Authors: Claire Lombardo
“Violet, please don’t— He’s having a really hard time with our—because we’re leaving. He’s had so much transition already and he—”
“Why aren’t you taking him with you?” Violet asked. They’d already discussed this on the phone, when she’d called Hanna to make initial contact.
Hanna paled. “We’re just fostering,” she said, like Jonah was a cocker spaniel.
“So why don’t you adopt him? Is it about the money?” She felt like someone had taken over her body. “Because if it’s about the money, I can—we could—”
Hanna looked briefly disgusted but composed herself. Violet hated her for it. “We never intended to adopt. If we were
here that might be a different story but—I have to do what’s best for my family.”
“And I have to do what’s best for mine,” Violet said. She hadn’t replied, on the phone, when Hanna had said that Jonah would do much better moving in with an individual family instead of going back to Lathrop House. She hadn’t
dispelled the notion of she and Matt allowing the boy to live with them, though of course, in no uncertain terms, they couldn’t. Because she wanted the chance to meet him. She wanted to see him, just once, and now she had. “I never said that I—”
“Tell me you’ll at least think about it,” Hanna said. “Please. He has so much potential but if he has to go back there he’s going to— He’s made such progress with us.”
“I have two young children.”
“Once you get to know him I know you’ll love him.”
“I already love him,” she snapped. “I fucking gave birth to him.”
She stilled, feeling the weight of everything she’d been trying to suppress flood into that hot space behind her heart, the space so long reserved for Eli and Wyatt, everything she’d been pretending to forget, the affection she’d felt when he’d been growing inside of her and the jagged-edged agony of losing him. This afternoon had made her aware of a brand-new failure, her failure to act and the fact that she hadn’t been aware—shouldn’t she have known?—that a person she’d brought into the world was struggling so much to exist in it. That there was something she could do to help him. Behind Hanna, he had appeared in the doorway. He stepped closer when he saw her see him and held something out to her.
“You forgot this,” he said, refusing to meet her eyes.
She reached out, the flush in her cheeks matching the one spreading across Jonah’s face, and took the cracked green mug.
For Wendy, conversations with Violet were rare. They spoke at holidays, brief, wine-drunk, huddled exchanges on the back deck of the house on Fair Oaks when they were both fleeing the oversexed canoodling of their parents. So when her sister’s name appeared on the face of her phone, Wendy immediately knew why. She knew Violet well enough—better than anyone, once—to anticipate her next move.
“I take it you met the Danforths.” She tried to sound casual, an oracle;
I still know you so well, no matter how hard you try to pretend that I don’t.
“Don’t let this suggest for a single second that I’m not furious with you, Wendy. But I— Jesus. You put this in motion and I can’t just pretend that you didn’t, even though I’d like to. You’ve put me in an impossible position and I— Look, this isn’t—” Violet’s voice broke. “He’s going to go back to the group home unless someone— It doesn’t seem fair that— But I
Wendy; Matt and I aren’t in a position to…”
In her pause, she seemed to be acknowledging the vague untruth of this, that she and Matt had three extra bedrooms, that Matt probably billed over a thousand dollars an hour. But Wendy was well aware that having loads of money couldn’t solve all of your problems. She lit a joint and leaned her head back, taking in the white expanse of the ceiling.
“I can’t subject my kids to that kind of major upheaval, Wendy. And my hands are so full with them already.”
Wendy could tell her sister had rehearsed this justification, perhaps even had it written on a sheet of paper in front of her. It didn’t surprise her in the least that Violet, the picture-perfect narcissist, was refusing to let anything—even her own biological kid—get in the way of her magnificent life. She was surprised only that Violet had bothered to come up with an excuse.
“Hang on,” Wendy said. “What did you think of him?”
“Well. I mean, he’s fifteen. I’m not really sure what else to say.”
“Acne-riddled? Ungainly? Assholic?”
Violet laughed feebly. “In a sense, yes.”
“Don’t you think he looks like you?”
She could practically hear Violet stiffen over the phone. “Could you not—say things like that? Please?”
Could you please stop stating the obvious:
a classic Violet ask.
“I just meant— I don’t know. He’s cute, don’t you think? Objectively speaking.”
at teenage boys in that way, Wendy, so I couldn’t say objectively whether or not he’s
because I’m not a sexual predator.” Violet sighed. “But, I mean, sure. Yes. He’s still, you know,
but he seems— He reminds me a little of Dad. Sure, he’s cute.”
“You’re comfortable saying that Dad is cute but not your own kid?”
“He’s not my—” Violet stopped. “Look, not that I wouldn’t like to hash this out with you but it’s actually an urgent situation and I’m— I haven’t—”
“You haven’t finished a sentence this entire conversation,” she pointed out, and she heard Violet start to cry. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Viol. Okay. It’s okay. It’s going to be fine.”
“You did this,” Violet said. “I don’t understand why you did this.”
anything. It just happened.” But of course she knew this wasn’t true. “I could take him, if you wanted,” she said, emboldened by the weed, propelled forward by a vague, niggling sense of injustice. For this poor kid with his boring pipefitter name. For all the cracks he’d fallen through. And for the fact that—well, this gave her an upper hand over Violet for once, didn’t it? She dragged again, held her hit until her sister responded. And Violet, to her credit, did not laugh or say
what in the holy fuck
or hang up the phone.
“You’d do that?” Violet said, the tears in her voice now accompanied by a fond incredulity. “Wendy—really?”
At her sister’s gratitude, Wendy felt unexpected tears spring to her own eyes. “Jesus fuck, you nutjob,” she said, exhaling a pale cloud. “Of course I will.”
hen Violet said she had to speak with them privately, Marilyn’s suspicions were activated, perhaps another pregnancy or some kind of marital trouble. She was wrong, though, so treacherously far off-base that she kicked herself for the next six months, ruing whatever alleged maternal radar she possessed for letting her down in such a terrible, critical way.
She’d made them tea and they were sitting on the sunporch in the back, she and David together on the loveseat and Violet across from them in the wicker armchair, her legs crossed so tightly that it was difficult to tell where one ended and the other began.
“This isn’t—easy for me,” Violet said, and it disturbed Marilyn to see her ever-composed daughter so uncomfortable. “But certain things have—surfaced, and I’m— Of course I thought you deserved to know, even though it’s been—difficult.”
“What is it, sweetie?” she asked, trying to sound gentle instead of terrified. David had his arm behind her over the back of the couch and he squeezed her shoulder.
“The year I was— Do you remember the year I spent—in Paris?”
“Of course we do,” David said, bemused.
In times of uncertainty, Marilyn’s mind tended to leap to more ludicrous realms of possibility, and she thought chillingly of the news story about the dead-eyed American girl in Italy who’d murdered her roommate. “Sweetheart, are you in some kind of—”
“I wasn’t in Paris,” Violet said, as though from a script. “I was here, and I was pregnant, and I had a baby and I gave him up.”
Marilyn suppressed the hysterical impulse to laugh, despite the gravity of her daughter’s angular face, because though Violet had always been the least
of her children, of course this had to be some misguided attempt at a joke, a red herring, something unreasonably terrible that would soften the blow of whatever the real news was.
“What the hell are you talking about, Violet?” David asked, and the quiet severity of his voice snapped her back to attention.
“I moved in with Wendy,” Violet said tonelessly. Her gaze was fixed on the floor. “Right after I graduated I moved in with Wendy and Miles in Hyde Park and I had the baby in January.”
Marilyn remembered worrying about her daughter back then, abroad alone. Remembered a specific conversation during which she’d suggested coming to Paris for a visit. Remembered how Violet had demurred, saying she really needed the time to
Now it all sounded so theatrically false that Marilyn struggled to reconcile how they had believed her.
But of course they had. Violet had never given them cause for concern. Wendy had been emotionally rickety since she was a toddler, and life had proceeded to pitch itself pitilessly at her anyway. Liza was blithely headstrong—a trait born, Marilyn worried, from her perpetual parking space in the dead-center of their family, where she was frequently sideswiped or rear-ended. And Grace was the baby; she still called them several times a week and asked them for advice and small infusions of money, had just last week had David walk her through changing her vacuum bag over the phone. Marilyn worried about those three, but she almost never worried about Violet. And this, she saw, was a huge oversight, a great disservice to her daughter.
“Why didn’t you—” She startled at the sound of her own voice. “Why on
would you— You could’ve
us, Violet, my
. I don’t even…This doesn’t make
“He was adopted. We were— Wendy and I were actually quite conscientious about it, given the circumstances. He was adopted by a good family, and for several years everything was fine until—well, they—were killed. In a car crash. I know this sounds ludicrous. But he’s been in foster care since then. Living in Oak Park, actually. South side.”
“My God, Violet,” David said softly, rubbing his forehead.
“I know it’s a mess,” Violet said. “I know it sounds insane.”
“I just don’t understand why you didn’t tell us,” she said. “This doesn’t make any sense.”
“Saying that three hundred times isn’t going to make you suddenly get it, Mom.” Violet looked up at them, seeming surprised by herself. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to tell you. I have no good answers. I was really young and it was a really hard time for me. I’m not sure what else you want me to say.”
Her two little babies, living under the same roof, executing this madcap strategy, all of it outside of her awareness. What had she even been doing that year? She’d bought the hardware store by then. Gracie was in grammar school. Life as usual, a little crazier than usual, perhaps, but nothing out of the ordinary. She was accustomed to craziness.
“Where is all of this coming from?” David asked. “How did you find him?”
Violet, again, failed to meet their eyes. “I didn’t. Wendy did. She said it was—just a lark. Genealogical research.”
“But how did she—”
“I don’t know, okay?” Violet said. “I’ve had to force myself to stop thinking about that because now he’s here and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Her eldest daughter was always bobbing around the epicenter of their familial drama.
“It’s actually,” Violet said, chewing the inside of her cheek. “It’s a little more complicated.”
“Oh, lord,” she breathed. David took her hand.
“The foster parents are moving to Ecuador,” Violet said, and Marilyn nearly laughed again. Crazy on top of crazy. “Normally he’d end up back at the group home—that’s where he met Hanna, the foster mom; she volunteers there—but she’s indicated to me that if there was another living situation in place, it would be advantageous—” Here her daughter began to cry, a display of emotion, finally, that seemed to match the scope of what she was telling them, and Marilyn felt her own eyes dampen. “As I understand it, it’s a textbook systemic failure. He was in a series of foster homes, nothing awful, I guess, but nothing lasting, and then he— But he’s a good kid, smart. And Hanna says he’s made—just astronomical improvements since he came to live with them. There’s a chance to keep that momentum if he transitions to another stable family environment. The thing is— Matt and I don’t think— The boys, with the ages they are, we don’t want to— It could be incredibly disruptive, developmentally, to suddenly have such a major change to our family structure.”
“I’ll say,” David said.
Violet colored. “And so I had the idea that—”
we’ll take him,” Marilyn erupted, and she ignored the molten heat of David’s gaze on her as she focused on their daughter, arranged her most convincing Resolute Mom face. David would be horrified: imagining bearing the brunt of a new teenage life under their roof just as he’d finally disentangled himself from caring for patients and raising offspring. But of course it would be she who shouldered the burden, washed the boy’s clothes, checked his homework, acted as his informal alarm clock. She who stayed awake worrying about his chemistry test, his collegiate prospects; who noticed when he started to outgrow his parka and dragged him to REI for something that covered his wrists. David would be disturbed by the presence of him—his papers cluttering the kitchen table; his shoes tracking mud into the designated mudroom; his youthful indiscretions commandeering the bathroom for hours at a time—but he would never fully experience parenting a teenage boy, just as he had never fully experienced parenting a teenage girl.
“Of course we will,” he said from beside her, and everything shifted, fluidly, because of course he’d parented their girls, of course he was the reason that Wendy still spoke to them and Violet raised her kids to be kind to animals and Liza got through a PhD program and Gracie would always stop an elderly person to see if they needed help carrying their groceries. Her hand squeezed his three times, and his hand squeezed back thrice even harder, and they were agreeing to be parents again, during the most unbecoming part of parentage, after the infant sweetness and the toddler charm and the youthful epiphany, straight to the miserable adolescent sludge. Of course she and David would do that. Of course they would handle it together, as they always had, even if her tasks were more concrete and less pleasant.