Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
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Happy Here for a Minute

Dani is smoking ditchweed out of an oxygen-browned Red Delicious apple in the alley behind her father’s house. She’s never been a pretty girl, still isn’t. She sits folded into a yoga pose just to prove to herself that she can bend that way. Butt on the sick-yellow grass, knees jutting out over the gravel. Something’s coming, she knows. She can feel it in her chakras.

The pose is called Siddhasana, or “the perfect pose.” Place your left foot on the spot between the sex organ and the rectum: that’s exactly how the woman on YouTube explained it. Perfect, Dani thinks, her heel digging into her perineum. Hair the color of a cigarette filter: that’s how a perfect-faced boy once described Dani. She takes a long drag off the dirty apple, even though it’s broad daylight. Dani does not believe in skulking around under the cover of darkness.

“You’ve got legs for days,” her great aunt used to tell her—usually a compliment, but not the way she delivered it to Dani. Dani has come to understand that she’s too tall and torso-less. Her face is angular, especially for a seventeen-year-old. It’s as if her skin has to struggle to hold too many sharp bones beneath it, she sometimes thinks on the rare days she studies herself in the mirror for long enough to apply just a touch of makeup. She doesn’t imagine she’ll suddenly become one tomorrow—a pretty girl—but it was something she used to consider as a possibility. Miraculous and unlikely maybe, but a possibility.

A midnight blue SUV noses in and crunches gravel at the end of the alley, as if to clear its throat, its snarly grille ready to say something. A vehicle she’s never seen before.

She grasps her right foot, tucks it more firmly in between her calf and her thigh, realigns her spine. Nobody other than her father drives down the alley.

This pose is supposed to deal with the nervous system. She’s not nervous, though it seems to her that she should be. It’s a pose meant to redirect sexual energy. As if she could just gather it up in her calloused foot and aim it out at the world through her toes. Dani has not been able to harness or locate any of her sexual energy. But she does seem to have something to redirect. If not energy or beauty, certainly something. A magnetic or bewildering or mischievous aura about her that makes men look a second time. A third time. Not boys. They only ever need to look once—if at all—to make up their minds about whatever it is. But men, Dani has found, are a little more complicated.

This SUV has tinted windows, another red flag. Another warning sign carefully positioned in front of Dani’s crooked nose—one more flaw she’d love to erase—by the world or a higher power, though she can sense already that she will ignore this one too. She concentrates on seeming not to notice the approaching vehicle. She slides her index finger through the gash in the knee of her black jeans. She worries the split, though she knows not to. She watches her own hand find the weak point in the fabric and follow it. The pink of her skin blooms larger and larger beneath the gap as it expands. She keeps at it, knowing she’s making things worse. It can be enjoyable, Dani has learned—making things worse.

The SUV is right in front of her now, her exhaled pot smoke hitting the runner and curling up along the blue paint like fog. The power windows slide down in a slick motion, and when she finally looks up she can see inside the cab. The driver is a man of about her father’s age. He’s clean-shaven except for a small rectangle of black hair underneath his bottom lip. Ray-Ban wraparound shades sit on top of his head, protecting nothing from the sun. 

“Apple a day,” he says to her, straight-faced.

Dani, still in her perfect pose, holds up the improvised pipe, proud of her handiwork. “They say I should be getting three to five servings.”

He smiles at her and laughs once.

This is all it takes for Dani to remember that she is witty. It’s a good quality, she thinks, though so few people seem to respond to it.

“You’re a good girl,” the man says, and Dani wonders if this is true. “Sounds like you take care of yourself. You respect the food pyramid. Follow directions.”

Dani doesn’t have anything to say to this, but that doesn’t stop her. “What else am I?” she asks. “Tell me what kind of a girl I am.”

She’s smoked a little too much. Most days she packs the wrong amount into the bowl. She lights up too little or overdoes it. She can’t seem to find the sweet spot. “Am I a bad girl? Am I a pretty girl? A dumb girl?”

“You’re funny,” he says as the window starts to slide up noiselessly. “Maybe I’ll see you around, funny girl.”


Dani heads inside the house, leaving the apple out for the trash raccoons that will make their rounds later that night. Most people would call the cops on the guy, she thinks. But all she saw in his eyes was boredom, not violence. This is something she can relate to a bit: wandering aimlessly, saying strange things to strangers because you’re lonely.

Dani should be more cautious, but it makes her sad not to be trusting. Though people keep proving to her that they don’t always deserve her trust, she’d rather believe better of them, of anyone. Trust is curious, she often thinks. We don’t always know why we give it.

She was four years old when she was taken. Not taken, exactly; she hopped in. One of her pigtails had fallen out on the playground. She’d been stationed at one of those kiddie steering wheels screwed to a square of plastic, manning an imaginary ship, when she’d felt it slip loose.

She’d left her post and sat down on a splintery bench to regroup. She’d been adjusting her scrunchie when a man walked by pushing an empty double stroller. He stopped and watched Dani struggle with the pigtail, frustrated. Her hair wouldn’t stay in place. He reached over the bench and stopped her wrist between a thumb and a middle finger.

“Allow me,” he said, as if insisting on paying for a small treat. “Let me try, sweetie.”He fixed her hair, picture of the perfect father, and Dani beamed up at him. Her real father was fighting with her real mother behind the weeping willow tree next to the merry-go-round.

The man didn’t offer her a hard candy or claim to be her uncle. He had no need to lie. There was no promise that they’d go somewhere fantastic, no mention of mint chocolate chip ice cream. The man just motioned to the stroller and said, “Go ahead, sweetie, and we’ll take a ride.” And Dani—already prone, at four years old, to blindly follow impulses she’d never be able to explain—clambered up and settled in.

There was a manhunt. Dani was the lead story on the news. The whole town banded together to panic, four thousand people fearing the worst in unison. She was missing for one entire night and no more. Almost exactly twenty-four hours later, Dani reappeared on another bench in another park across town, almost as if she’d never gone anywhere at all. As if the community had just misplaced her for a few moments. Though many other people were traumatized by the events, Dani was apparently unharmed and unfazed. There she was, sitting placidly on the bench, kicking her legs and twirling her hair around and around her index finger, waiting for someone to come.


Dani pauses on the stoop, wipes her feet on the bristly welcome mat, and turns to face the SUV as it leaves the alley. She listens for the sound of the engine to get softer, something to prove the man is driving away. Inside, she finds Brady asleep on the couch in an awkward jumble, legs sticking over the end. Her little brother is small, but his eyelashes must be a quarter of an inch longer than hers. He has the opposite problem as Dani: he is a bit too beautiful. Not handsome, but beautiful. These are very different, it turns out. Brady’s cheeks flush at the slightest provocation, and his face has a natural tendency to look as if he’s wearing makeup. He looks even more perfect when asleep than when he’s awake. Dani gently kicks his dangling leg in order to break the spell. He blinks and looks up at her, rolls away, grunts, rolls back.

“I’m asleep,” he says.

“Are not,” Dani counters. Brady keeps her young. At eight, he is much smarter and more mature than his age, but he still can’t resist an occasional nonsensical, childish argument. Whenever Dani misses being a child, she likes to mess with Brady this way.

“I am. I’m talking in my sleep,” Brady says. “I’m having a nightmare that you came inside and woke me up.”

“You’re a nightmare I’ve been having for the past eight years,” Dani says. “Listen, we’re heading to Mom’s. Get ready to go.”

Their mother’s house is exactly one block away, because their parents figured that this arrangement would make for the most convenient divorce possible. They’d hired some Atlas movers and the whole family had stood together watching them load half of the Victorian furniture, the whole piano, and none of the dishes into the van to be driven about 350 feet down the road. Hardly anybody had an intact family anymore; because the broken pieces of theirs were set down in general proximity to one another, Dani imagines her parents must have hoped their children would be counted as fortunate.

Dani and Brady’s location at any given moment is governed by Dani’s whims, rather than by any system of complicated custody agreements. Most days after school they go to their father’s house because he has pudding cups and salsa con queso, which trumps their mother’s celery stalks and soy milk. But soon enough they get bored, or Dani gets restless, and she takes them to their mother’s. She knows their mother won’t be home either, but it’s a change of scenery. They are double-latchkey kids.

Which suits Dani just fine. When their father is around, he tries too hard. Especially in front of their mother. During a two-parent dinner—that rare bird—her father never fails to make a complex and humorless joke that relies on a cultural reference from the seventies.

Dani can envision each of these dinners before it happens, as accurately as if she’s already sat through it. The next one is scheduled for the following Tuesday, and assuming everyone shows up, she knows what lies in wait. A soupy Hamburger Helper. Overwashed, ratty napkins folded into pyramids, so as to futilely suggest an expensive French restaurant. A joke from her father to start things off, followed by an overexplanation. “Now, you know what that pertains to, right?” he’ll say. And then he’ll chew his mustache and lecture on the Attica prison riots or some such thing, and do the chuckling for everyone. Dani’s mother will gaze at the ceiling and purse her lips in frustration, then tell the children that it’s not their duty to laugh at anything they don’t find amusing. Their father will clap them each on the back with a cupped palm, as if they were all choking on water gone down the wrong pipe—a gesture miscalculated to emphasize the hilarity.

Dani often wishes he would just take them miniature golfing and buy them cotton candy like a normal divorced parent. But he’s not normal, and Dani doesn’t ever voice her desires. She believes her father is more likely to do what she asks of him if she never actually asks it out loud. He’s a father who hopes to make his kids happy, but he doesn’t like to do it in the ways they would choose. He likes to know what’s best.

Brady is taking forever, giving Dani too much time to be lost in thought, which she dislikes. Brady seems to love the sensation—he’s an expert daydreamer—but Dani doesn’t understand this. Being lost in thought means you don’t know where you are, means you don’t know how to get out of that place. Sometimes she can imagine a lovely mind-destination: a campfire and a crisp breeze and a clearing in the woods. But unless she’s smoked that perfect amount, she doesn’t quite know how to arrive there. When her mind roams, she finds herself living inside a bubble of things she wants and can’t have, or had but never wanted.

This is why she’s taken up yoga, why she meditates, which is different than thinking. Which is, in fact, the absence of thinking as long as you do it right. The woman on the YouTube video said that avoiding a thought—a sexual urge, for example—is like holding a cork down under water against its will. If you let up for a second it rockets back to the surface.

Pacing the living room, Dani snacks on an individually wrapped plastic-tasting cake in the shape of a Christmas tree. They come two to a pack, but she decides to also eat the one she’d meant for Brady.

Dani and Brady’s father, a dentist, fawns obsessively over his children’s teeth. He feels strongly about their oral hygiene, but not strongly enough to do away with the junk food that he craves. “You must remain vigilant,” he sometimes says, peering into their mouths to ensure all is in order, just before popping another Milk Dud into his own. He spends nights at the casino, sucking down bottomless Shirley Temples while he loses at Texas Hold’em slowly and professionally. The grenadine satisfies his sweet tooth. He’s not much for ginger ale, but it’s better than beer, and he has to drink something—he’d never dream of missing out on a complimentary item.

Dani, losing patience, enters Brady’s room now and puts his shoes on for him the way she used to do when he was little. She flips him backwards onto the bed and jams the sneakers onto his feet.

“Hey! I was getting there in my own time.”

This is a phrase he’s stolen from their mother. It’s what she says when they ask her for something that she once promised and will never deliver. In regards to the puppy her kids don’t have, or the world history homework she’s forgotten to help with, or the birthday party that should have happened a week ago, their mother says: “I didn’t forget, lovelies. I’m getting there, just in my own time.”

This is the first adult phrase that Dani can remember identifying as being basically true in spirit, but nonetheless utter bullshit. When her mother trots out this standard line, her teeth are, almost without exception, the shade of whatever merlot is on sale that week at the corner gas station. The stained mouth reminds Dani of a time when her father wouldn’t have abided that—would have had some influence, would have led his wife to the bathroom to oversee whitening and mouthwash gargling. Now, her mother drinks instead of gambling because her father gambles instead of drinking; it’s a division of labor of sorts.

On his bed, Brady is kicking and thrashing in resistance even though the shoes are already on him.

“I don’t have time to wait around for your own time,” Dani says. “I need out of this house.”

“Good thing we have two then,” Brady says.

“Yeah, good thing,” Dani mimics. “We’ll just try the other one. Good thing.”


They spend the afternoon at their mother’s house and never see her. Dani sneaks away to smoke a little more weed in the basement while Brady is distracted with a fighter plane video game. She checks her cell phone, but neither parent has called. If their father’s house is a little sloppy, their mother’s house is too tidy. Dani hates looking at the lace doilies on every single table. Sometimes she gets a little thrill out of setting a Coke bottle directly on polished wood, knowing it would make her mother’s eyelids twitch if she were there to witness the offense. Dani wanders the multipurpose room, frowning at the generic Thomas Kinkade prints her mother finds so precious, then heads back up to look in on Brady.

He’s sitting rigidly on the couch, but really he is deep inside the television—his own happy meditation—so Dani knows she can get close to him now without the usual objection. She tosses one long leg over the back of the chenille sectional, then the other. She perches herself on the back of it, Brady’s shoulders now pinched securely between her kneecaps. And they sit this way for several minutes, no noise but the whine of the virtual engine, until Brady crashes carelessly into a bridge, killing himself and his copilot in a fantastic blaze.

“Nice work, Ace,” Dani says.

“Well, sometimes that’s just as much fun,” Brady whines, wiggling out from between her legs. “You can ignore the mission, just zoom around and smash into stuff.”

After a short debate, they decide they’d prefer to take another walk and sleep at their father’s. They’d like to be there if he comes home happy, having won big money. Just in case.


It’s dark now, and the full moon is bright enough to light the neighborhood, even though there are no streetlights. The neighbors’ lawns are damp and filled with shadows. Nothing ever stirs after sundown. Dani is still a little stoned as they head outside, but she is careful. Even though there’s only one quiet street to cross, she holds Brady’s hand, which he hates.

She used to dream about hand-holding. Dani has never been on a date, or slow danced in a gymnasium, or had a root beer bought for her by a boy her age. Instead of sex dreams, Dani sometimes used to have erotic fantasies in which she sat next to Peter Reston in the bleachers at a high school wrestling match and he picked up her hand and just stroked it with his index finger. Dani would wake up from these feeling the way she imagined it would feel to have been dry humping at a party for popular kids: flattering and confusing, dirty and wonderful.

She’s lost in her thoughts—the cork bobbing at the surface—when she raises her eyes and sees the SUV. She and Brady are halfway between their two home bases. Within easy running distance. She could get them to either house before the man could get out of the car, she thinks. But the thought to run is only instinctual. In actuality, Dani is not scared at all. She’s intrigued. She wants to know where he’s going. So she asks.

“Hey,” she yells, and waits for him to roll his window down. “You again,” she says.

“Me again.”

“Where are you headed?”

Brady sits down cross-legged on the sidewalk now, bored and lonely since nobody’s talking to him.

“The diner down there on the corner, for a nighttime snack,” the man answers. “Are you hitchhiking?”

“Definitely not,” Dani says. “That’s very dangerous. We’ll meet you there, though.” She is hungry. Their mother never has anything much to eat at her house. They’ll be in public, she thinks. He has kind eyes. He likes Dani. There’s something about her that is likable, and this guy likes it, as he should. Every person you don’t know isn’t always out to murder you, she tells herself.

“We’re getting some pancakes,” she tells Brady.


By the time they walk in, the man is already seated in a corner booth with a plastic glass of water. Dani sits against the wall, diagonally from him, and tucks her legs up underneath her. Brady slides in on her left and immediately sets to work eating three of the packages of jellies—raspberry, strawberry, raspberry—one after the other, slurping them down like oysters out of their shells. Brady must know the man will have nothing to say against it. He will not tell Brady that it’s too much sugar. The man has nothing invested in preserving Brady’s teeth or appetite.

The waitress comes close, looks their direction and narrows her eyes. She adjusts her magnetic name tag that says she’s Bobbi, then glances away.

Dani watches Brady. He’s young enough to enjoy weirdness for weirdness’s sake. He can be happy they’re at a pancake place without having to ask too many questions. He can sit across from a stranger and gorge and find it more exciting than scary. Grandparents gone before he met them, he’s never had anyone really spoil him. Dani should probably be too old for this sort of thrill, but maybe she’s not. Sometimes she’s older than she is, sometimes much younger. What a colossal joke, she thinks: this burden to bear of acting your age.

They order pancakes and eggs all around. Chocolate milk for Brady.

“You look permanently sad,” the man says to Dani. “Cheer up. Have a root beer float.”

Brady rips the top off a packet of pepper, dumps it all out on the table, and drags his finger through the pile. Dani begins to stop him, but decides to let him be.

“What happened to you?” the man says, asking what people ask when they think there’s something so unconventional about you that it must have been caused. It’s what her therapist has been driving at for three years, always a version of the same old spiel: sit down on the couch, let’s talk about anything you want to talk about, let’s make you the queen for the day, let’s see you be boss of things for a change.

But then he asks her to explain it to him all over again: dig deep into that day, Dani, and think about what it was like all those years ago, just tell me your story. Her parents aren’t paying for her to work things out for herself in her own time, they’re paying for quick answers. They are paying for the resolution to the mystery of the missing four-year-old.

She usually cracks her knuckles, then, and makes eye contact with him, tries to wait it out. “It’s in there somewhere, Dani,” he says. “You must know what he did. What happened that night? What happened? What happened to you?”

The truth that Dani can’t talk about is not so sinister as people insist on thinking. It’s this: nothing was done to her that she minded terribly much. The man who took her didn’t take her pants off, or even touch her, other than to carry her gently from one place to the next. It’s not that she doesn’t remember, it’s that she refuses to give it up. Won’t talk about it, she thinks. Not can’t. Dani loves the sound and sex of the word won’t. The power of refusal, or of having something to refuse. As she is now, Dani inspires romantic interest, or even platonic intrigue, in next to nobody. Yet everyone is so greedy for her private history. They want to hear the dirt and gasp and then go away.

That day and night are obscured by a wet mist and yet simultaneously remembered quite clearly. It’s like a favorite cartoon from childhood taped from television onto VHS, or a love scene shot through gauze.

He put her into a car seat and drove her a few minutes from the park to an old house with lots of skylights. The sunlight drew simple patterns on the hardwood floors: shifting rectangles and bars of yellow on polished brown. She’d been terrified, of course, at first. She remembers crying, first silently and then out loud. He’d let her cry.

But then there was a golden retriever puppy the color of her mother’s hair. She was never told its name. The puppy put a paw in her lap and licked her eye. This calmed her some.

The man played old Felix the Cat cartoons for her on a black and white television and brought her watered-down apple juice until she couldn’t drink anymore. The man spoke often, and only softly. He addressed both Dani and the puppy in soothing tones, as if there were someone else sleeping in the room whom he didn’t wish to wake. Nobody had ever spoken so softly in the history of Dani’s life; she had not known it was possible.

He put Dani to sleep in a room of her own, tucked her into an adult-sized bed under three layers of blankets, and left her alone. She drifted off into a dream within a dream, smiling. In the morning, Dani wandered out and found the man sitting on the carpet, wrapped in a blanket. He was wearing the same clothes from the day before and had a stack of notebooks next to him, torn pages spread out around him in a fan. She wanted to color on one of them, but he snatched it from her hand and threw it at the television. Then he made them pancakes. He sang a song as he mixed the batter, but Dani no longer has any idea what the tune was.

He drove her back to the park and set her on the bench like a package awaiting pickup. She wasn’t ready to go yet, Dani remembers telling him. She had not gotten the chance to give the puppy a final hug. The man said, “Goodbye sweetie. I’m sorry.” He hustled off with his head down low.

Dani won’t explain to people what happened because she is sure they won’t be able to accept that it was frightening and bizarre, but ultimately beautiful. Won’t accept that she has wondered about that man and his beautiful house and that puppy for her whole life. Everyone is too busy looking for the disgusting. Why do we think that you must be related by blood to someone in order to share something with them, she wonders? Why do we think our families are beyond suspicion? How many times now has she asked her mother for a puppy?

She was only scared for a few minutes, and the rest of that day was like a vacation. She will never forget it. She will never blame him, and she will never trust him completely, either, and she will never know what he wanted. Will she ever be more at peace than she was that night? It hasn’t happened yet.

The food has arrived. They must have been there longer than Dani realized.

If only all the other scenes of her life could have that same protective filter, she thinks: vaseline smeared on a camera lens.

“What happened to me?” She repeats the man’s question from before. Then she says it again, even louder, while oversalting everything, dumping it down like miraculous August snow. Brady asks the room if he can order some chocolate sauce to go on his scrambled eggs, and who is going to tell him no? The last customers are struggling out the door, fat and sated, too big for their light summer jackets. Stragglers reluctant to find whatever is or isn’t waiting for them back home.

“Nothing’s ever happened to me, Sunglasses.” She calls him Sunglasses because he’s wearing them still, in a lamplit diner, midevening, and who cares what his name is, really? “I’ve been available for the world. I’m a waiter. Just waiting.” This is and isn’t true, she realizes. Dani doesn’t believe in God, but she believes even less in coincidence. She wants events to take place in her life as soon as possible, but can imagine there must be good reasons they haven’t yet. She doesn’t feel distracted by pity, doesn’t believe that it’s so, so unfair she’s never made out with someone, never been grubbily groped in a station wagon by another lonely stoner. Maybe it hasn’t happened yet because nobody has been good enough. Or she hasn’t yet been good enough for anybody.

And her parents? Maybe they weren’t the right people to have her and Brady. They have other concerns, other fish to fry. Dani’s willing to take some blame, for being difficult to talk to and occasionally hurtful. Is anyone else? Maybe, she thinks, if she can find the first person who will kiss her nicely, he can explain why all the other boys wouldn’t. And so she’ll learn, make some necessary corrections. Yes, she has been waiting for some change, some action. For a twist.

Sunglasses opens his mouth—Dani can see the spongy pancake sitting on his tongue like a communion wafer—as if to respond to Dani, but appears to think better of it. He does not make a joke. He does not make a joke out of her.

They sit in long, comfortable silences, even Brady happy to chew quietly, for the most part.

But Brady can endure the lack of noise only for as long as he has food to occupy him. Now he has wolfed everything down and he makes a steeple out of his sticky hands and sets them on top of the strings of syrup remaining on his plate. “And now let us pray,” he says, as if the man of the house, putting on a grand display. He’s unconcerned that all but crumbs have been eaten and it’s too late for a blessing. “Our father, who art in heaven, hollow be thy name.”

“His kingdom come,” Sunglasses says.

“HIS WILL BE DUMB,” Brady bellows at the top of his lungs. Dani and Sunglasses laugh at Brady with no meanness, but then he seems to tire of the attention and forget what the joke was. He looks on the verge of tears, so they quickly stop. Just like a family.

The waitress turns the open sign off with a buzz that leaves everything after it sounding impossibly loud. Dani knows it’s possible she and Brady might be in some kind of danger, but she’s willing to bet that they’re not.

“What do you want?” Dani asks Sunglasses. It’s the first time she’s really stopped to consider this. Why might he want to eat breakfast for dinner with children he doesn’t know? He seems to be thinking about her question intently.

“I want an orange juice,” he says.

“I want a plate of bacon with whipped cream on top,” says Brady. “In the shape of a smiley face, damnit!” He bangs his fork down on the table, rattling saucers against the syrup boats.

“I want a new nose,” says Dani.

“They can do that now, you know,” Sunglasses says.

“I want a castle,” Brady whispers, as if in awe that he’s managed to verbalize this private dream. 

“I want to go home,” Dani says.

“No, you don’t,” Sunglasses says, and he must have known he’d be right. His hand moves, hovers over her leg, obscured by the table. He brings the hand down to her knee, and he senses right where that frayed edge is. He slips his hand all the way inside the tear in her pants and it widens with a ripping sound as his fingers rest against her goose-pimpled skin. Dani prays Brady will always stay beautiful and someday nobody will think it’s a bad thing anymore. Nobody will say he looks like a girl, nobody will snarl the word “pretty.” She prays that Brady will forgive her for needing more love than he or their parents can give her.

Sunglasses offers to pick up the check, as if there was any other option, as if Dani and Brady might have treated him if not for his generosity. Dani will not be able to explain this to her father, should he care, or to her messed-up mother, or to her therapist in his Ikea swivel chair. She’s not going to sleep with Sunglasses, and then she is, and then she’s definitely not. It’s not why she’s here. None of this seems possible, but that’s been true of her life before. No regular girl, no real girl, would’ve followed this man here, and if she had, she’d never have brought her brother along.

But Dani did all that, and now they’re happy here for a minute, even if it doesn’t make any sense for them to be. It feels serene. Dani grasps Sunglasses’s hand firmly and removes it from her leg. He nods once and holds both hands up above the table, a surrender. Brady bats his long eyelashes once, twice, three times, which is his own secret way of asking Dani for dessert.    

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