The Girl Behind the Door (3 page)

BOOK: The Girl Behind the Door
6.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Just four short months after that encounter, we were bound for Mrągowo. As we sped through the Polish countryside, Erika and Renata carried on a conversation I couldn't understand, but their tone was relaxed—a good sign, I thought. Since we'd arrived in Warsaw three days earlier, my only way of deciphering conversation was to read facial cues and listen for vocal inflections. There was nothing intuitive about this language.

We'd been on the road three hours since they'd picked us up at our hotel in Warsaw. Adding to the misery of the heat, Renata and Marian chain-smoked unfiltered French Gauloises. The smoke hung in a drifting cloud around us in the car, the pungent smell filling my nose, eyes, hair, and clothes.

I felt a crushing headache building between my temples and I needed air, but didn't dare ask them to put out their cigarettes. We were desperate to avoid offending anyone, as if asking to stub out the Gauloises would unravel our carefully orchestrated arrangement. Instead I rolled down my window and let the blast of hot air cleanse my nostrils.

Outside, the asphalt of the road melted under the scorching sun. Cars and trucks left tire tracks in the black goop. A green road sign whizzed by—E77. This was the rough Polish equivalent of an interstate—a two-lane roadway with narrow shoulders on either side, the width of a bicycle lane, for slow-moving farm vehicles.

A silver Porsche with German plates blew past us. I held my breath, watching. It cut back into our lane in front of a Russian Lada up ahead, narrowly averting a head-on collision with a semi overtaking a lumbering green tractor hauling a load of hay the other way. Marian shook his head and gestured with his hands, muttering
Polish for “asshole.”

We continued through towns with tongue-twisting names such as Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki and Strzegowo, passing ancient Gothic churches, stately municipal buildings, dreary Soviet-era apartment blocks, seedy commercial offices, and grandiose monuments to Polish heroes of so many lost wars. Renata lit another cigarette and blew the smoke out her window. I fished through Erika's pocketbook for two Extra Strength Tylenols.

While waiting for the Tylenol to work its magic on my headache, I unpacked my video camera and pointed it out the window to record our journey for posterity, my mind drifting to the only image we had of Joanna, courtesy of a FedEx package we'd received in March. A single photograph showed a dark-haired young woman with a caring face holding a baby girl who looked like a Michelin man stuffed into two pairs of woolen footie pajamas.

The baby had a pouty look on her face, as if she'd been woken up from a nap just long enough to get her picture taken. Her head was sort of squarish with very little hair, and she had a cute little turned-up nose that was beet red. Maybe she had a sniffle. She didn't look particularly happy, but to us she looked magnificent.

Renata pulled a one-page document out of the worn, stuffed briefcase by her feet and handed it to Erika. She said something in her deep, scratchy voice as Erika took the document. “
. Okay,” she said, nodding. I leaned over Erika's shoulder, trying to read the strange writing.

“It is for taking Joanna out of orphanage,” Renata told me.

Thank you,” I said with a smile, proudly using one of my seven words of Polish.

“Nie ma za co,”
she answered, smiling at me. Seeing that I didn't understand a word, she repeated in English, “You're welcome.”

“Oh, right.
” I felt like such an idiot. She turned to Erika and said something in Polish, smiling. Erika laughed. Marian grinned and coughed, his cigarette dangling from his mouth as he drove. Why were they laughing? Erika leaned toward me. “Renata said with a little practice you could speak fluent Polish.”

“Very funny.”

As we continued farther north we passed forests, lakes, dairy farms, and rolling hills similar to those in Wisconsin. Renata gave us a guided tour of the countryside. “This is the Lake District. Very beautiful. Many people come here on holiday—Germans, Dutch, Danes. For them it is very cheap.”

Erika chatted away with Renata while I listened and stared at the scenery, thinking about the laborious steps we'd taken to get to this point. Just six months earlier, we'd walked out of the Unitarian Meeting House with little hope of ever having a child. Now we were just a couple of hours away from meeting the child we would name Casey, which meant “brave.” We were about to become parents.

From the first conversation Erika had had with Renata about Joanna, we'd worried about her health. We knew that as a preemie, she was underweight and very weak. We'd learned from a pediatric neurologist back home in Connecticut that a ten-month-old infant should have been able to stand, pick up small objects, feed herself, and play simple games. Joanna couldn't even sit up. She appeared to be at the developmental level of a six-month-old, but without an in-person evaluation it was impossible to know if she was simply understimulated or suffered from something more serious such as brain damage or cerebral palsy. Joanna had had perfunctory medical checkups, which were positive, but she'd never been evaluated by a neurologist for the kind of mental or physical problems common to being born premature. We had no way of knowing if there were any other family issues of heart disease, thyroid problems, depression, mental illness, or substance abuse. And the birth father might as well have been a phantom.

In June, before we'd left for Poland, Renata had arranged an evaluation for Joanna with a specialist in the town of Olstyn. We set up a conference call with our neurologist, and with Erika as translator, learned that the Polish doctor had put Joanna through a battery of tests for movement, balance, strength, and coordination. She'd failed them all, yet he was surprisingly upbeat. His theory was that Joanna could have just been weak from lack of stimulation.

Our American neurologist remained unconvinced. But then, he hadn't seen her. On the other hand, as much as I wanted to believe the Polish doctor, I hesitated to put too much faith in him either, someone I'd never met.

I checked my watch as we slowed down to get around another tractor moving at fifteen miles per hour up ahead on the E77. It was two thirty. We were supposed to be at the orphanage at three o'clock. Our adoption journey seemed to be set on fast-forward—way too fast for us to process—and now we were minutes away from our daughter. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to hold her, to hear what sounds came out of her mouth, to see what kind of personality she had, how she'd react upon seeing us.

At exactly three o'clock we pulled into Mrągowo, a picturesque town of 23,000 sandwiched between Lake Czos and Lake Juno. Marian headed straight for the Dom Dziecka, where he was to leave us; he would return later to take us to our hotel. As we pulled up to the gate, my heart was in overdrive. I felt a confounding mix of relief that we'd soon see Joanna and a nagging fear that she'd be nothing like what we'd expected. Erika appeared to hide her own nervousness behind a mask that exuded a calm, upbeat, even humorous demeanor. I was always a glass-half-empty kind of guy whereas Erika's glass was always half full.

The orphanage looked like a boarding school—a three-story beige stucco structure with a red tile roof. It must've predated the Soviet era because it didn't fit with the drab, depressing utilitarian concrete blocks that were the trademark of Communist architecture. Big oak and alder trees dotted the grounds. A metal swing set with a slide and a sandbox stood out front. A basketball hoop was mounted to a wall. Some bicycles and three-wheelers lay on the ground. That was reassuring.

Across the street through the thick oak trees Lake Juno glittered in the hot sun. An old man stood fishing along the shore, a young couple paddled a kayak out on the water. It was so tantalizingly close, but did the children ever have a chance to enjoy it?

A group of boys on a second-floor terrace watched our every move. Renata turned around to Erika and said something in Polish. The only words I could make out were
“nie normale.”
I assumed it was a reminder that most of the children there were handicapped. She'd told us months before about the special needs kids. My forehead beaded up with perspiration.

Had Renata been totally truthful with us about Joanna's health, knowing how committed we'd become? There was no way we could turn back now. I could never live with myself if we did. I'd always think about her.

I studied the boys on the terrace more closely as we pulled up. They stared and pointed at us. Most of them looked to be middle school or high school age. An older boy who appeared to be about sixteen, tall and skinny with an olive complexion, smiled strangely, as if he thought we were there for him. A younger one, maybe ten or eleven, had leg braces and crutches. He threw his twisted body from side to side as he walked, letting go of a crutch to wave at us. Another one sat slumped and shrunken in a wheelchair, expressionless. He looked like he had some kind of neuromuscular disease that had left him paralyzed.

Even though Renata had warned us not to be upset by the children, it was disturbing to see them up close. I felt awkward and guilty, even repelled by them, wondering how often they'd been let down by adoptive parents who'd come and left the orphanage with the younger, more attractive children. I gave them a halfhearted smile and a little wave back from the open car window. They were excited that I had acknowledged their existence, and waved furiously at me, as if trying to say
“Please pick me!”

Erika didn't seem to be as bothered by the kids on the terrace as I was. She took it in stride, smiled, waved back at them, and grabbed my hand. “This is it.” With the image of the handicapped children in my head, I felt another surge of fear over Joanna's health and looked at Erika sitting next to me. She was calm.


I said a silent prayer as we stepped out of the car and walked up to the entrance.


thick, rosy-cheeked woman dressed in a white lab coat greeted us warmly in the foyer. She could have been the director or one of the higher-ups, but Renata told us that she was one of the staff teachers. Her name was Danuta.

As we exchanged nervous smiles, nods, and
dzień dobrys
, Polish for “good day,” I looked past Danuta to see what I could of Joanna's home. There were no children in the hallway past the foyer, and I wondered where their living quarters were. Part of me was uneasy with the idea of seeing other rooms in the orphanage or the area where Joanna stayed in her crib. Perhaps it was better that her room remain a product of my imagination rather than risk a letdown by reality.

Danuta seemed jumpy as she hurried us into a reception room, gesturing us toward a sofa, nodding and saying something to Erika I didn't understand while she grabbed a couple of teacups and saucers from a cupboard. She seemed just as eager to make a good impression on us as we were on her. What a relief. I was afraid that they might have been surly and jealous of two Americans snatching one of their children.

The reception room was bright and pleasant, painted a pale shade of pink, almost like a skin tone. There were framed pictures of Polish cartoon characters on the walls—a jaunty cat, a prince on a horse, a queen holding a teacup, a bullfighter on the attack. Some shelves had been crammed with potted plants, books, stuffed animals, and dolls—a big, smiley red-haired clown, a blond doll with pigtails in a pink dress, a set of Russian
dolls arranged neatly in a row. There was a large metal desk in the middle of the room. Danuta sat behind it, Renata next to her in a chair, both of them engrossed in conversation. There was one odd thing in the room—a bathroom sink mounted on the wall in the corner, complete with towels, soap, and shampoo.

Perhaps to conserve energy, the lights were turned off. There was no air-conditioning, not even a fan. The windows were left open to bring in some air, but there was no breeze. With no screens, flies buzzed in and out of the room. A radio in the background played Polish choral music. Everyone in the room perspired from the heat, some of us from nerves.

BOOK: The Girl Behind the Door
6.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Thank You Notes by Fallon, Jimmy, the Writers of Late Night
The One From the Other by Philip Kerr
Mexican Fire by Martha Hix
Everything to Lose by Gordon Bickerstaff
Tap Out by Michele Mannon
Hold Your Breath by Caroline Green
Harvard Rules by Richard Bradley