“The trouble with birth control,” Carmen says, “is that people use it and then pee out hormones that get stuck in our tap water.”
We are sitting in the back of an assembly for the tenth grade about drunk driving. There are these graphic pictures on the projector screen at the front — a kid looking dazed, with a bleeding gash between his eye and his lip; an arm bent out of position, so you can see the bone sticking out of the skin. I’m writing my name on the scratched-up wooden desk connected to my seat.
“That’s not the only problem, either,” she says, “Because if you’re the one taking it, the hormones are in your body even more than they’re in the tap water.”
“I feel like there’s all this bullshit about it but I know a bunch of people on it and it’s not a big deal,” I say, going over the grooves I’ve made in the desk with a black pen. Actually I know one person on it, my sister Margaret; I only know because she left an empty circular case next to the bathroom sink when she went back to college. But she does practically nothing risky so I’m sure it’s fine.
“I’m not saying don’t have sex,” she says, “but I know the doctors don’t tell you everything about birth control. That’s just a fact.” I’m not on the pill, because I know my mom would get that tight, anxious look if I even brought it up. She always tells me to ask her about stuff but she gets concerned if I actually do. Carmen stole some condoms from her older brother and was going to split them with me anyway. “Plus you have to take the pill every single day. I feel like if you miss a day you’re twice as likely to get pregnant. Because your body is so used to being on the pill, and it’s like aching to have a baby.”
“That’s stupid,” I say, trying to remember the three-hour sex-ed workshop we had at the beginning of the year. Carmen’s mom is Catholic and constantly feeding her bullshit, though Carmen’s worked it all out in her mind so she can still have sex.
“Well, just for me, personally, I’d rather not even risk it with all those hormones.”
“You know when they say don’t risk it, they mean don’t have sex,” I tell her.
My birth mother didn’t take a pill on any day of the week, but she fell in love fast. I can’t blame her for that, really. She met someone who made her feel that flash of panicked sweetness that starts right below your heart and spreads upwards. She found him, near a cathedral in a plaza in Guatemala City, sitting with her sister. My mom, my adopted mom, from Baltimore, said family structures were changing in Guatemala at that time, the parents thought the kids would stay forever in their villages and take care of them as they got older, just like what had happened for hundreds of years. But the kids wanted to move away to the cities and leave their villages behind.
“When is this going to be over?” Carmen asks, pushing her legs into the chair in front of her. Mrs. Krev hears us talking and comes to stand behind us.
“It’s only 3:15,” I tell her.
“Maria,” Mrs. Krev says from behind, putting her hand on my shoulder. I scoot forward in the chair so she can’t touch me anymore.
“My sister’s coming home this weekend.”
“I love your sister,” Carmen says, whispering now.
“Whatever,” I say, and Mrs. Krev bends down next to my face.
“Maria, please stop talking.” She looks me in the eye before standing up and heading towards the back wall. I put my arm on the chair’s splintered wooden armrest and, leaning my head against the palm of my hand, I shut my eyes.
My mother and her sister, sitting on a bench laughing and talking about a future that stretched out easily and endlessly before them. She met him then, a tall, dark-skinned man with ruffled black hair who said, Mamita, and qué linda, and at a certain point, her sister left to go home. She talked with him all through the night, in the plaza; the city lights went on and the sky went black, and all around bits of music escaping from the clubs on Balcarce. They had everything in common! They loved the city, the way the skyline looked at dusk, they both sang; they were so glad to find each other, finally.
After school Carmen and I go to the mall and find a guy in a gray workman’s shirt to buy us cigarettes. He looks like he might ask what’s in it for him but Carmen folds her arms and looks away as if she doesn’t care whether he does it or not, so he just takes our money and buys us the cigarettes. When he brings them over, we don’t even really say thank you, we just nod our heads and walk in the opposite direction.
“Guys are creeps,” she says, and I agree. After we smoke a cigarette each, we try on jeans in the same dressing room in Guess.
“I hate my ass,” Carmen says, turning her back to the mirror and looking at herself from behind.
“I know about ten boys who like it,” I tell her. She shakes her head, though she likes it when I say encouraging things like this to her. On our way out I slip a tube of Clinique pink lipstick into my backpack; on the bus home I show it to Carmen and we laugh.
It didn’t take long. He bought her breakfast in the morning and then went off to work. He was respectful, and she was not that kind of girl, but it was love. She couldn’t help it. They met up one night, and went dancing. The bass pounding in a hot, pressing room, and her back against his chest; his hands on her hips and then moving downwards to her thighs, muscular through her thin cotton skirt. They went back to the place she was sharing with her sister, and they kissed. Then on the patio behind the house, bare on the red, chipping stone, they made me, in a fit of passion; so happy and breathless in the enveloping breeze they could not imagine my life unspooling before them, within them.
Derek invites Carmen and me to his house on Saturday night when his parents aren’t home. He tells us his dad left Coronas in the fridge and will never know if we drink some; plus he has a bottle of vodka under his bed, and we could have some fun. I got in trouble at school so I’m not supposed to go out but I say I have a project to do for history class, with Laura. Carmen and I sneak through the woods, trying not to get our bare legs scraped up by the plants that web our path.
“Do you think he wants to fuck?” Carmen asks me. I tell her, if he wants to fuck, it’s probably not you he wants to do it with, because I can’t say encouraging things to her all the time. She rolls her eyes and says, he wanted me before. I shrug.
My mother in Guatemala City had an idea that something was different. She missed her period month after month, and then she started vomiting every morning. She felt her breasts swell and her stomach harden. She was nervous, to tell my father, who still took her out on weekends to dance. But he was a good man, raised well, and when she told him about the baby, he was happy. He put his hands on her stomach and whispered something in her ear, though I can’t pin down exactly what it might have been. She was already thinking about names for me. I would kick inside her womb and she would say “Shh, Antoinetta,” and I would kick again, and she would say, “Bueno, María.”
At one point we take a wrong turn and the wind starts whistling too loudly in the dark, heavy trees above us.
“Are you sure we’re going the right way?” Carmen asks. She looks at me sort of shivering. I put my hands on her shoulders and tell her not to freak out, I have a good sense of direction, and within five minutes we’re found again.
Then my father’s father died and he had to move back to the country to take care of the rest of his family. He said he would come back, but how much can you expect from someone, even someone who loves you eternally, unceasingly? My mother had to stay in the city, to study, and she was too sad to think of more names. She would rub her stomach as she walked by the cathedral at night where they had met. It was in that moment she realized that she could not take care of a baby, being so young, and barely able to take care of herself. It was mostly because she was so young. They were poor but not the kind of poor you see in documentaries, with flies on tortillas and distended stomachs and infected feet.
Derek also invited his friend Tyler, who opens the door for us when we arrive. He’s shorter than Derek and has a blondish-brown crew cut, the kind you can get at the Hair Cuttery for fifteen dollars.
“Hellooo ladies,” he says, and gestures to the room behind him. Derek is sitting next to a table with two empty beer bottles on it, sipping a third. Carmen sits next to him; soon they are making out sprawling across the couch, his hands on her butt. Tyler looks at me, sitting a little distance from him, and asks if I want to go upstairs to watch TV. Sure, I say, and upstairs I let him kiss me, as if I hadn’t known that’s why he wanted to go in the first place. His tongue and his lips are too wet, but his hands search my body as if he knows what he’s doing. Outside on the road I can hear a car horn honking, insistent, and I kiss Tyler harder. I could want him.
Since Margaret’s home for the weekend, we go out for Chinese food on Sunday night.
“I’m thinking this summer I’m going to do research in Colorado,” Margaret says. She cuts a soy-sauced string bean into four parts and puts one into her mouth. My sister is incredibly beautiful and incredibly boring.
“That’s so exciting!” my mom says, too loudly for the restaurant, and puts her hand on top of Margaret’s on the Formica countertop. “We should tell your grandmother.”
“Would you be interested in going out to Colorado for a bit this summer?” my mom asks, turning to face me in the booth.
“Not really,” I say. “Seeing as I already told you I wanted to stay here for the summer and work.”
“It’s hard for fifteen-year-olds to find work,” my mom says, and Margaret keeps eating her stupid carefully cut beans.
“You’re always welcome to visit me,” she says.
“Yeah thanks but I can’t make it,” I say and I play with the black ribbon bracelet on my wrist.
I have one picture of my birth mother that the adoption agency gave our family. It’s tacked to the bulletin board above my bed; in it, my mother is staring at the photographer solemnly, like women do in old portraits, her tight black curls plaited behind her head. On the back it says, “1993, Camila Ramos.” My mom and I used to talk about my adoption, when she tucked me into bed in Baltimore. She would say, you’re so lucky, you have two mothers who love you very much, and I would ask her everything I could think of. How did you find me? Did you meet her? Where was my father? What did the baby home look like? Did you already know what my name would be? She would try to answer the best she could, but she would always end up saying, we don’t have very much information, not enough to track her down. I know only three facts of my own mother: her name, her photograph, and my body.
She went to the adoption agency when she was eight or nine months pregnant, and told them, I want a better life for my baby. I’ll give you my baby, and you’ll make sure she has a good life. That’s what I want.
On Monday night I’m watching America’s Next Top Model in the living room and my mom walks in the front door, her face very tight.
“Maria, will you turn off the TV?”
“I’m watching something,” I say, and don’t turn to look at her, though I think I know what’s coming.
“Did you say goodbye to your sister?” she asks, like we are very casual here in the living room. “Please turn off the TV,” she says again, when I don’t answer. “And please answer when I speak to you.”
“I did answer you,” I say and switch off the TV as slowly as I can. My mom pulls up a chair and sits down across from me. “I spoke with Laura’s mother today, who said she did not see you this weekend.” I look up at her, finally, and she’s staring at me, straining to be light. She has an idea that parenting is an endless negotiation, that raising a daughter is like growing a company, a process of strategizing, presenting, convincing. “Where were you on Saturday night?”
“With Laura,” I say.
“Maria, where were you?” Her voice is not loud exactly. I try to act how Carmen acted at the mall with the man who bought us the cigarettes, but I can’t pull it off.
“I was at Derek’s.”
My mom has the same look she had when Margaret and I got lice and she couldn’t get rid of it for three months.
“But you told me you had work to do,” she says, like if she reminds me of this central fact, my story will go back to what she wants it to be. “I thought you said you had a project to do with Laura, history or something … ”
“But I didn’t really.” My mother sits and looks at me. After a long pause she says,
“I like honesty.”
“OK.” Sometimes these conversations can go very fast.
“Do you realize this is a bigger deal than you just telling me a story and going out to do whatever you want?” I stay quiet so she can tell me how it’s a bigger deal.
“The thing I care about most is your safety, and if you tell me you’re at Laura’s and then end up at a random boy’s house, and I have no idea where you are — what if something had happened to you? What if you had been hurt and I had no way of finding you?”
“I don’t know.”
“I was talking to Margaret about how it really seemed like you were getting on top of your schoolwork, working on a Saturday night. Now, thinking back, I had no idea where you were. That’s really scary Maria.” A pause. “Do you understand why that’s scary for me?”
“I can’t help feeling like you actually have no understanding of why that’s scary for me. We need to talk about it more because…” but her voice fades out. I tried to learn Spanish once, to fulfill my language requirement at school. I practiced by myself but when we had graded Spanish conversations in class I could barely speak at all. Once I was holding a textbook and I looked down at my hands and realized I had no words for the object I was carrying. I could begin sentences but I had to stop when I reached the central idea, so I would say “We have to go to the ….” and then wait with the other students for something to happen.
In math class Carmen and I sit in the back and play the box game in her notebook while Mr. Randolph talks about limits.
“My mom wants me to start going to Confession every week,” Carmen whispers as she connects two dots on the notepad.
“She thinks it would be good for me.”
“Maybe it would be good for you.”
“Maria and Carmen, do you have something you’d like to share with the class?” Mr. Randolph asks from the front of the room.
“No,” I say. He turns to finish writing an equation on the board and I can see the chalky lines from the blackboard across the back of his shirt.
“It might be good but it might be awkward,” Carmen says to me. “Should I tell him about Derek?”
“Probably not.” I complete a series of boxes and mark my initials in them.
“I think definitely not. He would freak out and tell my mom.”
When my mom gets home from work she knocks on my bedroom door and comes in. I’m lying on my bed, listening to music. She’s carrying my adoption folder in her hand.
“I’ve been thinking, all day, about our conversation from yesterday,” she says, sitting next to me on my bed. “I thought maybe you were acting out because you want to be treated more like a grown-up.” She has theories upon theories. “Of course, Maria, acting like a grown-up comes with responsibilities as well as benefits. We will be discussing that.” She pauses. “But I thought maybe, before we figure all the responsibilities out, you’d like to have your adoption folder.” She looks at me and I can see she is not certain about this idea. She’s holding the manila folder tightly in her hands, and her back is straight even though she’s sinking into the mattress with me. “It’s a lot of bureaucratic information, and you don’t need to read it all, but I thought it might be nice for you to have it, just you know, in your room.” I’d seen the folder before. We used to go through it when I was younger; I would ask her what time I was born, and we’d open the adoption folder, like some sort of glass ball, to find the answers. We usually wouldn’t find exactly what we were looking for, but something else, less vital, something that could stand in for what I wanted. “Some of the information in there contradicts each other; it’s written by judges and social workers, a lot of different people, and no one really knew all the facts, I think.” She hands me the folder, which says “Maria’s Adoption, 1993”, in thick black marker on the front.
“OK,” I say, taking the folder. It’s heavy and I’m not sure what to do with it. For a moment I wonder how there could be so much more information to add to the life I already live.
The folder is filled with paperwork related to the adoption, copies of our birth certificates and passports, a social worker’s evaluation of the adoptive home. I look through great paper-clipped stacks, and I read most of it — a description of the baby home; my age and weight when I was adopted; a letter from the agent in Guatemala. After a few hours, I find a section labeled “Birth Mother.” There is a copy of the photograph I have on my bulletin board, and then a description of Camila Ramos. It is not very long and contains a paragraph called “Reasons for Adoption.” She cannot take care of a baby, it says. She got pregnant through her line of work.
How could being a student in a city get you pregnant? I think, and then, maybe she wasn’t only a student, but also had other work, and then, how could any line of work get you pregnant? Then I watch, as if from above, the whole story, my whole story, collapse: the man in the plaza, falling in love, dancing, the baby names, being too young, handing me over, the way I read her face in the photograph; all the details, the cotton skirt, the patio, the weightless poverty, I watch it all explode, inside my mind, dust and rubble and burning, charred bits overtaking me until everything is consumed in a cloud and I can’t think of anything at all. I’m left sitting on my bed, holding the endless papers in my hands, exhausted.
I told Carmen, once, what I thought about my mother in Guatemala, and she laughed at me a little bit, and said it sounded unlikely but who knows, really? I don’t want to tell her what I found out and I don’t want to tell my mom either. I go to the computer lab at school and sit in the back of a crowded room, up against the wall where no one can see my screen. I search my name online, and Camila Ramos, and I get six million, two hundred ninety thousand useless pages. I search “Adoption in Guatemala” and article after article comes up. I learn, then, everything I can. At the beginning of 2008, the country stopped allowing international adoption because there was too much corruption. There were reports of kidnappings, briberies, baby snatchers hunting the countryside. In the years before the ban, almost one in every hundred children in Guatemala was getting adopted — babies plucked out of their country and dropped in a new one. I read an article where the reporter interviewed a Guatemalan adoption agent before 2008. Is there corruption? he asked, and the woman said, we’re doing the right thing. The mothers giving up babies can’t take care of them. Which would a child prefer, to grow up in misery or to go to the United States, where there is everything?
Tyler asks me to go to the movies with him, and I go before my mom gets back from work on a Tuesday night. I invite Carmen but she says she isn’t trying to cock block anyone. In the car on the way to the theater Tyler reaches over and puts his hand on my knee.
“You into horror movies?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say.
“Lots of girls aren’t into getting scared.”
“They don’t really scare me.” He leans over at the red light to kiss me and move his hand up my thigh.
“So why did I never meet you before Saturday?” he asks. I look out the window at the stores passing; we drive by a new McDonald’s and a half-full parking lot.
“I’ve been around,” I say. “Where were you?”
My birth mother worked in Guatemala City, near the cardboard slums where her family lived, maybe, and she split the money she made with the brothel owner and brought the rest back home. She got pregnant, of course, by one of the men, a tall one, maybe, with white skin and curly black hair. She started vomiting every morning and she felt her breasts swell and then she was terrified. Maybe she was at home, in the slum, and one of the baby brokers came by, looking for pregnant girls just like her. And he promised to pay for her medical bills and give her some money, too, right there, if she just agreed to give him the baby she was going to have. It’ll be good for everyone, he might have said. There are so many rich people in the United States who are desperate for babies. Or maybe she went to the adoption agency and said, please, take my baby, I want her to have a good life and I can’t provide it. Or maybe she left her baby for the day with her cousin and her cousin sold the baby to one of the agencies and took the money. Or maybe she left the baby on a stoop because she couldn’t feed it, or maybe her mother said, you have to give the baby away, or maybe she was too young and didn’t know what to do at all.
When we get to the theater, Tyler parks his car in a dark corner of the lot and we make out for two hours. His hands run up and down my thighs and the windows start to steam from the inside out.
“You’re great,” he says, and I say thanks. Then I open the door to get some air and stand alone in the hot, pressing night.
Title and interior quote taken from “Guatemala System is Scrutinized as Americans Rush In to Adopt,” The New York Times, 11/5/2006