FICTION September 6, 2013

Real Family

Another appointment; more disappointing news. On the ride home from the doctor’s office one afternoon, Ginger stopped at a bookstore and bought both volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She’d envisioned family dinners together, something she’d never had growing up, both of her parents absent, one in body, one in mind. She didn’t like to get into the details of it, didn’t like to think about her childhood too much, the future always a better option than the past. She wanted not pasta and sauce from a jar but good, old-fashioned homemade cooking, meals that required hard labor. A table set with polished silverware, cloth napkins; candles. A table made resplendent with shiny perspiring turkeys, midnight hued plums; tomatoes bursting from their seams. Succulence! Succulence! Maybe it was all a matter of the power of persuasion, thought Ginger as she carried the encased tome in the crook of her arm to the cash register. Cook it and they will fertilize.

But hours later pots bubbled over and burned up the stove, black smoke trickled out from a crack in the oven. “Good thing the fire alarms aren’t installed,” Ethan joked when he found Ginger curled up on the bed, her head buried beneath a pillow. “You’ll get better. Maybe beef bourguignon is a little ambitious. How about scrambling an egg first?” He tugged at the pillow until Ginger finally let go.

She lay still while Ethan stroked her hair, closing her eyes when she couldn’t bear to look at him any longer. “What if,” he began, but Ginger knew what he was going to say and snatched the pillow back, covering her face, closing the fabric over her ears.

“Ginger. Sweetheart.”

Ethan yanked at the pillow but she refused to let go this time. She inhaled deeply. It smelled of sharp human scents and fabric softener and aging down.

“Can’t we be honest about this?”

She buried her face further into the fabric. Her voice came as if from the past. “No.”

The adoption agency they finally settled on was headquartered in Michigan; the children were primarily Eastern European and Russian. It took nearly two years and lots of false starts, but eventually they found him in an orphanage in Bucharest, Romania. Ginger signed up for a cooking class, squeezed in three more before his scheduled arrival. He was nine months old, his name was Robert and—Ginger said when she first laid eyes on his picture—he was perfect.


Dr. Blum takes a notebook from the side drawer of her desk, picks up a pen. “Tell me more about Robert.”

Ginger rolls her eyes, gestures at the file. “Didn’t that tell you enough?”

Ethan places his hand on her forearm. “Do you want me to start?”

“Be my guest.”

While Ethan speaks, Ginger turns toward the windows and gazes at the large parking lot outside. Heat rises off the asphalt, making anything that passes through its waves wobbly and uncertain. A woman pushes an extravagantly-designed stroller with wheels like giant chocolate donuts; people hustle to and from cars, the scraping sounds of their footsteps on the ground ringing dully in Ginger’s ears.

Ethan and Dr. Blum think she isn’t paying attention but she is. For each example Ethan gives, in her mind Ginger is stacking up counter-examples from her own childhood to refute his. Her brother went through a biting phase. She once got caught pinching candy bars from a corner store. She had difficulty making friends. She had a habit of getting lost, following distractions. Even now she can recall her mother’s face whenever they were reunited, usually at information booths and check-out counters, her complexion white, not from fear but from guilt at allowing it to happen yet again.

Ginger presses her hand to her chest. The air in the office feels thin. A soup with all those extra potatoes, she thinks. A dessert bread using the over-ripe bananas in the bowl on the kitchen table.

“…And then this past week…” she hears Ethan saying and instinctively she knows it is her cue.

“When we were kids my brother stabbed me,” she blurts.

Ethan and Dr. Blum blink at her.

“Once—with a fork. It broke skin. Here.” She begins to roll up the sleeve of her blouse.

“That was different,” Ethan says. He’s heard this story before. “Not that your childhood was any model of normalcy but it was an accident. Joe didn’t purposefully stab you.”

“And you think Robert did?”

Ethan doesn’t answer her.

“You weren’t there,” she says. “Maybe if you had been it wouldn’t have happened…” She trails off, feeling his eyes moving downward to her lap. One hand over the other, she hides the spot that is covered with gauze and medical tape, the stitches still new. The spot on her hand seems to pulsate, like the nagging at the back of her mind, something about the past six years that shakes loose her certainty.

“What about ADD?” ventures Ginger. “Learning disabilities? I’ve read there are higher rates of it among adopted children.”

Dr. Blum looks disappointed by this suggestion. “Certainly developmental and learning delays can be symptoms of something more serious. But right now there’s nothing to indicate he might be challenged developmentally. His speech was delayed when he was younger but that’s not unusual for a child coming from his circumstances.”

“But you should have seen the orphanage,” presses Ginger. “It was a terrible place. They tied babies to their cribs.”

Dr. Blum snaps the button on her pen, slips it into the chest pocket on her lab coat. There are three others just like it, their ends poking out like bullets on a holster.

“The teachers at his last school said that he lacked remorse,” Ethan offers. “When he hurt other kids.”

“He was protecting himself!” cries Ginger. “The other children teased him. One of the teachers even told me so.” And yet it was Robert—not the other children—that had been removed from school. The teachers had sat Ginger and Ethan down in the art room at the kiddy-sized tables to tell them the news. Their knees kept knocking against the furniture while the teachers stood over them, looking down on Ginger, their faces failing to hide the obvious accusation: Bad mother. “You can’t tell me the other children weren’t at fault.”

“It wasn’t just the one time…”

“Why is it so hard for you to defend your own son? Is it because he’s adopted?”

Ethan laughs ruefully. “You’re not a cheap person, Ginger. Don’t start acting like one now.”

Ginger wraps her arms around herself, licks her lips. Hot chocolate with whipped cream from a can. Oil-popped popcorn smothered in butter. “He’s a very good eater.” She can hear how she sounds—defensive, desperate—but cannot stop. “Broccoli. Even brussels sprouts.”

Dr. Blum places her elbows on her desk. “Fortunately, we’re addressing Robert’s situation at an early age. Hopefully we can get to work so that he’s ready for some controlled classes. He won’t be ready for mainstream school just yet, but in time.”

School. Only yesterday Robert had thrown a tantrum over the Spiderman backpack he’d seen another boy wearing at the playground; it took all the strength Ginger had to haul him off to the car. It was wrong of her, she thought, to have strong-armed him from the playground; she’d handled it all wrong. She sensed too that other parents thought she had, she could feel their silent judgment even after she’d turned her back on them. If only she’d been more patient, hung in for a few minutes longer, tried to reason with him. Maybe that’s the problem. Patience, her lack of it. When she thinks about it now she knows it was her fault. She’d driven him to it and then been forced to bribe him—lie to him—promising him she’d buy him his own backpack in order to calm him down. She’d told him she’d get him one for school, knowing full well Robert wasn’t going back anytime soon.

“I’d like to see what the three of us can do together first, but I also want to assure you that there are other resources…”