It starts with a face in a binder. CHILDREN AVAILABLE, reads the cover. The recruitment brochure for this foster services agency says they need families that “take risks,” but I won’t notice this language until it’s too late, and even if I’d noticed it at the start, I would have taken it as a pat on the back. You, though, you see everything as a warning. You scrutinize the flyers in the binder, search the faces for signs. Read between the lines.
“He looks sweet,” I say. “A boy like that, I think we could help him.”
“Sexual abuse,” you say. “How would he ever trust me?” Turn the page.
The pictures remind me of the advertisements for abandoned dogs in the shelter where I volunteered, back in another life.
Older than seven we’ve deemed untenable, which means every teenager’s smile punctures any temptation to feel virtuous. “It’s so unfair, the older ones don’t have a chance,” I say.
“It’s awful,” you say. You mean it. You’ve turned pale. Your bleeding heart, literally and figuratively. It weakens you several times daily. The reason I married you.
“We want the child to have a chance of bonding with us,” you say. It’s an apology, not an explanation. We’ve been over this too many times. You made a chart: Name. DOB. County. Positives. Concerns. You stop on an Asian girl with big glasses. I read: Alice would like to be placed with a family that eats organic produce.
“I like that. She looks smart, that Alice.” You’re trying out her name. But Alice is nine. So we turn.
To a brown-haired gremlin with arms flung like she could fly off the page.
“Ma-REE-sa?” we say. “Ma-RESS-a?”
The girl beside her has the same brown eyes and brown hair. But she’s composed. Forgettable. Or is that just the year and a half since we saw her photo, as I write this, erasing incipient love?
Jennifer and Maresa are adorable eight- and six-year-old sisters. They love dance class, singing, and making art.
Your mouth puckering in thought. “The agency said we can have two of the same sex in one room.” My pulse rising at what you don’t say: The older girl is eight.
Names and dates of birth at the top of the list, slip of paper handed to the receptionist.
In your handwriting, a special note: Highly interested.
You may be the careful one, but you’ve got your risky side. Saying “I love you” back when I blurted it after three weeks. Following me from San Francisco to North Carolina after three months. Marrying me there after six. Supporting me when I wanted to quit the only college teaching job I’d ever managed to land and go back to California. Signing a mortgage on a house in the foothills, praying our freelance gigs would keep coming even though we’d be hours up Route 80 from the bay, because how else could we ever afford that second bedroom?
The difference with you: You know the risks are real. Whereas I can’t quite conjure danger. Blithe, some might say.
You prefer to say I have an optimistic imagination.
Failure of imagination might apply, too. Not long after we write the unpronounceable name, I go for a beer with another writer, rare creature in our new GMC-driving, flag-flying town. You commended me for networking, but what I want in this alien land of live oaks and ponderosa pines is a friend. His perfect baby is home sleeping with his wife. I talk the whole time about the girls in the binder, about waiting to hear. Try not to burden him with details of a labyrinthine bureaucracy, just say we’ve been specially chosen as a home offering “permanency,” though finalizing can’t be guaranteed. He applauds what we’re doing. Says it sounds risky.
“Maybe this isn’t the kind of question I should ask,” he starts, “but what happens if ?— ?you know ?— ?you don’t click?”
I explain how the first meetings will go, how the girls supposedly won’t know ?— ?though how could they not? ?— ?that we’re scouting.
“I mean beyond that,” he says, and I brace myself with another sip of beer. “Not to be callous here, but technically you’ll still be foster parents until the final adoption, right? So?.?.?.”
“Oh,” I say. “Well?.?.?. we’re supposed to be offering unconditional love.”
Meaning, I’m not even going to imagine what you’re suggesting.
The week after we hand the names to the receptionist, we drive down to the city. Oh, elaborate life riggings of the so-called creative class. You’ve kept your adjunct job near the bay, teaching art where we can’t afford to live, renting a basement two nights a week from a friend.