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It’s one of those days where he wonders where the time has gone.
Thirty-one years ago, he was waiting not far from this very same spot for his mother to arrive after his first day of junior high school, and here he is now—a forty-three year-old husband and father of two waiting to pick up his daughter after her own first day.
It feels like some sort of time warp.
He smiles, though, when he sees her break through the crowd of students and wave goodbye to one of her friends. He was a little nervous when he and Pam dropped her off this morning and saw all the older (bigger) kids, but she looks like she belongs here already. She’s growing up. Twelve and a half years ago, she was barely the length of his forearm, and now she’s a five-foot-three seventh grader who is also a loving daughter, a caring big sister, a good student, and a talented volleyball player.
He couldn’t be more proud of his Cecelia Marie.
“Hey, kid,” Jim greets her as she opens the door to the backseat and flings her backpack inside. “How’d it go?”
“I don’t want to talk about it with you,” she grumbles, climbing inside and slamming door shut behind her, making it very obvious that she is not happy.
“Um, that’s… fine… I guess,” he answers slowly, confused because Cece has been a daddy’s girl since day one and usually talks his ear off about every good, bad, and in-between thing that ever happens to her. “Are you okay?”
He recalls one other time when she was like this—an afternoon a several months ago where she came home crying because some girls had been picking on her for being flat-chested (in sixth grade, no less). She was hurt and embarrassed, and the only person she would talk to was Pam, who told him everything later because there are just some things that a girl can’t tell her father.
A girl thing, he thinks. This must be some sort of a girl thing.
She’s going to be a teenager in half a year, after all, so it makes sense that there are just some things at this point in her life that only her mother can understand.
But, oh, is he wrong.
“One of the ninth graders asked me if my mom and dad still like to do it in the shower.”
It’s a good thing there’s a red light coming out of the school parking lot; otherwise, he probably would have driven off the road.
“Whoa, hold on, what?”
That was absolutely not at all what he was expecting to hear come out of her mouth.
“The stupid documentary!” She snaps as angry tears begin to spill down her cheeks. “You and Mom did stuff at work, and then you told the camera that you and Mom… you know… in the shower, and now everyone knows that you guys are gross!”
It’s been more than a decade since it happened and about five years since he has seen the episode, but he remembers and knows exactly what she is talking about.
There’s really nothing else he can say. It’s usually a pretty damn good memory, but now? He’s embarrassed, and this is not a conversation he wants to be having.
“Everyone kept teasing me about it all day, and I had to keep defending you guys until I just couldn’t take it anymore,” she sobs. “Daddy, why would you say that on TV? Why would you do that?”
“It’s so disgusting! Did you even think about me at all?”
Honestly, before now, it had never occurred to him how his children (or their peers, for that matter) might react to seeing or hearing about that day.
“It was hard to imagine you being twelve years old back then, Cee,” he answers awkwardly. “I guess I didn’t think that—“
“I don’t care! Today was the worst day of school I have ever had, and you ruined junior high for me!”
The latter is an exaggeration, for sure, but he still feels awful.
Upon arriving home, Cece throws her backpack to the ground just inside the entryway, rushes past her mother, and heads straight up to her bedroom where she slams the door.
Moments later, Jim emerges through the front door looking startled and a little bit guilty, and Pam is immediately curious as to what went on during the ride home.
He meets her eyes and shakes his head as he sets his keys down on the kitchen counter.
“Out back with the dog. Why? Jim, what—?“
“Remember that one Valentine’s Day where we had too much to drink at lunch and then ended up having sex at work?”
She smirks. “Do you mean the day that we probably made Philip?”
His eyes widen as he realizes that, one day, those mean kids at school might use that as even more ammunition.
“Oh shit,” he mumbles, thinking out loud. “They’re going to find out about that one, too.”
“Nothing. It’s just that some of the older kids at Cece’s school must have seen that episode of the documentary, and—”
“Yeah,” he confirms. “So now everyone is making fun of her, and she blames me because I’m the one who made the comment to the camera about sex in the shower.”
“Cece? Can I come in?”
She knocks on her daughter’s closed bedroom door and gets a muffled, “Whatever,” in response. Taking that as permission to enter, Pam walks in to find Cece, in her new first-day-of-school outfit, curled up and sniffling into the turquoise comforter on her twin bed.
It breaks her heart.
Cece has almost always been good about the fact that her parents were on a mildly successful documentary-turned-comedy series, shrugging it off most of the time and answering curious questions as necessary. The show started airing when she was just a toddler, finished its run when she was in third grade, and though she has had a very normal childhood, she really hasn’t known any life other than what it’s like to be the daughter of parents who fell in love on television and a child who was on camera a handful of times from birth to age two. Over the years, it has caused a few problems and some teasing, but until now, nothing has affected her this deeply.
“I’m sorry,” Pam murmurs, curling up next to Cece who is facing away from her. She remembers her own preteen years and knows from experience that kids that age can be relentless and horrible. “Sweetie, I can’t even imagine how—“
“You don’t even know. People kept making jokes about you guys, and it was so embarrassing,” Cece whimpers. “Why did you guys do that?”
“And why did Daddy have to say that thing about the shower?”
“Hey, if it makes you feel any better, I wasn’t happy when he said it back then either,” she answers, recalling the way she felt when her husband revealed that very private tidbit during their joint talking head. “But he was just trying to be funny, Cece. You know your dad likes to joke around. That’s just what he does.”
“Well it wasn’t funny at all.”
“It was a long time ago,” she reasons. “He feels really bad.”
“I don’t care. He should. Everyone at school knows about it, and it’s just so weird and gross and embarrassing.”
“Cece, everyone’s parents—”
“Please don’t finish that sentence,” her daughter begs. “Mom, you didn’t hear the things they were saying. I don’t want to go to school tomorrow.”
“I know,” she sympathizes, kissing the crown of her head. “You know what, though? Remember when you were in second grade and some of the big kids saw the episode with your christening?”
“They called me Pee-Pee Halpert the next day ‘cause I peed all over my christening dress.”
Pam almost laughs at the memory of Jim walking back into the church toting a blue t-shirt-clad baby Cece. At the time, she was horrified, but in hindsight, it’s one of her favorite memories of her oldest daughter’s infancy and of her husband’s early days of parenthood.
“Yes, but then the weekend came, and by Monday, you were just Cece again,” she reminds her gently. “Look, I know it doesn’t feel like it right now, but this whole thing is going to end up just like that.”
Cece considers this possibility for a moment before turning over to face her mother. “What if it doesn’t?” She asks tearfully. “This was way worse than that was.”
“Then we’ll figure something out, okay? I don’t want anyone picking on my girl,” Pam assures her before pushing herself to a sitting position and holding out her arms. “Now, come ‘ere.”
Cece reveals a watery smile and moves into her mother’s embrace. Pam hugs her tightly, and it’s suddenly bittersweet—they’re almost the same height now. It’s not like it was years ago where she could easily pick her up and cradle her. Cecelia is still her baby, though, and she just wants to comfort her in any way she can.
They sit quietly like this for a few minutes before Cece pulls away and breaks the silence.
“The next time that me and Philip come home from spending a Saturday with Grandma or Aunt Penny, please don’t say that you and Dad went for a walk while we were gone, okay? Because I know what that means now.”