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The writer had misspelled her name on the envelope the way people usually did—as “Laura” rather than “Lara” (her mother’s idea of exotic). Inside, the letter itself was written on ruled paper torn from a spiral-bound notebook, the curly edges making a kind of fringe.
“Dear Ms. Barrows,” the letter began:
Please don’t throw this letter out until you have read it and heard my side of the story. I was put up for adoption in 1983 when I was two days old. Ever since I turned eighteen, I have been looking to find my birth mother. Recently, a change in the law has allowed me to see the records. This new information has led me to the definite conclusion that you are the person I’ve been searching for. I was real happy to see that you lived so close by. Don’t worry. I’m not angry and I’m not blaming you for what happened. I’m sure you have your reasons. I don’t know if you want to meet me after all these years. I understand if you don’t. I really do. But please write me back.
Mandy L. Doheny
Under her name was an address in Paterson, New Jersey, and a phone number.
Lara tossed the letter on top of her other mail—a DMV notice and a Star magazine—and began to make herself dinner, a packet of ramen noodles with shrimp flavoring. She considered whether to write the woman back and tell her she’d made a mistake. She sat down to eat her noodles in front of the TV.
Later, she ran a bath and lay in it in the dark, trying to relax. She’d read once that people who took baths lived longer than people who took showers, so she took a bath every night. After she dried off, she slathered on lotion, then put on sweatpants and a T-shirt and went to watch the news. The letter still lay there on the coffee table. She picked it up and stared at it.
She wondered how the woman had gotten her name, and how she’d found her address. Lara had an unlisted number. She had just had her first byline, but it was in an obscure magazine called The Charitable American, which had published only one issue so far. The magazine was the brainchild of a young man named Timothy Fitzgerald, known to all as Fitz, who had gone to journalism school with Lara. The Charitable American was geared toward the top–1 percent income bracket, which it was supposed to inspire and educate on giving their money away. Fitz had called Lara and invited her to be on staff. Her official title was contributor, which meant she got no health insurance or retirement plan. She was essentially freelance, which was just as well since she didn’t expect Fitz’s magazine to last. It was just another niche magazine, like Plumpers or Vacation Yachts; it wasn’t even sold on newsstands, but was given away for free in doctors’ offices and at promotional events. She figured it would last a few issues and get some press until Fitz’s stepfather, who was funding the entire venture, realized nobody really wanted to read about giving money away and pulled the plug. In the meantime, Lara would pick up a few monthly paychecks.
That night Lara tossed the letter from Mandy L. Doheny in the trash, on top of the remains of her ramen noodles with shrimp flavoring. Then she closed the lid and went to bed.
She sat in her cubicle in a corner of the fifth floor of a building in midtown Manhattan, trying to finish the story she’d been working on for weeks.
An 85-year-old black woman from Tennessee named Iola Brooks, who had worked her whole life as a washerwoman, had saved every penny she earned in a secret bank account. Recently, with no children of her own and no husband, Iola Brooks had decided to give the entire amount—$150,000—to the local university. The media had gone wild for the story. The Republican state senator and the university president were milking the publicity for all it was worth, and had been flying the old woman around the country to appear on talk shows and to be interviewed by newspapers and magazines and on the radio.
Iola Brooks would grace the cover of the next issue of The Charitable American. Lara would get her first cover byline.
Lara had interviewed Iola Brooks a few weeks earlier in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria. Neat as a pin, with straightened white hair pulled back in a tight bun, she’d answered Lara’s questions in a meek, soft southern drawl.
“Is there anything you still want to do with your life?” Lara had asked before they parted ways.
Iola looked out the window of the bar at the stream of business suits marching past. She seemed wistful. “I want to go to San Francisco,” she said, “and see that golden bridge. I sure would love to see a golden bridge.”
Lara had not had the heart to tell the old lady that the bridge was not really made of gold.
She finished the story at the eleventh hour and went out for a drink with her friend Jose.
Lara was 33 years old—the same age as Jesus when he was hung up to die. She was 33, the same numbers that showed on her clock radio every night when she woke with what she called “the rattles.” She’d been getting the rattles for as long as she could remember. She would wake up to find the bed shaking ever so slightly. It wasn’t a ghost and it wasn’t an earthquake. It was the vibration of her own heart, which at that hour felt strong enough to shake the foundation of the bed.
“You finish the story on that old black lady?” Jose asked, scanning the bar over her head for fresh meat.
“Yeah, the old coot who gave all her money away. Why’d she give her money to a bunch of good ol’ boys who wouldn’t even accept her as a student back in the day? Fool.”
Lara sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe she wants to be remembered. Maybe she wants to get into heaven.”
“Whatever. Ignorance must be bliss,” Jose said, his eyes still on the door behind her. “If I had a hundred thou? I’d go to Barneys and buy me that Prada coat. I’d buy an apartment in Tribeca and have it furnished by somebody with taste. I’d throw a big motherfucking party just because I could.”
No matter how badly you did it, you remained a mother. Bad mother, good mother, here mother, gone mother.
A handsome older man with expensive silver hair sidled up and slid his arm around Jose’s waist, whispered something in his ear. Lara promised herself, for the umpteenth time, that she would not hang out with Jose in gay bars anymore.
“Can you excuse us for a moment?” Jose said. “I’m going to take this dance.”
Lara took a cab home to Brooklyn, ignoring the driver’s exasperated sigh when she told him he had to cross the bridge.
Tinker, her cat, mewed when she walked in the door. She flipped through the mail. Nothing. But when she pressed the button on her answering machine, a young woman. She didn’t introduce herself by name, but she didn’t have to. Lara knew that voice—it was as if she had always known that voice.
The woman had a working-class accent and spoke in a whisper, clear and insistent, but a whisper nonetheless. She sounded on the edge of tears, desperate and beseeching, so much so that, as Lara listened, she stepped away from the machine and crossed her arms and watched the black box, not breathing.
“I’m sorry to bother you again. I guess you got my letter. I been waiting to hear from you. I been hoping I can see you in person. I promise I won’t mess up your life. I won’t get in the way. I just want to know who you are. All my life I been wondering who was my mother and why didn’t she want me. I just want to know why you gave me away. I’m sure you got your reasons. I don’t blame you or nothin’. I just want to know. And then I will leave you alone and it’ll be like nothing ever happened, if that’s the way you want it to be.” There was a pause, and Lara thought she could make out crying, the sound of a gasp, heavy breathing, then, “I don’t want to be a pest. I just want us to meet. Please call me back. Okay?” She rattled off a phone number, then paused and said, “Oh yeah. I forgot to say. This is Mandy, your kid. Um, bye.”
Lara stepped up to the machine and pressed play again and went to the couch and sat listening to the message all over.
Mandy sounded young and she sounded rough, like somebody who had struggled.
Lara listened to the message a third time. This time she was prepared and jotted down the number.
She fingered the paper and listened to the neighbors fight, adult voices speaking harshly, the man in an unfamiliar language. Behind them, a child cried, a toddler. The kid didn’t seem to be abused, exactly, but Lara had once seen him out on the porch at five in the morning, wearing diapers and a dirty T-shirt and wailing his heart out. It was a temperate day and he was safe enough, but they’d kept him out there for over an hour, wandering in circles, clutching the rail, and staring down at the street. Lara had fallen back asleep, and when she woke up an hour later he was still out there, sitting on the floor and rocking back and forth, his voice hoarse and his face crumpled. Lara called the police and waited by her window until they showed up. When they rang the doorbell, the father pulled the kid inside the apartment. Lara had tried to go back to sleep then, but she kept hearing the kid crying, as if he were still out on the porch.
She sat in the dark now, listening to the muffled misery next door. She’d seen the parents. They were unfriendly. The man was burly and unemployed. The wife was pale and thin, with bleached blond hair and a distracted, nervous air. The kid was cute enough, but wouldn’t be for long.
She picked up the phone and dialed the number Mandy L. Doheny had left for her.
A young woman answered on the second ring. “Hello?” she said. She sounded tired. Lara could hear a television in the background, the wild applause of a studio audience. “Hello?” the woman said again. “Who’s there?”
Lara could hear the television more clearly now. It sounded like a rerun of Oprah. Oprah’s earthy, familiar voice was saying, “I want you to meet Gracie. She’s got a story you won’t believe.”
“Hello?” the woman said once more, and then Lara could hear that she was turning down the volume on the television until it was silent. In a whisper, sounding as small and sad and desperate as she had on the answering machine, she said, “Is that you?”
Lara hung up.
The fighting next door was getting louder. Lara picked up the remote and turned on the TV to block it out. Oprah was wiping a tear away from her face while she held a young woman’s hand, nodding her head and saying, “You’re very brave.”
Lara watched Oprah but didn’t really see her. Her mind was filled with an image of Mandy sitting on a sofa in a dark apartment somewhere in New Jersey, watching this very same show, this very same exchange. Lara imagined not her face but her silhouette from behind, a young woman, thin and lost, framed by the light of a giant television set. She felt a tug of sadness, like loss or remorse. She wished she had said something to clarify the situation, like “I’m not your mother,” but she had not been able to force the words out.
The man was burly and unemployed. The wife was pale and thin. The kid was cute enough, but wouldn’t be for long.
In the middle of the night she woke to the bed shaking, the room shaking, her heart beating. The rattles. The fragments of a terrible dream cluttered her mind. A baby under a bed, crying. A dimly lit room, a table with stirrups, a smear of blood on a tiled wall. Her own voice as a child, yelling, “Momma! Momma!”
The next morning Lara stood in her bedroom in front of the long mirror, staring at her naked body. She was thin, muscular, pale. She had small breasts, a swatch of dark curly hair between her legs. Everything about her body was tight and lean, and although she wasn’t a virgin, she had never had an orgasm. The last man with whom she’d had sex said she looked like a virgin, and indeed it hurt when he entered her the way it always hurt when a man pushed inside of her. Hers was not a body that had given birth to anything, ever.
And yet? She wondered. It was a crazy thought but it kept floating back to her, like some piece of rotten driftwood you can’t swim away from. The summer of Lara’s thirteenth birthday was the same summer Mandy had been born and put up for adoption, a summer Lara remembered as dreary and lonely and hot. The summer her parents had had the kitchen renovated by Doug, a carpenter in his late twenties so blond and boyishly good-looking that all the mothers in the neighborhood wondered aloud why he wasn’t taken. Once, he entered the bathroom while Lara was taking a shower and pretended to wash his hands for an inordinately long time while he watched her reflection in the mirror. She didn’t remember anything else about that moment, only lying in bed afterward, still wet and shivering, feeling shame. And then somehow she had gained weight and had gone into the hospital for appendicitis. The doctors knocked her out and afterward she lay around the house eating Fudgsicles and watching a lot of Three’s Company. She had not seen many friends and she had cried herself to sleep at night, but for what, she could not now remember. What if it wasn’t just her appendix they’d removed? What if they’d removed Mandy L. Doheny?
It was a rainy day and the subway smelled of wet bodies. There was a young woman across from her with a child in a stroller. The stroller was covered with plastic to keep out the rain or the germs or both. The child was maybe five, brown-skinned and wiry, with dreadlocks. He was sucking his thumb hard and staring listlessly out at the press of people beyond the plastic. His mother, alarmingly young, was talking to the girl beside her, saying in a thick, gruff voice that didn’t match her own baby face, “That motherfucker tried to tell me it was just eczema. On his dick. I was like, naw.”
Lara watched the girl’s glossy lips move and thought that was the strange power of motherhood. No matter how badly, carelessly, halfheartedly, or unhappily you did it, you remained a mother. Bad mother, good mother, here mother, gone mother. The adjectives changed but the noun remained the same. You were a mother. There was no changing that.
Iola Brooks had changed her mind. The old black maid who had washed white people’s clothes her whole life, only to give—poignantly, with a spirit of saintly forgiveness and goodwill—her entire life savings to the Southern, formerly segregated college, the old black lady who had traveled around the country, making appearances on Oprah and Good Morning America in her starched white church dress, her bible held together with duct tape—that old spinster with her meek “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am” and “I jus’ wanna go to San Francisco so I can see that golden bridge,” that same Iola Brooks had, at the last minute, before the final forms were signed and the money was handed over, rescinded her offer.
There was a message on Lara’s machine when she got to work. It was from a weary-sounding university public relations officer, telling her to call the cover story off. Iola Brooks had decided to keep the money until she died, and when she died, what was left of her savings would go to her cousin Dionne and Dionne’s three kids.
Lara called Iola Brooks to get the story from her directly. She groaned, irritated, when Lara told her who she was.
“Lissen,” she said, “I told those fools at the university I done changed my mind. Why won’t they just leave me alone? They been calling me off the hook. Trying to convince me how this is gonna do something to change the world. I spent 65 years scrubbing the shit out their britches, why I owe them a cent?”
Lara let her ramble on. She knew the article would be cut. The Charitable American was meant to inspire people to give to the needy, and now any article on Iola Brooks would be about something else altogether.
‘Is there anything you still want to do with your life?’ Laura asked. ‘I want to go to San Francisco and see that golden bridge,’ Iola replied.
Still, she had one more question. What would Iola Brooks do with her remaining years on earth?
“Maybe I’ll go on a cruise,” Iola said. “Or maybe I’ll buy me a new car and some pumps.” She went on to list all the things she might buy, now that she was not giving to charity. A Clapper. A set of Ginsu knives. A Chia Pet.
Finally Lara thanked her for her time and wished her the best of luck with her purchases.
“Finish the edits?” It was Fitz, leaning over her cubicle, wearing a white smile and a polo shirt with the collar turned up.
“Kill the piece,” Lara told him. “Iola Brooks has seen the error of her ways. She’s decided to keep her money to herself after all.”
She spent the rest of the afternoon in a story meeting, brainstorming with Fitz and his staff of dilettante friends about what might replace Iola Brooks on the cover. Fitz wouldn’t look her in the eye, and she got the feeling he was upset with her, as if she was somehow to blame for the old woman’s change of heart. In the end, he assigned the new cover story—on the estate of Jerry Falwell—to somebody else.
At five o’clock she headed back to Brooklyn on the D train. It was only when she unlocked the door of her apartment and stepped inside and felt Tinker rub up against her ankle that she realized it had been with her all day, like a dull headache—the girl, that is, Mandy L. Doheny. She went to the answering machine, barely breathing. She saw that there had been two missed calls but there was no message. She didn’t bother turning on the lights but sat in the dark with Tinker on her lap, stroking her soft fur. She tried to imagine what Mandy L. Doheny looked like, what she had looked like. She imagined a little girl—seven years old or so—small and dark and smiling as she ran toward her across a playground, a lunch box banging against her thigh. She imagined herself opening her arms wide to welcome the child into them.
She was crying now. Alone. She was crying alone in the dark. She felt the tears roll down her cheeks. They tickled, like crawling bugs, but she did not rub them away.
Lara had gotten an abortion her sophomore year in college. It was nothing shocking, nothing unusual. Everybody she knew had gotten one at some point, even more than one. She barely remembered the procedure. What was more vivid to her was the party she’d gone to a few nights later, the boy she’d refrained from having sex with only because she was still passing blood clots. That she remembered.
And she recalled her friend Karen—beautiful, tawny, strident Karen—who told her she was brave for going through with the procedure. A few months later, Karen had invited her to protest the local Domino’s Pizza because it had just come public that the owners were anti-abortion. After the protest they had gone and smoked a joint in Lara’s dorm room, and after that they’d called Domino’s and, laughing so hard they could barely get the words out, tried to order a pizza with fetus topping.
Lara was shivering now, cold, though she was still wearing her damp coat and the cat was hot and purring, its little heart beating, oblivious to the sobbing of the body beneath her.
A shrill sound. Ringing. The phone. Lara scrambled to her feet. Tinker, tossed to the floor, meowed in outrage.
She picked up the receiver. “Hello?” she said, gasping.
The voice that came back was like an echo, somebody else crying in the dark—a woman’s voice, familiar as honey to her now.
“It’s me. Why won’t you see me? Don’t you even care? Don’t you even want to know what’s happened to me?”
Lara said, “Okay. Yes. Okay.”
She changed her outfit three times before she left the apartment that Sunday morning. Her heart beat with anticipation, even though she knew it was crazy. She had never had a baby. She would have remembered it. Lara was 33 and childless, manless, the case study of shrill magazine articles declaring the crisis of American women. She spent her Saturday nights with a cantankerous gay wit named Jose and sometimes his nebbishy sidekick, Lou. She ate her lunch with a copyeditor named Francis, a person she knew on paper was a woman but in person thought of as an “it.”
She was one of a million mid-30s New Yorkers who had come to the city precisely to get free of family, free of suburbia, free of lawn gnomes and barbecue equipment, and whom now family life had passed by. It was getting late in the day for her to incorporate family into her life. That was her fate, and she was trying hard to love her fate.
But here she was, all dressed up and going to meet a girl named Mandy L. Doheny, a girl who claimed to be her daughter.
She realized as she started out the door that the trepidation and doubt were not real. She had felt obligated to have those emotions. But they were false. She was elated. She felt giddy with the knowledge that she had a child out there. She had always thought of her life like a road, a straight road that stretched out ahead of her, beckoning her to the finish line, the grave. But now she knew she had always been a mother, and this fact made her life story look more like a circle than a road. She was moving forward and backward at the same moment. She had a family—a child—and the knowledge of this made her feel complete, though she knew she was not supposed to buy into such retrograde logic.
She was one of a million mid-30s New Yorkers who had come to the city to get free of family, free of suburbia, free of lawn gnomes.
Mandy had suggested they meet at a Starbucks across from the Port Authority. She said she’d be sitting in the back of the café near the windows.
The subway was nearly empty except for a few early risers, immigrants with scrubbed faces and stiff outfits, on their way to church. Lara sat watching the underground darkness fly past the window. She imagined the girl she was going to meet, imagined a young woman who looked just as she had looked at the age of twenty, a vague, almost fetal imprecision to her features, like somebody not yet fully born.
A teenage boy stood behind the register wearing disposable gloves and placing small slices of pastry into paper sampling cups.
And in the back of the café, yes, a girl was seated by the windows. She sat beside a baby stroller, and was pushing it back and forth with one arm while she gazed out the window. There was nobody else it could be. The Starbucks was empty. And so this meant that Lara was not only a mother but a grandmother. She walked toward the girl, who was heavyset, with dirty blond hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. As Lara got closer, she saw that the girl had thin lips and thin eyebrows that had been plucked so many times they were almost gone. She didn’t have any drink or food on the table in front of her.
When she looked up and saw Lara, a slight, hopeful smile crossed her lips.
“Are you the one?” she said, rising from her seat.
She was heavier from the waist down, with a bulge at her belly where a baby had recently been. Lara glanced into the stroller and saw an infant, only a few months old, snuggled in blankets, asleep. The girl wore a white Adidas tracksuit and a thick gold chain around her neck with a nameplate that spelled out MANDY in bubbly cursive.
Lara stepped forward, held out her hand, trying to sustain her belief. But it was inescapably clear to her that there had been a mistake. This girl was no more her daughter than the pimply kid working the register. And she knew too that it was indeed her appendix she’d had removed in the summer of 1983. She didn’t remember the summer or the surgery clearly, but that was what they’d removed, not a child, never a child.
She had to get it over with quickly so the girl would stop smiling at her like that. “Yes, I’m Lara, but there’s been a mistake. I’m not your mother.”
Mandy pulled her hand away, wiped it on her jeans, looked out the window, expressionless. “Why’d you come here, then?”
Lara looked down at the table. There were pieces of shredded napkin scattered all over it. “I thought there might be a chance.”
“How do you know it’s not true?” Mandy said, facing Lara now, but her eyes focused just slightly to the left of Lara’s face.
“I just know.”
The girl wanted to be sure. She showed Lara her documents, rumpled official forms, a nameless birth certificate from 1983, and a more recent letter from a Catholic charity that revealed the identity of her real mother, someone named Laura Barrows from Queens, who had been twenty-six at the time of Mandy’s birth, not thirteen.
Mandy didn’t cry when Lara pointed out the discrepancy. She just pursed her lips and nodded her head and said, “I get it, you ain’t my mother,” like somebody who was more accustomed to disappointment than to pleasant surprises.
Lara, just to be polite, asked the girl a few questions, and learned that she lived with her boyfriend, Jervey, in Paterson. The baby in the stroller, who was still asleep, was named Jermajesty. He was Jervey’s kid. She had another child, too, from an earlier relationship, a three-year-old girl named Destiny. She learned that Mandy worked in a Subway sandwich shop. She learned that Mandy had been raised in foster care.
Mandy asked if Lara would watch the baby while she went to the bathroom. Lara nodded and Mandy excused herself and was gone. Almost as soon as the heavy metal door had closed, Jermajesty woke up, screaming. He was a tiny baby but he could make a lot of noise. Lara looked around but the boy at the register didn’t seem to notice, and she saw he had earphones in his ears as he cleaned an espresso machine with a white cloth. Lara pushed the stroller back and forth, hoping the motion would calm the baby, but he kept screaming. She’d forgotten how much she disliked being around babies. It was their weight and their ferociousness, rather than their smallness and vulnerability, that scared her. They were strong and they were tenacious.
She looked toward the bathroom door, willing Mandy to come out, but after a few minutes, when the door remained closed, Lara picked the baby up and held him against her shoulder as a friend with a baby had forced her to do every time she visited, until gradually she’d stopped visiting at all. “There, there,” she said, hearing the strangeness of those familiar soothing words. “There, there.” After a moment, Jermajesty began to calm down, and then he stopped crying entirely. She was afraid to stop moving, so she kept walking back and forth, patting the baby’s back.
As she paced, she thought about Iola Brooks, and how Iola wanted to visit “that golden bridge” before she died. Lara had gone to college in San Francisco, not far from that bridge. It was in that very landscape she’d gotten pregnant and in that place she’d undone what was growing inside of her. She had only a moment’s doubt the night before the procedure, when she’d woken in a state of premature grief. She’d smothered her sobs into her pillow for fear of waking her roommate, but was dry-eyed and enthusiastic when Karen came beeping outside the dormitory in the morning in her dented Volvo sports coupe.
The bridge was not golden. It was made of steel and painted orange. They drove over it on the way back from the procedure. Karen chattered about a psychology exam and a boy named Cricket. Lara, bleary and cramping beside her, looked out at the water and the cliffs in the distance, repeating a mantra, words aimed at somebody who didn’t exist: you are free, you are free, you are free.
The door opened and Mandy stepped out. Her eyes looked puffy and red, like maybe she’d been crying. “I gotta get back,” she said. “Jervey’s no good with the other one.”
Roughly, she took Jermajesty from Lara’s arms and put him back in his stroller, covering him with blankets though it was warm inside the café. He started to cry again but she put a bottle of formula in his mouth and he went quiet.
“Took me two hours to get here on the bus,” Mandy said, eyeing the pastries behind the glass. “Wasted the whole morning on this.”
She was trying to make Lara feel guilty, and it was working.
“Can I get you anything? For your bus ride home?”
“A Frappuccino, I guess.”
Lara nodded. “Sure.” They went to the register and Lara ordered her a Frappuccino. As she pulled out her wallet to pay, Mandy asked if she could get a piece of coffee cake with it, and an orange juice. Lara added the coffee cake and the orange juice to the order.
“And a vanilla milk for Jermajesty? In case he gets hungry?”
The baby looked too young to drink Starbucks vanilla milk—it was probably for Destiny, the toddler at home—but Lara agreed to it anyway.
They left Starbucks together and stood on the sidewalk. The baby, still sucking his bottle, squinted out from beneath the mound of blankets, a little elfin yellow face that made Lara’s heart hurt to look at.
Mandy wrapped her coffee cake in some napkins and put it, with the other items, into her purse. It was still early for a Sunday, a gray autumn morning, and the street was as empty as Lara had ever seen it.
“Good luck with your search for your mother,” Lara said, holding out her hand. “I hope you find her.”
Mandy took Lara’s hand and clasped it weakly. “Thanks for the Frappuccino and stuff.” She shrugged. “I hope you find your daughter, the one you gave away.”
Lara started to clarify, but thought better of it. “Me too,” she said.
Then Mandy was moving away, across the wide intersection with her stroller. Lara waited until they were safely inside the bus terminal before she turned away.
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