell phone—probably calling a lawyer.
“It’s our last day of vacation. We’re supposed to go to the Dali museum.”
So that was the hang-up. In four trips to St. Petersburg they’d yet to go, always running out of time or into unexpected closures, like the weekend a drag race closed down the whole waterfront. Kara had talked about nothing but the museum all morning.
“There’s plenty of day left. I’m sure Vince will be back in time.”
“What do you know about this Vincent?”
He was from Minneapolis, a Florida first-timer, and preferred Hemingway’s titles to the actual stories—that was about it. What Peter liked about him straight off was his mellow nature, so different from the brash Rhode Islanders he’d grown up around. Men who’d acquired a kind of overconfidence from being fixed: fixed in a small place, fixed in their ideas, fixed among people who’d never challenge them. You found that type everywhere, he supposed, but in higher concentration along the East Coast.
“He seems like a nice guy. Your parents are very nice,” he said to comfort Ava.
“Here’s what I know,” Kara said. “He left his daughter with a complete stranger. You’ve never babysat in your life.”
“He knew I was married. I guess he trusted us more than the hotel staff.”
He straightened, as if this revelation yielded chiropractic benefits. Vincent’s snap judgment only made Peter more fond of him and more determined to prove it wasn’t a mistake.
“I’ll speak to the manager.” Kara placed her half-empty drink on a coaster. “She’s not our responsibility.”
He didn’t stop her, though he assumed the manager wouldn’t get involved in a private arrangement. As soon as Kara was gone, Ava spoke for the first time.
“When are Mommy and Daddy coming back?”
Ava’s hand was sticky. He hadn’t let go of it since the ambulance left.
“What’s wrong with Mommy?”
“She fainted, that’s all.” He didn’t know how much Ava would understand. At the pool they’d shielded her from seeing the blood. “Your mommy must have been dehydrated—thirsty. They probably put her on fluids.”
The girl gnawed the brim of her hat. He was eager to distract her until Kara returned.
“Are you hungry?”
He flagged down the bartender, who informed him the kitchen would not reopen until four-thirty.
“How about ice cream?”
“I can make a mudslide.” The bartender had gelled, blond hair coifed like a wave about to break over his forehead.
“Hold the booze.”
When the blender started up, Ava slipped her hand free and covered her ears. The separation dealt him a small, wincing loss. He’d never told Kara directly, “I want a child,” nor convincingly told himself the same. Now and then he thought he’d like to have a daughter by accident—a joyful mistake. But Kara was decisively against it. The blender whirled to a high pitch, then rattled to a stop. The bartender poured the mocktail into a plastic, oversized margarita cup. Peter nearly passed the drink to Ava but caught himself in time.
“There’s no nuts in this, right? In the mudslide mix or anything?”
Vincent had warned him about Ava’s severe nut allergies. She carried an EpiPen in her fanny pack.
“Nope,” the bartender said. “We’re nut-free.”
Ava needed both hands to grip the drink. She sucked greedily at the straw, struggling with the thick milkshake.
“That’s awful big,” Peter said. “Is it good?”
The hat nodded.
“Awful big, awful good. That makes it an Awful Awful.”
Ava giggled as she repeated it: “Awful big, awful good, awful big, awful good!”
Five minutes alone with the girl and already he’d made her laugh. It was good to be somewhere no one knew his Rhode Island jokes. His smile flattened when Kara returned through the lobby entrance. What if Vincent had phoned the hotel, saying he’d changed his mind? Until that moment Peter hadn’t realized how much he’d looked forward to spending the afternoon with Ava, how long he’d waited for a chance to prove he could handle fatherhood.
“The front desk called her father, but he didn’t pick up. I told them to keep trying.” Kara dropped her shoulders, deflated. “Looks like she’s ours.”
The girl lifted her chin, revealing her eyes under the hat for the first time. Blue and set wide apart, like two lakes seen from an airplane. Ours.
* * *
Whenever he half-joked about having kids—on long car rides, for example, when he pined for a backseat buddy to rediscover the world with, to teach the songs he and Kara knew—she accused him of never imagining the hard side. Diapers, fevers, sleepless nights. Sharp corners and mouth-sized objects. Climate change and school shooter drills. “You make it sound so easy”—that was her common refrain. Its latest recurrence came when he suggested taking Ava to the Dali museum. They couldn’t exactly go swimming. The museum was only a few blocks away. Why did Kara have to make everything sound so hard? Ava, already past the terrible twos and threes, made it seem easy. They’d leave his number with the front desk and have her back in ten minutes if her father called.
“Two adults, one child.” The phrase felt like an initiation—one of those universal expressions he’d never had the chance to say. But the thrill was short-lived. While Kara bounded through the gift shop, shedding her reluctance with every step, Ava collected it in her wake: she began to squirm. Maybe she wanted a toy. If his wife weren’t so eager to see the exhibits, he might have paused to buy Ava some overpriced knickknack. Ice cream, souvenirs—that was all he could think of to please her. He decided they’d stop at the gift shop on the way out.
In the sunlit atrium, a grand staircase spiraled up beneath a dome of triangular glass panels. Kara practically skipped up the steps; Ava took each one like both feet were cast in cement. Was she crashing from the sugar or worried about her mother? He didn’t wait long for the answer. On the first landing Ava dropped so abruptly he feared she’d had an aneurysm of her own.
“I want Mommy and Daddy!” she screamed.
Below them, café diners craned necks. One of them probably seconds away from summoning security. Thank god he wasn’t alone with the girl. Kara, at least, gave them some appearance of propriety. She crouched next to Ava on the landing.
“Listen,” she said. “Your mommy and daddy put us in charge of you. They can’t be here right now.”
“I want Mommy!” Ava sobbed, hugging her knees to her chest.
Peter smiled down at the gift shop gawkers, hoping to look avuncular.
“Nothing to see here, folks,” he said, which only drew fresh attention. A logjam of elderly tourists formed on the stairs. He pleaded with the girl. “Ava, get up. Please get up.”
Kara, who had been counting under her breath, kept an even keel.
“OK.” She lifted the girl’s chin. “What do you need Mommy for? Can I help instead?”
Ava stopped crying. He heard a faint drip and gazed upward, instinctively, for a leak in the glass dome. Of course, it hadn’t rained their entire vacation. The high sun blinded him. He looked away, blinking, then noticed a puddle forming under Ava’s Crocs.
“Christ. Why didn’t you ask to go potty?”
“Peter, for god’s sake, don’t yell at her.”
Kara unstrapped the fanny pack and handed it to him. The crotch of Ava’s bathing suit had turned dark pink.
“I’m sorry about this,” he said to no one in particular.
“Easy, huh?” Kara said.
The puddle spread to the landing’s edge, threatening the diners below. He dammed it with some balled Kleenex from his pocket.
“Just a small accident,” he announced.
Another initiation. He led the way downstairs, elbowing a path through traffic while apologizing on each step. Why hadn’t Ava asked to use the bathroom? He tried to see it from her perspective: she was in an unfamiliar place, accompanied by virtual strangers. Of course she’d be scared. To a little girl, how could he and Kara seem like anything but vaguely threatening giants?
While his wife helped Ava wash up in the family restroom, Peter checked the men’s room for paper towels. Air dryers only. He swiped a roll of toilet paper from the first stall, returned to the staircase, and shoved back up through the tourists. On the landing stood a janitor with a mop and bucket. He glanced derisively at the toilet paper in Peter’s hand.
“Your kid do this?”
“Not my kid,” he blurted out. “I mean, she’s not my daughter.”
“Can’t you tell when a kid needs to go? I’ve worked here twelve years and never had to clean up piss on these stairs.”
“I’m sorry. Can I do anything to help?”
“Sure, pal, fill out an application.”
He apologized again, abandoned the toilet paper, and slunk downstairs. At the gift shop he spent eighty-five bucks on a pair of boys’ swim trunks and a lobster telephone t-shirt. Ava picked out both items. While Kara helped her change, he berated himself outside the restroom. He didn’t know which was worse: denying responsibility for the girl or losing his patience with her. How had Kara stayed so cool and known what to do? Maybe praying to ten worked. He tried it, but felt no better. His wife was the practical half, managing all their finances—mortgage payments, insurance, income taxes—which freed him to indulge in daydreams. Maybe together they could handle anything. He’d deal with the easy, Kara with the hard. He almost laughed. No wonder she didn’t want kids.
Ava emerged in her new outfit. Despite the clashing colors, she looked adorable. A change had also come over his wife: Kara was holding the girl’s hand. He apologized to Ava for scolding her, but she seemed to have forgotten all about it.
“Well, should we go see some art?”
Ava shook her head. “I don’t want to go on the stairs.”
“Me neither,” he said, remembering the surly janitor. But he didn’t want to disappoint Kara. “Let’s take the elevator.”
As they led Ava away, she shrieked once, a warning brief and head-turning as a car horn. At that moment he almost disliked her. Then his wife—sweet, pragmatic Kara—rescued him.
“Maybe it’s best if we just leave.”
“Are you sure? Don’t you want to see the exhibits?”
Kara shrugged. “It doesn’t matter what I want.”
* * *
The three of them walked along the pier—Peter couldn’t help feeling the power of that number; they had always been two, and now they were three, if only for an afternoon.
“I’m hungry,” Ava said.
“Already? You just had ice cream.”
“Let’s go back to the hotel,” Kara said.
“The kitchen doesn’t open for another hour.” Two hours had passed since the accident, with no word from Vincent. Peter mulled over their options. “What about Hops & Props?”
It was their favorite bar in St. Petersburg, their go-to spot for local craft beers on the pier. Funky Buddha, Cycle, Cigar City—he could rattle off the breweries from memory.
“With Ava?” Kara said.
“It’s daytime; no one will look twice at us.”
Children in bars had become commonplace in the past five years. Peter had always found them annoying, but now he could see the other side. Besides, now that Ava had emptied her bladder, he was sure there’d be no more accidents.
“I really think we should head back.”
“We need to get her food, one way or another.”
“Do we? Are we doing what she wants or what you want to do?”
Kara was still sore at missing the Dali exhibits, he could tell. Not that she was wrong about his motives. He could admit that he enjoyed parading Ava around and spoiling her, but he also hoped to redeem himself after the museum disaster. The last thing he wanted was to hunker down in their hotel room, waiting for bad news. No, the hotel was the worst place for them to go.
“I want to go to Hots and Pots,” Ava said.
He beamed. Daddy’s little girl. “You see?”
“I can see I’m outvoted,” Kara said.
They arrived, parched and sweaty, after a twenty-minute walk, much of which he spent carrying Ava on his shoulders. She couldn’t have weighed forty pounds. He scanned the chalked beer list, ordered two IPAs from Invasive Species, and a root beer for Ava. Then he pointed out the wooden propellers hanging over the taps—the “Props” that gave the bar its name.
“Look! These belonged to an original Wright brothers’ plane.”
He liked to believe the claim was true, though Kara suspected the owner had been duped.
“Who?” Ava said.
“They built the first airplane.”
He spread his arms like wings and made a vrooming noise, giving Ava a case of the giggles. Parenting wasn’t so hard, he thought—already forgetting the museum incident. Parents weren’t saints any more than children were. On the patio he found a picnic table in partial shade.
“Peter,” Kara said, “we need to talk about what we’re going to do. We fly out tomorrow. What if Victor—”
“Vincent,” he corrected.
“—what if Vincent needs to stay overnight at the H-O-S-P-I-T-A-L? What then? How long are you going to play this game?”
“Everything will turn out okay.” He sipped his beer. It must have been ninety-two in the shade. “We’ll go back to the hotel and find out everything’s fine.”
“You’re always an optimist.”
“What’s an optimist?” Ava said.
“An optimist,” he said, “is someone who believes things will get better, not worse. Isn’t your day getting better?”
The hat bobbed in affirmation.
“So you’re an optimist, too.”
“I’m an optimist, too,” she repeated. “A hungry optimist.”
Even Kara smiled at Ava’s joke. She took a menu from the condiments basket.
“Let’s get some grouper sandwiches,” he said. “And chicken fingers for Ava.”
“There’s no kids’ menu. It’s all small plates with weird ingredients.”
“Maybe we can get a hot dog plain,” he said. “To be safe. Would you like a hot dog?”
Ava nodded. “Okay.”
“And get the boneless Asian wings. Make sure they don’t use peanut oil.”
“As soon as we eat,” Kara said, “we go straight back to the hotel.”
She went inside to order. Alone again with Ava, Peter felt an expanding, galactic joy, and had to remind himself he was her temporary guardian. He lifted her onto the table for a better view of the lagoon and towering palms, pleased to think the other customers—mostly tattooed twentysomethings with woodsman beards—might mistake him for Ava’s doting dad. Wasn’t there some resemblance in the face? Not in the eyes, but the long nose sloped like a ski jump. He imagined, too, that Kara was warming up not only to the girl but to the idea of having a daughter like Ava. Later they’d take her back to their room and read Hemingway aloud until she nodded off. Then, after her parents returned from the hospital, rested and hydrated, and they all exchanged relieved sighs and phone numbers and became lifelong friends, he and Kara would toss out her birth control and tumble into the king-sized bed.
His reverie was broken by Ava dipping beneath the tabletop.
“What are you hiding from?” he asked.
“I better hide with you.” Leaving his beer, he joined her under the table, squatting with one ear against his shoulder, the other dangerously close to a wad of green chewing gum.
“Do you think the dinosaurs are hungry?” Ava said. She’d removed her hat.
“Dinosaurs are always hungry.”
She giggled—a lilting sound that rose in pitch at the end, like a question.
“What do these dinosaurs eat?” he asked her. “Little girls?”
“No,” she squealed, lacing her fingers over her eyes. “Hot dogs.”
“Oh, that kind of dinosaur.”
Ava flipped onto her back and toothpicked her legs in the air.
“This is how dinosaurs sleep,” she said.
“Now you’re the dinosaur?”
“Yes, and you.”
The game was illogical, but he was enjoying himself just the same. Lying on the cool stone under the table, he curled his legs over the bench and closed his eyes. Their heads touched. Her stringy hair felt cool against his bald spot. He could have dozed off happily. This was fatherhood, he thought: wanting to stay in a moment forever but knowing you can’t. He knew, suddenly and sadly, that Ava would always be four years old to him.
“What kind of dinosaur are you?”
“T. rex,” Ava said instantly.
“I’m an Awfulawfulsaurus.” He opened his eyes. “Do you know why?”
“Because I’m awful big and awful good.”
She giggled harder. How quickly he’d grown addicted to her laugh. He recognized Kara’s tanned legs crossing the patio. Fleetingly he hoped she’d join their game. A game—that’s what she’d called it. Well, what if it was more? The certainty he’d yearned for their entire marriage?
“Right on time,” he said. “The T. rex is hungry.”
Kara set the food tray on the table and poked her head underneath.
“What are you doing under there?”
“Just a bit of surrealism.”
She spoke sternly to counteract her grin. “Does the T. rex want her food hot or cold?”
* * *
They ate together: a makeshift family sitting down to their first and only meal. Ava devoured the hot dog. The wings were spicy. Peter cooled his tongue with beer.
“You’re really enjoying yourself,” Kara said.
“Enjoy is a strong word.” She used a napkin to wipe her mouth—or was she hiding a smile? He took another wing, then caught Ava eyeing the last one ravenously.
“They’ve got a kick,” he said. “Are you sure you can handle it?”
“No peanut oil, right?”
“No nuts at all,” Kara said. “I had the bartender check with the chef.”
“All yours, Ava.”
He put the last wing on her plate. This was as happy as he’d felt all vacation. Maybe, for the first time since Ava entered their lives, he and his wife were in sync. He tested her.
“I think we should stay longer.”
“Extend our vacation, or move to Florida?”
Kara often joked about moving to St. Petersburg. Didn’t everyone from Rhode Island end up in Florida? They might as well do it while they could enjoy their bodies. Their favorite activity was walking St. Pete Beach from end to end. They’d marvel at the bright pink façade of the Don Cesar, a hotel in the style of a Spanish castle, like something from the days of Don Quixote, and try to locate the balcony they had sex on their first year of marriage, overlooking the starlit Gulf. Below them, children had raced about in the dark with flashing streamer toys, as if they were shooting stars and the beach an inverted sky. Back then kids were peripheral: like unused furniture, or the highway signs on his daily commute. Lately, whenever he saw a well-mannered child, all scraped elbows and inquisitive eyes, everything else blurred out of focus.
“My tongue feels funny,” Ava said.
“I told you the wings were hot. Drink your root beer.”
“No, it’s funny.”
“Funny how?” He frowned. “Let me see.”
She stuck out her tongue and said ahh. Hives: tiny red bumps along the back of it.
“I thought you said the wings didn’t have any nuts.”
“That’s what I was told,” Kara said. “Don’t yell at me.”
“Am I yelling?” he shouted.
He dashed into the bar, interrupting the bartender and a redheaded woman chatting in the kitchen doorway. “What’s in the Asian wings? You told my wife no nuts.”
The redhead turned out to be the chef. “Oyster sauce, chili paste, orange juice,” she said, counting each ingredient with her fingers. She extended her pinky. “And sesame oil.”
His sister had a severe sesame allergy. That must be it. His stomach tightened as he ran outside. Ava’s lips and eyelids were puffy, and a rash was forming on her cheeks.
“Ava, have you ever had sesame? I think you’re allergic.”
The girl managed only a choking gurgle. As if the words had caught in her windpipe. Her eyelids fluttered, and her pupils rolled back until all he saw was white.
“She’s going into shock,” Kara said.
“The EpiPen.” He glanced at Ava’s waist. “Where’s the fanny pack?”
He searched above the table and below. Had she been wearing it when they played dinosaurs? On his hands and knees, he interrogated his wife.
“Kara, where’d you put the fanny pack?”
“What do you mean? I handed it to you at the museum.”
“What are you talking about?”
“On the stairs.”
“Oh shit, shit, shit.” He rose too quickly, banging his head on the table’s underside.
“Peter, did you leave it at the museum?”
His mind went into replay: he’d brought the fanny pack into the bathroom, of course, and then what? The toilet paper roll. He’d needed both hands to unlatch the compartment and had set the girl’s bag down. Shit, shit, shit. He checked his watch: the museum closed in twenty minutes. It was a mile away. Ava bent forward and vomited her milkshake and hot dog into the tray. The thin brown liquid spread into the corners.
“Does anyone have a car?” he shouted.
One of the bearded men volunteered. Peter didn’t ask how many beers he’d drunk. His Honda was parked across the street, in the shade. With one arm supporting Ava’s head and one tucked under her clammy knees, Peter transported her to the backseat. She felt heavier than when he’d carried her on his shoulders. Kara hopped into the front passenger seat.
“Keep her legs elevated,” she said.
The girl’s head in his lap, he propped her feet against the glass. This is how dinosaurs sleep. The memory caught on some inner gear. Her wheezing terrified him. While the car sped down Bayshore Drive, he stroked Ava’s hair, murmuring that everything would be okay.
“You’re an optimist, remember?” he said. “You and me both.”
Why hadn’t Vincent told him the extent of her allergies? Maybe she’d never encountered sesame seeds before. Her pulse seemed to slow; her eyes didn’t open. How much time? Ava was dying. No, she would make it. No—
The museum lurched into view, its entrance reminding him of a glass tongue. Maybe he was seeing tongues everywhere. What if the janitor had cleaned the restroom already? Or a visitor had brought the fanny pack to Lost & Found? Any delay—he couldn’t finish the thought.
“Why did you take it off?” he said to Kara.
“Why did you lose it?” she volleyed.
He’d failed his first test as a parent. If he failed the second, there would be no third. Ava’s eyelids twitched. He realized now how heavy they were, like Vincent’s, which yanked shut like window shades when he laughed. Kara was right—they never should have taken Ava from the hotel. He’d been selfish and irresponsible. The Honda took a sharp right, blew past the parking attendant booth, hopped the curb, and stopped at the front stairs. Peter’s phone rang. A Florida area code. No chance to answer now.
He jumped out with Ava bulky in his arms. Kara jogged ahead to hold the museum door open. How much time—one minute? Two? He staggered past the ticket desk, ignoring the clerk’s protests that the museum was closing in fifteen, and burst into the men’s room.
There was the blue door of the first stall. He kicked it—then ricocheted back, tumbling to the floor with Ava. The stall was occupied. Flat on the cold, slightly damp tiles, he could see under the door: clenched toes in a pair of flip-flops; bronzed ankles circled by denim shorts. To the right of the bowl lay the fanny pack.
“What the fuck, bro,” the man on the toilet said. “Someone’s in here.”
“The bag,” Peter shouted. “I need the bag.”
“Behind your left foot! It’s an emergency.”
The man grunted. A large-knuckled hand descended along the porcelain and groped the tile. Ava’s breath quickened, harsh gasps that reminded Peter of her struggling to drink the virgin mudslide.
“Hurry!” he said.
At last the fingers found the straps. The man shoved the fanny pack under the door and into Peter’s hands. By now Kara was behind him, along with the bearded driver, the gruff janitor—who knew how many others? Peter saw only the cartoon characters on the bag. He laid Ava gently on the tile. Unzipping the fanny pack, he found it stuffed with little treasures from the girl’s little life: a broken seashell, red crayon, plastic T. rex figurine, and—at last—a tube with a green label: EpiPen Jr., the “Jr.” in a playful font that seemed in bad taste. The instructions were tiny, illegible, or else his sight was blurred, so he tried to follow the visual aids and pressed the orange end to Ava’s bare right thigh. Nothing happened.
Kara’s voice buzzed in his ears.
“I said, you’ve got to take the cap off.”
He removed the blue safety cap and swung the EpiPen against the girl’s thigh. The auto-injector clicked as the needle went in. While he held it in place Kara knelt beside him. She did not need to speak. He could feel it, for the first time, from within. Certainty. What lay before him was not his life. A toilet flushed, a cyclone in his ears, and when the roaring ceased he heard his wife murmuring to herself. She was counting. He joined in under his breath. Four, five…nine, ten—not stopping at ten. Counting, counting, to some unknown limit, he cradled another man’s daughter, waiting for her blue eyes to open.
Matt Izzi was born in Rhode Island and lives in East Boston. His short
fiction has appeared in The Baltimore Review, Carolina Quarterly, descant, Massachusetts Review, Shenandoah, and other journals.