The Story of Daniel

I first heard it when I was too young to understand. My mother told it a handful of times throughout my life. I didn't like hearing it and I'd try to change the subject before we were too deep into the story to get out. I would cringe when she said his name. Daniel. I did these things because I was not yet able to comprehend the strangeness of emotions and their range. It would be years before I realized that talking about one's greatest sadness could actually allow one to feel happy and comforted.

When she told the story, beginning with, “The drive took me four hours because I always stopped about midway, at the same diner in Cheshire to have a cup of coffee and read a chapter or two of a book,” I pictured her the only way I could, as the mother I knew. I saw her driving her light blue Honda CR-V, wearing her usual uniform of a buttoned blouse and loosely fitted blue jeans. Her blonde hair was speckled with wisps of grey and was pulled back in a low ponytail. And when she smiled at Daniel as he opened the door to his apartment, three deep lines around her eyes creased.

Surely she looked different when the story of Daniel occurred. She was twenty-four and certainly beautiful the way young people are. Mom and Daniel started dating during their junior year at Syracuse. They continued dating after graduation when he got a job and moved to Manhattan and Mom moved back to Greenwich and secured her own job at an independent press.

It was six months later that Daniel was transferred to his company's Boston office and Mom began visiting every other weekend. Her story started with her car ride up and then, after parking at a garage near his building on Washington Street, she would walk into the building through the revolving door, announce herself to the concierge seated at the front desk, and he would instruct her to the elevator and tell her to take it to the eleventh floor.

Mom said that Daniel's company was generous to its transfers. He was put up in a penthouse and seemed to be the youngest tenant in the building. He was in banking or wealth management. Accounting, something with money. Over years of storytelling, his job changed, probably because such a small detail didn't warrant remembering. Sometimes she said “banking” and other times it was “accounting” but his job was not important to the story. It was essential that he had a job and that this job gave him money and freedom, but the job title itself and what he did at work were frivolous details.

Daniel was always there to greet her, opening his door when he heard the elevator arrive with a ding. He smiled at her, still dressed in his work clothes, but maybe, I imagined, with his jacket removed and his tie loosened. Mom would hug him, arms around his neck and head resting on his shoulder. He'd take her duffel bag from the crook of her arm and bring it and her into his spacious but bare home. First, they would fall onto his couch.

“Bright white leather,” Mom described it.

She would be tired from her drive and Daniel was always in need of a quick rest at the end of the workweek. They would tell each other about the two weeks that had passed since her last visit. They both would have stories to share about coworkers, their parents, and the restaurants they'd gone to that the other had to try sometime, too. It was always a Friday, though, and on Fridays they liked to stay in for dinner and enjoy being together once again.

After resting a while, they would walk to the market near the harbor, buy a bag of shrimp on ice from the same vendor every time, and carry it back to his apartment. Once there, Mom would defrost the shrimp in the sink and begin deveining them and peeling off the tails. Daniel would open the bottle of cheap champagne he'd chilled for the occasion and pour two glasses. He'd set out a plastic container of cocktail sauce and wait on the bright white couch as Mom brought the platter of cold, wet shrimp for their meal. To them, it was luxurious adulthood.

Hearing the story as a child, I didn't understand the appeal of the champagne or why my mother would drive a distance that seemed too far to visit a boy. As a teenager, I felt uncomfortable hearing her talk about a man that was not my father, although she never spoke in a way that threatened my perception of their marriage. I was struck by the freedom my mother seemed to have had, leaving her parents' home to stay with a boyfriend for a whole weekend and have alcohol. Mom, though, did not fascinate me but instead made me feel uneasy in not being able to understand her as anyone other than my mother, my father's wife, and my grandparents' daughter.

 

The language Mom used to tell the story changed as I got older. In my first memories of the story, Daniel “went on his own terms,” according to Mom. As I got older, the phrase became “took his own life” and then it was “committed suicide” which changed into “killed himself” until eventually he had “hanged himself.” He had always been dead to me, but he hadn't committed the action of tying a noose and kicking a chair out from under himself until I'd been able to visualize it. The meaning of the story also changed as I did. Daniel killing himself was an abstraction to me until I was old enough to understand its implications. And once I understood the implications, it took me a few years to understand how, even though they had been apart for years before he died, it would always affect Mom's life. They had both moved on and gotten married within five years of breaking up. It was Daniel's wife who called to tell Mom that he had died and how. Eventually I knew that Daniel's death made him and their relationship and its end even more significant than it would have otherwise been. I doubted I would have ever heard his name had it not been for the way that he died.

Despite the change in wording, the story itself didn't change until the last time Mom told it, when she was still in the process of beating breast cancer and told it for what would be the last time during a session of chemotherapy.

When Mom noticed that Daniel was smiling less and that, when he greeted her at the door, his smile didn't show his teeth anymore, she first thought that he was homesick. His apartment, however spacious, did not look like any home he had ever had. When she left his apartment that weekend, she spent her next two weeks at home in Greenwich, shopping for home goods and small items that reminded her of Daniel, his family, and his childhood home in New York state.

She bought two decorative throw pillows, made of navy canvas with thin white stripes, to set on his bare, bright couch. She bought a yellow spoon rest to set next to his stove, two coffee mugs depicting the New York City skyline, and a framed photo of the Pocono Mountains to hang above his bed.

Her car was filled with all that and more when she parked in the city garage on her next trip. She carried a few of the smaller items up and happily showed them to Daniel when he opened his door for her. He smiled his toothless grin and thanked her. He watched as she placed the various gifts about his apartment with such deliberateness. He must've known she had already planned where everything would belong.

His smile was dull but she pretended it was all the same as her other visits. She smiled enough for both of them, hoping it would rub off on him. When he popped their champagne bottle that night, his eyes didn't widen in surprise they like always had when the cork shot out and hit the wall. Mom pretended not to notice and continued peeling the shrimp, although her hands began feeling clumsy and uncertain.

She decided not to tell him about everything else that was waiting in her car for him. She would bring it up the next visit, anticipating a happier Daniel who had maybe been having a few hard weeks at work.

 

Although the story always focused on Daniel, Mom sometimes included what was going on in her life apart from him during that time. The small press where she worked published uplifting pamphlets for the waiting rooms of doctors' offices and hospitals. Mom kept a few of the brochures she worked on years after she left that job. Most of them were emblazoned with phrases such as Healing from the Inside Out or Caring Is the Greatest Medicine.

She was proud of that job and looked back fondly on her coworkers. She described her boss, Roberta, as quiet and unapproachable. Laurie and Joann, two of her young coworkers, remained friendly with Mom even when they all eventually moved on to different jobs.

Mom's second attempt to make Daniel's apartment a home had her bringing a canvas bag full of her favorite books to stock the empty shelves of his TV console. After she went through her routine of parking, revolving door, elevator, and being greeted by the doorman, Mom began placing the books with pride.

“Why the books?” Daniel asked her.

“Reading puts me in a good mood,” she responded, trying not to accuse him of being unhappy all the time. “I thought if you ever needed some cheering these would help.”

Daniel didn't appear to be offended.

“Which books did you bring?” he asked, instead.

“A few I read in college. Catcher in the Rye, The Little Prince, The Sun Also Rises. A few others.”

Mom unpacked the bag of books, neatly placing them by height in the shelves. She had felt like she brought a whole library and was disappointed when she stepped back and noticed she had only filled one and a half shelves. It still looked bare.

“I can bring you more next time,” she told Daniel.

“You don't have to. I might not read them,” he said.

Mom said Daniel only became more abrasive and coarse in the way he spoke to her.

“But I still loved him,” she would say. “I don't know why. He became so unpleasant to be around. I thought that he'd go back to normal eventually. I wanted to be with him anyway.”

At times I could detect on her lips a desire to say more. I have always assumed she wanted to say that she would have liked to marry him someday, but she willed herself to stop, not wanting to make me question her marriage to my father, whom I knew she loved deeply but perhaps in a different way than she loved her Daniel.

 

I went on a date with a Daniel once. We met at a health foods trade show where he was attempting to sell sugar-free smoothie packs. I was a coordinator at the event and he continually approached me, asking where the restroom was three times and asking me to dinner twice. I didn't say no the first time, but I didn't give him a response. When he asked the second time, I wondered what it would be like to have my own Daniel and said yes.

The following night, he took me to a restaurant not far from the expo center where the trade show had been held. He seemed confident, friendly, and excited for our date while I was hesitant and scrutinized every thing he said and did for signs of Mom's Daniel. The restaurant was not romantic or pretentious and I liked that, thinking Mom and Daniel might have gone someplace similar. We were seated next to a window that looked out on the busy street. In a casual way, we talked about the products he had been trying to promote at the show until a young waitress with her blonde hair tied tightly in a bun came to take our order. I ordered shrimp and was surprised at my disappointment when Daniel requested veal. I decided he was not like Mom's Daniel and that I didn't want my own.

 

“I only went back to visit him one more time after I brought the books.” Mom always spoke this same line and always spoke it in one extended sigh. “And I didn't go back two weeks later, like usual. I waited a month to go see him. I told him that work was busy and I had to go in on the weekends but that was a lie. We were never that busy.”

On her last drive up to Daniel, she had been nervous. She spent the drive practicing conversations in her mind that she hoped to have with Daniel that evening. She stopped for coffee, as usual, but was too anxious to read a chapter from her book and instead ordered a slice of carrot cake to distract her mind.

She went through the rest of the motions that she had accustomed herself to over the last six months of visits. Parking, walking, entering, and arriving. But Daniel didn't open the door this time. Instead, Mom found a note on the door.

Had to go back to the office and get some work done. Be back by 10.

Mom always repeated what the note said with the same words in the exact order. She was so precise that it made me wonder if she had kept it.

Mom turned the doorknob but it was locked and he hadn't left her a key. She returned to the front desk but it was not the usual concierge and he wouldn't unlock Daniel's door without his permission. She called Daniel's office from the phone at the front desk but he didn't answer. The concierge let Mom leave her duffel bag at the desk and she decided to walk to the market by the harbor herself.

“I bought and carried the heavy bag of shrimp myself, hoping it would make him feel bad enough to finally be kind to me again,” Mom recalled. It was early June by this time and it must've been warm with a cool breeze coming off the water and reaching Mom's back as she walked back to Daniel's building, the sweating bag of defrosting shrimp weighing her down.

By the time she got to his building, it was past nine thirty. She dropped herself into a soft chair in the building's lobby, knowing that she was perspiring on the cushions. She felt exhausted not only from the walk and drive, but also from the rehearsed conversations that she was trying to remember. There were too many things she wanted to ask Daniel and say to him and she was finding it hard to keep everything straight.

When she heard the whoosh of wind that precedes the turning of a revolving door, Mom looked up and watched as Daniel entered and began walking toward the elevator without noticing her.

“Hey!” Mom shouted, forgetting all the plans she'd had about repressing her annoyance with his new personality until she'd attempted to have a calm discussion with him.

Daniel turned, slightly startled, but oozed indifference when he saw her sitting there, sweaty, tired, annoyed, and with her blouse covered in the perspiration from the bag of shrimp. She was wet and cold and on fire all at once and looking at Daniel's oblivious face only made it worse.

“Did you see my note?” he asked.

“Of course I did,” she replied. “You knew I was coming. You couldn't leave me a key?”

“I didn’t think of it.” He responded so quickly that Mom thought he had to have thought of it.

“Will you carry this upstairs?” Mom asked, kicking the bag of shrimp. The smell it was exuding made her never want shrimp again but she didn't know what else to do.

Reluctantly, Daniel bent over and picked up the bag, holding it as far from him as he could so that it wouldn't touch his work shirt.

“For a while I wished I had pushed that smelly bag into his chest and ruined his expensive shirt,” Mom sometimes said.

She didn't and he carried the bag into the elevator while she retrieved her duffel from the concierge. She gave Daniel the angriest look she could force, but when she caught his eye, she only felt like crying.

They rode the elevator in silence. Mom held back tears and stared spitefully at Daniel, who wouldn't even glance at her, as he unlocked his door. When they walked into his apartment, Mom quickly looked around, her eyes settling on the books. They were still where she had left them even though she had been afraid he might get rid of them. Everything else that she had brought to make his apartment feel like a home was in its place. It all looked untouched.

Waiting until she calmed down before beginning one of the many speeches she had practiced, Mom began soaking the shrimp and peeling off the tails. She still didn't want to eat it but she thought that getting back into their routine might alleviate the tension. Focused on her task in the sink, it wasn't until a few minutes later that Mom looked up and noticed Daniel standing at the edge of the kitchen, watching her and doing nothing else.

“Do you want to open the champagne and sauce?” Mom asked. She tried not to lock eyes with him, feeling she would start yelling if she didn't see any remorse looking back at her.

“I didn't get any champagne this week. Or cocktail sauce,” Daniel said.

“That's when I knew it,” Mom always said. “That was that.”

In my early years of hearing the story, I thought their relationship ended because Mom really wanted champagne and cocktail sauce. As I got older, I thought it was because Daniel was forgetful and Mom couldn't stand forgetfulness. Eventually I understood that Mom believed Daniel's choice of not getting champagne and cocktail sauce to mean that he didn't want their traditions to continue and that he must not want their relationship to continue.

Regardless of how and why, their relationship ended that weekend and Mom, although heartbroken for a while, was hoping to move on quickly. She was still young and didn't want to waste her time in sadness. When she went back to work at the press the following Monday, she told Laurie and Joann about their break up. They sympathized as friends do, told her that she was better off without him and that within days she would find someone better and nicer who would end up being her soulmate. It wasn't true but it was all that they could say.

Mom's first weekend following the breakup was spent at the beach with Laurie and Joann. They knew she was upset, based on her quiet demeanor at work, and did what they could to distract her. Mom would always say it helped enough. She went through the next workweek feeling better and when she returned to her parents' house from work on Friday afternoon, the phone was already ringing in the kitchen.

“I picked up the phone and it was Daniel. He told me he'd read a few of the books and didn't like any of them and asked if I was going up that night,” Mom told me. “I didn't answer and asked why he didn't like the books. He said it was because they were all sad and that he thought I had brought the books to make him feel better. I just thought they were good books,” Mom reasoned.

 

The last time Mom told me the story, I was sitting next to her hospital chair. My head rested tiredly against her shoulder. She was about to undergo another round of chemotherapy, one of the last few. I'd brought her to the hospital and would leave once they inserted the intravenous drip to the port in her chest. She preferred to be alone during her treatments.

Mom ended the story, saying, “I dumped the rest of the shrimp into the sink and very calmly looked at him.” She prided herself on remaining calm under stress.

“And you drove all the way home in the night,” I said, ending the story for her and patting her pale hand.

“Not just yet,” she said the final time I heard the story.

“You always said you just left him there,” I said. I picked my head up off her shoulder to look at her. She appeared content though her smile was slight.

“I know,” she admitted. “But I didn't really leave that quickly. We had a conversation first, although it did not go as I had planned it during my drive up.”

“How did it go?”

“I told him that I was tired of how he was acting and, unless he wanted to explain his new personality to me, I was done. I wanted to know why he was always acting mad and sad and not like himself. I didn't know if he was unhappy with work or life or just with me. I had no idea how he acted with anyone else,” she said.

The look on her face made it seems like she was done telling the story but she hadn't reached the end yet.

“What did he say?”

The hospital room was cold but it was no longer foreign to me. Mom was approaching the end of her scheduled treatments. She'd been diagnosed with stage two breast cancer almost four months earlier. Her prognosis had been as good as a cancer prognosis could be. Her doctor anticipated that three months of chemotherapy would kill the cancer since they caught it quite quickly. We were accustomed to the chill of the room and the clean, chemical smell.

“That he couldn’t explain anything,” Mom said. “Which of course didn't make sense to me. I thought it meant that he didn't want to explain because he didn't care enough about me.”

“Anyone would have felt the same way you did,” I told her. I felt the need to rub my hand over the knit hat covering her scalp, but she didn't seem to be in need of comforting.

“I think you're right.”

“And there's no way that it had anything to do with him dying,” I said. I sat back in my chair and looked across at the opposite wall, not wanting to look at Mom as I said it. I wondered if she ever felt guilt but if she did she never said.

Her silence prompted me to continue. “That was eight years before he died, Mom. You don't know what happened in the end. You don't what his life was like.”

“I don't know if that matters,” she said quietly.

The oncology nurse entered the room, dressed in light blue scrubs and greeted us so kindly; it felt imperative that we change the morbid topic immediately.

“I'll come back this afternoon with Julia when I pick her up from school. We'll bring dinner,” I said.

I stood up and checked my watch, thinking of my daughter and realizing she was at recess, probably running around the playground at her elementary school. She'd never heard the story of Daniel and I wondered if she ever would. Not knowing that Mom had already decided it was the last time she would tell the story, I was surprised to find myself hoping she would.