They were going to dinner at a new friend’s house. That’s how Cassie’s father had explained it. Cassie had gotten permission from her father to wear her polka-dot skirt, but as soon as she stepped out of his Subaru she hated it. Under its flare her legs looked like toothpicks. Plus, she should have worn different shoes. She had sat on the floor in her father’s apartment and pulled on hiking shoes. She’d only picked them because she wanted to hurry in case her father changed his mind about her skirt.
Her father, whose name was Russ, often changed his mind. On an afternoon when they were supposed to see Freaky Friday at the Fresh Pond complex in Cambridge they’d sat through a Batman movie instead. He’d changed his mind about what he wanted to see, and she’d watched much of Batman with her eyes clouded by tears, but at the end, when he asked, she told her dad she’d liked it.
Before they crossed the street a young cat not much larger than a kitten came mincing down the walkway of the house they’d parked in front of. The little animal, mostly white, had two patches of black on the top of its head. The patches looked like slicked-down hair parted in the middle. Even her father, who didn’t like cats, laughed at its odd appearance. He waited, grinning down from his superior height, while Cassie stooped and let the kitten nuzzle her hand. The animal mewed in such a soft way the sound might have come from some musician piping music in a distant glen.
What Cassie knew about the new friend was that her name was Laura. Cassie’s father already had girlfriends named Tamara and Kaitlyn and Val. Tamara was the one who smelled like vanilla. Kaitlyn always handed Cassie a piece of gum. Val had left to start a goat-milk farm with another woman in Vermont.
The new friend, Laura, waited in the shadows behind her screen door. She wore a sleeveless, summer dress and seemed to fill the doorway, her large size hinting at some sort of natural authority. Russ opened the gate and led Cassie up the stone walk. His own clothes were what he always wore in summer—khaki shorts and loafers and a polo shirt. The only thing different was that he had shaved.
“You found me,” Laura said as she opened the screen door. It was the sort of thing Cassie expected grown-ups to say. They said things like that instead of hello. She glanced up to hear what her father would answer but Russ herded her past Laura into the cool vestibule before he spoke. “I’m close to Cambridge, in Watertown. Cassie and her mom live in Somerville. They’re in a big house with lots of roommates, but we’re all sort of close so it works out pretty well.”
Laura smiled but Cassie didn’t. She and her mother had only two housemates. Her dad had exaggerated because he didn’t like the sharing. She hoped he wouldn’t tell Laura of his disapproval. Though Laura might have sensed how Cassie felt. She did something surprising. She winked. With her wink she made a small conspiracy that closed out Cassie’s dad. Cassie had to smile, but she smiled in a secret way, not looking at her dad.
Russ stepped past Laura and once again took Cassie’s hand. Together, they entered a room with a piano. Cassie instantly feared she’d be asked to play, and sure enough Laura, when she’d followed them from the vestibule, said, “Your dad says you play the piano.”
“Cassie studies the piano,” Russ explained. “Playing’s something else.”
He’d said the truth. He’d known what her fear was. He tapped Cassie’s shoulder to let her know he was looking out for her and had known about her fear but kept it secret.
Between Cassie and the black piano an ivory-colored couch neatly divided the room. In front of the couch sat a glass-topped table, and behind the table were two armchairs. Bookcases elsewhere groaned under their loads, and on one close to the kitchen door stood a statue of somebody’s shoulders and head.
“We can have a bite here or we can sit in the back yard,” Laura said.
Russ decided. He said, “It’s cool here.” He tapped Cassie’s head in a playful way. He might have expected her to agree with what he’d said. When she didn’t he said, “Hot outside.”
Was she supposed to say yes?
“First day of summer,” her father added.
He had said the same thing when he’d picked her up in Somerville. He’d said it to Cassie’s mother, from whom he’d been divorced three years, since Cassie was six. The house where Cassie and her mother lived had a front yard so steep it needed a retaining wall to keep the dirt from crashing down on the sidewalk.
“Let me get a little something we can eat,” Laura said.
She left and Russ thrust his hands in his pockets. He wandered around beyond the couch. He plunked a key on the piano. He made a face at Cassie to tell her what a sour sound he’d made. She smiled because she knew he was trying to be funny but she didn’t want to encourage him to play more sour notes. She made herself study the small statue, which showed a man with curly hair and no shirt on. Cassie wondered if that meant he was at the beach. His eyes were cast down, and though his face was a pleasant, youthful face it wasn’t a happy one. She had been staring at the figure for almost half a minute before she noticed two lumps shaped like small pyramids rising out of the man’s hair. They looked like the little horns she had seen on baby goats the time her father took her to a petting zoo.
“That’s Pan,” Laura said when she came back with cheese and wine and strawberries. She spoke as if a child of nine would know who Pan was. After she went by Cassie continued to stare at the statue, not moving until she heard Laura say to Russ, “I don’t know what Cassie likes to drink.”
Russ spoke without hesitation. “What have you got?” he asked.
“What I like is Tropical Blend Snapple,” Laura said.
“That’ll be fine.” Russ nodded, then he told Cassie, “Try the strawberries. I’ll bet they’re special just for you.”
“You guessed,” Laura said as she left for the kitchen.
Cassie wasn’t sure she would like Tropical Blend Snapple. She had never heard of that drink before. She said, “Thank you,” when Laura brought it. She’d been holding a strawberry she put down to test the drink.
Grown-up talk began almost at once. Laura explained the work she did as a librarian at the main library in Boston and Russ talked about his different contracting jobs.
Some strawberry juice must have gotten on Cassie’s cheek. Her father leaned across the coffee table to thumb it away. At his touch some of Cassie’s shyness melted. She took another sip of Tropical Blend Snapple, and when Laura smiled and asked her if she liked it she lied and said she did.
While her father and Laura talked Cassie snuck quick glances at the woman they had come to visit. She did not know if Laura would become a girlfriend. Sometimes first dates did not turn out that way, and Cassie had never been able to say why. She would not have thought her father would like a woman who smelled like vanilla, as Tamara did. On the other had, she would have liked it if her father had made a girlfriend of Mikaya, who had a dog that could walk on its hind legs. But Mikaya didn’t last beyond one date. Her father had only shrugged when Cassie worked up the nerve to ask if they would ever go and see the funny dog again. Now they were with someone new, and Cassie hoped her father would like the way Laura wore her hair. Straight, black bangs fell like a curtain across her forehead, and the rest of her hair looked measured to cut, like someone with a compass had drawn a line around her head. Cassie stole a glance at Laura’s arms as well and compared their dimpled plumpness to her own arms, thin as bones. The difference made her despair for her own arms but fear for the plumpness of Laura’s as well. Such largeness, she knew, might not suit the fancy of her father.
“You must be hungry,” Laura said. Her words and her smile broke the spell of Cassie’s thoughts. “Come help me in the kitchen.” Laura rose when she spoke and she held out her hand for Cassie to take.
In the kitchen, Laura lined up yellow plates on the sideboard by the sink. She pulled leaves off a head of lettuce and showed Cassie how to spread them on the plates. “This is mainly a chicken dish,” she said. “But on top of the chicken go raspberries. That part will be your job. I’ll put the chicken on.”
She peeled Saran Wrap back from a bowl of marinated chicken, already cooked, and offered the bowl to Cassie for a sniff. While she was manipulating tongs to transfer chicken onto plates Cassie asked her, “Why do you call him Pan?”
Laura laughed and said she knew the name was odd. “In olden days,” she said, “he was supposed to tootle on his pipes and make everybody happy.”
“Where did he live?” Cassie asked. She had peeked around the corner to the statue. She asked herself if the person it showed looked like someone who could play music that made everybody happy.
Laura, instead of answering, asked, “Where do you live, Cassie?”
“With my mom,” Cassie said. She turned to back to Laura, who was working on dinner, but who briefly nodded. Her show of interest was enough. “In Somerville,” Cassie continued. “We share our house. There’s two other people. One is a man named Vincent. He walks people’s dogs. He always gets up early. Sometimes I eat breakfast with him. Granola. Of the dogs he walks, the two I like best are one named Trixie and one named Shep.”
Laura had stopped arranging food on plates to listen. “Who’s the other person, Cassie?”
“She’s a lady named Lenore. She’s an actress, except when she isn’t an actress she’s a court stenographer. We went to see her in a play about crazy people in a steel cage.”
Cassie wondered if Laura would think there was something odd about a play that showed crazy people in a steel cage. Almost at once, because Laura wrinkled up her nose as she would at a bad smell, Cassie knew. She’d found out something that made her happy, because she felt the same herself.
Laura handed Cassie a bowl of raspberries and stood to watch while Cassie spooned that fruit onto the plates. When all three plates had raspberries, Laura said, “Magic.” She took the spoon from Cassie’s hand and asked Cassie to help bring them to the table. Cassie was glad to be asked to help. She carried one plate to the table. Laura carried two. Russ grinned to see the smiles on their faces. “Raspberries and chicken,” he said when he had sampled the exotic dish. “Who would have thought that it could taste so good?” After that he talked more about his work and the demanding people whom he had to please. Cassie wished that Laura would say more but she mostly listened.
After dinner, Cassie sat next to Laura on the piano bench and they played. The invitation had come so simply Cassie hadn’t had time to be scared. She had helped Laura find, among the music books stored in the bench, a book she recognized. She had practiced its pieces over and over with her music teacher. She was excited to play them now and she got through her first piece, with Laura turning pages, with almost no mistakes.
“Great,” her father said as he applauded. He sat on the couch with his legs crossed to listen.
Cassie played a second piece, and then Laura played one.
After that third piece Russ said, “This has been a wonderful evening.”
Cassie turned to see if his words meant they were leaving. She saw her father already standing. He smiled when he met her eye but she refused to return his smile. She turned and stared in a fixed way at the piano keys. Inside her head she heard a better music than the music she had played.
“We could walk down and see the moon,” Laura said. She still sat next to Cassie but had turned to look at Russ. “It should come up at any minute and it’s going to be full,” she said. “The full moon’s always fat on the first day of summer.” She smiled up at Russ. “We could see it from Huron,” she said, and finally she added, in a hopeful voice, “Wouldn’t take a minute.”
Russ’s silence told Cassie he expected her to stand and be ready to go. She could see herself as he must see her, with her sloped shoulders and her skinny legs. She could see the polka-dot skirt she’d been eager to wear and then ashamed of and then, because of the care she took with the raspberries and the excitement she’d felt at playing, forgotten all about right up to that moment.
“I want to see the moon,” she said, not looking up.
Laura laughed. “There,” she said. “That’s two to one. Does that decide it, Russ?”
Cassie turned to face her father who shrugged his big shoulders, slowly lifting them and suddenly letting them fall. “How often does a person get a chance to see a big, fat moon?” he said.
He had given permission. Cassie had won. He had let her win, and on the way out she took his hand to tell him she was thankful.
On the walk down Lexington she hoped she’d see the kitten. She wished it was hers and she could carry it to where they’d see the moon. The moon would still be the moon but it would be different with something alive to show it to.
She waited on the corner of Huron until her father and Laura, walking side by side, caught up. They walked like old companions, with Laura tilting her head to catch everything Russ said.
The pink and gold colors of sunset spread out above the treetops. Laura pointed east to where the moon would rise. There the sky, like a gray curtain, hung above squat shops.
They crossed the street and strolled to a store with second-hand books in its window. “Good spot here,” Laura said, and they began their wait. Cassie stood in front of Laura and her father saying moon over and over in her mind, as if her thoughts could quicken its rise.
“I’ll feel silly if it doesn’t show,” Laura said after a bus had pulled up to a stop across the street and let a passenger off.
“We’ll give it time,” Russ said. He spoke with easy authority, and Cassie shut her eyes to make her wish be stronger. Moon, moon, moon she thought until she’d counted thirty moons before she dared a look.
The sky remained empty. The passenger who’d left the bus, an old man thin inside his loose clothes, surveyed the street for traffic and then began to make his careful way across. He wore an old-fashioned hat with a creased crown and wide brim.
Cassie kept her eyes on him. She wished he’d notice them and guess that they were waiting for the moon. He’d look with them to where the moon should be. Laura also eyed the old man, as if watching him could make him stop and join them. He reached the curb and came so close he could have spoken if he wished, but instead he disappeared behind the bookstore corner. The street was empty for a moment, and Cassie, eyeing Laura, saw the big-boned woman let her gaze roam west on Huron, toward the woods that surrounded the reservoir there. When she looked east again she said, “I wish at least a glow would show. Then we’d know it was making the effort.”
“Might be haze,” Russ said.
“I hope I didn’t mistake the time.”
Cassie saw her father glance at his watch. “A minute more,” he said.
The evening light had deepened and the ragged tree-line looked like lace. Above it, in the pearly sky, no hint of moon took shape.
“Haze,” her father said.
“Disappointing,” Laura said.
“I wish we could wait,” Russ said after Cassie had closed her eyes. She was thinking moon moon moon and hoping to reach one hundred, but her father interrupted. He took her hand and led her across the street. She glanced past him at the sky but its pearl color hadn’t changed.
They walked up Laura’s street and said their goodbyes in front of Russ’s Subaru. “This has been great,” he said to Laura.
Laura smiled. “I hope you’ll come again,” she said.
Cassie still held her father’s hand. She had held it all the way back, and when the sidewalk grew narrow Laura had walked behind them. A power so strong it could have moved the moon, if such a thing were possible, made Cassie wish her father would talk to the woman walking behind him. Nothing more was said between them, though, except, once they’d reached the car and turned to face each other, they said goodnight.
Because her father fiddled with his radio, Cassie had time, after she had strapped herself to her seat, to watch Laura open her gate and carefully close it. She watched her climb the stairs. Russ found the ball-game station. Cassie saw the last of Laura disappear inside her house.
On the ride home Cassie listened with her father to the Red Sox.
They reached his street, and from the large yard of a Catholic school a freckled man, her father’s friend Norman, flagged them down. “Hey,” he yelled. “You see the moon?”
Russ, not yet parked, stopped and waited for Norman to rest his arms on where the car’s window fit into the door. “We watched from Danehy Park,” Norman said. “Came up like a kite.”
Cassie’s father made a noise like mmmph. She knew it meant he didn’t care about what Norman saw, but Norman didn’t know that. He still spoke cheerfully. “How was the date, Russ? Think this might be the one?”
Cassie’s father, in reply, lifted his left hand and waggled it.
Cassie knew the gesture. It meant her dad was not saying yes. He was not saying no either, but the waggle was closer to no than to yes.
Russ parked. Cassie joined her father climbing the wide steps to his building’s front door.
Inside, she brushed her teeth and put her pajamas on while Russ, in the living room, stood and watched the Sox in their eighth inning. He kissed Cassie on the head when she came to say goodnight. She was still awake when her father clicked off the struggling Sox. In the sudden quiet, with only Russ’s bathroom noises to say that anyone was there, tears began to overflow from Cassie’s eyes. She hated the tears. They made her nose run, and she had nowhere to wipe it except on her sheet. To fight her tears, she concentrated all her thoughts on Shep and Trixie. She loved those dogs. She also loved the breakfasts she and Vincent sometimes shared, so she tried hard to think about granola, too.
Robert Kinerk, a journalist most of his life, has written books and musical plays for children, and plays for adults. He lives in Cambridge, MA., where he is a co-editor of Harvest, the literary magazine of the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement.