Fiction, Vol. 7.3, Sept. 2013
I don’t know how to begin to explain the letter my wife, Cameron, left waiting for me on the kitchen island like it was just another gas bill or catalogue from The Bombay Company. Printed in pencil on unlined notebook paper worn thin from pink and gray eraser marks, the writer asked in so many words if my wife had given up a baby boy for adoption twenty-eight years earlier in Tampa, Florida. Taped to the bottom fold was a wallet-sized portrait of the boy, now a man, with a wife and a child of his own.
“Cameron,” I called and heard her moving upstairs in our bedroom.
I didn’t believe for a second that my wife was this man’s mother. I did the math in my head. Biologically speaking, it was an outside possibility but it would’ve been some sort of medical rarity, the kind of lowlife tragedy built for the afternoon talk show circuit. True, we’d married later in life—only when compared to our friends—but a tween pregnancy didn’t fit easily into the story of her years before us. The only explanation that I could provide was that the poor man had sought and found the wrong Cameron Benson.
Still, I dropped my computer bag and keys on the counter and studied the photograph for a resemblance to my wife but my eye kept drifting from the man to the baby. I didn’t have to be a legal expert to know why a county judge had agreed to unseal the adoption records. There had to be something wrong with the kid.
The family had dressed for their portrait in matching khaki pants and white linen shirts and posed barefoot on the ridge of a sand dune like a human totem pole—the wife’s head pressed to her husband’s chest and the boy on his shoulders like a goddam ghoul of a thunderbird. I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but the baby had the face of a hawk. His head looked like it had been hand-molded into a long-nosed beak from the sides, bucking his teeth and sloping his jaw into his neck. He was so pale he appeared to lack pigment and his wide-set eyes, pink like a white rabbit’s, bulged in different directions from beneath a protective helmet. If he were my child, I’d never take him to the beach. I’d be terrified a seagull would pluck an eyeball from his lopsided skull.
My wife walked into the kitchen wearing a white blouse like the family in the photograph. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail and her eyes widened slightly. I put my fist to my mouth and coughed.
“Okay?” she asked and took two dinner plates down from the cabinet over the sink.
“I had something caught in my throat,” I said. “Any good mail? Mom?”
“I know,” she said and laughed. “Strange, right?”
“Did you get a look at the kid?” I asked, helping her with the plates. “I’m thinking a genetic disorder.”
“He’s obviously albino.”
“He’s got more wrong with him than that,” I said. “I bet it’s a rare disease.” I set two plates on the kitchen island and opened the silverware drawer. “Not so uncommon, though, that a good doctor doesn’t recognize it for what it is immediately.”
“We don’t need forks,” my wife said. “I’m heating up takeout from Tokyo Express.”
“I’d like to see him without the helmet.”
“You think he has a flat head?” I asked, picking up the photograph again. “Dented?”
“It’s probably a toy, a football helmet.”
“How is that a football helmet?”
“You don’t even like football,” she said and bent over to open the oven door. “You’re terrible. What do you know?”
“I know it was irresponsible for this man to mail his letter out blind to a stranger, not knowing anything for certain,” I said and looked closely at the father for the first time. He had a high pink complexion with thin sandy hair. His eyes were a pale shade of blue that I had to admit may have matched my wife’s. I tried to shake that thought out of my head before it could lodge there like a splinter. “I think you might be my mother, Ms. Benson. He’s an asshole. You were basically in elementary school.”
Cameron dropped the foil takeout container on the stovetop. “Oh!” she cried and stuck her thumb in her mouth. “Hot.”
I dropped the photograph, hurried around the kitchen island, and ran a dishtowel under the faucet. “Let me see,” I said, taking her hand. I wrapped her thumb tight in the damp towel. “It’s a touch pink,” I said. “You’ll forget about it before bed.” I squeezed her palm gently and tried to look reassuring. “I’m not so awful,” I said. “Here, I can finish up dinner.”
“Seventh,” she said, taking her hand back and holding it by the wrist against her chest.
“I don’t understand.”
“I was in middle school when he was born.”
I stepped back from her and leaned against the counter. “I don’t feel well.”
“It would’ve been the tail end of my seventh grade year,” she said. “That man is not my child.”
Cameron threw me a look and lowered her eyes. I knew this look. It was a way she had of protesting silently. She dropped the dishtowel on the counter and began to unfold the takeout container slowly as if she wasn’t sure she wanted to eat anymore at all. Usually, when I saw her this way I couldn’t stop talking, even though I knew I should keep quiet. Tonight, I was ready to drop it. I picked up my computer bag and told her I needed to change clothes before dinner. Maybe if I didn’t acknowledge her mood she wouldn’t start up the conversation again.
But when I came back downstairs I saw that she’d hung the family photograph on our refrigerator and she asked, “Would it be so terrible if he were my child?” She said it teasingly with a little laugh, but in her look was an anxious question.
“Cameron,” I said.
“Would it make a difference to you?”
As if to prove it wouldn’t, I sat down at the kitchen island and turned my full attention to her. Before me I saw a woman with a wrinkled forehead and bright eyes. I watched her hand smooth her blouse, pick up a pair of chopsticks, and bring a slice of sweet carrot to her pinched lips. When she bent her head to her plate, the malformed boy loomed up from the refrigerator and an impatience came over me. “Yes,” I said finally. “I wouldn’t like it.”
“Why?” she asked. “What would be different?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll tell you,” she said. “Exactly nothing.”
“You’d have had a baby.”
“Twenty years before we met,” she said, then paused.
“I’ll always be the woman you married.”
I took a breath and inhaled my wife’s scent, a blend of shampoo and laundry detergent and a hint of sweat. “You’d have a past.”
“I do have a past,” she said and laughed bitterly. “I didn’t start living the day I met you.”
“You know what I mean,” I said. “I wouldn’t like knowing you gave up a child.”
“What would it have to do with you? Really?”
“I’d be worried you’d give me up easy, too,” I said, then stopped. I’d meant for that to come across as sweet and lighthearted, a way out of a dim conversation. Hearing it aloud, though, I saw that it held an ugly truth. I got up from the island. The boy’s one pink eye that met the camera seemed to follow me as I crossed the kitchen, snatched the picture down, and tossed it back onto the pile of junk mail.
I sat across from my wife again and pushed the food around my plate. “Why hang that up?”
She was silent.
“I feel bad for the man and his family,” she said. “I bet they were happy before they started needing to understand what happened.”
I heard the sorrow in her voice, and an image of us from early in our marriage came to me with such palpable intensity that it felt like a breath on the back of my neck. I remembered standing at a second floor window in a three-bedroom house built in the older section of an established neighborhood crisscrossed with miles of canals that our realtor assured us led to the bay. In the backyard, my new wife swung on a child’s swing set, pulling hard on the chains and pumping her legs, until she leapt into the air and landed on the ground, stumbling but catching herself with a tight turn as graceful as a pirouette. She pushed her blonde hair away from her face, pink with exertion, and caught me watching from the window. Instead of laughing or waving demurely, she gripped the sides of her linen dress and took a deep bow. I thought we’d make an offer on the house that afternoon, but after a long talk we decided we were too involved in our careers to have an immediate need for extra space. Several months later, we ended up buying our condominium on the ocean. I don’t know why I remembered that particular moment out of all the years of our marriage, but I felt the ache of the memory so sharply that I almost asked Cameron if she was seeing the same thing, the easy simplicity of our early happiness. Then, it was gone.
“Don’t feel sorry,” I said. “He imposed on you unfairly.”
“No,” she said.
I said nothing.
“What would you do?” she asked. “If you had a child like him?”
“I don’t want to think about that, Cameron,” I said. “It’s an ugly thought.”
“It’s only a thought.”
“I can’t say,” I said. “Honestly, I’m not built for that kind of hardship.”
I looked at my wife, but she averted her eyes and pushed her barstool back from the island. She walked across the kitchen and dumped her food in the trash. I knew she was angry, but she wasn’t rough with her plate like I would have been. She gathered up the man’s letter and his photograph and left the room.
“Cameron,” I said, but she didn’t hear me. She was already out of the hallway and on the stairs to our bedroom.
I finished my dinner, loaded the dishwasher, and stepped outside onto the balcony off the kitchen. The night was cool and dark in the way that some nights are darker than others. If it weren’t for the vapor lights over the dumpsters, I imagined I’d have a clear view of the wheel of constellations rolling over the Gulf of Mexico. I couldn’t even see the ocean, though I could taste its salt and hear its roar.
The bedroom light was still on when I came back inside so I fixed a drink and watched television late into the night. I woke up on the couch in the morning and found my wife had already left for work. Half an hour later, I was on my way out the door when I saw a letter addressed to the family pinned to our mailbox. I pulled it down, folded it in half, and put it in my back pocket.
I’ve kept the letter and the photograph in my nightstand drawer for years now, ever since my wife left. I’ll pull it out every now and again when I’m reminded of her, often when a catalogue from Lands’ End or The Territory Ahead shows up, one of those things that we didn’t have forwarded to her new address. I don’t pay much attention to her letter. For all the effort she put into writing it, I don’t recognize her voice in her words. Truthfully, I worry that I may be forgetting her altogether because whenever I look at the photograph I see her features haunting the father and the son like a ghost.