THE LABORIOUSLY written ads and letters (choose us! choose us!), the arguments, the peaks of despair and valleys of anger, the character references from well-meaning friends and employers, the final and unsatisfying self-description written in women’s-mag-style third person: He’s forty-five and a successful personal-injury attorney with an excellent income. She’s forty-four and when not making a cozy home runs a part-time ceramics studio. . . . This is a religious couple (that was a stretch, but she’d been raised Catholic, which she grew up to reject after a three-year stint with the Rajneeshees in her early twenties, and he was Jewish, though nonpracticing, with a peripheral interest in the Unitarians, but somehow they would try to agree on some version of religious training at some point because it “could make the difference”). . . . lovely suburban, split-level home with four bedrooms, three baths, and a family room (the family room was technically a small storage room jammed with boxes and an abandoned Stairmaster, but, yes, they could picture a rug and a sofa and an entertainment center in there), a large, fenced-in back yard with swing set and jungle gym, and a child-adoring golden retriever (OK, so they’d had to change his name from Flashback to just Flash in the letters, and it was true he’d nipped the Delaplanes’ kid, but only after the little brat had tried to stuff pebbles into his nostrils). Then there was the remodeled and nongendered nursery with the carefully selected, androgynous toys and furniture and the sky blue walls with moon-and-stars decals, their name on the waiting list at the overpriced, activity-saturated Marin Child Development and Kindergarten Readiness Center (the name of which distinguished it from the slovenliness of ordinary day cares, where unsuspecting children were put out to TV-and-video pasture under coy names like Wee People’s Grotto), the résumés of experienced au pairs (stay away from the Swedish girls; the best are girls from island cultures, where they’re really raised to love children), and still the Clomid and the injections that left her out of sorts and irritable and even incapacitated some days, but why not? After all, they’d agreed to make the last-ditch, final effort, her body implicated (in her most agonizing moments, she allowed herself the desperate, cruel thought that it might have been the abortion at sixteen, and then the next one at twenty-one, because at times she could be very ironic, and all those years mucking around with pills and diaphragms and IUDs trying not to, and knowing she’d done the right thing — imagine having had a baby with that half-wit burnout at fifteen or the deadhead cipher at twenty-one), but they’d agreed to keep all the bases covered, because one never knew, and there were all those stories of couples who’d finally given up and adopted only to discover “they” were pregnant (nowadays men were given credit as well). If only the phone in the great room would ring, the new line installed for one purpose and one purpose only — I can’t talk now, the other phone is ringing — a proper phone, a replica of an antique with a receiver and a cradle (though push-button for convenience) and attached by a cord, not a cordless or a cell — something about being grounded like that, receiving the call at home while seated in the oversized sea green armchair from Z Gallery, and not racing down a busy street or negotiating the Nimitz Freeway in the Outback or the Explorer. Afraid to be gone too long in case the caller might hesitate to leave a message on an answering machine (they’d considered and nixed a second voice-mail service), she had started working more from home instead of down at the studio. How long it had taken them to find the appropriate outgoing answering-machine message, which they’d finally performed in unison, practicing so many times they had it memorized: Hello, you’ve reached the home (should that be “comfortable, three-quarter-million-dollar home with the brick façade and the hot tub out back”?) of Dan and Patty Singer. (She was technically Patty Tripepi, but they were counseled that, “even in this progressive day and age,” it sounded more “wholesome” to a young, single woman if the couple shared the same surname: “signifies a stable union.”) We can’t come to the phone at the moment, but we are very interested in your call and hope that you will leave your name and number (voices rising with the promise of joy! ) and a convenient time for us to return your call. Thank you for reading our advertisement and considering us. You may leave as long a message as you like. We look forward to talking with you. (Will you find us unworthy? Too old? Too boring? Will religion be the most important thing? If you’re from the Midwest, will you worry about what it means to be raised in California, the Land of Fruits and Nuts, where the next earthquake might send us all plummeting into the Pacific? Or will you choose us because you believe the myths we’ve narrated about ourselves, imagining in your adolescent naiveté that a perfect life for your baby exists and can be chosen, leaving you guilt-free and believing you made the unselfish choice? Or will you hide your doubts and lead us on and let us become attached, only to disappoint us at the last minute by changing your mind and deciding to keep it for yourself?)
WHEN SHE LOOKED in the mirror, she imagined herself as someone very different from the person she’d become. Not the sort of woman who was about to purchase a child on a home-equity loan from some poor young desperate thing whom fate had tricked and whose womb had performed the labor of incubation for nine months and who — for financial and emotional reasons, most likely — would be unable to keep the part of her that is advertised as every woman’s greatest joy. What would it mean, this exchange, and how would they explain it satisfactorily to the child, who would “want to know,” as all the books and experts repeated like a refrain? Certainly not as tricky to explain as anonymous artificial insemination, or the donor-egg scenario. (You were invented in a petri dish, made up, fabricated entirely, bred like an animal. Your father is your father, but your mother was some carefully screened, anonymous college girl who sold a few eggs to help pay her tuition.) And what if — what if the infant were born with Down’s or spina bifida or cystic fibrosis or some other genetic disorder: would they toss it back in the bin like a piece of moldy fruit at Safeway and turn to each other and agree to start over? It made her head hurt. It made her feel ashamed.
A healthy white infant is very difficult to come by. Would you be willing to adopt an older child? A child of mixed race? A black child? A child with physical needs? Have you considered a foreign adoption?
They had talked about it endlessly during those long nights when neither could sleep, their hands clasped chastely on top of their bedspread, noses pointing up toward the ceiling, neither able to see the other in the darkness, wondering what all these choices ultimately revealed about them. (It may not really be appropriate to adopt a black child — I mean, so many black organizations believe black children belong with black families, and we don’t know any black people to introduce the child to, so the child would be white-identified, which could lead to later resentment.) They studied other white couples they saw around the Bay Area with yellow, brown, and black children, looking for clues as to how it was done. They imagined flying to China, Bolivia, Peru, Romania, India; they talked freely about the impossibility of adopting a crack child, an AIDS baby, an infant with Down’s, a child who’d spent its first few months starved or abused in an orphanage. Neither “felt equipped” to handle such challenges.
She had gotten up the nerve once to ask a black woman she vaguely knew from kick-boxing class what she thought about cross-racial adoption, and the woman, dripping with sweat and released endorphins, drew back (flinched?) and appeared first puzzled by and then uncomfortable with the question, and finally murmured something ambiguous but clearly pointed, which led to a moment of terrible awkwardness, and then Patty realized what she was really asking of this woman and how ridiculous and presumptuous it was, and she apologized, but that only made matters worse. While she frankly thought babies of color were much cuter in general than their red-faced, hairless white counterparts (she loved to stop and ooh and aah over them on the street), she and Dan held firm. But where on the spectrum was their child to be? How about Latino? Asian?
She began to suspect her desire was to have a child she could publicly pass off as her own, and wondered if she was capable of doing that — pretending that the child was her biological offspring, like women who stole other people’s babies from hospitals and raised them as their own, though of course she couldn’t lie to the child, except maybe at first, just for a little while — what business was it of anyone else’s? And in the meantime, she had dreams, and the dreams were of giving birth to a healthy white infant, and the dreams were always uniformly the same: bright lights, masked hospital staff hovering above, and her own rich laughter spewing like lava, and she would actually wake herself up with her laughing, and then she would come to slowly, joy receding, remembering that it was a dream, that there was no baby in her arms, and it all but broke her heart. She went for months, maybe even years, trying to stuff down the sadness; she would go to the studio and try to lose herself in glazing pots, but every time she looked at her hands, she thought about the fact that they would never hold a child that had come from her own body, and then she wondered why that mattered and if what her friends said about the bourgeois need to replicate oneself was really true. Breeders — that’s what one smug, self-described “child-free” friend called women with toddlers hanging from their skirts. Oftentimes they were poor women, and often brown and black women, and she was ashamed by how many times she’d secretly thought, How unfair that I can’t have a kid while babies just fall out of these women — they can’t even support them all, and she’d had to stop herself from actually saying those thoughts aloud. Maybe reproduction was a narcissistic act for everyone, and almost outmoded in today’s overpopulated world. After all, she and Dan had a good life together, didn’t they? Dan and Patty, Patty and Dan, Patty Tripepi and Dan Singer, with their enviable house (oops, that’s “home”) looking out over the golden hills of Marin, and their fulfilling professions (hers leaving time to pursue her art), and their romantic Wednesday-night dinners trying out new restaurants in the city, and their symphony season tickets, and their Saturday-morning runs up Mount Tamalpais, a tradition left over from their premarriage days, when neither had any money and the best dates were free.
THIS IS WHERE things are when the new phone rings for the first time: Patty’s just dashed home from the studio before rush-hour traffic to change into workout clothes, and Dan is still at “the office,” an expression that lodges in her throat since the words are her mother’s. Patty sees herself at fourteen, impatient to go to some suburban pool party with a friend, and her mother, on her third martini, saying, “You’ll have to wait until your father gets home from the office” — the office Patty would never see, an off-limits place she imagined to be like a tunnel swallowing up her father for days at a time, smelling of cigar smoke and important men’s business, some of which her father would share in terse capsule form with her mother, because it was certainly not a woman’s world, except for the sexy secretary who answered the telephone. And yet the names of his co-workers lived among them like family members — what Bob Perchick said in a meeting, how Hal Nunn screwed up a contract — and she recalled her mother’s placid, agreeable smile, which suggested her job was to be interested, because what did she have beyond the house and Patty and her siblings and the live-in maid? And now, Patty thinks, I am inhabiting some strange version of my mother’s life, except that I have a career and no children and my mother had no career and six kids by the time she was my age.
It’s about five, and Patty and Dan have reservations for dinner at the Panama Hotel in San Rafael with a client of Dan’s at eight. (In her mother’s day, the dinner would have been at their house, and Patty’s mother would have been slaving over a pot roast and potatoes with the aid of some brown-skinned woman she’d hired to “help out.”) Patty is upstairs rooting around in a drawer for exercise socks when she hears the strange blurt of a telephone and stands paralyzed for a moment because she doesn’t recognize the ring, and she thinks, How annoying that I can hear the Delaplanes’ phone, and then she thinks it must be the cell phone in her purse, but then she realizes it’s the phone downstairs, the one she has been waiting to hear for almost two weeks, and now that she has, she hardly knows what to do. “Shit, shit, shit,” she murmurs, chest swelling, as she gallops for the circular stairs and sprints down them, imagining for a moment how hilarious it would be if she fell flat on her face and the phone just kept on ringing while she lay sprawled helpless, like some B-grade film-noir actress. Careening around the door frame, she bangs her knee against the leg of a small antique table, the one that she refinished last summer, and she clutches the knee with one hand and reaches for the phone with the other. Trying to stifle her breathlessness, she speaks with clarity and measured grace. Modulate, modulate, she thinks, but out loud she is singing the words she has practiced over and over like a mantra: “Hel-lo, you’ve reached the Sing-er home. This is Pat-ty speaking.“
Too overdone? Too much information? Too childish? Now she has to take a breath, a deep gulp of air, and she covers the receiver briefly.
There is a flash of static, like Midwestern lightning, and for a moment she pictures some blond, robust farm girl in Iowa or Idaho (she always mixes up those two states — don’t they both grow potatoes?) dialing up in the midst of a torrential thunderstorm, crouched in the stairwell of the root cellar so her parents won’t hear, preparing to say the words girls have whispered for centuries: I’m in trouble.
Instead, there is a pause, the length of time it takes to inhale deeply, and then she hears a voice faintly clearing, and she imagines that tears and grief have swelled the girl’s throat, making language impossible, and she realizes that this slight intake of air is her first introduction to the young woman who at that moment is carrying inside her pale, frightened, adolescent body the beginnings of a child that one day soon Patty might claim as her own. It’s like adopting a puppy from the pound, except she, Patty, is on the inside of the cage looking out, and the round, freckled face of the strawberry-haired Midwestern girl raised on potatoes and corn is peering in, having a host of other cages to consider, and now Patty the puppy must do her best to entertain and cajole and seduce the girl, who will, of course, most likely have a list of questions and requirements (these girls are savvy; the Jewish-lawyer angle will go over almost as well as Jewish doctor because of the money — and even if the girls are Christians, they think of Jewish homes being warm and as loving), because the girl knows she calls the shots: she has the bouncing baby joy to sell, the “healthy white infant” that white, upper-class, professional women like Patty are lining up in droves for all over the country.
“Hello?” says Patty again by way of encouragement. It is the first step of what she knows might well be a long negotiation. “Are you there?”
In the silence that follows, Patty fears the girl will break off the connection out of panic, and so Patty says in her most reassuring, honeyed tones, to quell her own nerves, “How are you? Are you calling about a baby?”
Maybe she’s not a girl at all, but an adult woman, one who has other children and can’t imagine raising a fourth or fifth or sixth and is desperate to find a good home for the unwanted child, and she might be right here in California, maybe from southern California, and maybe the child is not her husband’s but the child of another man she’s slept with — maybe a Mexican day laborer who’s been helping out with odd jobs, so the baby will not be white-white but have olive skin tone and dark hair and eyes. Or maybe the woman herself is Filipino or Chinese, and she’s here in the States going to college, and her Anglo boyfriend has knocked her up, and she’s terrified she’ll be sent home and lose her chance at an education, and she can’t tell her family, and the Anglo boy is frightened of his family as well, and they have no desire to marry, so together they are making this call, and he is the one who is breathing so heavily.
The voice on the other end asks, “Is this 800-826-5353?”
“Yes, yes it is!” Patty feels her heart soaring, or maybe it’s just her chest filling, and she thinks, This is maternal joy; I can feel you are the one.
There is a pause.
Then the voice — somewhere between a girl’s and a woman’s, the tone flat and affectless, with nothing regional to distinguish it — speaks almost in a whisper:
“You can’t . . .” The voice stops, as if breaking. “You can’t have my baby.”
For a moment Patty doesn’t think she’s heard properly, and she shifts from one bare foot to the other, holding a soft exercise sock crushed in her armpit.
“I beg your pardon?”
The voice at the other end falters for a moment, then repeats, “You can’t have my baby.” And then there is a long silence leading up to the gentle click of disconnection.
Patty stands puzzled, the phone still crammed against her ear. Above her, the cathedral ceiling of the great room arches up toward heaven. The sharp light of early summer brightens the walls, reflecting off all the white surfaces.
“Hello?” Patty says into the phone, even though no one is there. And then slowly she turns to hang up the receiver, trying to make some sense of what she’s just heard and knowing that she shouldn’t read anything into a wrong number, because this is just that, obviously a case of mistaken identity, the intended party some other woman with an 800 number, not unlike herself, waiting to hear from a pregnant teen or a poor, overburdened birth mother who wants to find a suitable family for her baby, and now that woman won’t know she’s just been written off the list.
Laying the phone gently back into its cradle, Patty considers the possibility that she has imagined the call. Then she inadvertently drops the exercise sock and has to bend over to retrieve it, and the blood rushes to her head, and she feels dizzy. The wind’s gone out of her sails, and she feels as if a weight has fallen on top of her, making climbing the stairs to her room difficult. She wants desperately to talk to Dan, but what’s the point? It will only upset him. She keeps hearing the girl’s voice and the strange words in her head. At the top of the stairs she turns right, not left, and goes to what she and Dan now call “the baby’s room.” In the early-evening sunlight, the sky blue walls seem to glow, and the moon and stars seem premature, with so much daylight left. But she is reassured by the smell of fresh paint and the designer bassinet and the white, child-safe crib and the matching changing table and the mobile turning slowly in the air. And there is the wicker chest stocked with toys, stuffed animals propped along its top, and the closet already full of unisex clothing, and she goes to the window and looks down at the succulent-and-rock garden, to see again what the baby’s view will be of drought-ridden prosperity, and she thinks about what quirky circumstances have led her to this moment. It’s not that she’s always wanted to be a mother; she just always assumed she would be. And it was only when it was denied her that the desire took hold with alarming strength.
Now she’s lost the motivation to go to the health club. Instead, she sinks down on the newly refinished hardwood floor of the baby’s room and sits cross-legged for a while, stretching her hamstrings, tearless and without feeling. She watches the light slowly being siphoned off, and she knows eight o’clock is approaching, and she should be dressed and ready to go meet Dan and the client, but somehow none of that matters, and so she sits, as if in a trance, and waits, because she thinks the phone might ring again, and she will have a chance to explain.
A WEEK PASSES. There is a solicitor’s phone call and another wrong number, someone asking for Lily, and Patty thinks, How odd, since Lily is one of the names she has considered if the baby is a girl. Two messages on the answering machine have turned out to be dead ends: A girl who changed her mind. Another who was only in her second month of pregnancy and was simply “gathering information.” The last one might have been promising, but Patty is certain that the call was merely a practice run, that the girl was only going through the motions. The following Monday, their adoption-attorney friend phones to ask if they would be willing to take triplet girls. The mother is on bed rest trying to give the babies a few more days in the womb. Mother and father are students at UC Santa Barbara and have recently split up but are still friends. The mother is Irish American; the father is part Jamaican, part Japanese, and part French. Both are good students, responsible, and want the best for the three babies. Neither family has been informed about the pregnancy. The birth mother, an English major, feels strongly that the children should go to someone unrelated to them both so that they can get on with their lives, but has also specified a “reading family,” people who will instill a love of literature in them. The father, an engineering major, has requested “professional people” so that the children will have whatever they need materially in life. The attorney friend has told the couple about Dan and Patty, showed them the dear-birth-mother letter and all the appropriate information, and the two are very interested.
Triplets! Dan and Patty sit facing each other in astonishment. Triplets! They make jokes about discounts, about shopping at warehouse and discount stores. (“I can’t exactly picture you at Target or K-Mart,” Dan jokes, whereupon they are both subdued by the implied elitism.) They’d have to hire three nannies. The question “Could we?” quickly becomes “How could we?” Then they think, But we’re being given a chance. The babies are practically ours if we want them. Could we really do three?
Flashback wanders into the living room, dragging his leash in his jaws. He wants a walk, and he wants it now. Dan gets up stiffly, stretching his arms over his head. They’ve been sitting there for almost two hours, mulling over this latest development, neglecting the dog.
Let’s sleep on it, they say. And then Patty says, “Part Japanese, part black. Totally multicultural. I’ll bet they’ll look exotic. Regular beauty queens.” And Dan says, “A real rainbow coalition. I guess they’d be OK being raised by us. Maybe it’d be easier with three of them against the world. . . . I’m going to take the dog out.” Patty says, “Things have changed, and, besides, this is the Bay Area. There’s lots of racial mixing.” And Dan says, “We have to decide pretty fast. There are other couples in line.”
Patty is grateful for the couple’s show of confidence, that they are willing to hand over three newborns in one fell swoop, evidence that good karma is at work, a good antidote to the phone call — which, by the way, she still has not mentioned to Dan. And what a short plane ride! They could have the babies home the same day.
Triplets. Later, they wander up to “the baby’s room” and try to grasp all the implications. We could do an add-on. It would mean delaying the pool for a while, but better not to have it when they’re young. Babies can fall into pools and drown. Finally, the decision they come to — and it has nothing to do with the fact that the babies are mixed race! — is that at this stage in their lives they are not prepared to handle three babies. Let a younger, more energetic couple have the chance. “Should we talk to the mother?” Dan wonders aloud, blowing the mobile to get it spinning. Patty shakes her head. “No,” she says. “No point. It will just get her hopes up, and we’ll become more invested. I think we need to stick to one child. . . . Damn, Dan! Three babies! I always thought three children would make the perfect-sized family.” She can almost feel them there in the room with her — three mewling, wiggling, hungry babies, tripling her maternal joy. Three for the price of one. The mobile spins above her head, catching the light. She imagines for a moment wheeling three babies down to Starbucks in the mornings in an oversize triple stroller with fringed canopy, the babies dressed in precious Baby Gap overalls and matching T-shirts and sandals and sunglasses, and everyone oohing and aahing over their baby beauty. She imagines trying to gather them all into her arms at once, and wonders how their bulk and heft would feel. Real babies. Not just an idea anymore, but the fleshly reality, bringing upheaval and upchucking and the upending of their parents’ lives.
She remembers once running into her old college friend Miriam Silesky at a supermarket, Miriam who never got around to having a career, surrounded by four sticky-faced and energetic children under the age of seven, remarking with haggard cheer as the children circled like sharks, interrupting and whining, and Patty quizzed her about motherhood (children can be your greatest joy — and your greatest sorrow), and at the time Patty envied whatever secrets Miriam held in reserve, the instinctive maternal knowledge that such women seemed to have. But then when Patty walked away, she felt an odd and slightly guilty sense of relief.
NOW PATTY AND DAN are both struck by the fact that this whole baby business is no longer just an abstraction, or an infinite routine of preparation — of decorating rooms and accumulating accessories — no longer just a blank canvas. A flesh-and-blood baby could arrive at any time, fully formed. The baby’s placid, perfect room would no longer be an empty space to be filled by the imagination, but instead would contain a baby who would cry and soil its diapers and chew on things, and despite their own discussions about not doing so, they would look to this baby to fulfill all the expectations the years of no children have built up. All it would take was one ring of the phone in the great room and they would be on a plane in a matter of hours to some state neither would otherwise consider visiting, their suitcase jammed with baby paraphernalia: Voilà! — instant parenthood. These white babies go like hot cakes. Not even the home visit (for which they’d been sure to feature newly framed photos of themselves with smiling nieces and nephews, as well as the pictures of themselves backpacking in Yosemite and cycling in Italy, at the same time remembering to get the Robert Mapplethorpe book out of sight, and the seminude photos they’d taken of each other one lazy afternoon in the hot tub) had brought to the forefront with such intensity the fact that they were actually going to become parents. All the planning, all the worrying, all the procedures, all the decisions, all the counseling, all the letter writing: Dear Birth Mother. At one point, Patty had gone giddy with the labor of their efforts: Dear Birth Mother, We are alcoholic pedophiles who want to raise a child. . . . Dan had laughed, but she’d recognized the weariness in his face and the toll all this was taking on him. The question they were being made to answer over and over was “Who are you?” It seemed so unfair, they admitted in private moments of bitter honesty, what with all the uninterrogated, un-cross-examined teenage girls popping out unwanted babies right and left, babies who would be consigned to lives of poverty, while responsible, settled, educated, loving people like Patty and Dan were run through the wringer.
In the meantime, their friends Sam and Kit, both professors from Berkeley, flew to Korea and adopted a baby girl. Easier to get what you want. Less red tape, they told Patty and Dan. You should get one, too. Shortly thereafter, their neighbors Barb and Alex Kendall informed them at a dinner party one night that their “little Joshua” (who was upstairs with the Belgian au pair listening to books on tape in French) was a donor baby. (“And an Aryan Youth poster child,” Dan grimly noted in a whisper to Patty.) Once the cat was out of the bag and the word donor had been deconstructed, the Kendalls seemed eager to hold forth, as “honesty is part of our process, so that when we explain things fully to Joshua we will be completely and unequivocally comfortable with the narrative.”
“You mean he doesn’t know?” asked Patty.
“Oh, he knows,” they chorused, and Barb explained, “He’s only three, so we give him a little information at a time. Right now he understands that he didn’t grow from Mommy and Daddy’s seeds, but that another lady and man helped to make him.”
Patty cringed inwardly. She looked over at Dan. The Kendalls, illuminated by joy, were already proceeding with the details of the remarkable Joshua:
“We were so lucky. The girl donor we chose was a grad student right here at Berkeley and apparently a member of Mensa and an accomplished pianist, and the boy donor was a Rhodes scholar who went east with lots of artistic talent and political ambitions. We figure —” and here mutual smugness showed on their faces — “we’ve given Joshua the best genetic start we possibly could. He’s already composing tunes on his keyboard, and he reads like a first-grader.” And the Kendalls reached out and grasped each other’s hands as if sealing an agreement. The whole evening, Patty felt envious and depressed. A manufactured child. At least she was trying to get one who was created honestly.
Dan’s old law-school roommate Brent and his doctor wife, Sharon, had decided adoption was just too risky (some of these girls are drug addicts, and you have no idea what their nutrition has been like, or if the father is really the father, or what inherited tendencies the child may have — a friend of ours adopted what turned out to be a psycho kid, and it was discovered both his parents had been in mental hospitals!), and had opted to raise miniature dachshunds and Welsh terriers — “as child substitutes,” they gleefully crowed.
Dear Birth Mother,
We are a loving couple, married for twenty years now [really only fifteen; we lived together in sin for five] and unable to have our own baby. While we are very happy and productive in our lives, we feel a child would complete our family. Dan is a successful personal-injury attorney practicing in the East Bay, and Patty is a homemaker and ceramics artist [ceramics artist and homemaker]. We have a lovely home in Marin, not too far from the ocean. We have everything to offer a child. . . . Your child will travel abroad every year and have the best private-school education money can buy. We have a large, extended family with loving grandparents and aunts and uncles on both sides. This baby will have lots and lots of love and attention. And we plan to find him or her a brother or sister in about two years! We are so grateful that you are willing to consider us in your generous decision to find the baby a loving family. . . .
TWO MORE WEEKS have passed. The triplets are now a thing of the past, adopted by a couple in Los Gatos and distilled into a bite-sized anecdote shared at Dan’s office party. “Triplets!” everyone exclaims. “Imagine.” There have been two more calls: one from a girl in Mississippi who seemed uncertain (she sounded so uneducated, Patty couldn’t help remarking), and another from a girl in Minnesota who was hoping the adoptive parents could live closer since she wanted “a relationship with the family.”
“Maybe we should think about an overseas adoption again,” says Dan. “I’m not sure we want a birth mother in our lives.”
“But there are children here in America who need homes,” says Patty.
“Yeah,” Dan dully agrees, his concentration currently focused on the personal-injury case of a woman who was knocked out in a hardware store when a fifty-foot coil of garden hose fell onto her head. Did she see stars? Patty wants to know, and then she thinks of the starry wall in the baby’s room, where she goes from time to time to lie down on the floor and nap. Even Dan doesn’t know her deepest doubts. If only someone would deposit an infant on their front doorstep. In the parenting class, they were advised that they shouldn’t succumb to guilt if “feelings of ambivalence” arose from time to time. Being with other couples in the same predicament had a normalizing effect. Coming away from one of their adoption-group sessions, they could imagine a world full of childless, infertile couples all searching for babies. Sometimes she secretly looks at Dan, trying to gauge from his expression if he is beginning to doubt, but when she has his attention, he is always convincing that, yes, this is what he wants and has wanted all his life.
Recently at Safeway, in fruits and vegetables, Patty imagined the bins filled with stacks of babies, tagged and described, and she pictured herself saying, I’ll take that blond one with the artistic skills, please. When she turned around there was a very real baby in a tiny Superman cape, seated in the front of a shopping cart, staring at her intently. Patty immediately resorted to peekaboo, but the child never changed expressions. Her yearning turned to terror. “He’s very cute,” she told the mother, a dyed blonde in white capris and black sandals. The woman just nodded and murmured, “He’s a she.” Patty began idly picking through bing cherries, waiting for the woman to move on to the organic section. As the mother finally turned the corner, the baby was still staring at Patty, and Patty wondered if all the babies in the world were in communication, and she’d been pegged as a baby buyer.
THE PHONE is ringing. Damn it! They should have put an extension upstairs like Dan said! What on earth had she been thinking: That the calls would come only in the early evenings, when they would most likely be downstairs eating dinner or watching the news on the big-screen television in the great room? That somehow, in the same way that they had carefully planned and prepared the letters and the room, the rest of the process would go like clockwork? Downstairs, she discovers that the housecleaner, while dusting, has moved the phone from the antique table to the arm of the sofa, and now as Patty lunges for it, the receiver slips from her hand and crashes to the floor. Some first impression!
“Hello, hello?” she says desperately into the phone, reaching for the base and realizing too late that she has failed to produce the agreed-upon greeting: Hello, you have reached the home of Patty and Dan Singer. Hello, this is the Singer residence, Patty speaking. Hello there, this is Patty Singer here. Hello. . . .
There is silence at first. She wonders, Is it triplets again? Twins this time? New York? Louisiana? Texas? Kansas? Is the baby ready to be picked up? Boy? Girl? If it’s a boy, he will be David, after Dan’s father. And if it’s a girl, she will be Christine, after Patty’s mother. They are still discussing middle names, but they’ve decided, as much as they dislike hyphenated names, that they have little choice but to dump Tripepi-Singer, or Singer-Tripepi on the little tyke.
She knows the voice even before the second syllable is uttered. She feels it in the marrow of her bones, the pain that laces the words. At first the voice is small, childish, with a directness that startles. She imagines a small, mean elf sitting under a mushroom, like the picture in one of the books they have upstairs in the baby’s room.
“You can’t have my baby.” Then the voice gathers strength. “I won’t let you.”
“Hello,” says Patty. “You’re calling about a baby?” She is trying to make a connection, but the words aren’t coming fast enough. “I’m Patty — sorry, I’m just a little excited. Can you tell me who you are?”
There is a pause.
“You already know,” says the voice.
“I don’t. I really don’t,” says Patty, frantic to clear up any misunderstanding.
Just like last time, there is silence, and then the phone goes dead. Shaking, Patty dials star-69. Why didn’t she do this before? An electronic voice gives her the number of the last person who called. Why is there never a pen when she needs one? She opens the drawer to the little table: only a gnawed-on pencil. Who uses pencils anymore? She jots the number onto a National Geographic with a cover photo of a petulant-looking mother orangutan holding a tiny infant above the caption “Endangered Species.” She doesn’t recognize the area code. It doesn’t matter. She dials and waits. Clay is drying in the cracks of her fingers. The house is still, and Dan is working late. Flashback snoozes on the floor, his sides gently heaving. Outside the window, the fog rolls in like a monochromatic tide. Soon it will blanket everything, and when she steps outside later to go to the store, she won’t be able to see the lights of the city to the south, only the immediate shape of her Subaru illuminated in the flat gray. The world she will drive into will be one-dimensional, without sides or back, only surface, she herself an animated stick figure. She listens as the phone begins to ring on the other end. It rings and rings and rings. She lets it go on for so long that she becomes dependent on the rhythm of the ring, as a kind of consolation, lulling her into a trance. She takes in the framed photos left over from the home visit (they’d even argued over the frames!): the picture of Dan’s niece Molly graduating from Harvard two years ago; the photo of her sister’s two overindulged kids in corny Santa hats, posed in front of a bedecked fireplace; the old black-and-white photo of her and her brother as kids with their first bikes on a street in Sebastopol, where they briefly lived — a symbol of the “happy childhoods” that she and Dan have artificially constructed. The photographs create in her now a chilling sense of what they might have to become. After a while, she realizes no one is going to answer her call. She hangs up and studies the number, then she dials the long-distance operator to determine where the area code is from. “Just a minute,” says the operator; she is “doing a search.” Patty considers that the call might even have been made from a pay phone. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” the operator explains with heavily inflected officiousness, “but there is no such area code. Are you sure you have transcribed the first three digits correctly?”
“It’s only three digits,” Patty snaps. “Hard to screw up three digits,” and she hangs up. No such area code. But she heard ringing on the other end. Maybe she dialed the number wrong. And now she can’t try redial, because she has called the operator in between. The fog rolling in always looks like ocean waves. She could be trapped on a beach somewhere at high tide, with no place to go. There were sometimes stories in the paper of careless tourists picnicking in walled coves and being swept out to sea. Before she and Dan were married, they used to picnic at a small nude beach bordered by steep cliffs. They would cook salmon in a pit under the sand, look at the sea, and talk about what they wanted out of life. They were young, but not that young. Their unstructured lives still held promise.
Patty remembers it was Dan who first brought up the subject of kids. She thinks he simply asked, Do you want kids? as if that were all it took. And she feels certain she must have shrugged and said, Of course. Someday. After I’ve figured out my own life. And that seemed to satisfy them both, that they would resign themselves to adulthood and its responsibilities when the time came — and not a minute sooner. The years passed. Small changes led gradually to big changes. Occasionally they still liked to sit out back in their hot tub and smoke a joint and reminisce about “the old days.” Dan would say he felt like Rip van Winkle in the nineties, and Patty would talk about how there were no real causes anymore: everything had sort of blended together, and you couldn’t figure out what really mattered and what didn’t.
She chooses not to tell Dan about this second call either.
THE QUESTIONS they had to answer! Why they wanted children, how they expected children to change their lives, what their hopes and dreams were for children, how they would handle a handicapped child, why they had waited to have children, how they would handle religion, discipline, how many drinks they had per week, who their friends were . . . They had to take physical exams. There were police checks and fingerprints. Patty became convinced that her shoplifting arrest at eighteen would somehow leak through the sealed court records and seep out for all to know. Yes, she had shoplifted, enough for a felony charge, but that was a different time, and, besides, everyone did those things, and her parents had come down to the police station and gotten her released on her own recognizance, and there had been some deal made with a judge friend of her dad’s, and her records had been closed, and that was the end of that. At one point, Dan fretted about the war protests he’d been in — there was even a photo of him in a crowd at People’s Park in Berkeley with hair down to his shoulders. Would that be enough to invalidate his application for fatherhood? Now he was a respectable, tie-wearing, gray-suited attorney, with tailor-made shirts and monogrammed handkerchiefs, sticking it to the insurance companies for clients who had suffered due to corporate carelessness. Sometimes they laughed about their pasts when they lay in bed at night. They even laughed ruefully about the people they’d become. And yet they couldn’t keep themselves from feeling lucky, and in the mornings when they made their double mochas with an inch of foamed milk at the top and skimmed the San Francisco Chronicle on the deck before going their separate ways in their heavily insured automobiles, they looked out over the succulent garden and debated whether or not to have Roberto, the landscaper, extend it a little farther for the next few years until they got the pool. “Sometimes I feel we have too much,” Patty would say.
“How can you have too much?” Dan would ask, and then he’d slide into irony. “It’s the good old American way. How would you like to give up your Nordstrom’s card?”
“It’s better than being refugees fleeing over mountains with whatever we can carry,” Patty would say, referring to the two years Dan spent in the Peace Corps just before they met.
EARLY ONE morning, on her way out the door to the studio with car keys in hand, Patty easily recognizes the ring of what she and Dan now jokingly refer to as “the baby phone.” No mistake. She has only to go from the dining room to the great room, and easily reaches the phone just after the second ring. She enunciates the prepared greeting perfectly, with just the right pitch and intonation: “Hi. Singer home. This is Patty speaking.” She is ready this time. In that moment before the person on the other end speaks, she steels herself for those awful words, either a mistake or a joke — some prankster who has seen the ad and is playing a mean trick, or a young birth mother who gave up her baby and now has changed her mind and is taking revenge on all the upper-class women who can afford the baby she couldn’t, blaming the world for her choices. Still, Patty feels accused. She follows the pointed finger to the other side and can almost imagine what it must be like to give up a baby. She has given up two, but of course they weren’t really babies, just the tiniest seeds of babies that had briefly taken root when she was young and careless. In the past few years, she has been haunted by those two choices over and over (the books say this is a classic response for infertile women, which makes her a cliché), but then she recalls the day she ran into her beleaguered friend Miriam, pushing a shopping cart full of giant boxes, four tiny children in tow. After all, as Dan has often pointed out, regretting a past choice is silly: How on earth could Patty have predicted when she was so young that she would arrive at this age childless? And what if she had indeed gone ahead and given birth? Where would she be now? She briefly inhabits that long-ago feeling of desperation, which she can call up on occasion and which helps her understand why she did what she did, but the regret is only fleeting, because then it leads her to the relief she felt when she walked away, not empty and lost, as current conservative lore would have it, not even weighted down with guilt or remorse, but wholly herself again, unfettered. Why would any young woman choose to go through nine months of pregnancy, knowing she would just give the baby away? Is that really such a generous thing to do?
A birth mother’s gift, one social worker called adopted infants, in a voice that glowed with appreciation. A gift to you, and a gift to the child.
And now a strange girl’s voice is speaking those first awkward words into her ear: “Hello, Mrs. Singer? I’m calling about your ad.” Patty can almost imagine a birth mother saying, Hello, I’m calling about your gift, like something one might win for buying a particular brand or filling out a consumer questionnaire. As the girl begins to talk, sweetly, the words that follow are just words, not unlike the ones Patty has so painstakingly cobbled together for the ads and for the letters: important decision, counseling, hope, home. Patty pictures a brown-haired high-school girl in Maryland whose parents are behind her 100 percent, or a red-haired twenty-something in Virginia whose religious principles won’t let her seek an abortion, or a blond teenager from Wyoming with sculpted three-inch fingernails who knows she really must finish high school if she wants to get ahead in life. When she pictures birth mothers, Patty has always envisioned white girls, middle-class girls, educated girls with good teeth and fair skin and decent liberal politics that faintly resemble some early version of herself. No shame in that, she thinks. Why not want a child to look and think like you? The perfect birth mother for her genetically perfect baby is what she has been fantasizing about these many months. Herself at unruly sixteen. Herself at passionate twenty-one. Herself now at staid, upper-middle-class forty-four, reading from a script, desperate to prove herself worthy. She almost knows what the voice is going to say — she’s rehearsed both her part and the caller’s. You and your husband will want to be prepared to answer certain questions. It’s kind of like an exam, part of the adoption process. It’s also, said one speaker at their adoption group, a special time for self-examination and new self-knowledge. In some corner of her mind, Patty realizes that what she is about to say will put an end to the expense and work of the last six months, will continue to delay what has been delayed all these years by circumstance and fluke. She should know by now she cannot have so much so easily.
She forms a response into the phone, careful not to reveal too much by her tone. There is no rush anymore. She simply says what needs to be said, speaking from the heart, with compassion for the stranger on the other end, and for herself as well. “Don’t worry,” she says gently into the phone before the girl has a chance to go any further. “Please don’t worry. I don’t want to take your baby.” And she is thinking for all of them, There. There now. No one is going to take anything from anybody anymore.