My mother left when I was five years old. I have a photo of the two of us, standing in our yard. In the picture, my mother is nineteen and bone-thin. The glass shards on the top of our fence glitter in the afternoon sun and our smiles are the same: lopsided, without fear. Her teeth are white as American sugar. I lean into my mother. My arms reach around her waist. I am wearing a cotton dress, a dress I wore every day until it split along the back seam. When the dress fell apart, my grandmother, Ana, stitched it back together with a needle and thread. Finally, my stomach pushed against the fabric uncomfortably and the garment was just too short. By that time, my mother was in Texas, and for my sixth birthday she sent three new dresses from a store called Old Navy.
When I opened that box, it seemed worth it—growing up without being able to touch my mother, to press my face against her legs as she fried tortillas on the gas stove. One dress was blue-and-white striped; on one, a cartoon girl ice-skated wearing earmuffs; the last was red. My friends with mothers—Humberto, Maria, Stefani—they stared at my outfits when I wore them to school. Maria could not take her eyes off the picture of the girl on my dress. “She’s ice-skating,” I said.
“Your mother?” said Humberto, scratching at his knee. Though Humberto was always covered in mud and didn’t wipe his nose, I loved him and assumed we would be married in due time.
“Probably, yes, her too,” I said, lifting my chin. “But I meant the girl on my dress. See? She wears earmuffs and gloves. Because it’s cold. And the ice skates, obviously.”
“Ice is frozen water, but a lake of it,” added Stefani, whose mother had been my mother’s best friend. Only my mother had been brave enough to leave, once my grandmother had saved enough for the coyote.
My mother sent money regularly and called every Wednesday at 12:45 p.m. Wednesday was her day off from working in the kitchen of a restaurant called Texas Chicken. I imagined her wearing a uniform the color of bananas. There was a movie we had watched standing outside the PriceSmart electronics store where an actress with red hair wore a banana-colored uniform and a tidy waitress hat, so when my mother described her work, I dressed her in this outfit in my mind. My mother told me her feet hurt at the end of her shift. My feet hurt, as well, when I wore the high-heeled shoes she’d sent. I needed shoes for running, I told her, and not three weeks later, a package with bright sneakers arrived.
There just wasn’t much for any of us in Tegucigalpa. We lived on the outskirts of the city, about a twenty-minute walk from the dump, where the older boys and men from our village worked, gathering trash that had value. Humberto’s older brother, Milton, left early in the morning. In the dark, he returned, his shoulders low with exhaustion and his hair and skin holding a rancid scent. Still—and to me, inexplicably—he had girlfriends. Though I had imagined what it would be like to kiss almost every boy in our village, I never closed my eyes and pictured Milton’s lips approaching—it seemed impossible to want to be close to someone who smelled so bad. He was handsome, however, and supported his family, so there was that.
My grandmother took in laundry, and we always had enough food, or most of the time. Mainly beans. I had twin brothers who were babies when our mother left and were starting to walk around uneasily when I turned six. They had a different father than I did, and none of our fathers remained in our village. Who knew if they were alive or dead and anyway, who cared.
This was how it was: most days our teacher came to school and some days he did not. When he had not come for three days, Humberto and I decided to go and find him at his house. We did not have bus fare and so we walked. We passed the city dump and watched the birds and the men and the boys. We split an orange Humberto had stolen from the market. We plodded through the hot afternoon, and around dinnertime (if you had any dinner) we reached our teacher’s address.
The front door was open. Our teacher and his wife were dead, lying next to each other on the kitchen floor. The robbers had taken everything in the house. Our teacher, like me, had a mother in America, in Dallas, Texas, a gleaming city we had seen on the television in the window of the PriceSmart electronics store. The point is that our teacher had many things—a watch, alarm clock, boom box, lantern. Luckily, our teacher did not have any children (as far as we knew). That would have been very sad.
Humberto cried out when he saw the bodies. I did not make a sound. My eyes went to my teacher’s wrist, but his watch was gone. His wife no longer wore her ring or the bracelet our teacher had given her on their one-year anniversary. The robbers had taken our teacher’s shoes, shirt, and pants. It was strange to see our teacher like that. I had never seen his bare legs before. They were hairy.
Humberto and I walked home. We were not allowed to be out after dark, so we walked quickly. We wondered whether we would get another teacher. Humberto thought we would, but said he might stop going to school and start going with his brother to the dump. They needed more money. They had not had dinner in two nights, and he was hungry.
“If you smell like your brother,” I said, “I cannot be your girlfriend anymore.”
“Are you my girlfriend?” said Humberto.
“Not yet,” I said. “Not ever, if you smell like Milton.”
“When?” asked Humberto.
“When I’m eleven,” I told him.
He walked ahead of me, kicking the dirt. He shook his head. “I’m too hungry,” he said finally. “And that’s too long.”
“Race you,” I said. As we passed the dump, the birds shrieked: awful, empty cries. Yet the air on my skin was velvet, the sky magnificent with stars.
“Go,” said Humberto. We ran.
Jake and I weren’t sure what to do about the party. Benji had sent out an e-vite to all our friends and the whole Conroe’s BBQ staff before Naomi changed her mind about giving us her baby, and what else were we going to do with the afternoon? Just not show up? Just stay home and stare at Mitchell’s empty crib? (An aside: it was also possible that Mitchell was no longer named Mitchell. Naomi might have changed her mind about that as well.) In short, we went to Matt’s El Rancho on South Lamar.
Benji had gone all out. It was fantastic: a cake with blue frosting, baby presents piled high. There were margaritas and nachos, beef flautas and queso flameado. Jake ordered tequila shots like the old days. For about twenty minutes there was small talk, and then Lucy DeWitt said, “Well? Where is the little cutie?”
“Oh, Christ,” I said. “Well, it didn’t work out, in the end.”
Jake raised his arm to signal the busboy, pointing at our empty shot glasses. “Dos más,” said Jake.
“Oh, honey,” I said, putting my hand on Jake’s shoulder and looking at the busboy apologetically. It was offensive to assume he didn’t speak English, and also offensive to speak Spanish as badly as Jake did. I didn’t speak Spanish at all, but I was going to immerse myself some summer soon.
“More tequila?” said the busboy.
“Yes, please,” I said.
Jake said, “Sí, sí.”
“What didn’t work out?” said Benji, his brow furrowed. “What do you mean, Alice?”
“The birth mother has forty-eight hours to change her mind,” explained Jake. “And our . . . and we . . .” Jake’s eyes grew teary, and he put his palm over his face. I stared dully at the burn scar on his thumb.
“She took the baby back,” I said. “She just . . . we had him at our house. We had him on the couch, and even on top of our bed. We put him in clean diapers and a swaddling blanket. He slept in his crib. And then she . . . she changed her mind.”
“They came and got him this morning,” said Jake.
“Oh my God,” said Lucy.
“Maybe she’ll . . . maybe it’s not . . . ,” sputtered Carole, an English teacher at Chávez Memorial High School, which was located three blocks from Conroe’s BBQ.
“Anyone want a flauta?” I said, passing the tray. We didn’t mention Mitchell again, and Jake and I left the restaurant without the baby gifts. We were pretty drunk, so Jake called Austin Taxi from the Matt’s El Rancho parking lot. On the ride home, I rested my head on my husband’s shoulder, watching the bright signs outside the cab window as we crossed the interstate to the Eastside: We Buy Gold Emporium, Churros Aqui!, Top Dawg’s Bar and Grill. I told the driver to hang a right after Frank’s Coin Laundry, where I brought our clothes every Monday when Conroe’s was closed. Two blocks later, Jake said, “Here we are.”
2215 Mildred Street—our home. We’d bought it from an elderly black woman who was moving to Pflugerville, joining the exodus of black families from downtown Austin’s Eastside to the sprawling suburbs. It was a cottage, really: one thousand square feet of termite-nibbled hardwood. Jake and his father had painted the house a glossy white, added black shutters to the windows, erected a picket fence around the yard. I’d bought two brass lanterns to hang on either side of our hunter-green door. On one of our evening walks around the neighborhood, we’d found a broken porch swing. Jake used his welding equipment and a few cans of Rust-Oleum to restore the swing, hanging it on the front porch. In the backyard, we’d planted a lemon tree and a row of bamboo. We could be poster children for Eastside gentrification, but we were not ashamed. We’d made a home for ourselves on Mildred Street, same as the crazy lady at 2213 and the young family at 2217. Same as Omar Martinez, who lived across the street and worked at Juan in a Million, home of the best hangover breakfast in town.
Our house was dark. As the cab pulled away, Jake sank into the porch swing and I let myself inside. This had been, we’d vowed, the last chance. I was infertile, and our hopes for adoption had about run out. We had borrowed every last dime available to try to impregnate a kind but stoic surrogate in Detroit named Janeen. After Jake and I had flown to Michigan seven times, Janeen said—kindly and with stoicism—that she needed to close this chapter and move on. She was now pregnant with a Brooklyn man’s sperm. I knew because I read her blog.
In the decade we’d been trying to have a baby, our life had become a symphony of failure, almost rapturous with dramatic and dashed hopes. Pregnant women contacted us through our adoption agency, but then chose another couple, kept the baby, or (in one case) turned out to be a nut job who’d never been pregnant in the first place. I’d maintained a website advertising our cheery life and happy home (writing corny stories about how we’d met; what our days at Conroe’s BBQ were like; and what sports, religion, and hobbies we’d teach our youngster), but though we received emails aplenty, none of the desperate people perusing the site had decided to bless us with a baby.
In the Detroit airport, after Janeen’s announcement, Jake told me he was done. In the Fuddruckers restaurant next to Gate C17, he grabbed my hand and begged me to stop. Exhausted and low, I agreed to deactivate our adoption file, to close this chapter, to move on with grace, gratitude, and all that crap. We embraced, ignoring the stares of the other Fuddruckers patrons. I felt, when we were aloft and sailing through the sky toward Austin, that maybe we would be okay. But then Naomi had chosen us, and baby Mitchell had come.
The night before, I’d fed him. Small and dark, with a cap of black curls, Mitchell had opened his brown eyes and looked at me. “I’m your mommy,” I said, tasting the precious words. I fit a bottle between his lips and watched him suckle, felt his body ease. As I held him, he passed with a tiny shudder from wakefulness to sleep. The moon outside his window was full. I was full. And then the agency called.
I went to Jake, brought him a beer. He opened it and drank, then I grabbed the can and took my own mouthful. The beer made the pain a bit less sharp, just for the evening. “Oh, God,” I said, sitting down next to Jake, breathing the sultry air. The moon was still round and bright.
“I wish I knew what the point of this was,” said Jake. “Or would you say were?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “and I don’t care.”
“Fair enough,” said Jake.
People always seem surprised when they first meet me and Jake. He’s good-looking and sure of himself, a blond former football star. In contrast, I’m nervous and dark-haired, more comfortable in the backcountry than at a country club. If Jake is a lion, regal and handsome, I’m a wren: fragile, easily spooked, ready to take flight. Somehow, though, it works. At night, I tuck myself into a ball, and Jake surrounds me, and I am warm.
In the moonlight, I saw a figure emerge from Beau and Camilla’s house next door. “Hello?” called Camilla. As she approached, I could see she was carrying a metal pot.
“We’re drinking on the swing,” admitted Jake.
“I am so sorry,” said Camilla. Her Nigerian accent made the words especially sad somehow.
“Did you see them take the baby?” I asked.
Camilla hesitated, then nodded. Camilla and Beau had two daughters who had inherited their father’s light hair and their mother’s feisty attitude. “I made soup,” said Camilla, unlatching our gate.
“Thanks,” I said. I made a move to stand, but Camilla shook her head.
“I’ll put it in the kitchen,” she said, climbing our three front steps, opening the door. I heard her set the pot on our stove, and then she reappeared. “We’re here, if you need anything,” she said. “I mean, we’re there,” she said, pointing.
“Thanks,” Jake and I said in unison. We watched Camilla walk across the alley back to her home, where her family waited for her.