Streetlight bonding

When a time change threw off his daughter's sleeping schedule, they made the most of the predawn world.

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    Skidmore/Old Town district of Portland, Ore., at night.
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It takes a toddler to point out the absurdity of time zones.

Clara was awake; no esoteric debate about time was going to change that. And my sister-in-law's apartment was too small and too still to hide a 2-year-old's exuberance in the wee hours of the morning.

As Clara started tugging on her mother's nightshirt, I looked out the window. The unfamiliar Portland, Ore., streets were ink-black and wet. The frozen ground we'd left in Maine seemed to have thawed overnight after we flew to the Pacific coast.

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Clara's mother was unresponsive, so Clara started singing a song. It was loud and wouldn't last long.

Normally, my wife shouldered the responsibility of parenting our daughter with such gusto that Clara had little desire to spend time away from her. Clara was smart enough to understand the return on investment of engaging with her parents; Frances was a great plaything and she had a boundless supply of milk. Why settle for anything less?

Only through persistence and sleight of hand would Clara accept an invitation to go out with Papa. I had to hit her up at the right time, with the right tone, and when her mother was not in the room. Anything less than perfect execution ended in tears.

Clara's singing grew shriller. Frances didn't move, but I could hear her sister-in-law shift from across the apartment. I looked outside again. The streets were quiet and open, big enough for a big voice.

"Clara, let's go find somewhere to get something to eat," I suggested, trying to keep my tone casual. Desperation never played well.

"OK."

I became a whirling dervish of clothes as I hustled Clara out the door. There could not be any room to experience buyer's remorse. We stumbled out into the dark, Clara wrapped in my coat, her feet bare.

We blinked among the houses and streetlights, neither of us knowing what to expect. It was quiet, save for a lone bird chirping tentatively in hope of morning and the distant shush-shush of cars. Our breaths puffed out before us. She looked up at me; now what?

Food had always been the basis for activity for Clara and me. Snacks at stores. Shopping at the supermarket. Making funky-shaped doughnuts in the kitchen as flour spilled onto the floor.

With no milk to offer, it seemed best to keep her mouth occupied. I pretended I knew where I was going and picked a direction to walk at random. Cities had 24-hour diners, right? Inevitably, I would find one.

We were quiet as we walked, murmuring our observations of what we saw. This was our first big trip as a family away from the cozy Maine woods, and this world was new to us, filled with unfamiliar houses and sounds. Novelty, itself, was a novelty.

Eventually, we found a shopping plaza as the sky lightened to indigo. There was a Whole Foods Market, and I knocked on the door as Clara chewed on her fist. Coming from a state where the natural food section occupied a two-aisle ghetto at the supermarket, the rows upon rows of natural treats looked like an oasis in the early morning. A sleepy stock boy said the store would open in a few minutes. We loitered until the doors slid open.

We began with the samples of orange wedges and slowly grazed our way across the store, filling up on light fare, maybe something sweet from the bakery. When we had completed the tour, we started over again, my daughter thoughtfully chewing the whole time.

But as the store began to fill up with customers, Clara began to yawn more than chew. We made our way back to the house, dodging morning joggers. When the door opened, Clara reached for her mother and they fell back into bed.

The next night, Clara awoke again in the darkness and began to sing softly. I sighed audibly, but I was secretly glad.

"Do you want to go out?"

She said yes and bounced on her sleeping mother.

"Okay, let me get my pants."

That week, we saw little of Portland by day. But at night, Clara and I owned the sidewalks. By the end of the week, we had mapped out the best locales for a bagel and coffee at 5 in the morning and were on a first-name basis with the Whole Foods clerks. I may have been sleep deprived, but I subsisted on the excitement I felt when my daughter's hand gripped mine as we stepped out into the night. She and I had gotten to know Portland, and each other, by streetlight.

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