Find Your Happy Place

It was Father’s Day and Maeve was in Friendly’s. After all this time, she was still a sucker for a Conehead. She and her father had spent countless hours here scarfing down the clown-faced sundae with whipped cream for hair and Reese’s Pieces for eyes when Maeve was a child growing up in Levittown. They always ate the cone that doubled as a hat dipped in fudge first.

She was approaching forty and already a sneeze could make her pee, yet she still wanted her daddy despite the fact that he was a loudmouthed prick who’d made millions out of bullying anyone who disagreed with him.

The last time Maeve and Dad had spoken was on the phone one year earlier when he was trying to give her advice about her own career, not so subtly suggesting that she wasn’t thick-skinned enough. She was a political pundit, like him. She was doing just fine. She had tons of requests for radio interviews and podcasts and even had a book coming out, Liberal Two-Step: Screw and Be Screwed. So she politely told him to fuck off and that she’d speak to him on her own time. He’d respected her wishes. That pissed her off even more.

Now he was off the air and trying to make amends with anyone he’d ever offended, including her. So, Maeve had made the trip down from Albany to the Friendly’s on Hempstead Turnpike. It was a Santa Claus-red building with Taco Joe’s to its right and a giant abandoned Kmart to its left. Maeve stood in the foyer, sunglasses still on inside, because God forbid if anyone recognized her. On the drive down, she’d already seen a bus with her mug plastered on it, her jet-black bob and seaweed-green eyes staring back at her as if she dared herself to disagree. The bluster, the rapid hand gestures she was known for—it was all for show when it came down to it. The last thing she wanted was to discuss taxes or school budgets with this crowd even though she probably agreed with more than half the people in here.

She leaned against the pole by the takeout window and hid behind a sticky menu that no doubt someone’s entitled brat had touched. Maybe this whole thing was a bad idea. Already she was disgusted by the dirty-mop smell of the place. But she had to give it points for longevity, for surviving when most of the other chains across the island had closed, and for keeping the names of their ice cream sundaes as is. Like “Happy Ending.” What a riot.

The place was teeming with dads as expected. Normal dads who gelled their hair and donned NYPD T-shirts and blue jeans instead of a suit every day. Every now and then she’d look up from behind the menu to find one of them about to jokingly smack his kid or give them a noogie in a headlock and she was thankful she hadn’t stretched her uterus out. Just as she was questioning the cost-benefit of the $5.55 entrée section for the umpteenth time—where the hell was Dad?—one man caught her eye and limped over to her with a toddler clinging onto his leg. Damn it.

“You’re Maeve O., right? The Bull’s daughter,” he said. Maeve O. That was her dad’s brilliant marketing idea. “I’d recognize that pretty face anywhere.”

“Nope. Must be another pretty face you’re thinking of,” she said. She turned her back and pretended to be impressed by a teen swirling hot fudge behind the counter.

A few years ago, she’d made it onto Manplate’s “25 Most Gorgeous Female Politicians” list even though she wasn’t a politician, technically, but she let it slide. It helped her political game.

A few years ago, she’d made it onto Manplate’s “25 Most Gorgeous Female Politicians” list even though she wasn’t a politician, technically, but she let it slide. It helped her political game. All the crusty men she kicked back martinis with loved that she, who had a standing appointment at the salon every week, was one of them. She had to give a shit upstate; it was part of her job. Down here was different. Being home gave her the ultimate permission to be a slob if she wanted to. But she’d second-guessed herself and opted for a breezy blouse and capris combo, with a gold necklace that doubled as a pencil. It had been a gift from Dad when she received her first nasty comment on a blog. He told her she was on the right track to success.

Now look what this clothing choice had made happen.

“No, really. I know it’s you,” the man said. He tapped her shoulder and she turned around out of habit from fundraising parties she reluctantly attended. He was waving to a woman who was standing underneath a giant sign of a Friendly Frank, swinging a crying baby in a car seat. “Honey, come here a minute.”

The woman gave him the finger. Maeve would much rather talk to her.

“Skeedaddle,” she said. She waved the menu toward the woman who looked like she might throw the car seat through the window. “Go be with your family. Stop talking to strangers.”

Dad would be flipping his shit if he heard her. If this were him, he’d slap the man on the back, make some joke about his kid being a cracked-out zombie, and they’d be talking about how there’s never been a better deli than Fred’s.

“Fine, fine. I know when I’m not wanted,” he said. “I just gotta tell you, you socked it to that news anchor the other day.” He winked at her. “Fucking bleeding hearts, you know what I mean?”

Sort of. She was a sucker for cute cat videos and if really pressed, believed heroin antidotes at CVS were the way to stop the island’s epidemic. Dad was more of a secret liberal than she was. He gave money to the homeless as frequently as he ridiculed them. But only when he was in a car, so he could zip away without anyone seeing him. One time, years ago when she was just starting to make a name for herself, she’d teased him about leaking it to the press. “Don’t be a moron,” he said. “Maeve the Moron. That’s one for the tombstone.” He’d been calling her that ever since. And each time it was a gut punch—a soft one of the kind a man who only used his hands to pick up a knife and fork could do, but a punch nonetheless.

“Table for one?” The hostess was an older woman, and had a plastic gold name tag with Joanne written on it.

“God no, Joanne,” Maeve said. “Two. My dad’s meeting me here. He’s late.”

“Bastard,” Joanne said. “You’ve been standing here for a while.”  The nerve of this woman.

“It’s not his fault,” Maeve said. “He’s probably stuck on the L.I.E. like every other schmo today.”

“Sure, honey,” Joanne said. “Follow me to your table.”

Every table in the restaurant was buzzing. There were kids climbing over booths, kids crying, kids throwing their chicken fingers on the floor. Every now and then scattered in the chaos was an elderly couple slowly lifting spoons of ice cream to their mouths.

Joanne tried to seat her in the middle of it all. Maeve pointed to a booth tucked in the corner.

“That one,” she said.

Joanne shrugged. “Whatever you want.”

Maeve sat down and kept expecting one of the adults to recognize her, but nobody said a word. They were too busy dealing with the messes of their own lives. Just as well. She took her sunglasses off. She grabbed for the napkin holder so she could keep busy and started fiddling with the waxy paper napkins. She made a pinwheel first to see if she could still do origami after all these years. She nailed it. Next up was the crane. Then the rose. As she was creasing corners, her phone dinged. It was a text from Dad: Too many knuckleheads in traffic today. Got off on the wrong exit. Love, Dad the Dumdum.

She could just see him deadlocked on the L.I.E. checking himself out in the rearview mirror, combing his hair while puffing his cheeks. The windows would be down and he’d be inevitably snapping his fingers outside the car to some horrible Eagles song. He could be a bastard but she missed how ridiculous he was and how seemingly oblivious he was to it.

She texted back: If by “wrong exit” you mean Mr. Beery’s, I swear to God!

He sent a smiley face back. He loved his $1 pitchers of Bud. Man had tons of money and still was Cheapo Charlie.

She sighed. She couldn’t believe she had to sit at this dump longer than needed. Although the vintage black-and-white photos of men in bowties scooping ice cream were charming, she’d give them that. Nostalgia always wins. And boy, did Friendly’s go for it. There was a giant “Share Your Memories” wall in the far corner with scribbles and doodles of all kinds, what, she couldn’t exactly see from where she was sitting, but she could tell they were sappy. She fiddled with the card for a Sharks Frenzy Sundae. The electric-blue color of the ice cream tickled her gag reflex, but her stomach was empty and she wished she could bite off the heads of those gummy sharks. Right. This. Second.

Once, Dad let her slip underwater at Bluegrass Lane pool when she was about seven. When she came up, spitting water, he was laughing.

Once, Dad let her slip underwater at Bluegrass Lane pool when she was about seven. When she came up, spitting water, he was laughing. The only thing he’d said was, “You survived the shark tank, kiddo.”

She turned the crane over and wrote with her necklace pen: You got to learn to swim for yourself.

Joanne walked by after escorting a family of five to their table. She stopped in front of Maeve and drummed her hot-pink nails in front of her.

“Dad still a no-show?”

“What’s it matter to you?” said Maeve.

“Ha! Not so friendly are we, doll. Might want to try Fire & Ice over there,” she said, waving menus toward the Turnpike.

“Funny,” Maeve said. She wanted to tell her to fuck off. But she couldn’t be too much of an asshole in person or else the leftie loons would be all over her.

She handed the crane to Joanne, who raised one badly plucked eyebrow and shoved the crane into her apron pocket. Maybe now she’d leave her alone.

There was a man to her left, sitting alone in the booth and slurping the bottom of his strawberry Fribble. Gross. At least she wasn’t that guy. She could take out her phone and Google her name like she always did when she was bored and needed to feel good about herself but lately, the internet trolls had been too much for her. There was one comment from armoredarmaggedon about her one stubborn tooth that stayed buck despite braces (okay, so she forgot to wear her retainer when she was younger), and as much as she tried to forget about it, every time she looked in the mirror now that’s all she could focus on. These trolls destroyed her father’s politics, but never mentioned the stray nose hairs that creeped out the corner of his nostrils.

That’s how it went in this game. She knew it and still loved it. The minute she became a lifeguard at age sixteen, she had no problem declaring herself a Republican. It was the way to get promoted, after all.

She turned the rose over. Follow the crowd. They’re always right.

Joanne breezed by again. It seemed every time Maeve looked up there she was, looking like she owned the damn place, as if she were seating guests at her own private dinner party in the Hamptons. This time Joanne was arm-in-arm escorting some Latino or Hispanic guy—she still wasn’t sure of the difference—to the table catty-corner to her. Two preteen girls were behind him, phones out and giggling. She could smell their obnoxiously coconut fragrance. Joanne handed the man the menu, but not before patting the tall, stiffly gelled spikes he called hair. He acted offended before squeezing Joanne’s shoulders in an embrace. Maeve let a laugh slip. He looked at her. Holy shit. It was Ian. Ian Bonilla. She was almost sure of it.

Her phone dinged. I’m sorry.

She was starting to get pissed, really pissed and not fake pissed. For what, she wanted to text Dad back. Selling her mother’s new boyfriend up shit’s creek by getting him arrested on some phony drug charge? Making her sit here while he shucked off responsibility and a promise, again? Or how about squeezing her arms so tight during a fight her senior year of high school that even concealer couldn’t hide the bruises in her yearbook picture? But saying anything would set him off and upset the fragile everything-is-fine illusion they’d both agreed to just so they could sit down at this sticky table. She’d gotten this far.

She needed a drink. She wished the Conehead had a boozy option for adults. Five shots of chocolate vodka poured over the clown’s face instead of hot fudge.

Joanne made some comment, that Maeve couldn’t hear. The man who she thought was Ian laughed. It was the sputtering kind, starting out in small fits and gradually going full steam into a guffaw.

The laugh removed any doubt. His lips had thinned and he’d gained some much-needed bulk on those skinny ribs of his, and let’s not even get into his ridiculous coif, but that laugh made her sure that this was her best guy friend from high school. The guy who at one point in her life had been the only person to see through her bullshit and call her on it and still want to hang out with her anyway.

Fuck. This was the last thing she needed. It was a good time to go to the bathroom. Or walk out the door. She got up quickly and the origami rose that had fallen into her lap, unnoticed, bounced along on the floor. It slid right under the table at one of the girl’s feet. The one whose braces somehow made her more attractive.

She leaned down. Her cleavage was tiny, but taut, and Maeve stared unapologetically.

“Your, uh, flower?” the girl said, as she picked it up and handed it to Maeve. She turned to the other girl wearing a sweatshirt with white HOFSTRA letters sewn on it and they both burst out laughing. The buns on the top of their heads bobbed back and forth, taunting Maeve with how young and perfect they were.

“Oh, this, I don’t even know where I got it…” she said. The girls scared her.

“Maeve?” Ian said. “Maeve O’Flannery?”

His bedroom. A couple of weeks before high school graduation. The two of them rolling around on sheets that smelled of musty Cuban cigars and fried plantains mixed with Ian’s Drakkar cologne. Downstairs, the party sounds of Rolling Rock bottles clinking and exaggerated moans from the Spice Channel. His drunken hands on her, grabbing aimlessly, hungry for whatever her body would give. They said they’d never do this but it was nearly the end of high school and they were both still virgins so why the hell not. It was an agreement they made during one of the phone calls they’d had every night.

She didn’t love him, at least not that way, and was a good Irish Catholic girl. She put the condom back into the drawer, moved his hands down. His fingers stabbed around inside her. It hurt. She squirmed. He pulled her panties off, put his warm mouth on her, and her body fizzed. When he was done with her he went downstairs. She turned the light on and there was blood on the sheets. Shit.

The next day at school there was a jar of maraschino cherries by her locker. Ian’s friends walked by her in the halls and chanted, “Bloody Bloody Maeve-y.” Like it was her fault that he didn’t know what he was doing, that he wasn’t gentle enough. Ian didn’t meet her at her locker to go to the deli for lunch. That night she went home and cried. It was Dad who came in the room and held her. She didn’t say a word about it. Neither did he.

She ran into Ian at a few parties here and there, but their friendship was never the same after that.

“Ian! Oh, my God! I had no idea it was you!” she said.

“Dad, you know her?” said the girl who picked up her flower.

She tried to be a good role model, show them that politics wasn’t all nasty business.

It was sweet when the young ones recognized her. She tried to be a good role model, show them that politics wasn’t all nasty business. She reached across Ian’s table, grabbed a couple of napkins, and twisted open her necklace.

“Maeve and I go way back, sweetie,” Ian said. He patted the girl on the back. “I used to draw tattoos of the solar system on her arms in science class.”

“Yeah, and I had to scrub the damn things off every day,” she said. “I could never get all the ink off. My mom hated it.” She signed Maeve O’Flannery on the napkins and added an extra swirly flourish on the y.

“But you still let me do it,” he teased.

“Yeah, well, that was light years ago.” She didn’t know what else to say. She bit the inside of her cheek and handed the girls her autographs. “Here. One for each of you.” The napkins dangled in the air.

The girl with the Hofstra sweatshirt took them both.

“Uh, thanks?” she said.

They didn’t know who Maeve was. Of course, they didn’t. It was stupid of her to think otherwise. She screwed the pencil back, tight, into its insignificant hole.

“Maeve’s a big deal, honey,” he told his daughter. “Right, Maeve? I’ve seen you on TV a bunch.” When he tilted his head up toward her, one of the stiff spikes of hair fell onto his brow. “I always knew you’d do something with those smarts of yours.” Goddammit if he wasn’t still charming.

Joanne’s butt bumped into Maeve. She was carrying two strawberry Fribbles whose cream was frothing over the sides.

“Sorry about that, doll,” she said. She looked at Ian. “Your sundaes will be up in a minute.”

“You be with your family,” Maeve said to Ian. She wanted him to shut up.

“I see these girls all the time. They’re sick of me. Why don’t you take a seat?” Ian said. “Catch up.” The girl with the braces rolled her eyes and elbowed her sister.

“I can’t,” she said. “Good to see you.” Maeve forced a smile that stretched her gums and reached out her hand to shake his. He looked it at for a second. Then he shook it anyway with hands that were limp and clammy. She expected different.

She sat back down at her table, facing the back of Ian with his neckline that faded into a perfect triangle, decorated with a birthmark the shape of a lumpy potato. A neck she had stared at so many times while daydreaming in class or sitting behind him as he drove to the billiards place. It was thicker, but still familiar. She opened up her phone and Googled Ian. There was next to zilch on him. He didn’t do the social media thing. There his name was in the Yellow Pages as the owner of a custom wood furniture business. Good for him. She found one picture of him by a lifeguard stand at Jones Beach with his arms around a woman who looked like she frequented Beach Bum Tanning. Could be his wife, but the girls looked nothing like her. Most likely girlfriend. Oh, and here was his member picture in a club of men who liked to fly toy planes.

Maeve grabbed a napkin and fumbled as she tried to make an origami butterfly. She tried folding the wings but her fingers were shaky and slippery and the napkin couldn’t hold the creases.

She texted Dad. Be straight with me. You coming or what?

Ian was laughing, tapping the handle of his knife against the rims of the glass bowls their sundaes came in, pretending to make toasts to pretend people. “To Queen Cookie Butter, the sweetest ruler in all the land! To my friend Jim Dandy, the most stylish man I’ve ever known!” The girls tried their hardest not to giggle.

Maeve kept trying with the butterflies until the holder was nearly empty. Ian tapped louder and faster. His laugh started to sound like a distressed seal. Her whole table was a stockpile of mangled butterflies, her shaky hands botching their fragile wings. She grabbed one and wrote: Broke but not forgotten.

She was one second away from screaming at Ian. Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up.

Hofstra girl jumped up. She moaned, covered her mouth with one hand, and stomped in place. Blood trickled through her fingers.

“I ate glass! I ate glass!” she screamed. She tried to spit out a wad of blood. It dribbled down her sweatshirt and colored the H and O.

Ian scooted out from the table.

“I’m so sorry, sweetie,” he said. He put his arms around his daughter’s shoulders. “I’m so sorry.”

What did this asshole expect? Actions have consequences.

He grabbed the last two napkins on his table.

“This fucking place!” he said. He threw the holder onto the floor. “I need napkins!”

She texted Dad again: Mr. Beery’s. 15 minutes. He gave a thumbs-up back.

On her way out, she grabbed a handful of butterflies from the pile and chucked them at the girl. Ian scrambled to pick them up off the floor while Maeve sidestepped him.

 

Celeste Hamilton Dennis is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in various literary journals including Drunken Boat, Boston Accent Lit, Gravel, Barely South Review, and more. When she’s not engaged in the arts activism space or being a mom to two little girls, she’s working on a book of short stories connected by her hometown of Levittown, NY. She can’t stop writing about chain restaurants and mouthy women.

Photo by Ali Lanenga