When eighteen-year-old Sadie Marsh comes from California to visit her father in Minnesota, she sleeps in a bedroom decorated for her much younger self: a ruffled canopy bed, a white dresser with fairies painted on it, wallpaper with pink and white stripes, a bedside lamp with a wishing well base. Neither John nor his daughter has ever made a move to change one thing about that room; Sadie still sleeps under a pile of stuffed animals, the ones she left behind.
It's a warm Sunday in late August, and John is sitting on the front porch, feeding peanuts to the squirrel that has ventured up the steps and over to him. He's waiting for his daughter to come out the door to announce that this is really it; she has everything now, she's ready to go to the airport. She's been here for the usual length of time-one week. She's not even gone, but already he is feeling a wide band around his middle start to tighten. When he drops her at the airport, neither of them will express any regret at her leave-taking: it is an unspoken agreement that they keep every parting casual, that they do not make a bad situation worse with what they both would describe as fussing and carrying on, a phrase that John's Atlanta-born mother was fond of using, and one that she in fact employed every time they parted. "No fussin' and cahn' on, now," she would say, her white- gloved hand beneath his chin, her eyes crinkled at the sides the way they did when she smiled. "I'm gon' see you real soon, just you wait; you won't hardly know I've been gone."
He did wait. And wait.
Sadie has Irene's looks: auburn hair, hazel eyes that lean toward green, a fair complexion that burns at the mention of sun. She's tall, with a delicate bone structure, wrists so tiny she can almost never find a watch to fit her. But her nature is more like her father's: she's an outdoor type, confident in athletics, a person who is more irritated than inspired by poetry, an even-keeled young woman who rarely takes things personally. She has a loud laugh, an infectious one; even when Sadie was a toddler, Irene would say, "You can't hear her laugh and not join right in, even if you're mad at her. Especially if you're mad at her."
John hears Sadie coming down the stairs and tosses the rest of the peanuts into a corner of the porch. The squirrel stands there on its hind legs, its tail flicking, then opts for running off the porch rather than heading for the feast. "Hey!" John says. He moves to the top step to watch the squirrel run to the elm tree on the boulevard, then rapidly ascend. From the highest limb, it stares down at John. "Get your peanuts," John says, pointing, but the squirrel only stares.
"All set, Dad," Sadie says. She has her overstuffed backpack in one hand, her suitcase in the other, and he can tell from the tone of her voice that she, too, is having a hard time keeping upbeat. Never mind a deep and abiding love; he and his daughter really like each other. One week four times a year is not enough for either of them, but it is the best solution for now. In winter and summer, Sadie comes to St. Paul; in spring and fall, John goes out to San Francisco, where he stays in a hotel and visits with both Irene and Sadie, but that never quite works out-if he sees Sadie alone, she seems to feel bad for her mother; if they all get together, it's excruciating. The truth is, John doesn't like Irene much anymore, and he doesn't think she cares for him, either. They've grown apart in large ways and small. Irene identifies herself as a conservative liberal now, which John can't fathom. She's overly concerned about order and cleanliness in her flat- it's impossible to relax there. She prefers cats to dogs, which is almost worse than being a conservative. She's taken to wearing makeup and recently dyed her hair to cover the gray-Sadie says it's the influence of her latest man friend, a guy named Don Strauss, who believes aging people should "fight the good fight."
"Oh, please," John said, when Sadie told him this. And Sadie shrugged and said, "He's not so bad. He makes really good vegetable lasagna. He puts goat cheese in there."
"Well, that counts for something," John said, but privately he was thinking, Right, I'll bet he's another vegetarian. Another Unitarian vegetarian who holds up peace signs at street corners every Saturday afternoon and aspires to live in a Mongolian yurt. He waited for Sadie to say more about Don, but she didn't, and he didn't ask. Another unspoken agreement. He didn't ask about the men in Sadie's mother's life; Irene didn't ask about the women in his. Not that there were many to ask about. The last time he had a semi-serious relationship was five years ago, and that blew up when he wouldn't agree to lock his black Lab mix, emphasis on mix, out of his room on the nights she slept over. The woman complained that the dog snored and farted; John allowed that she did, too, and that was that. Festus died last year, and John thinks he's almost ready to get another dog. An Irish wolfhound, he's thinking, mostly because Sadie said she knows of a rescue group that recently took one in. "They're awfully big," John told her, and she said, "Exactly."
On the way to the airport, John looks over to see Sadie fooling around with her iPod. "Don't you dare put those plugs in your ears and disappear," he says. "Please."
"I'm not. I'm just getting it ready for the plane."
"I don't see why you young people can't step away from electronics for ten seconds of your life." Young people! Well, that's it: he's officially old now.
"Dad. I hardly used anything at your house the whole time I was there. I texted, like, twice."
John doesn't believe her. He saw the light under her door when he went past at night, and he heard the tap-tap-tapping. But he doesn't challenge her; at least she was courteous enough not to be constantly texting in front of him. He resents the very posture of people who are online, the way they bend their backs over their various devices, blocking out any possibility that they might engage with a real live person, who would never come with enough apps to satisfy them, let's face it. Virtual is so much more exciting than real. But only if you don't know how to look and listen, is what John thinks. He made Sadie sit out on the porch swing with him one night, just to hear the crickets and, later, to see the fireflies. He was gratified to hear her say, after about fifteen minutes, "Wow. This is nice."
Sadie puts the iPod in her backpack and zips it shut. "I'm going to get you one of these," she says. "I'll load it up with good music; you can see what I listen to."
"No, you'd like a lot of the songs! You really would."
"Okay, but no rap."
"Some rap. You'll see."
He stops for a red light and looks over at her. "You're an awfully pretty girl, you know that?"
She rolls her eyes.
"You're going to break some econ major's heart."
A great sadness comes over him, but he makes his voice light to say, "So! What's in store for the last of the summer?"
"Well. A challenge. A bunch of us are going rock climbing next weekend. If Mom will let me. So far she says no way."
"What are you going to climb?"
"Just Mount Tam, and only the lowest slab. Some people wanted to go to Mammoth Mountain, myself included, but that's a six-hour drive."
"Since when do you know anything about rock climbing?"
She shrugs. "I've done it a lot in gym class. Mom doesn't want me to do the real thing. You want to hear her pithy words of wisdom? 'Sadie, if you go rock climbing and you fall, you'll land on a rock.'"
She looks over at John, and he has to smile. That would be Irene.
"But I want to learn to do this," Sadie says. "And I'll be with people who know a lot about it. I have a friend who's been climbing with his family since he was six years old. He says it's great. He also says the only way to know yourself is to challenge yourself-in a hard way, so that you're really scared. He says what you do in times like that is what you are."
John nods. "I suppose there's some truth to that."
"Have you ever done that? Taken on a challenge that really, really scared you?"
Marrying your mother. Didn't work out so well. "Not really," he says.
"Maybe you should try rock climbing."
"Yeah, not for me, I don't think. So are you going to need ropes and pickaxes and oxygen masks and all that stuff?"
"Well, what do I know?"
"It's not mountain climbing; it's rock climbing. All I need is climbing shoes. My friend gave me a pair of his sister's-they're almost brand new, and they fit just fine."
"I'll get you your own pair."
"Let's see if I like it first," Sadie says, and John feels a rush of pride in his daughter for being so practical and unselfish, for not taking him up on every offer he makes to buy her things. There's no doubt she understands that guilt is a pretty good wallet cracker after a divorce, even many years after a divorce, and she chooses not to capitalize on that. She was a child who would never dump a bowl full of Halloween candy left untended on someone's porch into her bag, or even take more than one piece. He used to worry sometimes that she was too good, and took an odd sort of comfort in the times she did act up.
"What you could do," Sadie says, "is talk to Mom and convince her to let me try this."
"Okay. I'll tell her it's fine with me. I'll tell her it's important that you take on physical as well as mental challenges. I think I can bring her around."
"Thanks. What's your next challenge?"
"There's an old building on Wabasha I'm trying to buy. I'm just starting negotiations. My God, the ceilings on that place are-"
"I mean a personal challenge."
"Renovation is personal to me. Since I was your age. Since before that."
"I know. I know all about your matchbox cities when you were a little boy, and how you tried to save your first old building when you were sixteen, and how you won first prize in the science fair for your city of the future. . . ."
"That was an incredible city."
"I'm sure it was. But I meant more along the lines of when are you going to date again? That kind of challenge."
"I'm fifty-six years old, Sadie."
"I think I'm all done with that."
"You so are not!"
"I'm not really all that interested."
"Well, you should be. It's not good to be alone. To be honest, I worry about you a little bit, Dad. You don't even comb your hair half the time."
"I have a cowlick."
"Yeah, but you don't comb it half the time, either. And you don't eat well. I don't think you're uninterested in dating; I think you don't know how to go about meeting single women. Why don't you put an ad in the paper? That's what Mom does, and she's your age. Just write an ad, or go online, and see what-"
"Absolutely not. I am not dating someone I meet online." He will never admit that, one night, he looked around on Match.com. Sat before his computer in his shorts and T-shirt, drinking a beer, looking for someone who wasn't there. Not even close. Something occurs to him. "Are you meeting people online? Are you going mountain climbing with someone you met online?"
"No, Dad. And it's rock climbing. And I'm going with a whole group of people from school-if I even go. I'm just saying you should get out more. There's more to life than work."
"As I've been told. And told."
"Well, there is."
He signals for the exit to the airport. "I'll tell you what. If you climb a rock, I'll ask a woman out."
"Yeah, how will you meet her, though?"
"I have my ways."
"You have one week," Sadie says. "That's when the climb is."
"Deal." He pulls over to the curb to let her out and puts the car into park. He lays his hand against the side of his daughter's face and sighs. Kisses her forehead. "All right. Get out of my car."
"I thought you'd never ask." She leans over to embrace him. "Don't call me all the time," she says into his ear, and he says, "Don't call me all the time," and then she is gone. Though she does turn back before she goes through the glass doors. Turns and blows him a kiss, and he waves back.
He pulls out into the traffic and blinks once, twice. Clears his throat. Then he turns on the radio and boosts the volume.
He thinks about whether or not he should make his next move with Amy Becker. Because what Sadie doesn't know is that he's already met someone; it was over a month ago. It was in a way he'd rather not share with his daughter. Or with anyone else.
On a cold November evening when Irene was fourteen years old, she was in her bedroom doing homework, and her mother was in the kitchen, making hamburger soup. It smelled so good, and Irene was impatient for her father to come home so they could eat dinner. But then the smell changed; something was burning. "Mom?" Irene called from her room. No reply, and the smell intensified. Irene came out into the hall. "Mom?"
She went into the kitchen and turned off the burner, then opened the back door to let the smoky air out. She saw that the light in the garage was on, and supposed that her mother had gotten caught up in cleaning something out there; she was always complaining about what a mess it was in the garage. "Hey, Mom!" Irene called from the doorway. She was in her stocking feet, and didn't want to put shoes and a coat on. But when her mother didn't answer, Irene did put on her shoes. She didn't bother with a coat-she'd only be a minute. She pushed open the garage door and bumped into something: her mother, hanging from the rafter, a length of clothesline around her neck. Wearing her flowered apron. One shoe off, one shoe on. Irene backed away, ran into the house, and called her father at his office. "You must never tell anyone this," he said later. "And we will not speak of it again." Heart attack, they told everyone.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Once Upon a Time, There Was You by Elizabeth Berg. Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth Berg. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.