Audio: Author Ethel Rohan reads.
by Ethel Rohan
“What if the fog is really a ghost?” David says.
“A giant host of ghosts,” I say.
“That creeps into our noses, our mouths.”
“Our buttholes.” The seagulls laugh along with my seven-year-old.
The fog rolls forward, coming straight for us. Surfers, like slick seals, are enveloped. David and I wonder which ghosts wind up inside the fog. We decide only dead San Franciscans.
“So not us,” he says, his disappointment muffled by his mask.
“You’re a San Franciscan.”
“I’m fifty percent Irish.”
I chuckle. “You were one hundred percent born here.”
“And I’m fifty percent whatever Dad is.”
His fixation on his biological father started shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the City and County of San Francisco mandated a lockdown—five months and counting of life, work, and school largely online and the two of us stuck at home together with too much time to think. Dwell. Before, he posed the odd question about his mystery father, but now it’s a growing interrogation. He already knows as much as I do: He is the happy result of the sperm bank industry providing me with an anonymous donor and artificial insemination at a price of tens of thousands of dollars—enough to make me consider calling my son Moolah. The ocean tugs our ankles. I tell him a quarter of our bones are in our feet. He stares through the water, as if trying to see them all. I picture the waves toppling him and dragging him under. My screams, thrashing limbs, can’t save him.
. . .
With summer’s arrival, David has even more time to obsess. After his virtual art camp, as part of Operation Distraction, he and I walk Seamus in Stern Grove. One sunny Saturday, we stroll Stern Grove with my girlfriends and their kids and dogs. While the four masked kids tackle the trunk of a storm-felled redwood, I throw the slobbery tennis ball and work up to telling my friends that David has taken to repeatedly calling the sperm donor “Dad,” but my voice falters. If I say anything, it’ll become a whole event. The identity of David’s biological father was never supposed to become a burning issue for him, for me, anyone. The plan was always that I would be enough.
I lift my fogged-up sunglasses onto my head, pushing my two-tone hair off my masked face. Before the pandemic, I colored the roots back to golden brown every five weeks, but after months of shuttered salons I’ve given in and am going gray. I doubt I’ll ever go back to wearing makeup, either. Aside from the nuisance of steamy glasses, I’ve grown fond of wearing my mask. If it weren’t considered weird, even odder than choosing single parenthood via a stranger’s frozen cum, I’d wear my mask post-pandemic, too. More than middle age, more than my lumpy, drooping body, the mask renders me unseen. I no longer consider the erasure enraging but liberating.
True to form, Digger, a chocolate lab mix, claws at a gopher hole, sending tiny daisies flying. Seamus and Bo join the horde of canines begging for treats from a maskless dog walker. How toxic and dangerous are myths of masculinity that so many men refuse to wear masks, instead choosing to put lives at risk? I call Seamus to heel, as if I’m angry with him.
A piercing animal shriek slices the air and I spin around, catching a coyote loping into the woods on the far hillside, a screaming Yorkie locked between its teeth. There’s shouting, running. Among the band of chasers, a young woman roars, “No!”
The grunting scuffle amid the trees intensifies. We wince at the repeated crack of breaking sticks, the dog’s squeals and coyote’s yowls. A small group emerges on the hillside, the young woman in the lead, cradling the injured Yorkie to her chest. Word circulates—the dog needs stitches but should be okay. The collective relief ripples the air. Our kids turn to playing tag, and my girlfriends and I continue walking, talking. We order our dogs to get out of our path and go play. I don’t admit I feel sorry for the coyote, his mangy skin sticking to his ribs—another creature only trying to survive.
. . .
On Stow Lake, David and I row around the center island in one of several weathered boats. Seamus sits between us, his tongue hanging, his breath gamy. The sky is a gray smudge, but heat from the hidden sun manages to reach us, weak yet steady. David pleads to crash into other boats, like bumper cars. We eye potential unsuspecting victims and can’t sit still we’re laughing so hard. Like David, a huge part of me wants to collide, to shock. Emigrating and having David are the most daring things I’ve ever done, and I miss being that woman who went rogue.
“Bumper cars,” he calls to another boy about his age inside a nearby pedal boat.
The boy, older sister, and parents laugh, their thumbs up. For several electric minutes we pretend a high-speed chase with full-throated sound effects and fountains of spit.
David tires and quiets, abandoning his oar. We wave goodbye to the family inside the other boat.
“How come we can’t be like them?” he says.
“Because we’re us,” I say, trying to keep my voice light.
Our rental time is up. I row solo back to the loading dock. He points across the lake, at the Chinese pavilion inside long reeds, its red columns and jade green roof, and asks if his dad is Asian.
“Don’t be silly.”
“Why is that silly?”
“Cut it out.”
“Cut what out?”
“That’s enough.” I whack the water with my oar, sending up a splash. I’d emigrated from Dublin to San Francisco at age twenty-two, believing I could make a better life for myself here, and I had, but for no particular reason a partner and parenthood eluded me. At thirty-nine, I seized control and decided on a sperm bank. At forty-two, I conceived, and at forty-three I became a mother at long last. Now I’m fifty and finding out my son is no longer satisfied with his test-tube origin story. It used to delight him to know he came from the magic of me and a shiny vial of glass.
. . .
David pins his painting to our fridge with the Golden Gate Bridge magnet. It’s him and me, a house and a tree, and a tall purple stick figure with a head that’s a large empty circle. I resist the impulse to crush the picture into a ball.
Over the next several days similar artwork appears, until there’s at least one in every room. With each incarnation, the stick figure’s blank face gets bigger.
Through the phone, my younger sister tells me it’s only natural that David would want to know his father. She says he’s craving family. Her words are made worse by the hacking Belfast accent she’s absorbed after twenty-five years of living on the outskirts of the Northern Irish city she married into. She yelps after a vicious kick to her bladder. Good baby, I think. It’s her fifth one and quote, a right fucking surprise.
. . .
Summer ends, and David starts second grade via Zoom. In his first class, a girl with three high ponytails captured with green ribbons chants that COVID kills kids too. She refuses to shut up or mute herself.
On virtual Back-to-School Night, I flinch when Miss Jukowski calls out my name in front of a full screen of thumbnail parents. I hesitate, wondering if there’s another Ms. Leary, and reluctantly raise my hand, my face blazing.
“You’re David Dagda’s mom?”
I nod, squirming. In a fit of post-delivery inspiration, I had gifted David with the last name of the Irish god of life, the seasons, and spells. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later, when I saw his name on his birth certificate, that I realized “da” was in his last name, twice.
“Can you stay on at the end?”
My raised arm drops like something broken.
When we’re alone, Miss Jukowski’s head fills the screen. Her voice is so low I strain to hear. She says David tells her and the other children tall tales that are getting out of hand. He claims he’s half human, half god.
Miss Jukowski frees her lower lip from her teeth, exposing faint indentations in the pink. “He’s threatened some of his classmates.”
“He said if they won’t believe his dad is a god, he will make tiny dolls in their image and torture them, like voodoo.”
“Oh please,” I say, but it comes out like a plea. I’m a mess of horror, twisted admiration, and aloneness.
. . .
Another weekend, another visit to the zoo via appointment only, per pandemic protocol. David complains that looking at the giraffes hurts his neck. Even the orangutan picking his nose fails to light him up. He passes on viewing the penguins, a first. He recently stopped drawing and painting, something else he’d loved.
The whole way home he squints through the windshield like he’s the one driving. We arrive and I park, the foot brake grinding beneath my sneaker. He turns his head in slow motion, says he can cast a hypnotic spell on the receptionist at the sperm bank, make her share his father’s file. “I know how to do lots of that kind of stuff, including a spell that paralyzes people, everything except their eyeballs,” he says.
A snake’s tongue darts at the base of my spine. David senses the flash of fear, and it’s the happiest he’s looked in weeks.
After he goes to bed, I cry into Seamus’s thick, soft neck. Maybe I’m damaging my dadless boy. The dog whines and I wind up comforting him. “Shush. Shush. Mommy’s okay. Everything’s okay.”
My best friends and Miss Jukowski say I should seek expert advice.
“You Americans,” my sister says through the phone. “Yis love your therapists and yet look at the state of yis. Just talk to him, for fuck’s sake.”
“I’ve already told him everything I can.”
Beyond her, the wind howls. There’s much I miss about Ireland—the people, humor, slower pace, low-hanging sky, crunch of seashells beneath my shoes, the fields and woods and waters whispering legends. But not the vindictive weather.
My sister isn’t finished with me. “I’ve said all along this could go very bad,” she says.
That’s something else I don’t miss about my homeland: the words that cut like a cleaver.
. . .
David and I fill brown paper bags with masks, candy bars, menstrual pads, small bottles of water, ham-and-cheese croissants, and men’s socks tied with a yellow bow. At the last second, he adds his favorite fizzy lollipops to each bag.
We drive through the city, searching out the homeless. Usually they’re plentiful, but we don’t spot any for blocks. It will do David good to see up-close those with nothing. To make him feel satisfied, thankful, for all he has.
“They’re hiding from the virus,” he says.
“If only it worked that way.”
We spot a homeless man on the corner of Geary and Fillmore, at the edge of Pacific Heights, one of the richest and most scenic neighborhoods in the city. Above those high hills, the sun almost always shines and the expanse of ocean visible between the blocks of mansions rarely fails to sparkle. We park and offer the man one of our fat brown paper bags. He asks if he can take another for his friend.
“India! Hey, India!” he calls out.
A sixtyish woman limps around the corner, her bare feet blackened. More transients follow. Soon we’re surrounded. We take several steps backward, mumbling about keeping a safe social distance. They know it’s also their smell. India asks if we have more sanitary products. We repeat apologies and promise to return the following weekend. I ask India her shoe size and give her my sneakers off my feet.
“We need jackets and blankets, too,” a young man named Heavy says. He’s as skinny and pale as a cheese stick.
“Are you from the church?” asks an old man with white fuzzy hair and a matching beard. The creases in his thickened palms are rows of dirt.
We leave amid a chorus of thanks and blessings.
We circle the block, the accelerator strange beneath my socked foot. The disheveled group remains on the sidewalk where we left them, clutching our bags and eating our sandwiches. David asks how we can let people live like raccoons on the streets. It’s another answer I don’t have.
“What if Dad’s homeless?”
“How do you know? You keep telling me you don’t know anything about him.”
“I know he’s not homeless, okay? He graduated college, and is smart and healthy, ambitious and successful. I’ve told you all this.”
“What if he’s inside the fog?”
“You need to stop this. It’s driving me crazy.”
He points at men on the sidewalk, in cars, in buses. “He could be my dad. And him. And him. And him.” His trigger finger also finds girls and boys. “They could be my half sisters and brothers.”
I can barely stop myself from telling him I’m sorry I ever gave him life. I count to ten and say there are different types of families—two moms, two dads, one dad, one mom, and the boring kind: one of each. He doesn’t crack a smile.
I pull the car over and demand he look me full in the face. “I’m mom and dad. I’m as good as it gets.”
“I’m going to find him someday.”
“Good luck with that.”
On 19th Avenue, the ocean once again fills our view, the rolling whitecaps rising and falling in a staggered, choppy rhythm. Raised on the jagged Irish coast, I could never live far from the sea.
“Hey, I’m sorry, okay? It just makes me sad that you think there’s this big thing you’re missing out on. This is our family, you and me, and I love it. I love you.”
When he speaks, his voice sounds as wet as his eyes. “What if COVID catches you, like the coyote snatched that little dog?”
I swallow. “It won’t, and the dog was okay, remember?”
“What if you die?”
“That’s not going to happen.” Even as I say it, I think of the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who didn’t think they would die.
“I’d be all alone,” he says.
My heart leaps, sudden and violent, and seems not to return to its rightful place. “Sweetheart, you should have said. I don’t want you worrying about me, okay? About any of this. Leave it to the grown-ups, that’s our job, and I promise you, you’re never going to be alone.”
He looks out his side window. “Hey,” I say, gently shaking the top of his head. He won’t face me. “How about we Zoom with your cousins when we get home? Would you like that?”
“And we’ll go see them just as soon as we can.”
His head whips around. “Really? When?”
“The second there’s a vaccine and it’s safe to fly again.”
“Can I tell them on Zoom?” There’s an excitement in his voice I haven’t heard since we chased that other family on Stow Lake.
“Of course you can.”
“I’m going to tell everyone in my class, too.”
“Someone wants to impress.”
He nods, smiling, flashing more milk teeth than I’ve seen in a while.
“You know I named you after David in the Bible?”
“What David in the Bible?”
I tell him of giant Goliath, defeated by the boy David.
“You’re also a descendent of Niall of the Nine Hostages, Ireland’s greatest High King.”
“You never told me that!”
It’s true, but so are millions of people around the world: Learys, Cahills, O’Neills, O’Donnells, Geoghegans, and several more clans. He demands stories of High King Niall. As I begin spinning an ancient tale, his eyes shine so bright there’s no trace of gray in the blue.
I agonized over this, his having just me, and the entire rest of our family—his grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—five thousand miles away in Ireland. I determine to fill him with stories of his ancestors. To love him enough for two continents’ worth of family.
We’re almost at the turn onto Taraval, where we’ll lose our view of the breaking ocean. I see another flash of a riptide stealing him. One day, too soon, he will leave. Just like I left my family, my country, to find the missing parts that would make me whole. After he goes, I’ll be left with my dear friends, my yellow house, my faithful dog, my adopted ugly-beautiful city—hoping our pull is as fierce for him as my mother country remains for me, carrying us both back from time to sacred time. ♦
Ethel Rohan, raised in Ireland, is a longtime San Francisco resident who breathes best on salt air and delights in trees and green spaces. Her recent book, In the Event of Contact, winner of the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize, was released on May 18, 2021.
Karen Chan is a designer and artist hailing from the East Coast. When she’s not hanging out in the sun with her geriatric chihuahua, you can catch her wandering the city, listening to film scores.