Authors: Dana Reinhardt
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Family, #Adoption, #Fiction
For my daughters, Noa and Zoe
Look at us. A family of four. Seated around the dinner table. Someone asks: “Pass the couscous.” The son. The younger of the two children, he has a mop of sandy blond hair the girls in his class find excuses to touch. The older sister pretends to spit in the couscous before she slides it over to him. He rolls his eyes. The parents don’t notice. They’re unusually quiet tonight. Mom is at one end of the table, Dad at the other. Here we are. We do this every night. We eat our dinner together. Isn’t it perfect? Aren’t we the perfect family?
Now look more closely. The mother also has that sandy blond hair, although hers is tied back in a loose ponytail, and let’s face it: she probably could be more attentive to those split ends. The father doesn’t have much hair to speak of and what he does have is darker, but the pictures in the hallway reveal that he was once a fair-haired boy with a suspicious glare for the camera.
Now look at the older sister. The differences don’t stop at the hair. I have olive skin and almond eyes. I don’t have the father’s dimpled chin. I don’t have the mother’s husky voice. I’m a whiz in math. I can fold my tongue into the shape of a U. Did you know that the ability to do that is hereditary? No one else in my family can do that.
This is where we are all sitting, at the dining room table, eating Dad’s Moroccan chicken with couscous, when my mother puts down her fork, fixes me with one of her looks, and says, “Rivka called. She wants to meet you.”
Let’s back up. Let me tell you about my day. When I was really little my parents used to start every morning by saying, “Let me tell you about your day.” They’d go through every detail: “And then you are going to read some books, then you are going to have a nap, then Daddy’s going to take you to the park to play with Cleo, then we’re going to eat dinner…” Not exactly riveting information, but they said I had a problem with control and that I needed to feel like not every decision was being made for me. By the way, you’ll notice that every decision was indeed being made for me, and telling me about these decisions wasn’t giving me any real control over them, only the illusion that I had control over them. Which is kind of sneaky. Anyway. Let me tell you about my day and what preceded the Moroccan chicken and couscous and my parents dropping the bomb of Rivka on me.
School started last week. So you can probably imagine what it’s like. There’s a feeling like the year can go any way you want it to: teachers don’t know you yet, your clothes are new, your hair is freshly cut and styled, and also Cleo’s boobs got really big over the summer. I had suspected this all summer long and mentioned it to her on more than one occasion, but you know how it is hard to notice changes when they’re happening right in front of you. So when we got back to school and a few of our other friends said something to her, she started to realize that maybe it really was true and maybe she should actually go to one of those old, heavily perfumed ladies in the women’s intimates department at Filene’s and get herself measured for a new bra because, as I mentioned, I’m pretty good at math, which includes geometry, and I can tell you with confidence that she is no longer a 32B. And then today Conor Spence, who’s a total jerko jock but is also kind of hot if you like guys like that, which neither of us does, stopped and said, “Nice tits, Warner” to Cleo as we walked by him in the hallway, and she was totally mortified but also, I imagine, a little bit thrilled.
So after Cleo’s boobs literally stopped traffic, we went to English, which is the only class we have together this semester. We’ve been friends since our diaper days. Her mom, Jules, and my dad met at the playground pushing us in those little bucket swings. They were both home with babies, bored out of their minds. They started to get together a couple of times a week and throw us on a blanket on the floor with some bright plastic toys we weren’t supposed to choke on, although once I somehow managed to anyway. This is what they called a playdate. And just in case you are getting any weird ideas about Cleo’s mom and my dad, nothing ever happened there. Jules became great friends with Mom too, even though Mom was always working and not around for those mind-numbing afternoons of baby care. Jules would come over with Cleo for dinner whenever Cleo’s dad was working late or out of town. But they never got together as couples because Dad and Mom never liked Edward. Eventually Jules had to admit that she didn’t like him either, and when Cleo was five they got divorced. He moved to Scottsdale, remarried, and has two young kids. Cleo hasn’t seen him since three Christmases ago.
In English class we’re reading
The Great Gatsby
. I didn’t read the chapters last night because…well, I guess I don’t really have a good excuse other than laziness and my brother bursting in and out of my room to ask questions about
homework. I knew what he really wanted was to pump me for information about upper school, not about Algebra 1. Jake just made the gargantuan leap from the lower school to the upper school campus. It’s an entirely new social order, and Jake is trying to figure out the food chain. All the people he’s heard me talk about on the phone or with Cleo when she’s over are suddenly flesh and blood to him. So he wanted to know if Stephanie Stark was that fat when she was going out with Mike Pine or whether her ballooning weight was the reason Mike dumped her for Heidi Kravitz. See? Jake needs me; that’s why I couldn’t get to
The Great Gatsby
. So in class I just sat there and drew in my notebook and listened to the discussion and actually wished I had done the reading because there were some things I would have liked to say. And mercifully, Mr. Nardo never called on me.
After U.S. history I had a free period. For the first month of school all the student groups have tables set up in the gym where you can go and take pamphlets (and free bite-sized candy bars) and sign up for the astronomy club or the yearbook or the mime troupe or the Pig Latin association or whatever. One thing I guess you should know about me is that I hate clubs. I was never a Brownie or a Girl Scout. From ages nine to eleven I slept with a Backstreet Boys pillowcase (I’ll kill you if you ever tell anyone), but I never joined the fan club.
So my free period found me in the gym leafing through pamphlets and scarfing down bite-sized Charleston Chews looking for some clubs to join because Mr. McAdams told me that if I don’t “diversify my resumé” I won’t get into a good college. The obvious choice for me would be to join the math club, but I don’t even need to go into the reasons this will never happen, do I? I wandered around for almost forty-five minutes and was no closer to joining a club than I was when I arrived, although I did consume a staggering amount of bite-sized candy.
It’s not like I don’t have interests. I like to write. I read a lot. I know almost everything there is to know about movies. I make my own T-shirts. I’ve always been fascinated by penguins, yet there doesn’t seem to be a penguin club offering free Tootsie Pops. I guess there just isn’t anything that defines me enough that I feel the need to make it official. It’s like getting a tattoo. They’re cool and I’d love to get one, once I come to terms with the fact that my parents would throw me out of the house, but I just can’t come up with a symbol or a word or an image that says enough about who I am that I can live with it forever. But today, standing in that gym, surrounded by brightly colored Xeroxed pamphlets and miniature second-tier candy bars, I realized that there is this one thing that defines me, but there isn’t a club for it and I can’t tattoo it on my shoulder blade or on my ankle or on the small of my back. And I stood there through the ringing of the bell for fourth period and felt the sound ricochet inside my hollow head.
It’s not like I haven’t spent hours or days or weeks or even years thinking about the fact that I’m adopted. My parents never tried to hide it from me. Early on I understood that my straight dark hair, olive skin, lanky build, and left-handedness—all the things that make me different from my family, good and bad—come from my own mysterious genetic pool. A pool seems too small when you think about it. It really must be more like a sea or an ocean with an endless horizon. All that past—all the events that happened or didn’t happen, all the weddings, births, deaths, secrets, triumphs, fighting and then making up or maybe not making up and then moving as far away as possible to get a new start—makes us who we are. But I don’t know any of these stories from my own oceanic past. I know only that all those events somehow dropped a baby at the feet of an idealistic young couple named Elsie Turner and Vince Bloom on an unseasonably snowy April day. And there I began my life as Simone Turner-Bloom.
I’ve thought about this a lot, as you can see, but you might be surprised to know that I’ve never wanted to learn anything about my real family tree. In my mind I’ve cut down those branches and left a bare, solitary trunk. I know no details. Except for one. Her name: Rivka.
Rivka. My parents would tell me that Rivka was young and couldn’t keep me and that I was this wonderful gift, blah blah blah—all of the things you might imagine parents tell their adopted children. They never said anything like “God wanted us to have you,” like my friend Minh’s parents always told him was the reason they went to Vietnam and adopted him. My parents would never say anything about God because they don’t believe in God. But they did say that they hadn’t even thought yet about when or how to have a family, and when the opportunity came to take me in, they just knew that this was the right thing to do. Rivka was part of the story before I was able to make it clear that I didn’t want to know any details. Eventually they stopped using her name, but that name has rattled around my brain, knocking things loose, taking different forms, and sometimes waking me from the soundest sleep with its mysterious taste on my tongue.
When I was little, I somehow confused Rivka with Rikki Tikki Tavi, and in my mind Rivka was a sleek mongoose. Years later I reread that story to a sullen little girl named Lola who lived down the street. I babysat for her one summer. It was only then, sitting on the floor of her cramped bedroom, that I realized what must have caused me to morph Rikki Tikki’s story with my own. He was swept up by a flood that delivered him to his new family, and I rode in on an April blizzard.
Sometimes I’ve thought of Rivka as a place, somewhere hot where your clothes stick to your back and the air smells like dust and mangoes. As I got older, Rivka became just a word to me, one with geometric shape, all angles and points. Somehow I’ve managed to keep myself from attaching it to a face that belongs to a woman whose hair will fall a certain way and who will have a certain kind of laugh.
When my mother says her name at the table, for a moment I can’t imagine who she’s talking about. It takes me a full beat even though earlier this same day I stood frozen in the gym, in my own way, thinking of her. But tonight I look at Mom with both shock and confusion. Dad reaches over and puts his hand over mine.
“Now, honey,” he says gently, “let’s take this slowly.”
Jake looks up from his plate in that slightly spacey way of his and asks, “Who’s Rivka?”
I know that if he took a moment and tried to use his intuition—Mom is speaking in her gentle mom voice, Dad is holding Simone’s hand, Simone looks like she’s about to puke or pass out or both—he’d piece it together. But let’s not forget that Jake is a teenage boy and operates in the world without the power of intuition. I will say this in his defense: Jake has never asked any questions about my birth parents or how I arrived in this family. I was here before him. That’s all that ever seemed to matter.
I can’t speak. There’s a swarm of bees in my head.
“I know how you feel about this,” Mom says carefully. “And this, of course, is entirely your decision. But I think we should at least talk about it.”
Jake still looks puzzled, like he’s in Spanish class and he’s translating one sentence behind the teacher. He has couscous on his chin.
“She’s my birth mother, Einstein.”
“Oh,” he sort of mumbles, and looks both wounded and uncomfortable. I’m sorry I snapped at him.
I take my hand away from Dad’s, not because I want to hurt his feelings but because I have a habit of biting my cuticles when I’m nervous.
Mom takes another stab at this: “Simone. I…We…We didn’t think it would be right to keep this from you. She called, and she makes a pretty compelling case, and I promised her that I would let you know that this is an option that’s available to you.”
I notice that Dad hasn’t eaten a bite of his dinner. This is pretty remarkable when you consider it’s Dad. He rubs his palm over his bald spot. “Let’s just sit with this for a little while, okay? We don’t need to come to any decision tonight.”
That’s all I can manage to say, and I get up and leave the table.