It’s a party hosted by people in my old neighborhood, so that should have been my first clue. I bring the girls, against my better judgment, but I want to see old faces, and it has been two years anyway, bygones being gone by now. I know our entrance will be a spectacle; it always is. We made national news and still have a minor snag in America’s web mind, enough for a big-time film director to fly us in for preliminary meetings with lawyers on movie rights. Hometown girl rescued from human trafficking. Adopted daughters in tow.
We can’t go anywhere without being recognized, photographed against our will, surreptitiously or not. Mostly, people are nice. The Evangelicals don’t think I deserve my daughters, since I won’t let them tell the girls they are ruined or spoiled like chewed up bubblegum or a used paper plate or whateverthefuck. Plus, I’m single. They want to rescue the girls from me, but only to imprint victimhood and tragedy across their entire existence, and I said no, so they staged protests at the adoption hearings and tried to sue to block my custody, and thankfully the judges saw that I pose no harm to the two little ones whose original families are dead or unfit, and I won every case, hands down. We won. We fight for each other every day.
So no surprise when we go inside the sweltering house, the windows fogged from cool midsummer ocean air against a hot-boxed home full of warm bodies, and conversations cease temporarily. We’re used to this. We will always be used to this, and this is the part I wish my girls could exist without. I can’t take away what happened, God knows I tried to stand in the way when that heavy door opened each night, tried to block them from view in that rectangle of light that stretched across the cement floor I swept every day, but if I could wave a wand now it would be to let them walk into a room without hushing voices or halting movement. They deserve that much.
But we’re a traveling sideshow, so we know the drill. Side glances and half-nods and broad smiles or averted gazes, we get it all. I tell the girls to take their shoes off, we are in someone’s home and we don’t wear shoes in our house, do we? They oblige, shaking off their hoodies and clinging to my legs while I stumble trying to work off my wool boots. The host greets us, takes our jackets, and tells us to find them in the spare bedroom down the hall. I introduce the girls by their new names, which by now are common knowledge. But still. I have worked up a sweat, so I strip down to just a tank top and leggings. A loose scarf around my neck and a lopsided beanie my only accessories. I never used to get overheated like this, but now there’s always one of them up close on me.
Next person I see is Marco, recently widowed and gaunt, and we fall toward each other because words aren’t going to carry us through the next few moments. When we compose ourselves, we kneel to the girls’ height, and I explain why we have tears on our faces.
“This is my friend, Marco. He lost someone he loves, too.” And while they don’t normally warm up to men, grief is a language the girls understand, so they respond by untwining themselves from my body and resting a hand on Marco’s knee or shoulder in comfort, which makes him choke up all over again.
The girls are hungry. We came straight from the beach, where we watched the fog roll in and the seabirds flap their wings and the small waves crest on the shore. When everything turned gunmetal gray, we loaded into the rental van, and I covered them in their car seats with dry beach towels. I keep plenty of snacks on hand, a habit I learned after coaching from the therapists explained food anxiety and the fear of scarcity, but even with my bag slouchy with fruit pouches and bars and crackers, Jake and Mira prefer hot food.
I usher them toward the kitchen area, where the counters are laden with platters and dishes of cooling food, but someone is outside grilling, so I load their plates with anything they point to and tell them to hold off on dessert, because this is one thing I can perform for anyone eavesdropping. Maybe I’ll let them name themselves with a boy’s name or fall asleep in random hideaways, or curse, but they’ll eat nutritious food before they get sweets. That’s the easy part.
I settle them on the living room floor among the people I used to spend all my time with, feeling out of place and scrutinized, but that’s how it goes. I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same if three people came back from the dead to eat a barbecue meal on my living room floor. The girls are good eaters, not very picky, but they want to graze constantly, which means I have a bottom drawer at home filled with snacks and a refrigerator full of fruit and pre-cut vegetables at eye level or lower for them to reach.
While they eat, I carry several conversations at once, checking in and joking with people I once went on ski trips with or wine tasting weekends in Napa. I would go back to those days, except then I wouldn’t have Jake and Mira, and that can’t be my life, ever. Mira finishes her plate first and, being younger and more adventurous, drifts toward the sounds of children downstairs. Not Jake: she sits next to me, our sides touching, while I pick at what remains on Mira’s plate.
After a few minutes, Mira appears at the top of the stairs. She has tears in her eyes, and soon a little boy comes up behind her. He runs to a parent for comfort, and Mira tugs on my shirt.
“He’s hurt. He got pushed down. I saw it happen,” she says quietly.
“Thank you for telling me,” I say. “It looks like he has a grownup to help him. Why don’t you go ask him if he is okay and if he wants to keep playing? Maybe it will make him feel better?”
Mira walks toward the little boy, who is still sniveling, and asks, “Are you okay? I saw what happened. Do you want to keep playing?”
He wipes his eyes and nods, and they chase each other downstairs. After a while, Mira runs upstairs, out of breath, and beckons Jake. “Come play!” She says over the din of adult voices. “We are having so much fun!” Then she turns and hops down the carpeted stairs.
Mira has filled out since we got out of the warehouse, better than Jake and I have. Back then, I could only feed ourselves and all the other girls a diet of slow-cooked beans and white rice and occasionally collard greens. A multivitamin once a day, along with their shared bath. Now Mira has some solidity to her short body in cargo pants and a striped long-sleeved tee. She already lost a sock downstairs, and her hair is mussed under her floppy beanie that matches mine. If she could match outfits with me every day, she would.
I nudge Jake. “Whaddya say? You want to go check it out? I’ll go with you.”
She shrugs and grins, and I know she wants to see for herself. I walk her down the stairs, where a dozen kids run in concentric circles or play video games or shout while climbing on what looks like a life-size hamster maze for small humans. Jake merges with the other kids, and I sneak away.
Upstairs, I accept a cup of tea and go out onto the deck where a few people sit on comfy couches around a gas fire pit. Blankets and bistro lights and faces flickering with warmth: it’s almost like a beer commercial. I could live in a scene like this, or so I thought at one time.
Marco makes room on a couch, and I sit next to him, pulling a blanket over my lap, and clink my mug against the neck of his beer bottle. Cheers. We made it. We survived. We’re surviving somehow.
The conversation dwindles as, one by one, the others leave to go inside for one reason or another, leaving just Marco and me. So Marco gets up and moves to the other couch, and we both spread our legs out and look up through the treetops at the night sky and take probably our first real exhale all evening. We know we can do that, right now. The unspoken between us as good as spoken. A few minutes of quiet, listening to the wind through the leaves and the slow trickle of the creek in the ravine below the deck.
“You’re a beautiful mother,” he says out of nowhere, which startles me, and tears begin to well, because even though I have known my girls for fifteen months, they have only legally been mine for nine, and if anyone describes me as a mother the word they use is never “beautiful.” It is “heretic,” it is “foul-mouthed,” it is “un-Christian,” it is “lacking.” I am opportunistic if I accept cash for magazine spreads to set up their college funds, or I am foolish if I try to raise them on my fifty-thousand dollar salary at a company that graciously held my job when I went missing. Of course, those closest to us know the truth, and thankfully so did the judge and the girls’ blood relatives who couldn’t raise them or claim them outright. But this is the first Marco’s seen of us in person.
I don’t respond to Marco with speech but thumb the tears in plain view, and that seems to satisfy any response Marco expected. He looks back up through the canopy and sits still. After a few minutes we hear, “Mommy? Mommy, I want to sit out here, too?” Jake stands outside of the sliding glass door, her little hands in the pockets of her striped linen jumpsuit, a gift from a designer nosing for an endorsement I never gave. Jake’s mouth screws into a half-smile, as if I might tell her not now, as if I would ever tell her she can’t come sit with me. I open the blanket around my shoulders, and she runs across the deck to curl inside my arms and watch the fire lick the lava rocks in the fire pit.
She and Marco share their favorite jokes, volleying “knock-knock”s and “who’s there”s. I stare over Jake’s dark curls and run my fingers through them, twisting the ends below her shoulder blades.
“Jake! We lost you! Come play with us!” Two kids I can barely make out in the dark stand by the door, barefoot, hopping and waiting for Jake to join them. She huffs and puffs but finally rolls off the couch and pads toward them, disappearing inside.
“I mean it,” Marco says, “you’re a beautiful mother. I always knew you would be.” I am more prepared this time.
“That the beer talking?” I joke, nodding at the empty bottle on the table by him.
“I watch the news like anyone else. But I also know you. I knew you. You’re exactly how I expected you’d be, as a mom. Maybe more loose in the right places and firm where it actually matters. But they get to be themselves. You and I never did, growing up, did we? You’re letting them be them.”
We say a lot without saying it in the next few minutes, until a stray wind kicks up and we shudder in the cold. His empty tips over, and the fire flickers to dark blue and fails to warm us. We stand against the gust and a few raindrops, rare for summer, and go back inside.
There is a robust round of Cranium happening on the living room floor, and Marco and I each find a seat between random people. I notice a couple of the dudes catch Marco’s eye and raise their eyebrows. He hangs his head and, after a minute, excuses himself to get another beer from the kitchen. “Anyone need anything?” he asks, his back already to the group.
I try to follow the game. I join a team and have just finished playing a round when Marco reappears in the entryway, his face pale but blank. He beckons me, and I leap from the couch and, in two strides, meet him by the stairs. “No one is hurt,” he assures me, and that’s when I noticed a pair of scissors in his hand, “but you should really come quick.” He leads me toward the guest room with all the coats piled on the full size bed, a mound of heavy fabric that looks like it could take its own breath.
The bathroom is brightly lit, and inside are Jake and Mira and a couple other kids bobbing in and out of the room. My girls’ hair litters the floor and the bathtub, and Mira is lifting the clumps of stray hair and tossing them in the air like confetti, singing, “Clean up! Clean up! Everybody clean up…”
Jake sits on the edge of the bathtub, her head shorn to two or three inches in some places, while Mira has a large chunk of wavy brown hair missing from the nape of her neck.
I take a deep breath and sit on the edge of the tub. “Mira, sit down, please. Right there in the tub is fine. Please stop making a mess. What is happening right now? Someone tell me.”
Mira stirs her bare feet among the hair in the bathtub and smiles up at me. Jake looks sad toward the floor. “I would like one of you to begin explaining,” I say.
“They said I didn’t look like you.” Jake shoves her hands between her knees.
“I’m sorry, I don’t follow. Who said what?”
“The boys downstairs. They said I can’t be your daughter because we don’t look alike. You have short hair, and I have long curly hair, and we look different, so you can’t be my mom.”
“Oh, well. Fuck,” I say. “You know that’s not true. Judge Paula told us you’re my daughter, didn’t she? Didn’t we celebrate at the courthouse with all those cameras and then go to a fancy lunch? Who cares what the boys downstairs say?”
Marco stands in the doorway, half in half out, the scissors still in his hand.
“I know, but we should look like it,” Jake says. Mira sings softly in the bathtub. I hug Jake to my side and look at Marco. I mouth “Oh my God” to him, and he ducks his head out the door to hide his smile.
“Okay, listen. If you wanted to cut your hair, you could have just told me. I can take you to a salon. No, look, both of you. I’m not mad about your hair. It’s your hair, you can do what you want with it. I’m upset that you used someone’s scissors without asking permission. You could have really hurt someone or yourselves, and you made a mess, look at all this. I want you to help clean this up, and this week I’ll take you in to fix your haircuts. But right now, we need to sweep this up together.”
Marco spins away and returns with a broom and dustpan, and the host pokes her head in with a vacuum. We work together to get all the hair into one massive pile, and then a thought occurs to me, so I grab a handful of the dark and light hair and go back into the living room to interrupt the festivities.
“Hey. Other parents? Am I supposed to keep this hair, or can I discard it? What do I do here? Do I put it in a plastic baggie or something?” The question lingers in the air as the other parents look at me with open faces.
“Throw it away,” one dad says. “Honestly, I don’t know the right answer, but it seems like you shouldn’t have to preserve this for any reason. I mean, am I wrong?” He looks around at all the other perturbed faces, and they each agree that, yes, it’s fine to throw away. In fact, why have they been keepsaking every little physical piece of evidence their children have shed over the years, except to preserve the memory of when they were small, as if their essence morphs into something less pure over time?
“Toss it,” a mom finally says. “Let me help.” She gets off the floor, balancing a half-full glass of wine in one hand, a take-charge attitude in the other. “Show me.” Then more quietly, “It’s okay, you’re new at this.”
While we erase any sign of my daughters’ home hair cuts from the guest bathroom, Mira sneaks away and does what she does best while managing stress or becoming overwhelmed by attention. She falls asleep in a remote area that spurs a house-wide hunt. Even the little kids are recruited to a game of Hide and Seek, Look for Mira. This is her trauma response—mild narcolepsy—and it comes at very inopportune times. When you need her to pick up her feet and move, she finds a cozy pocket and slumps into oblivion. It isn’t a huge problem, since she is so small and easy to lift, but she is growing through all the enhanced nutrition, and the doctors can’t quite manage her episodes effectively.
She is located among a mound of stuffed animals in the college girl’s room, where a childhood is preserved in various stages. I lift Mira from the pile and carry her to the entryway, where I struggle to shove her baby Uggs over her ankles, and locate her stray sock, and force her hoodie over her head while her limp body flows like water across my lap. Jake tries to help, bless her, and I compliment her cheekbones under the cap of her new haircut, which is actually quite fetching on her now that I have a better look.
With Mira practically fluid in my arms, I am sweaty in my tank top and a little out of breath when Jake finally gets the boots over Mira’s feet. I stand up with a lank Mira draped over my shoulder. The rain is coming down outside, and I want nothing more than to strap them into their booster seats, toss towels over them, and get back to our Airbnb. To pour a glass of anything while they snooze wherever I deposit them.
My face flushed, I carry Mira toward the living room and try to signal goodbye as subtly as possible.
“You’re leaving,” someone says, “but we didn’t get to catch up. Hold on, I want to write down a referral for a behavioral psychologist I think you should meet.”
“Oh, another time! I just need to get them home now.”
“No, wait, I’ll just write it down, or actually, what’s a good email address for you?”
“We’re actually covered on the psychologist front,” I say. “We’re in sessions twice a week, so I don’t think adding a new —.”
“I’ll DM you the links, and also I have a set of books you can have. They’re in my trunk. I’ll get them.”
“You know, it’s raining, and I’m still here for a week, so I can get them from you later. Bye, everyone!”
Mira stirs and twists to look at the room. She rubs her eyes.
“We’re leaving already? I don’t wanna go. Ain’t this some bullshit,” she murmurs loud enough for the entire room to hear. I shrug as everyone stifles their laughter or straight-out guffaws. At the door, Marco offers to carry Mira, asleep again, while I grasp at our hoodies and bags and hats. We hurry across the road to the minivan as the rain pours. Marco clips Mira in while Jake clicks her own seat belt into place. I tuck them in with the towels and get into the driver’s seat to start the engine when Marco opens the passenger door and slides in.
He pulls the seat belt across and looks at me squarely. I let the engine run to defog the windshield. Jake already has the iPad on her lap with headphones. I lower my forehead to the steering wheel, and Marco reaches across to rub my shoulder.
“I got a ride here,” he says. “Let me come home with you. I’ll sleep on the couch, and I’ll figure out breakfast. Let me do this one thing. I don’t want to go back to an empty house. I could really use a focal point right now, and I can’t think of anything better than you three.”
I suddenly feel so tired. I put it into gear and swing around toward our rental house, where there is anonymity and security all at once. We carry the girls inside, both asleep, and I put them to bed in their beach clothes. I wash my face and fall into the couch cushions while Marco serves me a glass of whateverthefuck he found in the kitchen, and we sit and sip quietly for a moment before he says, “You’re beautiful. I’ve always wanted to say that to you. I don’t want to pass up another chance to tell you. I thought you were gone. We all did.”
I never even got to meet Marco’s wife before she died of complications from a rare genetic brain disorder at twenty-nine while I was trapped in a compound for five weeks, trying to convince my captors that I was complicit in their scheme. This survival tactic was used against me in adoption hearings, but ultimately I proved that I’d only used it to gain their trust, playing the role of accomplice until I’d been able to flag my whereabouts via instant messenger using Facebook geo-tagging while the kingpin slept three feet away. I cleared the search history, threw up in the bathroom, and came back to bed. The FBI descended within fourteen hours. We are tired, Marco and I.
I wake the next morning still on the couch. The scent of coffee in the air, and the sound of my daughters at the kitchen counter wearing dirty clothes and quietly eating breakfast while watching the iPad with headphones. Their chopped hair flattened from their pillows. Marco in rumpled clothes sliding pancakes and eggs onto their plates and filling their glasses with milk or orange juice. My eyes feel gritty and my mouth cottony, and I can smell my armpits, and I have never felt so beautiful as this moment when we are all taken care of.
earned her B.A. in Literature – Creative Writing from UC Santa Cruz. Her creative nonfiction essays appear in The Avalon Literary Review, The Good Life Review, and From Whispers to Roars. She was the first prize winner of the 2019 Winning Writers Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest for her poem, “Failure to Triangulate.” She lives in Colorado, and her work can be found at www.criminysakesalive.com.
Art by Ishika Guha
Mixed media, oil and acrylic
Ishika Guha is a self-taught artist with a strong focus on abstract expressionism. She lives in London. Ishika is diverse in her choice of mediums; she uses oil, acrylic, watercolors and inks for her paintings. Most of her artworks are inspired by poetry and her real-life experiences—those struggles and hopes that give her the boost to splash some colors out. Find her on Twitter @ishikaguha2.