|Mar 08, 2005 - 12:42 AM|
|Roy L Pickering Jr|
The child was adorable, as so many damned many of them were. Marlene's smile at the little boy with saucer eyes and an infectious grin masked the self-pity felt beneath it.
"Hi." The rambunctious tike tried to sprint forward for no discernible reason, except perhaps to explore the world at a faster pace. His momentum was gently stalled by his mother, whose grip on his hand kept him from straying too far from her protection.
"He's beautiful," Marlene complimented the mother, who responded with half a smile to words she had heard countless times before. The woman had been granted such great fortune, was so enormously blessed, that the magnitude of her accidental fate had ceased to impress and now bordered on boring her. The finger next to her left pinky was encircled by a band of gold cradling a large twinkling diamond. The precocious product of her marriage elicited smiles of tenderness, admiration, and envy wherever they ventured. In short, she was living a life that Marlene had always presumed would be hers as well.
Marlene turned from the mother and child and examined her reflection in a store window. Most would guess her age to be five or six years less than what it actually was, a perception that she was grateful for, but which had been giving her increasingly less satisfaction. Yes, she was an attractive woman. Every day she turned a few heads with her brandy complexion, searing green eyes, and the way her firm and narrow waist branched out to rounded hips. Besides her beauty, the lifestyle she could afford due a career path smoothly traveled upon was also impressive. Marlene's diligence and dedication had earned her a hefty share of the American dream, at least the financial portion.
And yet, at the age of 41 with 42 coming swiftly on its heels, she ached for more. Marlene wanted what fate had denied her, or that perhaps she had denied herself while in pursuit of other things. Nowhere to be found in the spacious confines of her home was a loving husband, and no matter how strongly one strained to hear, the tentative first steps of her offspring could not be deciphered. The many beautiful and expensive furnishings that adorned her home could not quite fill the overwhelming sense of emptiness that it contained.
Marlene was certain that she would be a wonderful mother, having been raised by one herself. She was fully prepared for the balancing act she would need to perform, overanxious for a chance to treasure a life above and beyond her own. Thinking back on the line-up of men who had flitted in and out of her life over the years, Marlene briefly appraised them in random order with varying degrees of regret. As always, she saved James for last. They were equally ambitious, equally intelligent, equally passionate about nearly identical lists of pleasures. Equality and fairness not always going hand in hand, Marlene often tried but usually failed to convince herself that his departure should have come as less of a surprise. He had left her for his whorish co-worker Rachel, a woman inferior to her in all areas, including the amount of years she had lived and breathed. James elected to be with a beautiful 28-year old woman rather than one who was approaching forty, and his reason for doing so was a simple mathematical equation that any grade school student could solve.
Marlene understood now that James' motivation for abandoning her was no more superficial than her own justification for not giving David a fair chance. David was movie star handsome, witty and self-deprecating in the sexiest of ways. Plus, his body appeared to have been crafted by ancient Greek sculptors out of the finest grade of ebony marble. What he didn't possess was a college degree, a bulky bank account, or a prestigious vocation to discuss at cocktail parties like a peacock spreading its lovely array of tail feathers. David's persistence in wooing Marlene had been met by a steady wall of resistance, and even though she yielded to the physical temptation, she never allowed herself to take him too seriously. Eventually he surrendered his pursuit. Although David once claimed that he was patient enough to wait indefinitely for her, Marlene now understood as well that neglected love like an unused battery will go dead after a sufficient passage of time.
Between James and David had been various other lovers and reasons for the potential of these relationships not being reached. There had always been plenty of time for the fairy tale conceived in childhood to materialize. But after four years of much ado with James left her with nothing, she suddenly found that time had abandoned her as an ally. Four plus decades of living had resulted in not nearly enough to show for it.
Marlene turned to look back once more at the toddler who trotted by his mother's side in a yellow and blue Osh Kosh ensemble. Blissful in his innocence, the child had no idea how much heartache he was causing.
The screech of a cat grabbed Marlene's attention away from the child. It had bounded on to a dumpster that was situated behind an Indian restaurant on the corner of the street where she lived. The cat was as black as the furthest depth of night. Marlene was not at all superstitious, and she found the feline to be quite striking. She thought about taking the stray in, but abandoned this thought as quickly as it occurred to her. It was probably a byproduct of the mothering instinct that had been consuming her in recent months.
Marlene had given serious consideration to adoption, and she had also been reading up on scientific resolutions to her dilemma. Her self-indulgent contemplation had led to a foolish act about six months earlier. One night after one martini too many at a business dinner she was hosting, she spontaneously excused herself and found a quiet corner in the trendy Moroccan restaurant. From there she placed a call to James. It had been nearly four months since they had last spoken to each other, and now she was about to propose that he donate some of his sperm to be paired up with a collection of her eggs. Marlene had reluctantly surrendered her desire for happily-ever-after with him, but thought that perhaps he would be willing to give her something even more sacred.
"Hello. Hello. Is anybody there?"
When Marlene gave no response to the question, she was hung up on. The voice of Rachel had been a vicious smack to the face, for the possessiveness of its tone was apparent. Rachel was not merely answering her boyfriend's phone. She was answering her own phone. Rachel had moved in with James.
Marlene turned away from the black cat atop the dumpster and continued on her way home. A bottle of chilled wine, some work she had brought from the office, and yet another dinner for one awaited her.
* * *
"I keep thinking about all the problems my sister had with Kendra. She and Robert did everything they could for that girl, but she never appreciated it, never gave them anything but grief for their efforts."
"A lot of wounded souls come out of the foster care system," Mitchell said to his wife. "Sometimes the damage can't be healed. Sometimes good people come into their lives too late to break through the shield they've put up to survive. Robert and Claire did the best they could, but I don't think anybody's best would have mattered much to Kendra. She'll be dealing with all that anger, and fear, and insecurity pent up inside her for a long time to come."
"I suppose they went into it with their eyes open," said Noreen, brushing back her fiery mane of hair that had caused Mitchell to stutter the first words he ever spoke to her. "When you take responsibility for someone who's already half grown, the odds are fairly high that your attempt to provide stability for them will be in vain. Those children from state homes have grown too accustomed to chaos, to not caring about anyone since nobody has ever cared about them."
"So what you're saying then..."
"What I'm saying," interrupted Noreen, for she sometimes found her husband's penchant for interpreting her statements and finishing her thoughts a little annoying, "is that what my sister and her husband did was commendable. But they already have three kids of their own. They could afford to experiment, and I know that isn't the best choice of words, with helping out a less fortunate child. But our situation is, or might be, very different. So I guess I'm feeling more selfish than Claire. I want a newborn baby. I want the chance to mold a life right from the beginning. I want a child who will never consider anyone but me the mother, and no one except for you the father."
Mitchell draped an arm over his wife's shoulders. "We will have that," he said. "Let's try to think optimistically."
"The more positive I feel, the more it will hurt if Dr. Bornstein doesn't tell us what we want to hear."
Mitchell briefly removed his hat, ran a hand over his dark brown comb-over, then put the hat back on. Being two months older, he had gotten a head start on Noreen in the habit of brushing hair back when exasperated. But he had considerably less material to work with than his wife, and to his dismay, the amount seemed to be decreasing daily. What little hair remained he was tempted to tear out over the aggravation that had recently settled over their lives.
"We'll still have options," he said more reassuringly than he truly felt. "Even in the worst case scenario, things can work out. It will just be a little more complicated than the old fashioned way."
"I wish I could be as calm and rational about this as you," Noreen said, somewhat jealously, somewhat gratefully. A good size portion of her love for Mitchell was based on his remarkable ability to be steady when she was most crazed. His composure usually rubbed off on her after awhile, but not this time around.
The couple walked alongside each other in silence for the next few minutes. Both of them had plenty to think about. Three years ago when they first got married, troubles such as what they were now experiencing had been unfathomable. It was a forgone conclusion that they would start having children early in the marriage and would end up with no less than three. They were both from large families and yearned for one of their own making. Yet time had inexplicably passed without Noreen getting pregnant. Eventually their collective patience ran out and they sought an explanation.
The problem was not with Mitchell. This had recently been confirmed. So now they were on the way to Claire's gynecologist to learn if the blame was to be placed on her. Afterwards, they would weigh whatever options were left them in order to determine how best to play God.
"I think the problems with Kendra may have been due to more than just her age or her circumstances," Noreen said.
"What do you mean?"
"I feel sort of ashamed about feeling this way."
"You're referring to Kendra being black," Mitchell ventured, and this time Noreen appreciated her husband for volunteering to verbalize her thoughts.
"I don't mean anything racist."
"Of course not. I know you better than to think that."
"But I do believe there's some validity to the argument that black children are better off with black parents. Kendra couldn't fully identify with Claire and Robert, and they couldn't fully identify with her."
"So you wouldn't feel comfortable adopting a black child," said Mitchell, hoping that his surprise and mild disappointment did not register, for this was certainly not an appropriate moment for criticism. They had vaguely discussed adoption during the past few months, but other than their mutual preference for a newborn, this was their first time covering additional criteria. Mitchell had not really considered issues of race, religion, or nationality, mostly because he still clung to the hope of Noreen getting pregnant. But if they were to adopt, his only concern was that the child be healthy. He knew he would end up loving whomever he welcomed into their home. He had figured Norene felt the same, but now it seemed that she did not.
"There would be additional difficulties if we tried to raise a black child," she said. "Difficulties for us, difficulties for the child."
"Nothing we couldn't handle. The wait would certainly be shorter."
Noreen nodded her head in acknowledgment of this truth. Far more black babies were available for adoption than white ones. She did not want to become a mother several years down the line. She was ready now.
"This is the street," Mitchell gently reminded his wife as he guided her to the left, lest in her distracted state she continued walking forward until she had circled the world. Yet not even in the course of a global journey would Noreen come across the answers to her questions. They were only to be found in Dr. Bornstein's office.
When Noreen came to a halt, Mitchell figured it was due to trepidation over the possibility of finding out that natural motherhood would be impossible. Then Mitchell noticed that his wife's attention had been arrested by a stray cat lounging on top of a dumpster behind a restaurant that they ate at from time to time.
Noreen took a couple of steps towards the regal looking beast, which struck Mitchell as rather odd, since her allergies made her less than fond of cats. From its healthy appearance, she supposed that it had had a home up until recently. Did it run away from the comforts of this home, or had it proved too bothersome and was expelled? Neither possibility made much sense to Noreen. She could not imagine people so cruel as to abandon such a beautiful animal, leaving it exposed to the elements and the inherent dangers of these city streets. She certainly would have come to its rescue if able to. On the other hand, if the cat had been sheltered in a nurturing household, why would it choose to flee?
This question brought to mind the day when her sister told her about Kendra running away. The girl had caused Claire and her husband so much trouble. She was disrespectful and disobedient from day one. She had brought a great deal of tension into a previously peaceful home. Kendra had been in and out of trouble at school and with the law throughout her stay with a family that had unselfishly taken her in. And yet, Claire's pain was heartfelt and her tears were plentiful as she told Noreen that she feared she would never see Kendra again. In between the headaches and hassles she caused, Kendra had endeared herself to Claire and her family. Despite Kendra's many disruptive acts, her presence would be very much missed. She had won their hears and then proceeded to break them. Shunning an environment that was intended to make her feel safe, she elected to venture alone into an unknown and uncaring world. Why would she choose to do this, Claire had mournfully asked. Noreen said she did not know, but in fact, she suspected that little choice had been involved in the matter. Certain acts are undertaken on instincts that cannot be denied. Even the most beautifully decorated cage is still a cage. The siren song of freedom is irresistible to those who are denied it.
Of course, Kendra had not been imprisoned. She had been loved. This was an unfamiliar emotion directed towards her, and it ultimately turned out to be overwhelming and even oppressive. Kendra never understood why Claire and Robert and their kids gave a damn about her. They would never understand why Kendra felt she had to leave.
Noreen turned away from the cat and into the embrace of her husband. She realized now, as she often did, that he was right. Whether they became parents by giving birth through natural means, or aided by In vitro fertilization, or from artificial insemination, or with the aid of a surrogate mother, or by adoption, they would wind up loving the child. No matter how much or how little the child resembled them, regardless of the complexion of its skin, the texture of its hair, or the shape of its facial features, the child would become part of the fabric of their existence. They would be parents, and nothing would matter beyond this.
Hand in hand, Robert and Norene bravely trekked the final few yards to Dr. Bornstein's office.
* * *
Lucy had not wanted to come back to this place where her awful deed had taken place, but she was compelled to do so. Only three hours had passed since she was last here. She could still change her mind, undo what had been done. Perhaps that was why she had returned. It was certainly a nobler reason than morbid curiosity.
Absently chewing on a strand of her wheat colored hair, Lucy glanced up at an overcast sky with eyes that matched its somber shade of gray. She then shifted her gaze forward and took a step to reclaim what was rightfully hers. It was not followed by a second step. She was kept from crossing the street by a flood of reminders that her initial decision had hinged upon.
Lucy was only 15 years old. Luther was black, and eight years her senior. Her parents were strict disciplinarians and not the most tolerant or enlightened of people. Her relationship with Luther had therefore been a secret. The result of their union, which Lucy thought was based on love until it came to be tested, had also been kept hidden with much difficulty and loose clothing from view and knowledge. Luther broke up with her when she finally told him of her condition. This left no one that she could rely on to be supportive. She was essentially all alone, and in such a state her mind had been made up. It would not be changed, no matter how loud newly awakened instincts cried out. She did not want to ruin her future before it had a chance to begin developing. Lucy was going to be special someday. She was going to be a star, and didn't want to risk losing her shine.
Lucy remained still a little while longer. She noticed that a black cat had perched itself on top of the dumpster. Did it know? Had it declared itself the protector? It pleased Lucy to think that this was so. She turned around and walked back home, having no place else to go.
* * *
It was the time of day that Maria most cherished. Her last high had faded. It would be several hours before she would need her next fix. So for the time being, she was seemingly as respectable as everyone else. Not a pathetic druggie, not fresh meat on sordid streets, but merely a woman making her way towards her own private destination.
Maria's stomach was empty and so were her pockets. She would do something about her monetary situation later on. She would go to a place where men were on the prowl for what she was willing to offer them, not for free, but at a deep discount. These vile facsimiles of humanity would gladly hand over the few dollars she demanded for the few minutes of pleasure she would grant them. Maria was amongst the prettier junkies pawning her body. She was newer to the scene than most of the regulars, her body not yet grown emaciated from the poison she pumped into it. Having so far resisted the lure of absorbing heroin intravenously as was the current fashion, she was not riddled by track marks like so many others. On top of these things, in Maria's countenance there existed a look of naivet� that was somehow maintained no matter how low she was inclined to go. Since degrading that which seemed most pure was a favorite pastime of a certain breed of men, this served to further increase her popularity amongst bargain hunting johns. She was therefore usually able to earn what she needed fairly quickly. Then she would take off in search of bliss, which was reliably found every night in the same place, courtesy of crack cocaine.
But that was for later. For now, a little something to eat was all that she required. Her pockets had been picked clean the night before while she lay on the floor in an artificially induced haze. As her appearance had disintegrated over the last few months and clearly marked her as homeless and desperate, she found it increasingly difficult to pilfer food from stores, for the owners would eye her every move from the moment she walked in. This left her with little choice on the lowest of occasions but to compete with the rats for sustenance.
Maria headed down an alley that led to the back of an Indian restaurant. There she would find a dumpster, one that hopefully contained some edible food cast aside by those who could afford to do so. Spanish cuisine would have been preferable, since it was more familiar to her taste buds, but her position was not one from which she could be picky.
Once upon a time not so very long ago, rooting through trash for nutrition would have been unthinkable. Maria had not always taken shelter under cardboard boxes. She had not always been an entry level whore. She had not always been a slave to addiction. Her zip code had once been reasonably distant from rock bottom. But Maria did not often reflect on the place from where she had fallen. She was too busy coping with were she was now, trying to stay alive, doing whatever it took to keep the beast within her fed. As much as she hated her inability to resist the lure of the pipe, it was in fact the only thing in her life that she had to look forward to. Those magic crystals transported her to a far sweeter world, even if only on a temporary basis. In this world there were no sexually abusive step-fathers; no physically abusive, alcoholic mothers in a permanent state of denial; no being pimped off by a boyfriend in order to settle gambling debts; no police officers who instead of coming to her aid, just added to her list of monsters. From her first glimpse at the world of pharmaceutical bliss, Maria understood that she needed to return on a regular basis. Until she was finally ready to escape from the real world for good.
"Move your ass," she hissed at the cat that she found sitting on top of the green dumpster. The cat complied, nimbly leaping to the ground and scampering a few feet away. There it came to a stop and watched as Maria strained to lift the lid.
Maria reached into the container where she had hoped to find a meal. When she withdrew her arms, they were no longer empty. She held a newborn infant wrapped in a pink blanket. It was the most beautiful sight ever taken in by Maria's jaded eyes.
"Who would do such a thing?" she asked. The baby looked up with wonder and contentment, unspoiled, perfect.
"Why ain't you crying?" was Maria's next question. It was rhetorical in nature, not because it was asked of a child, but because she already knew the answer. Some souls were able to accept cruelty in a quietly dignified manner, because cruelty was all they had ever known. The child simply did not know that there were more pleasant alternatives to its garbage filled home. That which is overly familiar, no matter how terrible, is usually not railed against. Even Hell was most likely a rather quiet place, because all but the most recently arrived residents would have already grown accustomed to it.
In a perfect world, no one would have to look through the trash for their next meal or lie on their back for their next high. In a perfect world, babies would not be left to die cradled in rotting leftovers. They would all be born into loving homes where people were at the ready to adore and take care of them.
"Why do you let such things happen?" Maria addressed the darkening sky. Rather than waiting for a reply that would surely not come any time soon, she headed towards the nearest homeless shelter to drop off the little bundle of joy. Into the baby's ear she whispered the only bit of wisdom she had to impart. Maria hoped that this child, who was off to such an unpromising start in life, might remember the words and someday put them to good use.
"Dear sweet angel, there ain't no perfect world."
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