The Girl Behind the Door (5 page)

BOOK: The Girl Behind the Door
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e'd reserved a double room at the Hotel Forum Warszawa, which catered to European tourists. As far as I could tell, we were the only Americans there.

We parted with Renata and Marian at the hotel entrance, then walked through the lobby with Joanna, who was slumped over asleep in our collapsible stroller. A well-dressed, officious young man and woman with the charm of the Motor Vehicles Department stood behind the front desk watching as we crossed to the elevator banks.

When we left the hotel the day before we were childless; now we had a baby in a stroller. Did they suspect we were American baby snatchers on a poaching trip to Poland? Would they report us to the authorities?

As we stood waiting for the elevator, I made sidelong glances to see if they were still watching us, but they'd turned back to their computer screens. Perhaps I was just paranoid. Erika stood next to me, one hand on the stroller, her hair frizzed and her skin glowing from the heat.

Looking down at Joanna slumped in the stroller, I couldn't get over how impossibly adorable she looked with a simple change into girly clothes. I crouched down next to her and put my nose up to her mouth. Erika watched me, puzzled.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

I smiled up at her. “Making sure she's still breathing. She's so quiet.”

Erika rolled her eyes. I hoisted myself back up. “She was really easy in the car ride on the way back, wasn't she? Hardly made a peep.”


As if trying to reassure myself that everything was under control now that we were together, I continued. “I think the hard part is behind us now that we've got her. I'll be a mighty happy dad if she keeps snoozing away like this.”

“Don't bet on it,” Erika said. “Babies are a
of work.” The elevator door opened and we maneuvered the stroller with our precious charge into the car.

I shrugged off Erika's warning. “Now
the worrywart.”

Once we'd stepped into our room and let the door shut, we sighed with relief; we were finally alone together. Joanna opened her eyes and straightened up in her stroller. I crouched down to eye level with her.

“Hi there. Have a good nap?”

She glowered at me and writhed around in the stroller. Thankfully, Erika's motherly instincts kicked in. She unbuckled Joanna, lifted her out of the stroller, and set her down on one of the twin beds we'd pushed together, but she toppled over.

We propped her up with pillows and emptied our cache of toys onto the beds, hoping she'd occupy herself with her new playthings—plastic blocks, books made of cloth, a sterling silver rattle, stuffed animals, a rubber ball—but she started to cry. Looking at Erika, I froze. “Oh God. Baby crying. What do we do?” I'd fantasized for months about being the perfect dad, but now I felt completely useless.

Erika picked her up from the bed and whispered to her while gently bouncing her up and down. The bouncing seemed to distract her and she stopped crying.

There wasn't a lot of space to walk around our room, but after a week in Poland we were used to everything being cramped. Because there was only a tiny closet and dresser, our suitcases were spread all over the floor. Joanna's hotel crib was crammed between our beds and the wall, leaving a little pathway to the bathroom.

I was relieved that at least one of us had some natural parenting instincts. It certainly wasn't me. “How did you know what to do?”

“I took care of my brother Richard when he was a baby and I was ten. I loved it until he threw up all over me.”

Erika grew weary from the bouncing. Joanna coughed up phlegm from her cold. She looked miserable and I didn't dare touch her. Maybe we needed a doctor, but how would we find one late at night in Warsaw? Erika put Joanna back down.

“Let me check her diaper.” I felt like an idiot, like when my car wouldn't start and all I could think of was to check the oil, as if that would help.

Erika put a fresh diaper on her, replacing the old-fashioned pinned cloth diaper with something convenient and disposable—a Pamper. Joanna quieted down for a minute but then started back up again. I watched helplessly, feeling my headache coming back from her squealing. I prayed that the people in the room next door couldn't hear us through the thick cinder-block walls. Standing in the pathway carved out in front of our beds, I felt powerless. “What do we do now?”

Erika remained calm. “She's probably hungry.”

“Right. Good idea.” I felt like we were in a Three Stooges movie where they suddenly found themselves in charge of a baby.

The orphanage staff had given us several old-fashioned glass bottles full of soup, formula, and other liquefied food. Joanna was fed from a bottle even though a fourteen-month-old should have been eating solid foods from a spoon. Erika lifted her from our beds, shushing her while grabbing the bottle of lukewarm carrot soup, sticking the rubber nipple into Joanna's mouth. It worked. She quieted down and sucked away. Thank God for women when it came to caring for a baby in a foreign hotel room. I made a mental note:
When the baby cries, hold her and bounce her around. If she's still crying, check diaper. If she just won't shut up, feed her
. I could remember that.

Once Joanna quieted down I could think again. My attention turned to the two bottles of liquid food left on the dresser. “Uh, honey, what do we do when those two bottles are empty?” Erika looked at me, impatient. “We find a supermarket and get her baby food that she can take from a bottle.”

Shooting me a look of feigned superiority, she smiled mischievously. “Here, Mr. Mom. You can feed her now.” She handed Joanna to me with the bottle sticking out of her mouth. “I have to go to the bathroom.”

I'd never fed a baby before and felt like I'd been given a ticking hand grenade. I cradled her awkwardly in the crook of my arm, trying not to drop the bottle. She had a blissful look on her face, eyes half shut as she finished. I took the bottle from her and looked for something to wipe her mouth with, finally using my shirttail. She gazed at me, just as she had in the orphanage the day before.
Now what do I do?
Erika was still in the bathroom.

I walked her over to the window. We had an expansive view of a drab, gray, sprawling city. A faint pinkish red sunset was filtered through a thin layer of smog. Across the street was one of the tallest and perhaps ugliest buildings in Europe, the Palace of Culture and Science. Built in the fifties, it was a “gift” from the Soviet Union.

Joanna looked out at the view, seemingly mesmerized by the flow of traffic down below, a bustling swarm of small cars and trucks that must have looked like toys to her. Erika returned from the bathroom looking weary but happy. “Did you remember to burp her?”

“Burp her?” I remembered reading about it in a baby book somewhere. Erika rolled her eyes as she took Joanna from me, hoisting her over her shoulder. “You always burp a baby after she eats.” Another mental note:
Reread chapter in baby book about burping the baby

I called room service to order sandwiches, beer, and hot water for making baby formula, and then flipped through the channels on the TV: a Russian game show, German news, Italian soccer, French political talk show, Polish documentary on Hitler, CNN. Thank God, something I could understand.

Erika buckled Joanna back into her stroller and parked her three feet from the TV. She stared at the screen, unblinking, apparently hypnotized by the wonders of television and the news of the world. I collapsed on the hard beds, spent, as a breaking story came on about Boris Yeltsin, the first elected president of Russia. “How long have we been at this parenting now? Four hours? I'm exhausted. I don't know how I'm going to get through this for another eighteen years.”

Erika plopped down next to me. “Get used to it.”

My eyes fixated on Joanna in the stroller in front of the flickering light. Here we were watching TV together like a real family. “Just kidding. I meant to say it was a
exhausted. I'm loving every minute of it.”

By the time room service arrived with our dinner and we ate, it was close to ten o'clock. Joanna was still awake in front of the TV, squirming in her stroller. “Let's put her to bed.” Erika unsnapped her from the stroller, checked her diaper, and laid her in the crib on her belly with a wool blanket, the pink squeaky doll, a stuffed bunny, and a goose-down comfort pillow she'd bought at a gift shop in Warsaw.

Joanna kicked and thrashed like a turtle trying to right itself, then pulled herself up into a crouched position on her hands and knees. Letting out a soft hum, she rocked back and forth on her knees while staring straight ahead. Erika and I watched, transfixed, through the bars of the crib. She seemed to have no awareness that we were there. Erika whispered, “Oh my God. I think she's trying to rock herself to sleep.” I studied her. “Wow. We saw those kids on TV, in the Romanian orphanages, do the same thing.”

She was referring to an ABC News
exposé we'd seen the year before about Romanian children abandoned in state orphanages, the disastrous result of a bizarre plan concocted by the Ceauşescu dictatorship to force women to bear children for the state. The televised images were heartbreaking—youngsters in straitjackets confined to metal bed frames in bleak, cold rooms; mentally disturbed adolescents left alone in silence, rocking back and forth; neglected infants drowning in their own filth, too weak to cry.

After about ten minutes, Joanna collapsed in a heap, crying. Maybe it was her rattly cough that kept her from sleeping. Erika jumped out of bed, picked her up, bouncing and shushing her, but Joanna's distress seemed to get worse. Her crying became an ear-piercing scream.

I'd never heard such a desperate wail. Didn't she have an
switch somewhere? We'd had a long day and needed sleep. Erika kept bouncing her up and down, rocking her back and forth. She sat her by the TV, but Joanna wouldn't settle down.

An hour later, at eleven o'clock, Joanna finally calmed herself. Erika laid her back down on her stomach in the crib, kissed her hot sweaty head, and covered her with the wool blanket, pulling the comfort pillow up close to her face.

We looked at each other, exhausted. I felt like we were two bomb disposal experts who'd just defused an improvised explosive device. Looking over the bar of the crib, careful not to disturb her, I listened to her breathe. Her nose was stuffy, so she breathed through her mouth, wheezing from the congestion in her chest. I whispered to her, “Poor kid. You won't be alone at night anymore.”

Then I blew her a kiss good night.


wo days after returning from Mrągowo, we sat in court for our adoption hearing. Since we could not bring Joanna, our hotel had recommended a girl who appeared to be about fifteen or sixteen to watch her in our room. We weren't thrilled at the notion of our first separation from Joanna, even for a couple of hours, but we had little choice. Erika gave the young sitter a brief interview in Polish and determined that she was trustworthy.

The courtroom was small but ornate. The raised bench, desks, gallery, and carved paneling were made of mahogany. All the court officials—the judge, the state attorney, and Renata—were dressed in black robes with white silk scarves that looked like bow ties; all they needed were white powdered wigs. The only other people in the courtroom were two jurors, a court reporter, and a translator for me, the only non-Polish-speaker in the room.

The atmosphere was solemn. Erika and I sat behind a long table, facing the judge and jurors. It felt as though everyone's eyes were trained on us, except for the judge, who was busy looking at our file, talking with Renata and the state attorney. I tried to read their facial cues and vocal tones to get a sense of where the hearing may lead us. With only a vague understanding of the Polish judiciary, we had to take Renata's word that all would be fine. I prayed that she was correct.

My palms were cold and sweaty. Erika grabbed my hand for moral support. I surveyed the room for anyone who looked kind or supportive, but all I saw were stern, almost blank expressions that revealed nothing. If it weren't for Renata and Erika sitting next to me, I would've felt even more helpless than I did.

The judge called the court to order. She looked to be in her forties, very professional and commanding. Maybe she was a mother herself. If so, perhaps she'd warm up to us and be sympathetic to our case. At the very least she'd be impressed by Erika's Polish. But the judge had a grave look on her face as she spoke. The translator whispered to me that she was outlining the facts of the case. The judge turned toward me and spoke. I leaned toward the translator.

“The judge wants you to take witness stand,” she said.

Erika squeezed my hand hard as I stood up. “Don't forget to breathe.”

My mind raced and my mouth felt thick as if full of sand as I faced the judge, feeling more like an accused criminal than an adoptive-parent-to-be. The judge glanced up at me and then read from a document I couldn't understand. The translator was nearly a foot shorter than I was, so I bent down to listen to her translation. “She is introducing you to court,” she said.

The judge directed something to me that sounded like a question. The translator whispered, “What are your feelings for this child?”

The judge looked at me with an impassive expression. I froze, my head a swirl of thoughts. We'd literally just met Joanna but we weren't about to let anyone take her away from us. Yet to her, we were strangers. Should I lie? Would it have jeopardized the entire hearing if I did? I should have thought this through beforehand.

It felt as if an hour had passed while the judge waited for my response before I blurted out to the translator, “I am absolutely in love with this child. I already feel bonded to her.”

BOOK: The Girl Behind the Door
4.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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