You divorce. You remarry.
You are already a father; your new wife is already a mother. She has a blooming daughter that you come to love, a daughter to whom, in time, you begin to say I love you. A daughter who later begins to occasionally reply, with no discernible pattern: Love you, too.
You write a book for people just her age—that age we think of as between. A publisher buys the book, makes plans to release it, and over the course of many disorienting months these plans unfold as promised. Along the way, you encounter the moment when you must determine how to dedicate the book, when you will choose how to acknowledge the people you will elect to thank. The task is self-indulgently benevolent. You dedicate the book to your wife, first and last. You acknowledge your parents, your teachers, your friends, the people to whom you entrusted the book long before anyone wanted to pay you for it.
You acknowledge your son, of course, who is easily named. But when you try to acknowledge your wife’s daughter, who by now has been a part of your life for years, you hesitate. She is your child. Also she is not your child. The sentiment comes easy, but what to call her does not. You contemplate at length how you will identify her role in your life, the way you will declare—in print—what you are to each other. Eventually you end up with these words:
To my daughter, for being such an excellent human being to share the world with, and for teaching me so much about being a dad.
You send these words to your editor.
The day comes when the publisher of your book prints advance copies. These copies are not final; they are still full of mistakes. You show the book to your wife’s daughter, and she thumbs swiftly through it toward the end. While you watch, she slows and reads the acknowledgments page. She sees the way you have phrased your gratitude, sees the title you have bestowed her. She says nothing. She is thirteen. You do not, at first, know what to think of her silence.
But weeks pass, the book due to be finalized any day, and you don’t forget what she didn’t say. You remember your words: my daughter, for teaching me so much about being a dad. You begin to suspect that she has said nothing not because she is thirteen, but because she is thirteen and already has a dad. Her dad is not you. And finally one night when you are already feeling melancholy, you hover at the entrance of her room before bedtime and tell her you have a question. A personal question that might feel awkward. She says, dubiously, Okay.
You ask her about the acknowledgment, if she remembers what it says. She does. You ask her if she would feel better if instead of daughter, you wrote step-daughter, because that’s what she is. You ask her if, instead of dad, you should write step-dad, because that’s what you are. She says, slowly—Maybe?—and in the weight of that word you feel a sick and swollen tide of regret: at having asked the question, at having phrased your gratitude the way you did in the first place, at taking space in this doorway at all. She tells you, because she is an excellent human being to share the world with, that what you said was sweet. But she also describes, because she is an excellent human being to share the world with, how there are competing piles of guilt whose weights she has to measure, whose burdens she must compare. If you do not make the change, she explains, there is this pile of guilt. If you do make the change, there is this other pile.
You understand her.
You understand her, and you think in that moment that maybe you will never again be asked to undertake anything so parental as this, to gift her this retraction, to express the truth not the way you want to, not the way you feel it, but rather the way she needs you to. And what she needs is to be called step-daughter.
She compromises with you, suggesting that you could at least still say Thank you for teaching me so much about being a dad. You don’t realize until later that she is doing that right now. Teaching you right this second.
Because right now she argues how important it is for people to hear the true story. They need to have things explained. They don’t like things to be unclear, and you have been unclear. Worse, you have been untruthful. You have used the word daughter.
You agree to change the word. She thanks you. And then she tells you—she is so young, she is trying so hard—that at least you will have this copy of the book, this version that still says daughter, this advance that is full of mistakes. At least you’ll have that. You agree with her, even though you have no true idea what she hopes to mean, offering you this consolation. You ache with the possibilities. You thank her for her honesty. You say I love you. She says love you too. You will say goodnight now. You will leave her to her thoughtful room. You will go and you will nurse the strange dear knife in your belly, and you will send an email to your editor with the necessary correction, and for a while you’ll be lost, already fumbling to imagine some story whose words you would never take back.