The hiss of the sizzling pan as he plops in the butter and the tell tale clink of the spoon against a mug are his favourite sounds in the morning. He sips the first coffee of a late Sunday morning with relish, sighing deeply as he swallows the Kona.
Danny has many complaints about the island; this, though, isn’t one of them.
He deftly flips the pancake, the vanilla and butter aroma wafting up. Soon, they’ll beckon his little house guest.
He squashes the bitterness of being in Steve’s house without the man himself, and listens instead for the small thuds of feet skipping down the stairs.
Grace has been up for hours, he knows, because he heard her talk to herself as he stumbled down the hallway, his brain slowly climbing out of the fog of sleep. She knows him and she knows their Sunday morning routine, so when she appears dressed to the nines in a purple shirt and cut off jeans while he’s still in pajamas consisting of an old t-shirt and cotton shorts, it’s all part of the program.
“Morning, Danno!” she greets him, her smile broad and white as she bounces onto one of the island stools and places her chin in her hands.
Danny, ever prepared, is ready with her plate of pancakes and deposits it right in front of her.
“Morning, monkey,” he says, and does a little walk around the island to kiss the top of her head.
She digs in; her elbows close to her sides as she holds her knife and fork, and makes “mmmm” noises as she eats.
“Taste good?” They both know it does, but her mouth is full and she looks like a hamster when she nods vigorously.
He wonders when she’ll stop indulging him like this. Danny sips his coffee as he turns back to the task of making his own breakfast. He ladles the batter and watches the circle grow in the pan, little air bubbles bursting through the surface.
He uses the spatula to catch stray blobs of pancake that try to escape his perfect circle. “Yeah, monkey?”
“How do you know when you’re in love?”
A big bubble bursts in the batter and Danny feels that breakfast food really shouldn’t be that on the nose when it comes to his life as a father. He glances over his shoulder to look at Grace, who stares back at him.
“How do you what now?”
He hates mornings.
She actually rolls her eyes at him, making him dread what’s coming a few years from now.
“I said, how do you know – “
“ – when you’re in love. Yeah, okay.” Danny feels the vein above his eyebrow throb. “Why do you ask? You haven’t forgotten what I told about boys, right?” He flips the pancake, frying the other side.
“I haven’t, Danno. They’re evil.”
He ignores the exasperated tone in her voice. It’s too early for this. “Damn right.”
She’s quiet and he uses the silence to make another pancake, flipping the ready one off the pan and ladling a new one. When Danny looks back at her and she’s picking up crumbs with her fingers. He waits for the bubbles and brandishes the spatula, preparing to flip.
“Are girls evil too?”
Danny freezes mid-flip and the fried fluff lands wet side down on Steve’s kitchen counter with a slap. “Fuck.” He turns off the stove and wipes the mess away, throwing it into the garbage disposal.
“Danno?” He turns to her and she’s blushing and looking at him with eyes that shine.
“Monkey, I –“
“I’m not in love with a boy,” she says, her voice high and wobbly.
He sits down at the island and her eyes flick back to the crumbs on her plate. Using the tines of her fork she pushes them around, and she puts her head in her hand. The scraping noise is driving him crazy.
“Baby?” he says. “You wanna tell me something?”
Grace stops the noise and looks at him through her eyelashes. “Not anymore,” she says and resumes the scratching and Danny reaches over the island and grasps her hand.
“Stop that,” he says. “I’m sorry, look, you can tell me anything. I didn’t mean to make you feel like you can’t, okay. Talking about love early in the morning gives me complexes.”
She pulls her hand out of his grasp, puts the fork down on the plate and begins picking up the crumbs with her finger, eating them one by one, her gaze fixed on her task. Danny could kick himself, he knows that look and knows what he’s done and hates that he’s become this kind of father. He rubs his face, his morning stubble ticklish and thicker than he likes.
He bites his top lip and eventually says, “It feels like pressing into a bruise.”
Grace stops collecting the crumbs and flicks her gaze to him, she’s frowning. “What?”
“You asked, that’s what it feels like.”
“Being in love hurts?”
Danny’s mouth is dry and he swallows the lump in his throat. He doesn’t want to do this. It’s too soon, it’s too close, and his heart thuds in his chest.
“Honey, are you in love with someone?” Of course she is.
She shakes her head, but her blush gives her away and there’s an ache in his chest for her; puppy love shouldn’t be this hard.
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” She jumps off the stool and runs up to the room she’s made her own in Steve’s house. He winces as the door slams.
He rubs his eyes with the heels of his hands and mutters, “Motherfuck.”
Danny showers, shaves and dresses in his own weekend attire of jeans and a t-shirt. He walks to Gracie’s room and knocks gently on the door.
“Grace, can I come in?”
He waits for what feels like far too long and then her little voice says, “Okay.”
Danny walks in and it really does feel like someone is pressing a knuckle into a bruise; her little face is focused on a book balancing on her lap, and a quick glance around confirms her Dolphin Trainer Annie doll and another Barbie are sitting there on the bedside table.
“May I sit?” Danny asks. He bites his lip as she shrugs, her eyes intent on the pages.
He sighs quietly, sits and puts his palm over the book.
Grace flicks her eyes to his and holds his gaze. She closes the book over his hand and she draws up her knees, putting her chin on the platform created by her bent legs.
He looks away and fiddles with an edge of a blanket he finds next to him. “You wanted to ask me something during breakfast.” He glances at her, and the frown line between her eyebrows makes him swallow the lump in his throat.
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” she mumbles and turns her head away.
“You can’t say that, baby, not after you hightailed out of the kitchen and slammed the door.”
“You think I’m a baby.”
The denial on his tongue is sharp and cutting. Instead he says, “You are my baby.”
“But I’m not!” He struck a nerve and she gave herself a scare with that shriek, clapping her hands over her mouth, and finally her eyes overflow.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay, c’mon, c’mere. This is better.” Her arms wrap around him and he holds her close, her body shaking a bit as she cries, her breath hitching, and she lays her head on his shoulder.
“Sorry,” she mumbles into his shirt.
“You got a paira lungs on you, monkey, you know that?” He hugs her tightly and closes his eyes, keeping the moment at hand, before the bubble bursts.
She snorts and pushes off him, rubbing at her eyes, and sniffles loudly as she settles next to him.
She breathes deeply for him. “I made your shirt wet.”
“You can get me a new one.” He taps her nose and she giggles and god, his heart feels too big for his chest. “Do you want to talk about what went on at breakfast, what that was about, because I think we’re both a bit confused about whatever it was you were trying to tell me.”
The side eye she gives him, she gets from her mother. “Are you going to treat me like I’m five, again?”
Something is lost forever when he crosses his heart and raises his eyebrows; this promise that grants him entrance.
Grace blushes. “There’s a girl in my class, her name is Naomi.”
He didn’t think he’d be talking about this, not at this point, when she’s still in grade school and she’s hardly into her first age set of double digits. “Okay.”
She starts picking at a thread at the edge of her shorts and her little face is as a red a tomato, she’s adorable, but he knows better than to even consider voicing that one. “I kissed her.”
He isn’t sure which of them would rather have the earth swallow them right now. “You what?”
“I kissed her on the hand, like she was a princess.” Her eyes are huge and wet, and he can see that she’s pleading with him to understand.
He clears his throat and feels his own face heat up. “Did she, was she-“ man the fuck up, Williams “- okay with that?”
“We were playing princesses and I said she should be kissed like one and then she said there were no princes to kiss and I said I could kiss her and then she said that princesses don’t kiss other princesses and I said that I’m a princess who does, so she stuck out her hand and I kissed it and then a- another girl,” she pauses abruptly and as Danny tries to decipher all the I and she that Grace peppered in her breathless soliloquy about this girl, “she called me a lesbian and everyone laughed. Except me and Naomi.”
Danny clenches his fists as he clamps down on the familiar rage that courses through him, he feels it on the edge of his vision and in the tips of his fingers, the violence throbbing under the surface of his skin. “That isn’t a bad word. You know that, right, monkey? The fact that that punk said it like a bad thing doesn’t make it a bad thing.”
She gives him a puzzled look. “That doesn’t make any sense, Danno.”
Danny knows it doesn’t; the damage is done and he hates the world for doing this to his daughter and he knows he has to give her something. “I was laughed at too, for being in a love with a boy.” There was no laughing involved, and he can’t say he was actually in love, but it’s good enough; the gritty details aren’t for her ears.
Grace bends her legs and hugs her shins. She places her head on her knees and says, “Who was he?”
She’s so young and the world has changed. A little.
“His name was Joel. And he was, well, we were boyfriends.” He gestures aimlessly and he’s flooded with the memories of this boy, whom he kissed in places far less chaste than on the hand.
“Aren’t boys evil, Danno?”
“Oh, boy, that one is biting me back on the ass, huh?” Her laughter is like a balm, and he tugs lightly on her hair.
She pulls her hair away and asks, “Did they call you gay?”
It’s absurd and sad. “Gay isn’t a bad thing to be, monkey. Even if other people use the word like that, they’re wrong. There’s nothing bad about wanting to kiss a girl, or a boy, or anyone, okay? Other people, like that girl, they’re the ones who are wrong.”
She’s sniffling, rubbing her eyes on her knees. “Then why did everyone laugh at me?” and here comes the flood.
He pulls her close and he aches for her. The hurt and the shame, just because it happened sooner rather than later for her, doesn’t change anything. He rubs her back and mumbles nonsense and eventually, she crawls onto his lap and she actually is too big for this now, but it doesn’t matter in this moment.
“Oh, Grace,” he says into her hair.
She heaves a big sigh. After a while she mumbles something into his chest. “What was that?”
“Are you gay again, Daddy?”
He considers how quickly Gabby entered, then left his life, and the fact they’re currently staying at Steve’s house. Grace is hilarious, he’ll give her that. “Uh, no. I’m not gay, monkey.” The label sits awkwardly in his mouth, but it’s the only word he has. “I’m bi.”
Fuck, now this is embarrassing. “Bi means I’m not gay and I’m not straight.” He pauses, and eventually says, “I fall in love both with girls and boys.”
“At the same time?”
“No, but about the same amount.”
“Oh. Can I be bi?”
He rolls his eyes to the ceiling, why me? “Monkey, you can be anything you want.”
She snuggles into his side and he holds her close. “Danno?”
“When I grow up, can I marry Naomi?”
He snorts. “Don’t you think you should ask her that?” He squeezes her to him. Her heart now an even more vulnerable organ than it was, and the school yard is no longer a place for her to be carefree in.
“She already said yes.”
“That’s good, babe, then sure, by all means, marry her, but only after college and you both have jobs and aren’t living with your parents, okay?”
“That’s my girl.” He stands up, she settles on his hip, and this is probably one of the last times they’ll be able to do this. “I dunno about you, but I think we both deserve some ice cream.”
She lights up like a Christmas tree and slides down his legs. “I want shave ice!”
“Of course you do, you’ve gone all native on me.” He rubs his hands together and asks, “Okay, babe, what colour are you gonna get?”
She puts her hand in his and squeezes. “All of them.”
- The End