The Last Thing He Told Me

2.7 Sorry, We’re Open

chapter
Chapter

Jake’s words pound in my head. Owen Michaels doesn’t exist. Owen isn’t Owen.
He’s deceived me about the most central details of his life. He deceived his
daughter about the most central details of hers. How is that possible? It feels
entirely impossible, considering the man I thought I knew. I do know him. I still
believe this, despite the evidence to the contrary. And this belief in him (in us)
will either show me to be a steadfast partner or a complete fool. Hopefully those
don’t turn out to be the same thing.
After all, this is what I thought I knew. Twenty-eight months ago a man
walked into my workshop in New York City wearing a sports jacket and
Converse sneakers. On the way to the theater that night, he took me to dinner at
a small tapas restaurant on Tenth Avenue, and he started to tell me the story of
his life. It began in Newton, Massachusetts, and included four years at Newton
High followed by four years at Princeton University, a move to Seattle,
Washington, with his college sweetheart, and then a move to Sausalito,
California, with his daughter. There were three jobs and two degrees and one
wife before me, who he’d lost in a car accident. It was a car accident he could
barely talk about more than a decade later, his face cloudy and dark. Then there
was his daughter. The highlight of his story—the highlight of his life—his
headstrong, inimitable daughter. He moved with her to a small town in
Northern California because she’d pointed to it on a map. And said, let’s try
there. And that was something he could give her.
This is what his daughter thought she knew. She’d spent the majority of her
life in Sausalito, California, in a 􀏲oating home with a father who never missed a
soccer game or a school play. There were Sunday night dinners at restaurants of
her choosing, and a weekly trip to the movies. There were lots of jaunts to San
Francisco museums, plenty of neighborhood potlucks, and the annual barbecue.
She didn’t remember their life before Sausalito, except in vague snapshots: a
birthday party with a great magician; a trip to the circus where she cried at the
clown; a wedding somewhere in Austin, Texas. Bailey 􀏯lled in the blanks with
what her father told her. Why wouldn’t she? That’s how you 􀏯ll in the blanks—
with stories and memories from the people who love you.
If they lie to you, like he did, who are you then? Who is he? The person you
thought you knew, your favorite person, starts to disappear, a mirage, unless you
convince yourself the parts that matter are still true. The love was true. His love
is true. Because, if it isn’t, the other option is that it was all a lie, and what are
you supposed to do with that? What are you supposed to do with any of this?
How do you put the pieces together so he doesn’t disappear completely?
So his daughter doesn’t feel like she is going to disappear completely too?
Bailey wakes up, shortly after midnight.
She rubs her eyes. Then she looks over to 􀏯nd me sitting in the crappy hotel
desk chair, watching her.
“Did I fall asleep?” she says.
“You did.”
“What time is it?” she says.
“Late. You should go back to bed.”
She sits up. “It’s kind of hard with you staring at me,” she says.
“Bailey, did you ever visit your father’s childhood home in Boston?” I say.
“Did he ever take you to see his house?”
She looks at me confused. “Like where he grew up?”
I nod.
“No. He never took me to Boston. He barely went back there himself.”
“And you never met your grandparents?” I say. “You never spent any time
with them?”
“They died before I was born,” she says. “You know that. What’s going on?”
Who is going to 􀏯ll in this blank for her? This kind of hole? I don’t know
where to start.
“Are you hungry?” I say. “You must be hungry. You barely touched your
dinner. And I’m famished.”
“Why? You ate both our dinners all on your own.”
“Get dressed, okay?” I say. “Would you get dressed?”
She looks at the 􀏲uorescent hotel radio-clock. “It’s midnight,” she says.
I put a sweater on and toss her sweatshirt to her. She looks down at it, splayed
across her legs, her Converse sneakers peeking out beneath the hood.
She pulls the sweatshirt over her head, pushing the hood all the way down
until her purple hair is sticking out.
“Can I at least get a beer?” she says.
“Absolutely not.”
“I have a fake ID that says otherwise,” she says.
“Please get dressed,” I say.
Magnolia Cafe is an Austin institution, famous for all-night eats, which might
explain why it is still busy—music playing, every booth taken—at 12:45 AM.
We get two large co􀏦ees and an order of gingerbread pancakes. Bailey seems
to love the sweet, spice-􀏯lled pancakes dripping in butter and coconut sugar.
Bananas on the side. And watching her take them down, if nothing else, makes
me feel like I’m doing something good for her.
We sit by the door, a neon red SORRY WE’RE OPEN sign 􀏲ashing above our
heads. I blink against it and try to 􀏯nd the words to tell her what Jake told me.
“It seems that your father hasn’t always gone by the name Owen Michaels,” I
say.
She looks up at me. “What are you talking about?” she says.
I speak softly but unapologetically, 􀏯lling her in. I let her know that her
father’s name isn’t the only thing he’s changed. The details of his life—the story
of his life—are something he has apparently altered as well. He didn’t grow up in
Massachusetts, he isn’t a graduate of Princeton University, and he didn’t move
to Seattle at twenty-two. At least he hasn’t done those things in a way that we
can prove.
“Who told you that?”
“A friend back in New York. He works with an investigator who focuses on
this kind of thing. The investigator believes that your father changed his identity
shortly before you moved to Sausalito. He’s sure of it.”
She looks down at her plate, confused, like she’s heard the words wrong—all
of it feeling impossible to compute.
“Why would he do that?” she says, not meeting my eyes.
“My guess is he was trying to keep you safe from something, Bailey.”
“Like what? Like something he did? ’Cause my father would be the 􀏯rst to
say that if you’re running from something, it’s usually yourself.”
“We don’t know that for sure.”
“Right. All we know for sure is that he lied to me,” she says.
And I see it start to rise up in her. Her anger, her justi􀏯able anger at being
excluded from the most basic details of her life. Even if he was doing it for her
own good. Even if he was doing it because he didn’t have a choice. One way or
another, she is going to have to decide whether that’s forgivable. We both are.
“He also lied to me,” I say.
She looks up.
“I’m just saying, he lied to me too.”
She tilts her head, like she is trying to 􀏯gure out whether she believes that,
whether she can take that at face value. Why would she? Why would she believe
anyone at this point? But it feels critical to try and assure her anyway—assure her
that she can trust me—that I didn’t deceive her too. It feels like everything
hinges on her believing that.
She looks at me with such vulnerability, it’s hard for me to speak. It’s hard for
me to even hold her gaze without breaking down.
Which is when I understand, in a 􀏲ash, what I’ve been doing wrong with her
—what I’ve been doing wrong in how I’ve been trying to connect with her. I
thought if I were nice enough, sweet enough, she’d understand she could count
on me. But that’s not how you learn you can count on someone. You learn it in
the moments when everyone’s too tired to be sweet, too tired to try hard. You
learn it by what they do for you then.
And what I’m going to do for her now is what my grandfather did for me. I’ll
do whatever it takes for her to feel that she is safe.
“So… it wasn’t just him, right?” she says. “If he did this, I’m not who he said I
am either then, right? My name and everything… at some point he changed it.”
“Yes,” I say. “If Jake’s correct, then, yes, you used to go by something else as
well.”
“And all the details are di􀏦erent too, right?” She pauses. “Like… my
birthday?”
That stops me. The heartbreak in her voice when she asks that question.
“Like my birthday’s not really my birthday?” she says.
“No, probably not.”
She looks down. She looks away from me. “That seems like something a
person should know about themselves,” she says.
I 􀏯ght back tears, gripping the table, the small table in this happy Austin
restaurant—paintings on the wall, bright colors, all of it completely antithetical
to how I feel. I will myself to stop, blinking the tears back. A sixteen-year-old girl,
who apparently has no one but me, needs me not to cry. She needs me to be
there for her. So I pull myself together, giving her the space to fall apart. Letting
her be the one to do that.
She folds her hands on the table, tears 􀏯lling her eyes. And I feel nearly leveled
by it, watching her in that kind of pain.
“Bailey, I know this feels impossible,” I say. “But you are you. Whatever
details are around that, whatever your father didn’t tell you, that doesn’t change
who you are. Not at your core.”
“But how can I have no memory of being called something else? Of where I
lived? I should remember, shouldn’t I?”
“You just said it yourself, you were a kid. You were just coming into
consciousness when you became Bailey Michaels. None of this is a re􀏲ection on
you at all.”
“Just on him?” she says.
I think again about the guy at the Berkeley Flea Market, the guy who called
Owen a prom king. Owen’s calm reaction to him. He was completely unfazed.
Could he have faked that so well? And what did it say about him if he did?
“You don’t remember anyone ever calling your father anything else, do you?
Before Sausalito?”
“Like a nickname?” she says.
“No, more like… by another name completely?”
“I don’t think so. I don’t know…” She pushes her co􀏦ee across the table. “I
can’t believe this is happening.”
“I know.”
She starts twirling her hair in her hands, the purple getting mixed up with her
dark nail polish, her eyes blinking wildly as she tries to think.
“I have no idea what anyone called him,” she says. “I never paid attention,
why would I?”
She sits back, done guessing about her father, done guessing about her past,
and completely exhausted from feeling like she has to. Who can blame her? Who
wants to be sitting in a strange Austin restaurant trying to 􀏯gure out who the
most important person in your world was pretending to be? And how you
missed it. Who he actually was.
“You know what? Let’s just go,” I say. “It’s late. Let’s go back to the hotel and
try to get some sleep.”
I start to stand up, but Bailey stops me. “Wait…” she says.
I sit back down.
“Bobby said something to me a couple months ago,” she says. “He was
applying to college and wanted to ask my father for an alumni recommendation
for Princeton. But when he looked him up in the list of alums, he said he
couldn’t 􀏯nd an Owen Michaels anywhere. Not as a graduate in the engineering
school, not as a student in the regular college either. I said obviously he looked it
up in the wrong place, and then he got into University of Chicago and just
dropped it. I never even remembered to ask Dad, but I just assumed it was
Bobby not knowing how to work the alumni database or whatever.” She pauses.
“Maybe I should have asked him.”
“Bailey, why would you? Why would you assume he was lying to you?”
“Do you think he was ever going to tell me?” she says. “Did he plan to take
me for a walk one day and let me in on who I really am? Honestly, was he going
to tell me that basically everything I knew about my life was a lie?”
I look at her in the dim light. I think of my conversation with Owen, the
conversation about taking a vacation to New Mexico. Was he actually thinking
of letting me into some of this then? If I’d pushed a little harder, would he have?
“I don’t know,” I say.
I expect her to say how unfair that is. I expect her to get upset again. But she
stays calm.
“What’s he so scared of?” she says.
It stops me. Because that’s it. That feels like the crux of all of this. Owen is
running from something that he is terri􀏯ed of. He has spent his life running
from it. And, more important, he has spent his entire life trying to keep Bailey
from it.
“I think when we 􀏯gure that out, we’ll know where he is now,” I say.
“Oh, well, easy enough,” she says.
Then she laughs. But the laughter turns, fast, tears 􀏯lling her eyes. But just as
I think she is going to say that she wants to get out of here—that she wants to go
back to the hotel, to go back to Sausalito—she seems to 􀏯nd her center. She
seems to 􀏯nd something like resolve.
“So what do we do now?” she says.
We. What do we do now. We are in this together, it seems, which warms my
heart, even if it’s taken us to this all-night diner in South Austin, far from our
home. Even if it’s taken us into territory we never wanted to be in. That I would
give anything so that Bailey didn’t have to be in. We are here together and we
both want to keep going. We both want to 􀏯nd Owen, whatever he has been
hiding—wherever he is now.
“Now,” I say. “We 􀏯x this.”


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