Next to the bed, in a box painted like a clock face, is a short history of our attempts to have a child. The folded pamphlets assist me in Understanding and Recording My Ovulation Cycle, the graphs chart my waking temperature in the spring of 1994, and the sonogram on facsimile paper shows the baby conceived and carried for two months. The sonogram could be a hurricane in a satellite picture. The border is marked with mysterious words like edge, gray, and smooth. The baby is the dark eye of the storm that whirled itself out 26 days later.
At the time, I thought I would conceive again in a matter of months, like my sister-in-law Jacki, my friend Ruth Ann, and everyone I knew who’d had miscarriages. The name itself is optimistic — miscarriage — as if my baby, already named Samuel Thompson and nicknamed S.T., had simply missed the chaise-and-four and would be sure to catch it tomorrow.
As much as I wanted to conceive another infant who would, in every particular, match my husband’s baby pictures, I was afraid of hospital gowns and the word cauterize, of carrying a baby and miscarrying one. Even before I had the miscarriage, I was afraid. My skin felt cold and unfamiliar, and I saw my pregnant self as I might see an actor in one of those films about body snatchers. I was inhabited by someone else who would grow large and then burst out. When this occurred at two months, I felt responsible. Perhaps the baby, small as he was, had left me in the same way that the Holy Ghost leaves the faithless.
But babies in the abstractness of desire are painless and perfect; and the one I can’t conceive, male or female, looks exactly like my husband at 12 months: straight, angry eyebrows, tanned cheeks, platinum hair that sticks straight up at the crown, eyes as gray as pewter. He wears his grandfather’s cotton baby clothes and sleeps on batiste. His head fits under my chin. I read him stories about Winnie the Pooh. He does not exist.
On a rainy, babyless day in October, I drive 40 miles to the All Women’s Expo in Del Mar and park under flags imprinted with the face of Mona Lisa, her mouth curved in that hidden-pregnancy smile. The convention hall is filled with women who dress the way I meant to dress when I grew up — high-heeled shoes in appropriate fall colors, professional lip liner. In jeans and damp loafers, I approach the Bal Jagat international adoption booth, where pictures of beaming children from China, Romania, India, and Peru make me feel I am standing in a book I read as a child, The Mummy Market.
In that book, the market was an imaginary hall where out-of-work mothers (the English “mummies” of the title) stood in booths making cakes or reading stories. The women pitched themselves to wandering children, who paused at each exhibit, listened to the spiel, sampled chocolate frosting, and picked a mother. As I recall, it was a moral tale about the perils of choosing your own mom, but the perils were not monetary. In pondering a $20,000 adoption, I fear I’m entering the baby market, a place where every photograph is a plea for (or a testament to) American love and money.
The photographs in the Del Mar convention booth are testaments — adopted orphans who wear floppy hats and pinafores, who smile as they touch piano keys or rocking horses. I think to myself, I want one, and then I’m ashamed for using that plaything phrase. But the pang of chosen babies is nothing to the pang of those who are still waiting. Orphanage photographs and videos are shown to parents before they make a final decision — hopeful little snaps taken in Bombay, Seoul, or Kaliningrad, and 60-second videos of babies in institutional cribs. Other faces fill the back pages of a black-and-white adoption magazine, where columns of “Waiting Children” resemble postcards of the missing. In those columns, thumbnail photos are paired with brief, frank descriptions like, Nail, four, is from Russia. He likes to draw, sculpt, and is active in school. Nail is an adorable boy with hepatitis B.
The children in these columns tend to be long out of infancy, and to read one page is to see need on an international scale. Luis, two, is from Colombia. He was abandoned by his birth mother following surgery at a hospital. He had received treatment for a dog bite that resulted in the total loss of his genitals. Then there is the boy named Anderson, who spent three years with a Brazilian family until they had a biological child and returned him to the court. And, under the heading “Last-Chance Children,” María Nancy, aged 15, and her 10-year-old Colombian brother José Elver look straight into the camera. Jose writes, “I know that one day not very far off in a corner of this world, someone is going to say, see Jose Elvér. We need you in our home. That day l am going to shout.”
It is the pictures of the waiting that make foreign adoption seem not a market but a cause.
Hemlata Momaya, founder of Bal Jagat (which means “children’s world” in Hindi), has been running her nonprofit adoption agency for 13 years. According to her résumé, she holds a B.A. with honors in philosophy and psychology from the University of Bombay and a master’s in social work from the same school. She has received prizes in India for her poetry and her articles promoting women’s rights. She was the director of the Mana Seva Sangh (Institution of Humanity) orphanage in Bombay from 1970 until 1972, the year she married and settled in the United States. In the fall of that year, she worked as a special-education instructor for mentally handicapped children and then started her own family. It was in 1983, while working as a pre-school director and raising two young children, that she obtained a state license to operate a nonprofit inter-country adoption agency.
Hemlata has black hair like a ’40s starlet, and her erect posture suggests, even in western clothes, the drape of a sari. She speaks with absolute conviction and a precise Hindi accent about Bal Jagat, which she runs out of her home in Chatsworth, a suburb north of Los Angeles. The agency receives about 20 inquiries each day and arranges an average of 60 foreign adoptions per year. Her son Larry, a college graduate, edits the monthly newsletter, and Hemlata writes some of the poems that are quoted on the Bal Jagat annual calendars, which feature studio photographs of recently adopted babies and toddlers. “I breathe, hear, listen, and see children,” Hemlata says. “My eyes are so full of children.”
According to Hemlata, the usual fees for a foreign adoption are $1200 for the home study (a series of home visits made by a certified social worker), $2000 for travel and paperwork, and from $9000 to $ 15,000 for the foreign liaison — a lawyer, social worker, or government official — who actually transfers the child from the orphanage or foster home to you. The smallest portion of the cost, then, goes to Hemlata’s agency, which employs 12 social workers. A foreign adoption can be accomplished in less than a year, and in the case of China, seven months. “It takes more time,” Hemlata says, laughing, “to make your own baby.”
Adoption magazines are filled with articles about the next problem: raising a Chinese, Korean, or Colombian child in an American Caucasian family. Parents and social workers offer tips in articles like “When Your Child Experiences Racism,” “Are White People Colorless?” “The Best Ages for Kids to Visit Their Birth Country,” and “The Benefits of Culture Camp.” Adoptive parents are taught how to prepare Korean food, celebrate Korean holidays, and purchase Asian Linnea dolls. Families seeking to incorporate a distant culture can buy ethnic stickers, Latin American Barbie, “legacy” dolls, and something called the Thunder Head Hair Care Video for Moms and Dads, which teaches African-American hair care techniques.
To the question of identity, Hemlata says, “Children do ask, ‘Where am I from?’ ” She believes parents usually prepare themselves for integration by feeling an affinity for the country of their child’s birth — by adopting, in a sense, a foreign culture as well. “If you are adopting a baby from China,” she says, “all of a sudden you are making Chinese things, you want to buy Chinese things, you make friends with Chinese people.” Although parents may embrace Chinese culture, she says, the fact remains that an adopted child isn’t growing up among other Chinese. Hemlata tells prospective parents, “Children are mean at school. How are you going to explain to your child why he was adopted?”
Hemlata believes that California is a very good place to raise a child from a race other than your own. “California is multi-ethnic,” she says. “If you are on the East Coast, or if you live among very redneck people, you have a problem. It’s not a problem here. This is the Wild West. Californians are liberal,” she says, citing the example of O.J. Simpson’s marriage (meaning, I assume, that the children are loved by both families, not that its ultimate end was a boost for interracial marriage).
Hemlata’s agency doesn’t arrange domestic interracial adoptions. “With international adoption,” Hemlata says, “you can be a parent without any fear” — the fear that your baby will be taken from you by the biological parents. She points out that in private adoptions, parents pay the expenses of a mother who may change her mind, who may say to you, after six months, “I decided I want my baby back.”
Foreign adoptions also benefit the countries where the babies are born, Hemlata says. “China is very happy [to place the children] because they used to kill them with poisoned rice water. Now the foreign money comes.” (In an attempt to slow the growth of its 1.2 billion population and raise per capita income to $800, the Chinese government has limited rural families to two children and urban families to one child since 1979. Although abandoning babies is illegal, some 150,000 infant girls are abandoned at train stations, police stations, and other public sites each year, and from 1991 to 1995, Americans adopted 3857 Chinese orphans — more than 2000 of them in 1995 alone.)
Hemlata believes the dowry system in India, which added great cost to her own mother’s marriage and which she says has become popular again in the last ten years, creates a murderous environment for female babies. “Each girl’s husband must be paid in cash and furniture,” she explains. “So when the woman is pregnant, the midwife is told to kill female babies right away and say the baby was born dead.” Americans have adopted an average of 500 Indian children each year since 1985.
IN DECEMBER I ATTEND a holiday party for those who have adopted or wish to adopt through Hemlata’s agency. It’s a sunny day too hot for coats, and the plastic tables float like white islands in the green backyard where Chinese, Peruvian, Indian, and Russian toddlers grip plastic slides, study each other, and play house. A long buffet table is crammed with vegetarian rice dishes, pasta and egg dishes, holiday cookies, and bowls of chips.
By 1:30, about 40 people are milling around wearing stick-on name tags. Even the children are tagged, and some of their names are followed by the name of a country, “Elya” over the word “Russia.” It’s an ordinary suburban potluck — all sunshine, grass, and plastic — but the guests are studying photographs of orphans in Staverspohl and Kaliningrad, quoting the price of disposable, leaky Russian diapers (80 cents for a bag of 40), and asking questions like, “My divorce decree is in another language. Does it have to be translated?”
At the first table, a woman named Cinda says she had so much trouble getting documents notarized for the adoption of her Russian daughter that she came back to America and became a mobile notary. Sitting at the table is an adoptive father named John, who explains that you have to get notarized letters from five friends attesting that you are “reasonable people.” John recommends having everyone over at once, and I envision invitations with big loopy script, Were having a notary party!
Cinda says she knew she was in Russia when, at the airport, she saw uniformed men holding machine guns and also when, under a full December moon, she took the night train from St. Petersburg to Moscow. “It was like Dr. Zhivago,” she says. “I stayed awake all night looking out at the countryside.”
Cinda was notified of permission to adopt the night before she needed to leave, but her husband couldn't leave on such short notice. She traveled with two other adopting couples, and the five of them were joined by a man who had just adopted a five-year-old girl. “She called him Papa, and when they took her to a room for a medical exam, she thought she was going back to Russia, and she began to cry. I’m going to America,' she said. She was carrying a Polaroid picture of her mother and dad.”
When a prospective parent named June asks how you arrange flights to Russia on such short notice, Cinda tells us about a man who makes these arrangements for adoptive parents all the time. His phone number, she says, is 1-800-7-MOSCOW, and he will send you the tickets by overnight mail.
Also at the table are two women discussing Chinese adoption. One is post-adoption, and the other, named Cashmere, is pre-adoption. The woman who has adopted one girl from China and another through a Catholic charity refuses to discuss her experience because countries that receive too much publicity usually close down their international adoptions. She wants to adopt another child from China this spring, and there has been, she says, a lot of news about Chinese adoptions lately.
(In the summer of 1995, a British documentary called The Dying Rooms showed babies tied to potty chairs and a starving baby girl left to die. In January of 1996, one month after the Bal Jagat party, a former orphanage worker from Shanghai testified in a 331-page Human Rights Watch report that orphanages select attractive babies for adoption and starve others. China denied these allegations, and as of April of 1996, China was still open for adoptions.)
Cashmere is discussing names. She wants to name her daughter after a friend, but “poor girl,” she says, “she’ll have a Japanese-Hawaiian-French name and she'll be Chinese.” So perhaps the girl's first name will be Anchee.
John and his wife Candie gave their adopted child a name from his native Russia. Blond Nikolai, who looks about three, plays on the grass near his blond older brother, who receives a lesson in Ping-Pong strategy from Candie. The older boy is not Russian — he is the biological son of Candie and John — but at this age they look amazingly alike.
Nikolai was chosen from a minute or so of videotape taken at the Staverspohl Orphanage. In the background of the tape, a physician read a report in Russian about Nikolai’s health. Since John doesn’t speak Russian, he found someone in San Diego to translate the report. Then John showed the video to a pediatrician, who compared the translated account of Nikolai’s ailments to his appearance. “What they said was wrong with him,” John says, “wasn’t.” What Nikolai did have was a condition informally called lazy eye, correctable with surgery.
Nikolai’s baby book is a photo album that begins with a wrinkled, very daunting itinerary: San Diego to New York to Helsinki to Moscow aboard Finnair, then three more hours via unheated Aeroflot to Staverspohl, where the ground is hard, the trees are bare, and the city is a blur of lavender smog, gray buildings, black wires, and white snow.
“This is the orphanage in Staverspohl,” John says. “It was a German military compound in 1938.”
I have, like everyone, read stories about orphans and abandoned children all my life. Orphans are ideal fictional characters — young and poor and full of longing. They are saved, like Oliver Twist, Moses, and Jane Eyre, or they are not saved, like Oliver’s friend Dick.' Fictional orphans tend to grow up, like Oedipus, and find their own flesh and blood. In most 19th-century novels, the reunion has a happier end. Oliver finds out that his benefactor is his grandfather; Jane Eyre’s uncle leaves her a large inheritance; Pip tends the wounds of the ugly convict who became his surrogate, clandestine father.
The Staverspohl orphanage is white with blue trim. The photograph was taken in wintry March, so the grounds are brown and cold. It has the melancholy beauty of icy, literary places. It is more interesting because I know it is Russian and that orphans live there.
As John turns the pages of the album, patiently explaining every aspect of the trip, I see the orphans themselves, their irises turned red by the camera, their faces pale and round. The children in this part of the orphanage are between two and three years old, and they’re seated at little tables, where they await a half-cup serving of porridge. According to the note John has slipped in the plastic sleeve of the album, the children consume one cup of porridge and four ounces of broth per day.
“The place was immaculate,” John says. “You could have eaten off the floors.”
There is a photograph of John holding Nikolai for the first time and a similar photograph of the first time he sat in his mother’s lap. Candie is seated on a couch, and in an account she wrote for the Bal Jagat agency, Candie says, “Nikolai was ever so small and delicate with porcelain white skin.
Marta, the head care-giver, pointed to me and said ‘mama.’ Nikolai looked up, said ‘mama’ and smiled.”
John tells me he carried $ 16,000 in cash when he and Candie went to Russia. At that time — March of 1994 — $16,000 was worth 27,712,000 rubles, and John and Candie spent their first night in Moscow in a hotel room where the lock was attached to the door with a flimsy-looking brad. “The door had been knocked open before,” John says, so he kept the money on his person at all times.
A humanitarian fee of $1000 went to the orphanage. With that money, the director told them, they would buy sheets.
“What does the Russian government do with the rest of the money?” I ask.
“Who knows?” John says.
Not everyone at the party has adopted infants or toddlers. At the far edge of the grass, two Chinese girls play with a beach ball. The oldest, Theresa, is 13. One slim arm ends in a nub. She has been in the United States for only a year. Theresa and her sister are learning English at a Chinese American school in Orange County while their mother Jan takes Chinese lessons. “I speak kindergarten Chinese,” Jan says.
The Tanners are middle-aged, practical, resourceful-looking people. You would never look at them and think, “Money.” They went all the way to China to adopt a 12-year-old girl, and they have driven here from Orange County because they like to attend events where the girls can meet other children born abroad. Wes Tanner compares today’s modest party to one they attended in Westwood, where nannies escorted children to the play area while adults socialized around a long, shallow pool.
When I say I thought today’s party might be like that — full of rich people — the adoptive mothers at the table laugh. “You just sacrifice,” Jan says. “You do what you have to do.”
ONE THING YOU HAVE to do is protect your children. For that reason, the rest of the last names are pseudonyms.
The Stones live near the ocean in a gated neighborhood where the air smells clean, the gate swings open for approved cars, and the houses look polite, as regular as shapes on a Christmas card. Against the sky, their sandy color has a pristine, graphic quality, as though the blue of the sky, like the trim on the garages, were a chosen, well-regulated thing.
I had met Jana, Michael, and their two children at the Bal Jagat party. Juliette is four and Graham is almost three. They have similar haircuts — straight, smooth, and short — but Graham has light brown hair like his mother, and Juliette has the black hair, and brown skin of Honduras, where she was born.
When I arrive, Juliette holds out a donut to me with her fingers before her mother can gently explain the practice of extending the plate. Juliette absorbs this idea and studies me. She lies down on the kitchen floor while her mother toasts some bagels; and when her father asks Juliette to tell me where she’s from, she says loudly, “Honduras!”
It’s three days before Christmas. A tree fills one corner of the small, practical living room. A magazine basket is loaded with back issues of OURS: the magazine of adoptive families, and the bookcase is topped with a small, faded Honduran flag.
Jana teaches special education, and Michael works for a game company. Michael is ironic and funny and gray-haired, born near Manchester, England, but an expatriate since the 1960s. Because he’s thin, wears glasses, and has an English accent, he seems bookish. Jana has pale-blue eyes, brown hair, and the round, thoughtful face of unconscious beauty. When she studies you, she has a concentrated look, but when she talks to her children, she has the calm, reasoning voice of a woman who disciplines with logic.
The Stones sought adoption after more than ten years of fertility problems and ectopic pregnancies. “We found out that we needed to do private adoption,” Jana says, “because my husband was older, and we wouldn’t qualify for a standard adoption.” Searching for advice about where to start, they went to see a psychologist in La Jolla who had written books about adoption.
“We spent $200 an hour,” Michael says, “and the solution — the part we remember — the number-one thing — was to go and make a little clipping and put it in the local Laundromats.”
“And advertise in other ways,” Jana says. “Send letters out.”
“There was all this talk,” Michael says, “and that was the bottom line. They had nothing to offer us. We were hoping there would be some kind of a network, some pro-life movement or something that was helping to connect mothers to parents, and that wasn’t the case. It was just sort of take your money and listen to your life history, and the bottom line of what they had to offer was very little.
“There was another group that was into making scrapbooks,” he says. “This was the scrapbook that you would present to the mother to convince her that you were the one to go with. This was — and probably still is — quite a big thing. You put together this scrapbook that shows your family, and the idea is that you will show this to the mother — ”
“And she will choose you,” Jana says.
“She will choose you because you have the better scrapbook. And again,” Michael says, laughing, “this is hundreds of dollars to find this out!”
Horrified and yet intrigued, already wondering what sort of book I could make about ourselves (Should we leave out pictures of our Doberman? Should we show the piano and the handmade quilts?), I ask if the Stones made a scrapbook.
“We started it,” Jana says, “but we didn’t progress very far.”
By the time the woman I’ll call Renee entered the picture, the Stones had completed a home study through the Bal Jagat agency. They were told to pick a country, and they chose Brazil. Their names went on a waiting list, where they were 11th in line, and Jana started listening to Portuguese-language tapes. “I think I had this idea that we’d go down to Brazil,” Michael says, laughing, “and I’d sit on Ipanema beach while everything came through.”
Six months passed without a referral, and then the Stones met Renee, the daughter of a friend and the head of an international adoption agency on the East Coast. She came to visit her parents in California, met the Stones, and told them she was currently arranging adoptions in Brazil. What could it hurt, the Stones decided, to sign up with a second agency?
Renee said she had no waiting list for Honduras and Bolivia, so the Stones, thinking that Honduras was a former British colony (it isn’t — British Honduras is now called Belize, sent 22 documents to the Honduran consulate, where they were authenticated” or stamped at the cost of $50 per document $ 1100. Renee then said she had six babies in Brazil, so the Stones authenticated the same 22 documents at the Brazilian consulate, this time at the bulk rate of $100. At this point, Brazil closed its adoption services.
(Latin American countries are frequently closed to adoptive parents because of something called the “baby-parts rumor.” I first heard the rumor from Michael, who’d been told the allegedly true story of a doctor who adopted a Central American baby to be an eye donor for his own child. The doctor was tried and convicted for the crime, and Latin American countries have periodically erupted in riots ever since. I found no record of such a trial, but I did find two articles tracing the rumor to the Novosti press agency in Moscow. The first article, published in 1988, reported that the State Department was combating the “latest disinformation campaign” of the Soviet press agency to plant news stories in which Americans and Israelis adopt Honduran and Guatemalan babies for organ transplants. In 1987 and 1988, the story was picked up by Pravda, Radio Moscow, and more than 50 Third World countries. The second article, published in London’s Daily Telegraph in October of 1991, notes that the stories have not died with the KGB. Like urban legends, “some of its fables have developed a life of their own. Their attraction is that they were aimed at people who wanted to believe them.”)
The Stones shifted their attention (and their documents) to the Dominican Republic, where they were at last assigned a child. “We had photos,” Jana says, “and for two months we were calling the foster mother and asking how the baby was, and [Renee] was saying any day now we’re going to be able to go down there.” The foster mother even changed the baby’s birth certificate to show the name Jana and Michael had chosen. But then the adoption fell through.
“Baby-parts rumors,” Jana explains. “There were riots in the country protesting the adoptions, so then the country closed all the adoptions down, and gave the babies back to their birth mothers whether they wanted them or not.”
When Renee called to report that there were some “problems” in the Dominican Republic, she mentioned a two-day-old baby in Honduras. A few days later, Renee called to say Jana should be ready to fly to Honduras in two days, and she needed to give the baby a name. Jana reflected on the list of names they’d been debating, blurted out, “Juliet,” and contacted Michael, who had just left town on business. Then Jana went shopping. “Right then and there I went to Target and dropped $500.” Renee’s agency sent two tickets to Honduras and pictures of Juliette (the Spanish spelling of the name). Then, when everything seemed settled, Renee informed them that the adoption would cost not $12,000, but $15,000.
“She threatened to take the baby away from us if we didn’t pay it,” Jana says, and we thought, “Well, we’ll pay it, and we’ll deal with it later.”
When Jana arrived in Honduras on June 19, she got another surprise. The $15,000 agency fee was supposed to provide services in Honduras while Jana awaited final adoption approval, which was supposed to take two months. But when Jana stepped off the plane, she stepped into the middle of a feud between Renee and her Honduran contacts. Much later, Jana would piece together the facts. Renee had hired the same Honduran lawyer to arrange Jana’s adoption and an adoption of her own. The lawyer completed Renee’s paperwork and asked for her fee of $5000, but Renee changed her mind and refused to pay. The women in Honduras sided either with the lawyer or the agency, and Jana, dependent on both, was left to make friends where she could. At this point, she spoke only first-year classroom Spanish, the sort of Spanish where you know how to say “pleased to meet you” but not “I’d be really grateful if you wouldn’t hold this against me.”
Juliette’s foster mother was supposed to be Jana’s guide. Instead, she came to the airport, handed Jana a 19-day-old baby, said abruptly, “You were supposed to be here yesterday,” and abandoned her. Things also seemed a little cold at the house where Jana was staying. Her hostess was the sister of the Honduran lawyer who’d been (as she saw it) cheated by Renee.
But she had Juliette at last. Michael arrived two days later, and he stayed for a week. They met with an English-speaking psychologist and social worker for two days, undergoing what Michael calls a “very thorough examination.” He and Jana described their childhoods and answered 500 written questions. The Stones later learned that their psychologist was considered tough. In an interview the day before, “she got this guy talking about how he felt about relationships, and he’d admitted that he had some extramarital relationships....Then [the psychologist] confronted the wife with this information. So I was impressed that they were really going for the throat here. If you did have something to hide, well, it would give you pause. I have no idea what happened to that couple.”
After a week, Michael went home, and Jana expected to stay for two months while the social workers and psychologists wrote their reports and the lawyer submitted the paperwork to the wife of the president of Honduras. Jana’s host worked at the Junta (the federal building), so Jana had a contact within the government who could give her daily reports.
“Each day,” Jana says, “the First Lady would go off to meetings or to lunch with the president of Nicaragua or dinner with the vice president of some other country, and every day I would say, ‘Well, did they sign it?’ and she’d say, ‘Not today, maybe tomorrow.’ ”
Meanwhile, another problem was developing. The American embassy in Honduras, believing that the Stones were still adopting a Dominican baby, photocopied the Stones’ documents and sent the originals to the Dominican Republic.
“Well, for some reason,” Michael says, “the Dominican Republic never returned the original papers to Honduras, and [the American embassy] would not accept their own copies as authentic papers for our adoption. It was absolutely crazy. We said, ‘You made the copies. It’s not like we even made the copies.’ They made them right there in their own office. But they had their procedures, so they had to have the original documents.”
Renee kept saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” but nothing was solved until Jana’s father called his congressman and explained the problem. The congressman called the embassy and said, “You will accept the papers.”
Finally, during Jana’s 16th week in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa (at the cost of $20 a day, a total of $2240 in living expenses), the first lady of Honduras signed Juliette’s adoption papers. Jana’s lawyer obtained the birth certificate and took it to court, where it was approved. The next day Jana and Juliette were scheduled to board the 10:00 a.m. flight home. Jana took Juliette and all her baggage to the embassy at 8:00 a.m., hoping the photocopies would be accepted. Otherwise, she and Juliette could not leave.
As Jana tells it, “I go to the desk, to the window, and she says, ‘Let me check your file.’ She goes to the back for a really long time. Shesays, ‘There’s a problem with this.’ And she goes back again, and I’m standing there waiting and wondering, because I know what the problem is. And she comes back and says, ‘We can accept your paperwork.’
“That’s when I broke down and started crying, ‘Oh my God. I’m really going home.’ ”
At this point, Juliette comes into the living room, and her father says, “Hello, pom-pom girl. Are you going to be a cheerleader?” Juliette gives the pom-poms a little shake, and we all sit down to look at pictures of Juliette when she was a baby living in Tegucigalpa.
“I did have one of the youngest babies,” Jana says, “and I have the agency to thank for that. I told them, I really want a young baby, and they were able to do that for me.”
“Mommy, there’s me,” Juliette says, putting a finger on her infant self.
“That’s you,” Jana says. “With your punk hairdo straight up on your head.”
Jana turns the pages, pointing to the perm she got from two transvestites, to the friend from La Leche League who taught her how to breast-feed Juliette, the priest who came to visit with Renee, the other adopted babies whose families still keep in touch with Jana and Michael. “I think it’s important to know other children who have a similar background,” Jana says. She plans to take Juliette to Honduras someday, and although Juliette has what Jana calls a real gringo accent, Juliette has a Mexican pre-school teacher and she’s learned to count in Spanish, a skill she demonstrates for me. Then she says, “Adíos.”
Later, when I express my concern about adopting a baby who will belong to a country where she is essentially a stranger, Michael laughs about his own expatriate life in America.
“My husband the alien,” Jana says.
What about Graham? I ask. Jana became pregnant with him soon after she arrived home with Juliette.
Jana says she was very concerned when she found out she was pregnant. First, she feared another ectopic pregnancy, and second, she wanted to be sure that both children would know they were equally loved.
“As time goes on,” she says, “things are working out okay. I try to talk to Juliette positively and briefly so she knows that she’s adopted, and I just say there are two different ways that children come into families. So she knows that she was born in Honduras, and she knows that Graham was born,” Jana says, giving the words her daughter’s emphasis, “in the United States of America. I don’t know if she understands all the ramifications of that. I’ve made a point of reading a lot of literature about adoption.”
“When I hear other people’s stories,” Michael says, “I feel we got off easy. I don’t want to be too hard on the agency. They would say, ‘Hey, it worked out, what are you complaining about?’ ”
Initially expecting to spend $9000, Jana and Michael now estimate they spent $25,000. After Jana returned from Honduras with Juliette, the agent who arranged their adoption had numerous health problems, including a heart attack. She told the Stones she was going to donate half of the $15,000 to the building of orphanages in Central America, where she had adopted two of her own children. Jana and Michael decided that since they had successfully adopted a healthy baby girl, they would accept a tax-deductible donation of $7500 rather than incur court fees.
“She found us our daughter,” Jana says. “She’s a wonderful, wonderful child. We just...let it go.”
WHEN THE FORSTERS attended the Bal Jagat party, they were about to leave for Romania, where they would adopt a seven-month-old orphan and name her Rebecca Viola. “We want to name her Viola,” Deborah told me at the party, “for my mother, who was abandoned when she was a child. We hope she’ll be able to endure like my mother, who had to be very strong.”
Deborah Forster is thin, black, and stunning, and her husband of two and a half years is as pale as she is dark. He’s a silver-haired 31, and she is 42, but they both look 30. They sought adoption after surgery failed to clear Deborah’s Fallopian tubes. Their trip to Romania came less than five months after beginning their paperwork with Bal Jagat.
The following New Year’s Day, when the Forsters have a small party for Rebecca Viola, the bay below their house is streaked with the white tail of a motorboat and the sun through gauzy blinds is like sun on white sand. My husband and I, the next-door neighbors, and three relatives have been invited to see Rebecca, eat lunch, and hear about the trip, which ended the day before Christmas.
Baby Rebecca is thin and beautiful and dark-haired. In the orphanage, she slept only in total darkness, and even now, Dick says, she falls asleep when the lights are off, and wakes up when the lights are on. Now and then she opens and closes her hand before her face as though it were, Deborah says jokingly, a game she invented for herself when she realized they weren’t going to give her anything else to play with. Rebecca gives each of her party guests a solemn, engaged look. Her thin arms and legs make her look delicate, not malnourished. When she sits with both parents it is possible to do what the mind always does when the fact of adoption is unknown —trace the features from baby to mother to father. Her features might come from theirs — her father’s skin, her mother’s eyes.
According to orphanage officials, Rebecca was born pre-maturely and abandoned at birth in the Brasov maternity ward on March 5, 1995, by a 21 -year-old single mother who had two children already and who lived in a two-room house with 12 other people. When the Forsters arrived in Brasov, they were told that Rebecca’s mother, for whom they had been urged to bring gifts, was “off with another man.” Rebecca had respiratory troubles and pneumonia early on, and she lived with 250 children in the Brasov orphanage until the mid-December day when she was wrapped in layers of American clothes and taken in Dick’s and Deborah’s arms to the Bucharest Inter-Continental Hotel and then 6000 miles away to mild ocean breezes, a white living room with red sofas like valentines, a striped cat rescued from the alley, and parents who carry her up and down the curving staircase.
One of the party guests, Teri, is Romanian. Although she left the country at the age of 13, she still speaks and reads Romanian. We begin to look at photographs Dick took in Bucharest, and when Teri sees the enormous government building built by Nicolae Ceausescu, she says, “He built monstrosities.”
Ceausescu became the First Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party in 1965. In an effort to increase the population of Romania from 23 million to 30 million by the year 2000, he banned sex education, contraception, and abortion. Each Romanian woman was required to bear at least five children, and pregnancies were monitored by state officials. On Christmas Day 1989, following two weeks of political unrest, Ceausescu and his wife were executed for genocide and the use of military force against the people.
The following year, Romania’s impoverished, understaffed orphanages became the subject of a 20/20 program called “Shame of a Nation,” and in 1991, Americans adopted 2552 Romanian children, 21 times more than in 1990. The surge of private adoption led to regulation, and in September of 1991, new adoption laws required all prospective parents to use agencies accredited by the Romanian Committee for Adoption, gave Romanian citizens priority in adopting the orphans, and imposed a waiting period of six months before a child could be eligible for inter-country adoption. Since then, American adoptions in Romania have averaged 176 children per year, peaking in 1995 at 275.
In Dick’s photographs, Bucharest is a snowy place of footpaths and wet streets, bright cars, gray trees, and soldiers marching in a parade to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the revolution. The town of Brasov, where Rebecca was born, is beautiful but cold. It looks like a prosperous place with ancient beginnings: yellow and salmon-pink houses with dormer windows suitable for a cheerful film about Mozart or Hans Christian Andersen.
It looks prosperous, but it isn’t. The average monthly wage in Bucharest is $100; but Vivi, the bilingual journalist who arranged Rebecca’s adoption, was paid $8500 in cash, the equivalent of seven years’ salary. Four other couples were adopting at the same time a$ the
Forsters, so her earnings in December may have reached $34,000. Adoption trips are a source of income for others as well — the Bucharest InterContinental Hotel charges $225 for each night in its turquoise satin beds and tiled bathrooms, and the 21-year-old auto mechanic who drove the Forsters from Bucharest to Brasov earns $100 in cash for every six-hour round-trip drive to the orphanage and $50 for other day tours. As a mechanic, his salary is the equivalent of $110 per month. During a shopping trip, Vivi mentioned that residents of Bucharest usually buy toilet paper one roll at a time because they can’t afford to buy more.
“It was freezing,” Dick says as we study the snow in Brasov. “It was colder in the orphanage than it was outside, I think. But we were just in the director’s office. We didn’t get in where any of the kids are. I was very curious, but the lady doesn’t... Even Vivi has never been inside. The lady who runs the orphanage says, ‘This is a place for kids, not for tourists.’ She runs it very, very clean. She says there are no diseases that get in.”
Later, Deborah says that not all Romanian orphanages are closed to parents. The other couples who adopted in December told the Forsters about attending farewell parties inside orphanages — parties that included children who were not flying to America afterward. “I don’t think it’s very healthy for the children who are left,” Deborah says. “It’s cruel. On that level you can appreciate that you can only go to the director’s office.” When Dick hands us a picture of the director, Teri pauses to point at her hat. “She’s doing well,” she says. “She’s wearing a mink cap.”
Dick says, “Well, it’s freezing in her office.”
But Teri is not persuaded to think otherwise. “She’s doing well,” she repeats. “On the mink I can tell.”
When we come to a photograph of Dick holding Rebecca, Teri says, “You look so happy. This is a million-dollar smile on you.”
“This is right after we picked her up,” Dick tells me. “This is that day in Brasov.”
Once we have seen the doctor in the red coat, the hotel sink where Deborah bathed Rebecca, and Rebecca in her purple snow suit, when we have all kissed Rebecca on the cheek before her afternoon nap, Teri says to Dick, “You’re courageous. What you did, you’re courageous. To go down there to the Balkans, not knowing anything? Blind? You’re courageous. You didn’t know what was going on down there.”
Dick seems uncomfortable with the word. “A combination of desperation and ignorance,” he says.
“Yes, that’s right, but you won,” Teri says. “This girl is extremely lucky.”
“We consider it a two-way street,” Dick says.
Rebecca’s first photograph, the one the orphanage sent, is framed on the white mantel, and even from a distance she has a solemn intensity. Her look of independence alarmed Deborah, who initially looked at the picture with Dick and said, “This is not the baby. This is not her.” With her little fist clenched, the baby seemed in that first moment to need no one, and the Forsters needed time (less than an hour) to fall in love with the child in the one-inch picture. Now they’re smitten, and she’s home.
“But believe me, what would have become of her,” Teri says, “if you wouldn’t have done it.”
On February 3, a slow drizzly rain falls on the pale-orange houses, tropical leaves, and sleet-colored water in the bay below the Forsters’ house. Deborah is slicing carrots over a soup pot, making horizontal cuts, then dividing again, then clipping the pieces so they fall into the broth. Rebecca is having her 10:30 nap, and Deborah says that in the last month she went through a post-partum depression.
“My whole life had changed,” Deborah says. She was shoving donuts into her mouth, drinking glasses of wine, calling up her sister with fears that she was turning into a donut-eating, Courvoisier-drinking, chain-smoking mother.
All of this is very hard to picture, but a comfort, really. It’s like hearing that Ingrid Bergman got a little bit tired while she was raising twins and making Italian films. To be in Deborah’s company is to wish that she would adopt you. In the closet by the front door, where the floor is shiny white-and-gray marble, she stores a vertical rack of slippers — an array of sizes and styles — for shoeless guests. She has set out ironed napkins, bagels, cream cheese, and five kinds of fresh fruit for me, the pesky stranger, and her husband, who will return from shopping in an hour.
On the phone, Deborah told me that Rebecca has been sucking her finger. People said she must have started that in the orphanage, where she had nothing else to do. But Deborah sucked her own finger as a child, so she decided it was time to put socks on Rebecca’s hands at night and pin the socks to her nightgown. Rebecca is smart and strong-willed, Deborah says, but the method is working.
Rebecca’s perfect health was not guaranteed by the agency or the orphanage. Although she was given four health checkups in Romania, where she was tested for hepatitis, HIV, and tuberculosis, the Forsters had signed an agreement before their arrival in Romania. The agreement is called a Statement of Risk, and it states, in part, “We have researched the risks of adoption, including, but not limited to, salmonella, exposure to nuclear fallout, AIDS, hepatitis,” and on and on. An organization called Adoptive Families of America reports that “families considering intercountry adoption must understand that the background and health information they will receive about their child will most likely be incomplete and may be unreliable.” But Rebecca’s development is normal; her health is fine.
When Dick returns from shopping, I ask the Forsters about the role Romania will play in Rebecca’s future. The adoption industry encourages families to raise foreign-born children as immigrants — as citizens whose identity lies abroad. The AFA (Adoptive Families of America) tells families who adopt internationally that they “must incorporate into their lifestyle elements of the child’s original culture” (italics mine). In the August 1992 issue of the AFA magazine, a social worker in Seattle wrote, “As we raise our kids to be part of a multicultural U.S. family in a multicultural nation, we need to help them understand and value their origins.” In the same issue, an adoptive couple wrote to say, “These are our children. They have been American citizens since infancy. They are not little Brazilians who we’re just caring for until they grow up and go back. They shouldn’t be endlessly reminded of how different they are from the rest of the family.”
In the American melting pot, where each component is now commanded not to melt, the families of inter-country adoption are encouraged to create the smallest unmelted pot of all. In the Forster family, as in many American families, a lot of melting has already occurred. Deborah’s mother is from Savannah, and her mother’s mother was from Jamaica. Deborah first met her father in childhood, and she thinks his father must have been pure African, “because he has really high cheekbones, and a very square chin. He’s an attractive black man, but at the time, when you’re that little, and you meet him, and he’s so dark, you say, ‘Oh, no, no, you’re kidding,’ she says, laughing. ‘This is not my father!’ ”
Dick’s family is of Irish-German descent, and they settled in the farming town of Loogootee, Indiana, more than 100 years ago. “Just plain white,” he says.
“That’s what I call them,” Deborah says.
Dick’s parents will be visiting soon for Rebecca’s christening, and Deborah says the first day or so is always difficult because they expect her to be “shiftless.” The resentment of Dick’s family made a difference in their initial discussions with Bal Jagat.
“I’m really dark, and Dick is very fair,” Deborah says. “My relationship with his parents is not the best. It truly isn’t the best. I wanted the child to be accepted by his family. And my family will love anybody. So I said, ‘Okay, we want a lighter-skinned, olive-complected child.’” Which describes Rebecca perfectly.
As for Romania, Dick says they’ve talked about going back when Rebecca is ten years old. But Deborah is much more concerned about other things that will affect Rebecca’s life, such as being part of an interracial family. She wants Rebecca to be a strong person who feels she has nothing to explain. But she knows that people will always be curious about Rebecca, just as they’re curious about Deborah. “If you don’t fall into the category of the stereotype,” she says, “they want to know a little bit more about you. They say, ‘Where are you from?’ ” Deborah wants to teach Rebecca to ask, in turn, why her background is important. “Because if I get her into the habit of doing that, then I personally feel like she won’t have to go through life feeling like she owes someone an explanation of who she is and where she came from.”
“Just so she doesn’t have to justify who she is,” Dick says, adding that he doubts Romania will play a big part in Rebecca’s life.
Deborah says, “The going joke is, we’ll take her to Romania, and she’ll say, ‘Vorbiti engleste?’ She’ll be asking them, ‘Do you speak English?’ ”
It’s noon, the rain is suspended, and Rebecca has awakened from her nap. Deborah brings her downstairs, where the chicken soup is hot, the white kitchen is warm, and her father is waiting.
THE MARTIN HOUSE is a cottage on an avenue lined with palms. If I were 19 and pregnant and alone, and someone handed me a scrapbook that showed this blue wooden door under blossoming trumpet vines, I would use them to invent the perfect childhood for the baby I was going to lose. A linguist for a mother, a black spaniel, a father who comes home a little early for T-ball practice on Thursdays, friends living just down the street. The sky would be so blue that he’d remember his childhood the way most people remember vacations in a foreign land.
I would invent for him the childhood of David Martin, whose birth mother was not an American girl assessing the scrapbooks of adoptive parents. Teresa Flores of Oaxaca, Mexico, was 19 and pregnant and alone in Las Playas, a district of Tijuana. She worked as the live-in nanny of a Mexican lawyer and his American wife. Two thousand miles from home, Teresa fell in love with a man who said he loved her and wanted to marry her. When she became pregnant, he said he was married with children of his own. The baby, he said, was her problem.
Across the border in San Diego, Anne and Jerry Martin had begun to tell friends and coworkers they were looking for a baby to adopt. One of those friends lived in Tijuana and knew the American woman who employed Teresa Flores. In this way, the existence of the blond linguist and her husband — two Spanish-speaking Americans who wanted to adopt a baby — became known to Teresa, who spoke no English.
Teresa already knew about adoption. Her Caucasian employer had a Caucasian sister with an Asian son. The boy had been adopted in Korea. The sight of this boy with his American mother may, Anne says, have put the idea of adoption into Teresa’s head. Or it may have made her feel that such a thing was good, not bad.
In any case, Teresa’s boss told her about the two Americans who had once lived in Spain and who loved Mexico, who wanted a baby and couldn’t have one. Teresa’s boss “pretty much sold our birth mother on the idea of us,” Jerry Martin says. “That we were these angels from heaven who had come to save her. And that’s always the way she’s seen it — that we were the good guys here who came to rescue her. And our view of it was she’s our angel from heaven.”
Teresa knew, Anne says, that even if her baby was not adopted, she would still be parted from him. She knew this because it had happened to her friend, another girl from Oaxaca who’d had a baby while working up north and then had to send it home to be raised by relatives.
Teresa also knew that she might escape the shame of telling her family if the Martins adopted the baby.
“It was very clear that she was a woman in crisis,” Jerry says. “I got the sense that if she
had announced to her family that she’d had this baby out of wedlock, the relationship at best would have been strained, and at worst, she might not have been welcome in the family.”
“So she never told them,” Anne says.
The Martins began to take Teresa, who was five or six months along, to the hospital for tests, and they continued their search for a Mexican lawyer who could process the adoption. The search, to that point, had been rather shocking. Before they met Teresa, they’d been visited by a lawyer who paid indigent people to give up their babies. This lawyer came to their house, sat down in the living room, “popped out some pictures of babies and said, ‘I can put this baby in your home in a matter of a week or so.’ ” He said that if the Martins didn’t sign up for the baby of their choice and pay a deposit on the $20,000 fee, he knew ten other American couples who would beat them to it.
Next the Martins asked the Mexican lawyer who employed Teresa if he could recommend an honest adoption lawyer in Baja. He said he couldn’t think of one. Eventually the Martins found the man I’ll call Leandro Castela, a bicultural lawyer licensed to work in Mexico, recommended by adoption professionals, and familiar with the judge who would rule on David’s case.
In the end, David’s adoption cost around $7500 — much less than adoptions in Romania, Russia, or China, and half what it cost the Martins to adopt their second child, a Mexican-American girl born in the United States, a few years later. But when Leandro first presented his fees, the Martins didn’t understand that they would be doing much of the leg work in their adoption. They were given a list of around 40 things to do (obtain legal copies of their birth certificates from Cincinnati and Baltimore, obtain a statement from the Mexican consulate in Madrid stating that their Spanish marriage certificate was valid). They embarked on what Jerry calls an odyssey of long distance phone calls and visits to consulates, embassies, departments, and bureaus.
Leandro told the Martins, “I’ve never had a client not get their baby if that’s truly what they were after.”
The word “truly” is the catch. Adoption in the state of Baja, Leandro explained, is deliberately difficult. There is a predisposition against foreigners in the court, so the Martins had to look good on paper. To begin with, Jerry must say he was Catholic, not Jewish. Anne, who worked as a teacher, must say that she was a full-time homemaker. Jerry says that Leandro told them, “There’s nothing cut and dried here. You could be Jewish, you could be Muslim, and there’s nothing on the books that says you will or will not get your baby, but I like to stack everything in our favor.” Because feelings against adoption in Baja are based not just on baby-parts rumors but on actual convictions for the buying and smuggling of Mexican babies, the Martins were told they must not make payments to Teresa, the birth mother. All payments for her medical care had to be made directly to the hospital. Meanwhile, the Martins would be assessed by a Bal Jagat social worker in the United States and then, in a series of trips across the border, by a social worker and psychologist in Baja, where Leandro told the Martins it’s considered rude to confirm an appointment (and completely acceptable to break one at the last minute, no matter how far your clients have come). When the interviews finally occurred, and the Mexican social worker asked Anne what she did all day, Anne had to lie.
“Well,” she said, wondering what childless housewives did all day, “I go out to lunch. I play tennis....”
Teresa was also interviewed, but not until Leandro had prepared her for a volley of intimidating questions from the social worker and the judge. The grilling is designed to make sure that a birth mother isn’t acting against her will.
On Thanksgiving day, Teresa Flores went into labor. The Martins took her to the hospital, but they were not permitted to say why they took such an interest in the birth. Because they weren’t Teresa’s blood relatives, they couldn’t stay in the hospital with her; and Anne, who had promised to be at Teresa’s side during the delivery, instead had to spend that night in a friend’s apartment in Tijuana, where by morning all five phone lines would be dead.
Driving the road to Playas that morning, the Martins saw Teresa’s friend waving them down. She told them Teresa was in trouble and needed a caesarean.
“So we walked into her hospital room,” Anne says, “and she says to me, ‘Where were you?’ ” The question was agonized and reproachful. Teresa had suffered alone all night, the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck, the hospital wouldn’t call a surgeon until the Martins had signed a form stating their willingness to pay, and no one had been able to get through to that apartment in Tijuana.
For a while, no one could get through to the surgeon either, but David was safely delivered that day, leaving an unmistakable scar on Teresa’s abdomen. For the next three days he was watched over by two mothers, one who was going to adopt him, but couldn’t say so, and one who was going to give him up, but couldn’t say so.
“It was a very scary three days,” Anne says, “because even though [Teresa] didn’t feel like she was wavering, she was falling in love with this baby, and that made it harder when we did separate her from David.”
The separation occurred at the civil registry, where David’s birth had to be recorded. “Taking him from her was a very emotional moment,” Anne says, “and she said, ‘Please tell him to forgive me. Make sure he doesn’t hate me for doing this.’ She was just sobbing in my arms. It was very difficult.”
At this point, the Martins had legal custody of David, but the adoption wasn’t final, so they couldn’t obtain an American visa to take him legally across the border. For a week they lived in a single room in the apartment of friends in Tijuana. They slept on an air mattress and prepared bottles of formula. Leandro suggested that the Martins put David in foster care — “something that we would never do,” Jerry says.
If they weren’t going to live for months on end in Tijuana, and they weren’t going to put David in foster care, they had one choice.
“We had to work out a scheme,” Jerry says, “to get him across the border.” Leandro strongly opposed this idea, which could send the Martins to jail and ruin his reputation with the judge.
But Anne was teaching English as a second language, and one of her students was a Hispanic woman who said, “If there’s anything I can do to help you get this baby....” The woman’s niece had just given birth in San Diego, so her baby was roughly David’s age. The niece and her husband agreed to meet the Martins in Tijuana, shop briefly in the Plaza Rio, take David across the border in their van, and present their own baby’s birth certificate to the border patrol.
Anne says they have pictures of the van creeping (or so it seemed) through the line, and then of Anne walking up the sidewalk into the house with David.
They were ecstatic to be home with their baby at last. “But that,” Jerry says, “really was the beginning of our problems.”
For the next 11 months, the Martins had to pretend they were living in Tijuana with David. Every time an American doctor gave David his inoculations, a Mexican doctor in Tijuana — a friend of the Martins — had to forge documents that said the shots were given in Mexico. When the judge suddenly demanded that Anne, Jerry, and David be examined by a Mexican physician, Leandro had the delicate task of explaining to a Mexican doctor that his clients were extremely busy, and a trip to Mexico would be very inconvenient right now, and the physicals had been performed already in the United States. So if he wouldn’t mind just signing these forms as if he, personally, had seen the Martins, who had insisted that a gift of $400 be a token of their gratitude....
The Martins had a fake address and a fake phone number — the address and number of a friend’s mother in Tijuana. “We had to keep the mother prepped,” Jerry says, “so if the phone call came from DIF [the Mexican family development office] about where the baby was or anything like that, we’d be prepared for it.” Beyond this, Jerry says, there was “the constant underlying tension of knowing that the FBI could show up on our doorstep and put us in handcuffs and take our baby away.”
“I didn’t answer the phone the whole time,” Anne says. “I just let the answering machine answer.”
When all reports had been filed, when misspelled names had been corrected, when misdirected documents had been redirected, when cabs had been taken between departments and embassies in Tijuana, when the attorney’s fees had been increased, when the last clerk had performed the last tiresome duty, when Teresa had told the judge she still wanted the Martins to raise her son, the Martins finally went before the judge, who looked like she could be nice, Jerry says, or tough as nails.
“I remember she asked us,” Anne says, “ ‘What would you do if I didn’t approve this adoption?’ ”
Anne told the judge it wasn’t possible, that she couldn’t live without David now.
“This woman is God,” Jerry says, “and she knows it. She can decide your fate. There’s no law, really, behind it. It’s her decision.”
Anne and Jerry left the interview with a feeling of relief because their attorney thought it went well. But the adoption wasn’t final for two more months.
On the outside, the Martin house is an American dream circa 1920, with shutters like slabs of iced gingerbread. But the interior is a subdued homage to Mexico: Mexican masks and Mexican furniture, smooth oak floors and plain couches, Mexican rugs and Mexican tile, a courtyard with a fountain in the center. David’s room is decorated with papel cortado, a cut paper garland that celebrates the Day of the Dead. Until Anne quit her job to stay home full time, David spoke Spanish with a Mexican nanny. In a few months, David will start school in a Spanish immersion program because, Jerry says, “I really want his Spanish to be perfect. I don’t want him to be in a situation where he can’t talk to his birth mother, or he goes to Mexico and has no idea what’s going on or talks Spanish like I do.” David knows that he came from Teresa’s tummy, and until recently, he saw Teresa about once every six months.
Teresa is married now and has another son who looks a great deal like David. One day she was watching television with her husband, who thinks that the baby who came out of the scarred place on her abdomen died a long time ago. It was a talk show, and the guests were women who had given up their babies for adoption. Teresa’s husband said those women were horrible creatures. He said they'd done an unforgivable thing. Teresa tried to defend the women, but now she feels she could never defend herself to him. She called Anne a few weeks ago to say she’d like to see David again, but the visit will have to be handled very carefully.
“The worst case is,” Jerry says, “he would leave her. It’s a part of the culture that we don’t understand still that much, but it could happen.”
Or he could try to convince her, Anne says, to try to get David back.
The jacaranda blossoms are violet on the back lawn. A breeze flutters geraniums in window boxes. All along the street, white sun falls on white stucco, strollers, the fur of sleeping cats.
Anne has pointed out to me that David’s name, like his sister Angela’s, is perfectly bilingual. It is spelled the same way in Spanish and English. Anne and Jerry planned this, she told me, so that when David and Angela grow up, they can choose how they want to be identified: American David or Spanish David, Angela or Angela. The names make a rhythm like sidewalk cracks under roller skates, like the wooden slats of a long bridge.
Back home, I make a file marked “Adoption.” I keep the baby clothes in tissue paper at the bottom of a drawer. I go to a meeting where people sit in a large circle and explain how they adopted last time and how they plan to do it next time. I think about the blue-and-white orphanage in Staverspohl. I try to feel intrepid. I try to see myself on a long journey. I try to convince my husband that carrying zippered pouches of hundred-dollar bills to an unfamiliar, cash-starved country is an adventure and that our baby will be healthy like Nikolai, Juliette, Rebecca, and David. I make an appointment with a fertility specialist and watch sound waves bump in a white haze against my ovaries. I study the business card of a Mexican sobadora who specializes, I’m told, in fallen wombs. I talk to a Utah lawyer who represents the mother of unborn twin boys. The lawyer tells me their father belongs to a vicious drug-dealing family and he’s wanted by the FBI. “If he learns the boys are up for adoption,” the lawyer says, “he may attempt to get them back.” Are we interested? Could we buy the young mother a car?
I try to picture myself among my ancestors on the Isle of Jersey in 19th-century France. They walk on the boat for America, where they will meet other Mormons from England and Scotland, where they will cease to be French candle-makers, where their children and their children’s children will become just plain white. They don’t know any of this yet. They squint as they look to the west. The ocean glitters. I want to join them on the boat, but I’m afraid. I watch as the boat leaves for the open sea.