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I PRESSED the dial on my buzzing watch and groaned. It was barely 6 a.m. on a Saturday and the girls wouldn’t get up for bacon and pancakes for at least five hours. I had deliberately turned off my watch alarm for the weekend in the hopes of sleeping in, but I evidently failed to turn off all of my notifications. I was still getting used to the damn thing, a birthday gift from my daughters a month ago. They told me it was supposed to be idiot proof for old people. Hardee har har.

I lay in bed, half clinging to sleep, half trying to work out what kind of notification it was. It wasn’t a text or a security camera alert. It wasn’t a work-email. It vibrated again on my wrist. I prompted myself up on one elbow and reached behind me with my other hand for my reading glasses on the nightstand so that I could read the tiny watch face. The icon for the dating app the girls helped me write my profile for flashed briefly. A match and a message. At 6 a.m. on a Saturday?

David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar?

A loaded question masquerading as a cheesy pickup line. I studied the first text from Valerie. I clicked on her photo to see her profile: Mid-forties, so age appropriate. Coy smile. Brown hair to her shoulders, some skin damage on her cheeks. Two grown children. Stay-at-home mother. Divorced. A love for wineries, hiking and music, long walks on the beach. Relatively local but a native of Long Island – “You’ll hear it right away when we talk,” it said in her profile, which was more comprehensive than most. All pretty basic, but I had to give her points for using a more imaginative opening than the usual salutations.

I flashed back to seventh grade on the bus home from junior high school, when the driver blasted “Jump” every afternoon as we pulled out of the parking lot. I yawned, trying to shake off the sleep and literally my wrists free of the carpal tunnel that made my hands numb at night. I reached for my phone because there was no way my stiff fingers could tap out a reply on that watch face.

David Lee Roth. No one wore spandex better.

Good answer.

So do you like tight pants?

Well, that was forward. Or maybe she was just trying to flirt. But who flirts at 6 a.m. on a Saturday? Was she drunk? Bored? Desperate? Was it a red flag? Was she actually a he and he was trying to catfish? The girls had warned me about that. Or did she just have a terrific sense of humor, even if her sense of timing was suspect?

I sat up and swung my feet out of bed. Coffee. I needed coffee. But first, I needed to piss like a racehorse. I set the phone on the nightstand and limped on my plantar fasciitis into the bathroom to relieve myself. I couldn’t decide if I was in the mood for this today. For one thing, the girls would be up soon and there were only so many weekends left before Ashley departed for college. For another, my post-divorce online dating had been a minefield so far. There had been the Venezuelan immigrant who proposed marriage over dinner and the just-separated lady who, an hour into our first meeting, handed me a printout of the hotel room she had booked that night. There had also been the tight twenty-something who turned out to be only interested in taking selfies and my wallet; she taught me I should only be dating women old enough to remember the Challenger explosion. There had been one brief relationship, but I broke it off when she started making noises about moving in with her son after two months.

I filled the coffee pot reservoir and scooped the grounds into the white filter. The girls often teased me about this old-school method, but I was too lazy and impatient to use a French Press and I couldn’t stomach the swill from the Keurig, which I got stuck with in the divorce. Maybe Ashley would like the Keurig in her dorm room next year? Mr. Coffee gurgled and the smell of nutty life essence soon overpowered the lingering odour from last night’s air fryer salmon. I decided to ignore her tight pants question in favour of one of my own, which doubled as a playful challenge.

You’re up early on a Saturday. Are you always an early riser?

I watched the app for signs that she would respond. Nothing. So I opened the fridge to check the egg situation. I would need at least four of them to make the pancakes and if I didn’t have enough, I’d have to make a pre-dawn run to the store. And if I ran to the store, I might as well get donuts and be a Saturday morning hero. It was so early I wondered if the newspaper had even been delivered – it was supposed to be by 7 a.m. on weekends. I walked to the front door and peered out the sidelights and saw it on the lip of the driveway, the street light reflecting off the bag it was in to protect it from the rain.

My watch buzzed again as I walked back to the kitchen to get my slides. The dating app. I grabbed my phone.

Did I wake you?

I considered how to respond. She had, of course, awakened me. But would a truthful response come across as rude?

My alarm was about to go off anyway. I have to get ready to feed the kids. It’s fine.

Sorry. How many kids?

I have two girls.

It’s your weekend?

No, they basically live with me full-time.

You have full custody?

Well, it’s 50-50 on paper. But they prefer to live with me.

Where’s their mom?

That was a tricky subject. I’d found that most women were accustomed to being the default parent and were surprised to find a dad playing that role. A few didn’t believe me. Some were impressed, but those usually struck me as too easily impressed in general. Some came across as a little threatened. I knew by now the “where’s their mom” question, which always inevitably came when I disclosed the details of my custody arrangement, was bait to see whether I would bash my ex.

 She lives about 10 miles away. You know how girls and mothers can be.

Do you mind if we talk on the phone? Texting is so impersonal.

A phone call already was a fast escalation. Another red flag? But she was also right. There had been more than one woman with whom the banter never moved past texting. I was pretty sure at least of those, the pretty big-breasted redhead who claimed to be a childless widow from a town an hour away who also claimed to love football and fishing, had been a catfishing attempt. Endless texting was stupid, even dangerous. Before I could answer, the phone buzzed. Her profile picture on my phone.


“Hello Cal, this is Valerie.” Vehlerie. Yep, the Long Island accent was strong with this one. At least she wasn’t some dude sitting in a call center overseas fishing for suckers.

“I see that.”

“Is it OK that I called?”

“Sure. Just let me pour my coffee.”

“How do you take it? Your coffee?”

“Black, hot, and bitter.”

“You’re supposed to say ‘like my women,’” Valerie deadpanned. “I’m happy you didn’t.”

I poured the coffee into an asymmetrical clay middle school art project Ashley had called a mug in sixth grade and took a seat on the couch. I grabbed the remote and on turned the TV, muting the sports channel so neither Valerie nor the girls could hear.

I liked Valerie so far. Direct. Witty. Van Halen fan. She came across as being different from all the other girls. Another checked box could seal the deal.

“Are you a coffee drinker?” I asked.

“Life fuel. So, tell me, how old are your girls?” Back to being interviewed.

“They’re 15 and 17.”

“And how long have you been divorced?” Another loaded question. And right to the point.

“About six months.”

“So, not even a year?” The playfulness in her tone subsided a bit.

“Well, we were separated for two years before that and didn’t sleep in the same bedroom for five years before that,” I said. I knew it sounded a little whiny, but it wasn’t the first time I’d been interrogated about how long I’d been broken up. Trying to date while separated had been a complete disaster. “You’re still married,” one woman had said. “Call me when you’re actually divorced,” said another. It had gotten easier after the ink dried on the court papers. Nonetheless, it was time I pivoted to safety.

“Did you ever see Van Halen in concert?”

“I wish. You?”

“No. I was thinking about going to see Guns ‘n’ Roses next summer, though.”

“Axl got fat.”

“Why do you think I want to see them? I just hope the arena has defibrillators.”

She laughed then, a sweet sound. I think I liked her, I just had a few more screening questions of my own.

“So, where did you go to college, Long Island?” This was an important question I had learned to ask after a couple of dates with women who only had high school diplomas. Those encounters had taught me that mismatched education levels typically led to stilted conversation and gaps in experiences, income potential and expectations about relationship roles.

“Smith College,” she said. Box checked. “You?”

“Michigan. I got my master’s at Northwestern.”

“So, a Midwest guy. What brought you to Virginia?”

“Work, of course.”

“And what do you do?” On the one hand, it was a perfectly normal get-to-know-you query. On the other, I knew it was an important filter for most women. Some understandably wanted to avoid dating deadbeats. Others were in search of a provider. And I knew that while I wasn’t exactly Mr. Moneybags, especially given the alimony and child support I was now paying, some might make certain assumptions based on my career. So I usually kept my response to the question vague, so as to manage expectations.

“I’m a lobbyist.”

“Lots of lobbyists in the DMV,” she said. “What firm? You don’t shill for guns or booze or anything like that?”

“No guns, no booze. Just the critically important causes of bankers. So, what about you? Do you work?”

“I think my profile says I stay at home. My kids are younger.”

“Even after your divorce?”

“What can I say? I got a generous settlement.” I wondered what that meant.

“How old are your kids? Do you have custody?”

“I have an 11-year-old son and a seven-year-old daughter.”

This gave me a little pause. I was used to dating women whose children were the same ages as mine or older. I wasn’t anxious to get entangled with someone still a decade or more from having an empty nest. Not that we couldn’t have some fun. Before I could ask a follow-up question, she lobbed another grenade.

“Why are you divorced?” More bait for ex-bashing.

“We grew apart. She cheated. She’d probably tell you I was emotional unavailable.” It was a practiced speech, as neutral as I could make it. I tried to keep it factual while also acknowledging my own role in the split, because I knew women often encountered men who thought they were blameless in their divorces.

“Is that why your girls live with you? Because of the cheating?”

“I don’t know how much they know. I never told them. It has more to do with normal daughters and mother conflicts than anything. I think they think I’m easier to live with.”

“So, you’re more permissive?”

“On the contrary.”

“You’re the disciplinarian?” This was starting to feel more like an interrogation from someone who didn’t yet have teens but had all the confidence in the world how she would parent them.

“I set boundaries and give them space. It’s now always easy. They’re good kids. Ash … my oldest is going to Brown in the fall.” I knew that statement conveyed a lot of information, not only about my parenting but also my finances. It also felt boastful and a little defensive. I needed to change the subject again.

“Why are you divorced?”

“Asshole cheated. That’s how I got a good settlement. Brown, eh? You must be doing something right.”

“Like I said, I set boundaries and give them space. So, what are you doing today?”

“My youngest has a soccer game later this morning. Yeah, I’m a soccer mom.”

Finally, an explanation for the early morning contact. I remembered the days of shuttling my younger daughters to sports fields on weekend mornings. I remembered standing around watching soccer or softball, making small talk with other parents, a cup of rapidly cooling coffee in my travel mug. Hearing Valerie now, I realized how much I missed it. Not the games so much as the car trips to and from. Now as teens, they rarely came out of their rooms. And since she got her license, Ashley was more like a roommate than a child, coming and going to school, friends’ houses, her part-time job. She could drive herself to sports practices now, although I still sat in the stands and cheered. Intellectually, I knew all these things were supposed to happen. But I still felt a little wistful.

“That sounds fun, actually,” I said. A moment of vulnerability. “I miss those days.”

She said nothing. I sipped my coffee and read the chyrons scrolling across the sports channel, trying to figure out who would be playing later. A toilet flushed upstairs — one of the girls was up. Although I suspected she’d probably go back to bed. A moment later I heard a door close. Yep. It was probably still a good couple of hours before pancakes and bacon.

“So what are you looking for?” Valerie finally popped the most loaded question of them all. The dating apps attracted all types, from those looking for casual hook-ups to those looking for marriage. Generally, I knew the men skewed in the direction of seeking casual encounters while the women were more relationship-minded. Navigating the delta was a dance of sorts.

“I like my life simple. I’m a one-woman at a time kind of guy,” I answered, truthfully. She was quiet.

“You’ve been divorced only six months? Isn’t it a little too soon to be dating?”

“Yes, six months. As I said, though, the marriage was dead for years before that. My girls actually help me set up my dating profile.” It felt strange making excuses. It felt strange feeling defensive. I was starting to feel annoyed.

“I don’t think you’re over your ex.”

I laughed. “Oh, I’m more than over my ex.”

“I’m not so sure.”

“You don’t know me.”

“You’re right. I don’t. But I know what men just six months out from divorce want.”

“Well, what are you looking for?”

“I want something long term,” she said. “Eventually, I’d like to be married again.”

“I’m open to that. Would you like to meet in person to see if there’s any there, there?” It felt like pleading. I regretted saying it.

“You’ve only been divorced six months.”


“So, you’re not over your ex.”

“Oh, I most certainly am. Besides, you contacted me,” I reminded her.

“I didn’t know you’d only been divorced for six months. You need to be divorced at least a year before you’re ready to date.”

“Did you hear that on TikTok somewhere?” I was getting exasperated now.

“It’s what my therapist says. Do you have a therapist? You should have one.”

“You know what? Enjoy the soccer game. I need to go. My kids will be up soon and I’m making pancakes and bacon.”

“Fine.” She hung up. I looked at my watch. It was 7:30, an entire relationship started and ended in less than an hour. I heard footsteps slowly descend the stairs.

“Who are you talking to so early, Dad? You woke me up,” Ashley said as she entered the kitchen, rubbing her eyes. “Is there breakfast?”


One year later
My watch buzzed. Katia elbowed my solar plexus. I was suddenly wide awake.

“Your phone,” she whispered. “It’s not even seven. Make it stop.” The phone on the nightstand vibrated again and my watch followed suit; I never did figure out how to turn off all of the notifications. I freed my arm from under Katia’s pillow and shook my numb hand awake. The dating app icon appeared on the watch face, which was confusing because I thought I had deleted the dating app two weeks after meeting Katia. I tried to decide whether to even open the message. Finally, curiosity got the better of me and found the app on my phone. It downloaded from the cloud and suddenly there was photograph of David Lee Roth clad in spandex doing splits in the air. Under it, there was a message.

It’s been a year. You still single? Wanna meet?

Valerie. I guess she decided I’d been divorced for at least a year. A quick internet search helped me discover that when I deleted the app, I failed to delete my account. Which would explain why the chat function was still active. Old people and technology; I should have asked my daughters for help.

I made a note to do that later. For now, took off the watch and turned off the phone. I turned back to Katia and slid my arm under her pillow. I reached across her chest with my other arm and brought my knees to her hamstrings, embracing her heat. I found the rhythm of her breathing, closed my eyes, and slept hard for another hour.


Image of Ryan Donmayer

Ryan Donmoyer is a writer living in Purcellville, Virginia. His journalism has been published in Bloomberg News, the International Herald Tribune, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. This is his first short story to be published since he submitted to a contest to the New Zealand Herald in 1986, when he was 15.

  1. Congrats on getting published. It’s a good one! True to life.

  2. Loved this story. Great portrayal of the father and his ventures in on-line meetings. Well written and well done. Cheers, C.

  3. I like the escalation of conflict in this story, and how the narrator only reveals to the reader what he’s ready to reveal to Valerie.

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