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For 20 years, Allie Heller, first met in Laurie Alberts's novel Tempting Fate, has been haunted by the memory of her daughter, Lila, given up for adoption at birth. "Your absence is the center of my life," she begins, in an account of her life she intends to share in an imagined reunion with her grown child. Allie's troubled history, a fractured tale which she prepares for Lila, "to convince you that I couldn't help my long-ago defection," alternates with chapters about Lila, who was raised in a peripatetic ...
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For 20 years, Allie Heller, first met in Laurie Alberts's novel Tempting Fate, has been haunted by the memory of her daughter, Lila, given up for adoption at birth. "Your absence is the center of my life," she begins, in an account of her life she intends to share in an imagined reunion with her grown child. Allie's troubled history, a fractured tale which she prepares for Lila, "to convince you that I couldn't help my long-ago defection," alternates with chapters about Lila, who was raised in a peripatetic military family. Lila, having just undergone an abortion, "eliminating the only blood relative she may ever know," and feeling that her college career is in shambles, decides to fill in the missing pieces of her own personal history by locating her birth mother.
On Lila's 21st birthday, when the adoption files can be opened, Allie sets out to track her daughter down. The converging quest of mother and daughter for each other comes to a shocking and disturbing conclusion, one that fully reveals the true character of all the protagonists and the deceptions that have shaped their lives
Lila slid out from under the weight of Kevin's arm, halted to be sure he was still sleeping, stepped gingerly across creaking boards. She dressed quickly: a cotton summer dress for a warm day in early May, no slip, natural fiber innocence, sandals in hand. She skipped her usual stack of bangles, dark lipstick. Today the object was not to draw notice, to blend in. At the door she glanced back at Kev splayed across her bed, taking up much more than his share of space. His freckled shoulders and lean hips, sandy hair, smooth white butt called out to her but a tiny string of drool attaching him to the pillow relieved her from regret. She closed the door carefully.
In the kitchen her roommate Marcia sat hunched over a psychology text at the table, coffee mug and buttered bagel on the side. Marcia's blond hair clung to her head greasily and she'd worn the same olive-drab teeshirt for days. Marcia took exams seriously. Normally Lila did too, but she hadn't even begun to study for finals.
"Kev asleep?" Marcia whispered without looking up. She scratched behind her ear with the business end of her ballpoint.
"Uh-huh." Lila poured a mug of coffee, sipped.
Marcia set down her pen, caught Lila's eye. "Sure you don't want me to come?"
Leaning against the counter for balance, Lila pulled on her sandals, buckled them. "It's not that big a deal, Marcy. I'm not having open-heart surgery."
"You know, they're just beginning to study the long-term emotional effects."
Lila turned backto her mug. "That's pro-life bullshit, Marcia. Anyway, you're making me feel worse. Let me live in denial if I want to."
Marcia sighed. "So, did you tell him yet?"
Lila shook her head impatiently. Marcia and she had different ideas about the role of honesty in relationships. It was just too complicated to get into with Kevin. He'd want to marry her and keep it, even though it would disrupt his orderly vision of their future together after he finished law school. Kevin might have lifted himself out of the limited vista of his South Boston boyhood on the strength of good grades and determination, but he was still a Southie at heart. It wasn't just his accent that tied him to his Catholic school, Boston College past.
Besides, there was a small chance that the baby—fetus, Lila reminded herself, don't picture little waving fingers, just a blob of cells still, but dividing, dividing, ticking away inside her like a basketball clock—wasn't Kev's. She'd had a quick fling with her History of Design professor two months ago.
Marcia shouted "Shit!" but it was only spilled coffee. She mopped at pages. "I'll be home by four," she said, refilling her cup at the counter. Lila recognized that she was leaving out the words—"... in case you need me."
She wanted to thank Marcia for trying to be a pal, but if she did, she'd have to acknowledge that there was a reason to need her, which there wasn't. All she really needed was her period, and she could attend to that by herself. "See ya," Lila said. She grabbed her purse and opened the front door onto a view of the sagging wooden row houses of Porter Square brightened by spring tulips and jonquils blooming in their minuscule yards. She slapped down the tilted sidewalk to the subway station, shoved her token into the slot, rode the impossibly long descent and waited briefly on the platform for a train. Seated, she glanced at her reflection in the window: the harsh geometry of her boyish haircut, bony collarbone bridging hollows that could hold water, arched nose. Dark, perhaps Latina skin. The face of no one she knew.
In the reflection, a tiny silver ring pierced the flange of her left nostril. So much for natural fiber innocence. She'd opted for the usual art student affectations: the nose ring, a small tattoo of a snake swallowing its tail that rode her right shoulder blade. Kevin loved to run a fingertip over the snake, fascinated by its odd intrusion. Why did straight-ass law school types go for artists anyway, she wondered. Marcia would probably say that everybody wanted to find in their mate the missing parts of themselves. So what absent part of herself did she find in Kevin?
Well, as Marcia would be eager to point out, there were always the missing biological 'rents. Kevin offered stability, commitment, family. But so did her adoptive mother and father. Ambition, then? Kevin had it in spades, while she was slipping off the dean's list faster than an ice cube on a griddle. But that was recent. She'd always been a good grade grubber. So, then what? Fuck these simple psychological formulas. A little knowledge was a dangerous thing. Though in this particular case, a little knowledge made it easier. If she actually knew for sure that it was Kevin's baby, it might be harder to go through with.
Lila emerged out of the ground behind the kiosk in Harvard Square, blinking in sudden light. She could have gotten out at the Brattle exit but she preferred walking above ground. Usually she enjoyed the eyes of Harvard boys on her as she crossed crooked brick. Today it was a dark, sad-eyed man with a drooping mustache seated across Mass. Ave. at an outdoor cafe: Pakistani? Bosnian refugee? He stared over a brioche as her legs flashed by. The dark ones always stared, wanting to claim her as one of their own. If he knew her mission he'd probably stone her.
Lila squeezed past the sidewalk magazine racks where kids pored through porno, caught a quick glimpse of the cavern between the two halves of the Harvard Coop, the florist shop's canned bouquets. Up Brattle Street to the quiet of the mansions, the professors' palaces, elaborate fences and big yards raked like combed hair, the wet dirt a smooth brown scalp between tender blades. Lilac hedges, painted gates. Old Cambridge's picture book perfection always stirred some secret anger, because it wasn't hers, and never would be.
Like Kevin, she was a pretender, a scrambler up the slopes of brick, always secretly hoping the ivy she gripped in her teeth wouldn't pull loose. It was surprising they hadn't both been drawn to their true opposites, someone with automatic admission.
Kevin with his Southie accent. Lila, good chameleon, like any military brat, knew enough to leave her Southern drawl behind, erase those later vowels flat as prairie lands. She was a girl of air force bases, parade grounds and commissaries, red dirt and boiled peanuts. Her elementary school classmates were rickety civilian kids with nits, untouchables who lived outside the sterile order of military housing in Georgia and Mississippi. Later, she shared classrooms with beefy Kansas blondes.
It was only when Dad served his final stint at Hanscom Field in Bedford, offering her the shock of good suburban Boston public schools in her junior year, that she came to learn what SAT scores really meant. Ivy and brick and all the right words. She had to suffer her schoolmates' smirking condescension toward military life, their horror at the Gulf War bombardments, a contempt she shared but only here felt reflected back at her. And the disappointment of Lesley College when her classmates went off to Wesleyan, Amherst, Cornell, and Brown. It was too much catch-up to play, and she was at a disadvantage because of geography: if they'd still lived in Georgia or Mississippi or Kansas, she probably could have slipped into Harvard.
Her parents lived in Colorado Springs now. Dad was semi-retired, teaching one class at the Air Force Academy, and Mom had retired too, from the life of military wife, throwing herself into the activities of the first church she'd be able to attend for more than two years running. A Methodist now because that's what her community offered (though in the past it was Baptist and Lutheran), and what she wanted more than anything was to belong to some civilian unit and follow their marching orders.
Dad had served in Nam; Mom fought the fertility wars. Lila tried to imagine what kind of woman married a military man in '67. The summer of love. Lila had heard on the radio recently that in a huge number of cases it was actually the man who was the cause of infertility, low sperm count being so common these days (the prevalence of plastics in the environment, molecular imitators of estrogen, had been blamed). But twenty years ago society still ganged up to protect male egos. She bet Dad never jacked off in any test tube. High irony: their infertility, her unwanted fertility. The echo of another woman's problem, the one who had carried her to term.
And what would Mom say about the "procedure"—as the clinic staff referred to it—toward which she was now headed? Lila knew too well. Mom would be shocked, angered, disappointed. It went against the tenets of her various religions. Lila rejected the dogma, but she couldn't blame Ruth. It must be hard for a woman who spent years mourning miscarriages, crying over unwelcome blood returning every month, to fathom another woman ridding herself of what she so wanted. If Lila painted a portrait of her mother, it would be in a cloud of ghosts, the souls of her lost babies. Somewhere in the canvas, she'd have to include herself, a candle—no, a nightlight—flickering at the heart of her mother's shrine to maternity. In the end, Lila knew, Ruth would forgive her.
Lila turned off Brattle onto a side street; the houses were more tightly spaced but still impressive. Saabs and Volvos in the drives. She checked the slip of paper with the address again: Cambridge Women's Associates, 219 Sunderland Court. It sounded like some feminist consulting cooperative. Everything had to be euphemized now, a sign of the times. It wasn't so long ago that a receptionist was murdered at an abortion clinic in Brookline. The sign was small and unobtrusive, the entry on the side of the grey Victorian hidden from the street.
Lila opened the door. The waiting room displayed the usual institutional Cambridge decor, a mixture of worn Orientals and Scandia design with the recent air of fortress. She slid her insurance information to a middle-aged woman behind a counter topped by bulletproof glass. An elderly uniformed guard sat not very discreetly amidst the patients. Lila pegged him as a retired Irish cop and wondered if he judged them.
She glanced at her comrades in shame. A girl way younger than herself, thin, hunched, miserable looking, scraggly blond hair and knobby knees. Another woman, forties, wedding ring, business hair. Professional. Perhaps she had three kids at home already. The only clients this morning. Of course, they served up more than abortions here. Perhaps she, Lila, was the only one to be vacuumed today. The young girl could be getting a pregnancy test, the businesswoman in for her regular pap smear, like going to the dentist.
Lila looked down at her sandaled toes. They bore a light scrim of city dust. She pictured herself on her back, legs up, dusty feet in some doctor's face. And inwardly mumbled the mantra she'd been repeating for weeks: I can't have it, can't have it, can't. Not like her own birth mother did, ruin your body and your life for nine months, then give it away to strangers. Create another kid who'll grow up wondering why.
A woman in a white lab coat, short grey hair brushed back, came in and spoke softly to the teenager, led her behind swinging doors. These women doctors and assistants were heroes, Lila supposed. Bravely continuing what they believed in, despite the threats of Operation Rescue fanatics. She should have been grateful. Yet, when the woman returned and beckoned her with practiced sympathy, Lila's heart seized, she felt dizzy. Tears came to her eyes. What was she doing here, eliminating the only blood relative she might ever know?