1. By the age of ten, she had it all decided. She said, when I grow up, I’m going to have three children, two boys and a girl. She announced the news with the auspicious certainty of a child, knowing even their names—Joshua Paul, Corey Michael and Maggie May. She chose Maggie May because she loved that old song, Rod Stewart’s voice like honey on toast. She’d sing along in the car, belting it out with all the heart of a fellow sufferer, even though she didn’t understand the loneliness under the surface, or why the morning sun in Maggie’s face really showed her age.
2. When she was twenty, she said, someday. She would have babies someday, two or three, but first she had so much to figure out, everything really. She waited tables at a nightclub into the early morning and promised herself she would go back to school. She longed to do something creative—her father was a painter—but she seemed to have a knack for nothing. My dad doesn’t like to share, she often joked. He kept all of the talent for himself. She sensed that some girls like her, full of desire to be someone but still lacking something—the means? the confidence?—ended up making babies. But there was nothing special, really, about being a mother. Anybody could do it.
3. She didn’t remember asking for a boost, but adulthood had given her one anyway and she landed on the fence. She said this a lot, I’m on the fence. The numbers did not reassure her. She was thirty-three and had just left number five in a string of men, five men over fifteen years, a basketball team, but she hadn’t known. Women like her aunt said she would just know, unequivocally, the one she’d want babies with. There was a time when she believed she might love the second guy enough, maybe, and after their birth control failed once, when she was twenty-three, she thought a baby might be nice. Maybe nice, maybe hell, she wasn’t sure. But she knew all the reasons she shouldn’t: money and school and the drugs she’d done… Now, she looks back and thinks, phew.
4. I had to cross oceans to find him, she says, and she means it as a joke, but it’s true. She finds him in Spain at thirty-five, this gregarious, funny Basque guy, with the laugh from someplace down deep in his soul. He is the one. They talk about how they want two children. They both grew up without brothers and sisters around and remember feeling lonely sometimes. They talk about it and her heart leaps a little. By the time they marry, she’s tossed out her pills and given herself a deadline, as if making two babies by forty were entirely up to her, like using food before the expiration date. Two children, they visit her in her daydreams. A boy with his eyes, a girl with her smile, a girl with his smile, a boy with her eyes. Both of them have his laugh.
5. It goes like this: the not not-trying quickly turns to trying, which turns to cycles and hormone injections and perfectly timed sex, legs in the air afterward, even though the fertility doctor says that doesn’t make any difference. Maybe with the treatments we will have twins, they say. Wouldn’t that work out well? Riding the 7 train home to Queens after work, she sees another one. She thinks: Breaking news out of New York City, where the pregnant women threat level has been elevated to red. Officials warn of massive lines for the city’s few public toilets, office kitchens smelling of herbal tea, tired commuters guilted out of their seats on the subway. “It’s terrifying,” said one 7 train passenger. “They just don’t give a fuck.” She discretely studies the suspect’s face and decides the woman looks older than her. She forgives her.
6. By now the thought has crossed her mind that God is punishing her, for what she did at twenty-three. Even though she doesn’t really believe this, doesn’t even believe in God. Sleepless minds never go nice places, her mother-in-law is right about that, no beaches in Mexico or fields of blue bonnets. She wakes in the middle of the night and thinks: this is your own fault, you waited too long and now look. Forty. Maybe we should try an egg donor, she tells him. Already they’ve decided that if they don’t have twins they’ll adopt the second one. Still they long for the whole experience from the very beginning just once, to feel the little kicks, see a tiny heart beating on the monitor and hear it calling thump, thump, thump. At least with an egg donor, the child would still have his laugh… You know, biological children are not all they’re cracked up to be. If the kid turns out to be an asshole, at least I’ll know it’s not my fault. He smiles when she says these things. He loves her. Mentally, she pushes her deadline back, from forty to forty-two, maybe forty-three, at the most. She wakes in the middle of the night and whispers, please.
7. When she was a little girl, her mother told her that they’d tried to have a second child but that it didn’t work out. Back then, you didn’t have fertility treatments or egg donors. Back then, you just had to accept that it didn’t work out. Or, you could adopt. They decide on an independent, domestic adoption, no agency, because they’ve heard it will be faster, less expensive (it won’t be). And along with other hopeful parents, they place ads around the country in those little supermarket papers called shoppers, ads with a toll-free number for the birthmothers to call, and call, and call. One deeply personal conversation after another, always ending with a promise from the pregnant woman: she will contact their lawyer soon, tomorrow. But mostly they don’t, and the would-be mother—because she does the talking, always—is left wondering if she should call them back, or text, or wait, and how long should she wait? It’s like dating, she tells her friends, only worse, because she wants something the woman has, badly, and that something is her baby.
8. She is at work, stalking the halls in search of a free conference room. The woman on the phone is waiting. Jessica. Due to give birth by cesarean the following week, she and her husband had made arrangements with another couple through an agency, but she didn’t like the way the staff treated her. They already have four kids at home, and the recession has hit them hard. The baby is a girl. The would-be mother fights to stay cautious, but she cannot help herself, the excitement always wins. The next day, the lawyer’s office calls—they’ve read your profile and want to move forward—and overnight preparations begin. They hold their breath, spinning and tripping through the next several days. One false move, she thinks, and they’ll end up like that other couple. Then, they are boarding a plane for Atlanta, and they are meeting the birthfather at the airport and they are driving and driving. It is late July and so hot outside, but inside the hospital someone’s set the thermostat at freezing. The temperature is the only thing that feels real as they walk along the corridor, as they enter the room where Jessica sits propped up on the bed, as they see, lying in a bassinet, a little bundle with a pink hat. Forty-two days before her forty-forth birthday, she meets her daughter. She does not name her Maggie May; they give her a Basque name that means “wanted.”
9. Adoptions can take awhile so as the child nears two, they figure they better get started on the second one. They want the kids to be close together in age, but the real age she worries about is her own. Even a writer can do the math—at best she’ll be sixty-three when the second one graduates high school, at best people will think she’s the grandmother, offer her their chair. Take a load off, grandma, they’ll say. She expresses these doubts to the director of the adoption agency, but she just smiles and says, oh your forties are nothing, we get plenty of clients in their fifties. Hearing this helps, comparing herself to people worse off always makes her feel better, even crazy people. Even though she knows that, to someone ten years younger, she is the crazy one.
10. It seems they are talking—fighting? Yes, fighting—all the time about money. They can never seem to escape the problem of money. In their file at the agency it says they have a “budget” of $30,000, but that’s a lie. Their bank account collapsed under the weight of the first adoption, and beyond the $12,000 tax credit, they’ve saved next to nothing. They raise their voices when they speak about this. Frustrated, she tells him again not to worry, they’ll make it work somehow, they can always borrow from their 401ks, and he tells her again, no way. His biggest fear is ending up an eighty-year-old greeter at Wal-Mart. Months go by and when she calls the agency to check in, the director says that it would really help move things along if they could increase their budget. To $40,000 or $50,000. Cases have come in they weren’t contacted about—the estimated costs were too high. I didn’t want to see you get your hopes up. You’d end up heartbroken. She’s in her pajamas, working from home at the desk in her bedroom. She takes a deep breath. I’ll see what we can do, she says. Then she hangs up and raises her cell phone like a baseball, thinks better of it and grabs a book, screams an obscenity and throws it against the wall.
11. If you wish to adopt a very young child, and you don’t have much money, there is really only one option left: foster care. This is what they used to say about adopting through foster care: Never. They’d heard stories about couples who’d tried and lost, the baby returned to his kin. Foster care’s first mission is to reunite children with their families. We could not bear to fall in love with a baby and then lose that baby, they used to say. Why would we do that to ourselves? On purpose? The homefinder from the foster care agency explains that the closest they’ll come to a “sure thing” is with a newborn—an abandoned baby or one whose older siblings have been adopted. No guarantees, but those cases offer their best hope. Still, they say, we don’t mind if the child is a bit older, and on their paperwork they write the age range “zero to two.”
12. On a snowy February day, the homefinder calls for the third time, and they say yes to a newborn baby girl. They’ve said no twice to situations they felt too precarious, the likelihood of losing the child too strong, but they’re tired of waiting so they tell themselves this one will work, this tiny thing, they tell themselves: at some point we have to risk it. And they fall in love with her, all three of them do, because how do you not love a tiny thing like that, even if you only have her for a week. She wonders how many times she’s cried since the beginning of all of this a decade ago. A fucking decade! And now it is making her daughter cry too; four years-old and already she’s learning about loss. The child wants a sister, she’s said so again and again. This is now what keeps her mother awake at night, chest tight with panic. She agonizes over the biological brothers and sisters absent from her daughter’s life. She thinks: she will hate me when she understands. Then morning comes again, the light, and they talk again about setting a deadline. Each passing day makes it harder to imagine starting over with an infant, even a week with a baby will remind you, babies are hard. She thinks: the morning sun when it’s in your face really shows your age. She thinks: crazy.
13. She emails the homefinder and says, please change our age range to “zero to four,” and she daydreams a three-year-old will stumble into their lives and stay, but she knows this is doubtful. They will always be too cautious; they cannot bear to watch their daughter lose one potential sibling after another. The child still talks about the baby sometimes, even though spring has gone since then and also summer. And with September’s arrival another birthday has come and gone too. Then, one fall afternoon, they walk to the little Thai restaurant up the street for a beer. The bar there is quiet, nearly empty, just one regular sitting at his corner as they settle in. She says, tell me how you feel, really, forget everything else, how do you feel? She wants him to go first, before she says it, how she’s been imagining adopting an older child, when their daughter is seven or eight, a girl right around her age. They say there are a lot of older children already legally free. She pictures the four of them hiking in the mountains, riding their bikes in the park… He says, I think I feel more comfortable with the idea of just the three of us. Not that I still don’t want a bigger family, but I think… I’m almost there. She nods and they are quiet for awhile, sipping at their beer. She thinks: sometimes, you just have to accept that it didn’t work out. I should be grateful for what we have. I am grateful for what we have. The regular stands to leave, and the bored bartender quickly clears away his glass and begins to wipe the bar down with a towel. In a few seconds, she will ask her husband how he feels about an older child, but for one small moment she catches herself staring at the young woman’s hand on the towel, watching it move across the bar.
© Carol J. Clouse
[This piece was selected by Katrin Gibb]