Alex M. Frankel
Frank, my newfound birth father, was smart, loud, uncouth, theatrical, and profoundly introverted. A philosophy professor, he not only wrote but also occasionally spoke in long, rambling, Henry-Jamesian sentences and paragraphs that seemed to stray off-topic but, surprisingly, if you stuck with them, always returned to his original point. Frank—as I was to find out in the coming years—enjoyed long conversations, especially when stoned, but he could be rude and impatient too, and sometimes he would terminate talks abruptly with a showy extending of his right hand and a regal “I am now going to bring this visit to an end.” He was fifty-four and diabetic and could spend all day with the curtains drawn and the lights out watching sports or PBS or C-SPAN. He was easy to be with—up to a point. After brief bursts of volubility and connectedness to others, he had a habit of sinking back into himself and his cluttered sanctum of TV and books.
I was living in Spain in those days and flew to Southern California for the reunion with my birth parents. I had tracked them down in late summer, and Frank had been excitedly planning our Christmastime gathering almost from the first day we made contact. My birth mother, Marcia, had kept more aloof in the run-up to December.
Frank picked me up at the airport. My first physical encounter with him was less momentous than it would have been without those months of phone conversations and letters. He and I started shaking hands, but the strong handshake turned into a weak hug, initiated by both of us. Frank was dark—hardly any gray hairs yet—with a grim, eager face, thick glasses. He wore his hair long in a kind of ’70s style, dressed sloppily, and always smelled of his smoking habit. Frank said, “I realize you may take umbrage when I point this out, given the emphasis on youth and beauty you evinced in your letters and phone calls, but you do appear quite a lot older than your pictures, and I must say a bit bald too. But on the whole more masculine!”
“Why can’t I be young and masculine?”
He helped me with my bags and drove me to Orange County, leaning into the steering wheel, hugging it, driving slowly in the fast lane. “We have tonight to get to know each other, and tomorrow morning. Then in the afternoon we meet Marcia at her hotel. That'll be something, won’t it? I for the first time in thirty years, you for the first time ever, although of course, technically, I suppose you ‘met’ since she gave birth to you! She flew in from Hawaii the other day and has been visiting with her kids in San Diego. By the way, Marcia hasn’t told them anything about your existence, or mine. She wants to save those momentous revelations for later in the week. It’s mind-boggling, but even now her family doesn’t have an inkling.” As we drove along the freeways of this palm-studded, big-sky Empire, I looked around me at the smelly car: dirty clothes, cigarette butts, soda cans, Starbucks cups, folders, crumpled papers. “Can’t wait to get a proper look at you at the house,” Frank went on. “You look so much like her, it’s both incredible and uncanny. Marcia has seen your pictures and I keep insisting that you have her face, it would be obvious to anyone, but she claims she can’t discern a resemblance, it’s very odd.”
When we arrived, he apologetically lit up a joint, showed me around, lamented the lack of cleanliness. He lived in a dilapidated 1920s bungalow-style house near the university where he’d been teaching for a quarter of a century. I was exhausted but excited that first night and listened to Frank talk about his salary, benefits, and retirement plan; the pros and cons of being an uncircumcised Greek American; the newest book by Rorty; the storied Fullerton Titans baseball team and its recent winning streak; his two rotten marriages and seventy-three one-night stands and twenty-one girlfriends; his predilection for nymphets (which he accented on the second syllable); his inability to read Being and Time cover to cover; his dread of war in the Persian Gulf; his peregrinations through Europe; his love of breasts; his passion for A Passage to India; his bafflement at contemporary poetry; his encyclopedic knowledge of everything and everybody related to Watergate; his acid trips through various botanical gardens; his ’60s protest days in Berkeley (during which he’d thrown a rock and shattered a window at Sproul Hall); his thirty years of lecturing in philosophy; his hatred of Southern California, especially Orange County; his loneliness; his love of McDonald’s; his inability to cook or clean; his struggles to give up cigarettes once and for all; his strained, strange relationship with his daughter from another marriage, a schoolteacher up in Northern California with two young children and one on the way; his belief that my sexual orientation had nothing to do with how I’d been raised but instead had been determined by genes (“It’s in the family”); his joy at finding my birth mother Marcia after thirty years (“She looks great, at least in pictures, and she’s such a wise, down-to-earth human being, you’re gonna love her!”); his joy at our reunion—and why had I waited so long to get in touch?
But the next morning, not high anymore, he stood by the living room window and wept when he recalled the past. “I treated Marcia badly in 1960. I wish to God there were some way I could make up for what I did!”
Later the two of us drove to the Marriott Hotel to meet Marcia. Frank explained that he didn’t plan to linger there. This day he intended to be my time mostly alone with my birth mother. He saw his role as a kind of benevolent tour operator who was, at least for now, generously paving the way for mother and child to get acquainted.
We parked in the lot in front of the hotel and walked toward the lobby. Suddenly we heard a woman’s voice. “Looking for me?”
It was Marcia.
Frank and I approached her, and the three of us hugged. It was an awkward hug, because I slightly resisted at first, expecting to be more “formal” (whatever that means in such a situation), and Marcia had to draw me in, encourage me with a gentle “Come here.”
In the lobby bar we ordered strawberry daiquiris.
“Your eyes are so blue!” I said to my mother. “Is that your real color?” And she smiled patiently and told me it was.
When I think of the woman I met that day, I seem to conflate her in my mind with my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Arcigal. I’m not sure when I started doing this. It could be that as a seven-year-old I made Mrs. Arcigal into a kind of mother because I’d recently found out about my adoption: she was young and the first pregnant person I ever knew. One day I asked her, “Are you Jewish?” and she just looked at me and smiled a patient smile, with the same look Marcia gave me when I asked about her eyes. “No,” she answered. “Why do you ask?” Sometimes I believe—even now—that Marcia was Mrs. Arcigal. Could my birth mother perhaps have been so curious about how her biological son was doing that she disguised herself as my first grade teacher?
So this was her, after thirty years, the girl who had housed me in her body and allowed me to be born. She was as inconspicuous and ordinary as Frank was loud and blustery. Here she was, in the lobby of the Marriott, my shy, casual, modern mother. But I knew I shouldn’t think of her as “mother.” I was supposed to say and think “birth mother.” But this was my mother, this being in front of me, my mother as nature intended: reserved, aloof, very American and earthy. Frank had told me about her passion for cats and gardening and whodunits, and I could easily picture her working hard in her Hawaiian garden in the tropical sun, I could easily see her curled up with mysteries, surrounded by cats.
When I think back to those Southern California days of meeting my real parents, I tend to forget that, in a sense, I was not present. Even as I sat in that hotel lobby drinking a strawberry daiquiri with Marcia and Frank, my mind was on someone I’d met in Barcelona before my trip. Often I found myself caring less about this reunion than prospects with the young man back in Spain. His name was Javier González; he was a lean student with a long face and a buzz cut. He wore Dr. Martens boots and a bomber jacket; that was a young guy’s look in Barcelona twenty-five years ago. My mind was so busy with Javier, most things around me seemed boring and insipid.
I tried (not very hard) to keep thoughts of Javier and his body from intruding. Marcia and Frank sat there across from me and we made polite conversation. Nobody cried.
Without finishing his drink, Frank jumped up, elaborately shook our hands and, after promising to meet us later, disappeared.
Marcia and I were alone.
My first conversations with her will live on in my brain all jumbled up, sloshing around forever, until my memory goes and I go. I retain these quasi movie-montage images: Marcia and I walking on a wide beach as the rough surf slid along the sand; Marcia and I sitting in a dark restaurant; Marcia and I getting lost in Orange County in her little Budget car; Marcia and I walking to the end of a pier in the weak winter light. In my memory, as we walk and talk and drive, Marcia is alarmingly thin. I can recall Frank telling me that after the day he first contacted her, she virtually stopped eating and lost thirty pounds. In my memory, she never becomes emotional, she stays rational and strictly polite.
In my memory, my mother says, “I am glad you found me. I wouldn’t have searched for either of you.
And my mom says, “I could tell from your first letter you were gay, even though you didn’t mention it. It was the wording. And I could also see right away from your pictures.”
And Mother says, “Frank keeps saying you look like me. I just don’t see it.”
Marcia revealed that, before leaving Hawaii to fly to California, she’d burned all the letters we’d exchanged over the last months. This action struck me as logical and healthy, because wasn’t the written word artificial and lifeless? Shouldn’t our goal, after all, be physical, real-time interaction that canceled out the posing and grandiloquence of some of the letters? I admired the “encounter group” candor and directness of my new mom. She seemed, at times, a kind of therapist.
Frank had rather lovingly been referring to that bundle of letters we exchanged as The Golden Notebook. Alone with me, Marcia called our story The Soap Opera.
Sometimes she was so direct and honest that I wanted to blurt out my fantasy that we could go back and erase thirty years and start again, from birth. But I restrained myself.
We walked along the beach and I told her about my room in my very first house on 36th Avenue in San Francisco. “It was such a lovely room,” I told her. “When I walked in, I had my desk and my bookcase on the right side and my closet on the left. There was a recliner, and that’s where my dog slept, that’s where my grandmother sat when she visited on Sundays. Up on the top shelf of my bookcase, I had my collection of stuffed animals. There’s Kuala, missing one paw because my dog chewed it off. There’s Snoopy and Apfelbäckchen and Smokey . . .” As I gave her this lengthy description, I occasionally turned to gauge her reaction, and I noticed her businesslike face. I repressed the thought that all this was too much detail for her, that she may have unconsciously been picking up my wish to erase the thirty years and bring her into my life as my mom. I was talking too much. I shouldn’t have shared so much—it wasn’t dignified. Maybe I was just as blustery as Frank.
Marcia and I sat in her hotel room late that first night. She’d brought me a box of memories—photographs of her family. My history, the one I never knew. She showed me pictures of her father, Graham Cranston, who’d gone to Harvard and later tried to make it as a cattle rancher. “He was an alcoholic,” she said. “Both my parents were alcoholic and it broke my heart to see them drink.” She showed me pictures of her mother. “I didn’t like my mother,” she told me. “She loved dressing my brother and me in Sunday clothes and parading us through church. She loved all the rituals of the Catholic Church. She clung to her high status in our town.”
And when she put the memory box away, she sat back in her chair by the window and smoked. “If it had just been a few years later,” she said, “people would’ve been more accepting—I mean of an unmarried young woman with a kid. And I never wanted to have an abortion. I never even considered it! But if I’d come back to the ranch with a baby, my father would never have gotten over it. He was a widower by then. He wouldn’t have known what to do. Times were different. In a small American town young people couldn’t just go into a drugstore and ask for condoms or ‘marriage hygiene’ for crying out loud!” Marcia had taken off her shoes and was sitting cross-legged in the institutional armchair. She looked very Hawaiian and progressive and young to me. “All those months,” she went on, “I stayed by myself bummed out in San Francisco where I waited to give birth. No one knew I was pregnant. I didn’t show that much, and also I did my best to hide you. Three days before you were born I went home for Christmas and no one could tell a thing! At work they did notice something, and this lady even pulled me into a side office and asked me if something was wrong, and if there was anything they could do. I just shook my head all innocent and smiled. I was good at lying. The doctor who delivered you—he didn’t approve of me one bit and treated me like a tramp. A ‘fallen woman’—I mean, that’s what I was, according to all the old books. And in those days when a girl gave up a child for adoption, they thought it was best to take the baby right way, the minute it was born. They did this so the girl wouldn’t change her mind, so there could be a son or daughter for the folks who were waiting. That’s what happened. I didn’t see you but imagined you would be darker. And I didn’t change my mind, there was just no other way back then, you should try to understand. When I met your parents the day after you were born, I fell in love with them! I wanted them to adopt me!”
She never broke down and cried and neither did I. This was easy for me because crying wasn’t done in my strict, old-school psychoanalysis back in Spain.
I still have—will always have—images of the whole story floating around inside me: the ranch house and the sprawling property where Marcia grew up; the lecture hall where Frank first spotted her; the little house in East Moline where I was conceived; the lonely room where she read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich while she waited to give birth; the polite meeting with Vera and Henry Frankel, the German-Jewish parents—the Holocaust survivors—she’d chosen for me.
So this, at last, was my mother, this cheerleader who’d carried me, who was and was not my mother. I looked at her. She was rational and insightful, this very American and matter-of-fact person.
I wondered if she could heal me, I wondered if she had it in her. As I listened, I began stifling yawns—maybe it was the jet lag, or maybe I was overwhelmed by listening to so much logic and good sense. I really liked her because she was everything Vera Frankel hadn’t been. She wasn’t smothering and overprotective in that German-Jewish way. This was the kind of lady who might have made me straight. This was the kind of lady who would’ve made me fully American, without my slight German accent. She seemed to do everything, to act and speak, in exactly the way a birth mother should—cool, polite, sensible. She was the perfect birth mother because she was so American and lived in one of the most American places in the world—Hawaii. She’d chosen to spend her life on Oahu, the most beautiful island on earth, and so it followed that its beauty had seeped into her body and mind. Maybe some of it could seep into mine too, through her? I knew I should be grateful for all her honesty, but I couldn’t help it: at times I did want her to be more demonstrative, I wanted her to talk about this reunion as a beginning, the way Frank sometimes did.
“My goodness, you’re falling asleep listening to me go on and on!” Marcia laughed.
We hugged at the door. She waved at me as I walked toward the elevator.
I strolled alone along the tidy streets of Orange County. Some of them didn’t have sidewalks. I was lost here. It smelled of mowed lawn and drizzle and chimney smoke. None of the honest, stinky grime of Spain. I walked and wondered if I could ever move back to the U.S.A. Could I live without my psychoanalyst? Could I live without sitting in outdoor cafés reading El País and drinking café con leche? Could I survive without Spanish youths? And then Javier began intruding: his lean, masculine young body, his long, pallid, twenty-year-old face, his casual indifference.
And also floating around in my head: a quiet evening the three of us spend at Frank’s house. In this memory, I’m lying on his bed after dinner watching a double bill of Cabaret and Missing . . .
The grownups spent hours at the kitchen table talking. It made me happy to hear their voices in another room. I call them “grownups” so easily even though I was now thirty years old. I was a kid and, compared to me, they acted knowing and worldly, with the stiffness and heaviness of mature adults crammed with wisdom and vision. And I absolutely had to stay young. Javier in Barcelona was only twenty and I was competing with him. I would only be able to start a relationship with him if I looked and acted as young as he was, if I stayed a kid, if I stayed teen-like. If people considered me immature, they were paying me a compliment. (Thoughts of Javier would not leave: his off-hand, working class way of talking, the way he smiled when he dropped his pants and briefs and let me take him in my mouth.)
And all through the long movie night I heard the voices of my new parents. It was like being a child on Frank’s bed, glued to TV while smart, articulate adults conferred about adult matters in rooms not too far away. My cool new parents! It did seem to me they were spending an inordinate amount of time getting to know each other again, a good sign for the future.
After our days together in Fullerton, Marcia left for San Diego to prepare her children for Frank and me. In thirty years Marcia had never told a soul—neither a support group nor a counselor (she didn’t believe in either)—about her illegitimate son. If all went well, Frank and I were supposed to drive down in two days, once the revelations were out of the way.
Of her two adopted children (yes, I was her only biological offspring), Joe was the older one. He lived in San Diego’s Pacific Beach neighborhood and worked in a surf shop. Like many Hawaiians, he’d left the islands in search of opportunities on the mainland. Marcia’s daughter, Cheryl, just sixteen, still lived with Marcia in Hawaii in their little home by the beach. Cheryl had flown with Marcia to San Diego unaware of the existence of Frank and me. I knew how protective Marcia was of both these children. When she talked about them, she never just said “Joe” and “Cheryl”; she said “my Joe” and “my Cheryl.” I wondered if this was her usual talk, or a kind of language she’d unknowingly developed for the reunion.
“Well, I shared the news with them, separately,” Marcia said on the phone. “I took my Joe for a walk on the boardwalk, and then my Cheryl and I walked on the beach. Cheryl just rolled her eyes, but when I told Joe, he kept interrupting with all these questions, and after he got his answers he said in his Joe way, ‘Okay Mom, I wanna meet these folks.’ So come on down.”
And “these folks” did “come on down.”
During the two-hour drive, I found out more about this man, my father—I mean my birth father. “The day Kennedy was shot,” he said, “I was having a tooth pulled at the dentist’s. The news came over the radio back at the receptionist’s desk and I went insane. I jumped up and ran out the building in my bib and screamed and cried and the hygienist and the receptionist and the dentist ran after me and restrained me and dragged me back in. I don’t know who they were more worried about, Kennedy or me.”
He told me about being the youngest of six children, about speaking only Greek with his parents, who’d immigrated from Greece and never learned much English; he told me about crying with his mother when FDR died; about marching against the Indochina war and obsessing over the Pentagon Papers, Nixon, Agnew, the Iran Hostage Crisis, the Iran Contra Affair; about traveling to Palestine to support the Palestinians; about running for Congress as a Democrat in one of the most deeply Republican districts in the country. Yes, my birth father had run for Congress. He’d sent me his campaign literature with his first letter. I still have it, all of it. FRANK VERGES WILL REPRESENT YOU! it says, with pictures of him speaking at a rally, working at his desk, listening to schoolchildren, chatting with college kids, posing with one of his brief wives and her daughter. FRANK VERGES WILL FIGHT FOR INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS, it says. FRANK VERGES WILL FIGHT FOR THE RIGHTS OF OLDER AMERICANS. FRANK VERGES WILL TAKE ON THE HOUSING CRISIS. FRANK VERGES WILL SUPPORT A NUCLEAR WEAPONS FREEZE. FRANK VERGES WILL RESPECT OUR ENVIRONMENT. FRANK VERGES WILL FIGHT BACK AGAINST REAGANOMICS . . . “The American people are tired of being ‘trickled down on.’ As your Representative, I will fight for a full-employment peacetime economy. We can bring down the deficits by scaling back the bloated military budget, and by closing tax loopholes for the wealthy and for giant corporations . . . The American Dream, an inspiration for millions of immigrants and their children, is now threatened as seldom before in our history. I want to work with you to restore that Dream.”
Now that I’d found him, who needed a therapist? In an unguarded moment, I described my love for Javier González. I even included details of Javier’s appearance. Frank smoked, drove, listened. He stayed, as usual, in the fast lane but drove slowly, unconcerned with the enraged motorists behind him. “You and I,” he remarked, when I was done sharing, “have similar stories, in spite of your avowed homosexual bent and my heterosexuality. I’ve been lusting after one eighteen-year-old cheerleader after another for most of my adult life, and, as far as marriage, I’m a two-time loser, a victim of two insane wives. However, at this juncture I’m going to make an observation to which I do hope you will not take offense, but, psychologically crippled as I am, I’d say you’ve got it worse, far worse, in the all-important area we’re discussing. You might not be in touch with the effect your words have on me when I listen—but yours is a very tragic story, as you’ve repeatedly emphasized from the start, and I always begin to weep when I hear how barren your life is, and how of course Marcia and I bear some of the responsibility for this. But stop laying a guilt trip on us, it’s too much!”
In San Diego I met my birth mother’s adopted children—her Cheryl, her Joe.
Cheryl was big and sulky and hardly spoke a word. She looked like a Tahitian woman weaving in a hut, from some Gauguin painting, and she was very sixteen. We didn’t have much to say to each other. Joe was thin and boyish, quiet, hard to read and, like Cheryl, a mix of Hawaiian and Filipino. Unlike Cheryl, he made some effort to talk, to reach out to Frank and me. His sister was an enigma closed off and resolutely inaccessible, but Joe was almost twenty-four; he’d been on his own for a while and had seen something of the world.
Joe had a girlfriend, an outgoing person seemingly untouched by the awkwardness of the situation around her; the girlfriend and Cheryl helped Marcia with Christmas dinner in the kitchen, while Frank, Joe, his roommate, and I made painful progress with conversation out in the living room. Frank—an avid sports fan—found some common ground with Joe and the roommate. All of them knew about American football, and the season was careering toward its climax. Then suddenly Frank turned to me and said, “The trouble with you, Alex, is that you spend your entire life steeped in highbrow music and books and don’t know much about talking to the rest of us.”
Maybe partly in response to this remark, I asked Joe to take me down to the courtyard of his building and show me his skateboard.
I made an effort with Joe. It was like teaching English lessons in Barcelona, and getting the quiet people to talk in class. I told him I’d always dreamed of standing on a skateboard like other guys. And not just standing and balancing myself, but doing tricks. Joe chuckled and tried to show me a trick or two. Every move I attempted on the board sounded like a shelfful of tin cans clattering to the floor of a supermarket.
Suddenly Marcia, in her apron, appeared at the railing of the second floor and in a stern but sweet mother-voice said, “I don’t think skateboarding is allowed here!” My feet still firmly balancing my body in the board, I looked up at her and froze—this was the youngest I’d felt since stepping off the plane. It was bizarre and humiliating to be reprimanded for skateboarding by my birth mom. It was a moment of regressing, of recreating a piece of the childhood years we never had together. I’ve since read that this is what often happens when adoptees reunite with their birth parents. People are—unconsciously of course—regressing, going through the baby and toddler and child and teen years in countless small ways, like a kind of time-lapse movie.
When the turkey was ready and we all sat down to eat, I thought someone of the older generation—I mean one of my birth parents—would rise and raise a glass, make a little toast, something. Instead, while Frank combed his hair right there at the table, people started digging in. Was this the Southern California/Hawaiian way? The apartment had low popcorn ceilings with vertical blinds on the windows, and I felt at once trapped and alone. The TV was showing Gremlins. There was no ceremony, no prayer, no sense of joy. Halfway through the meal Joe and his girlfriend vanished into his bedroom. I tried to keep my mind on the food. The talk was routine, inconsequential. I thought about Javier’s body. When I got back to Spain, should I call him or wait for him to call me?
I did notice one thing about Marcia. She had an odd and endearing habit that in all my life I have noticed in her alone. Whenever I spoke, I realized that she was smiling and mouthing my words. I watched her lips, tongue and teeth and, yes, she was mouthing, in a gentle, even in a loving way, the same words I was using, as if to help me along in my effort to get things out. It was as if she were assuming, during this reunion week, the nurturing mother role that held everything and everyone around her together. I noticed she performed this gentle service also for Joe and Cheryl, when they spoke. I loved this habit of hers and believed it boded well for the coming years. And maybe this, too, was a way of regressing just created for reunion purposes: in all the years that followed, I never saw her mouth anybody’s words again.
We ate our turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, and avoided intensity. Marcia had worked dutifully at her cooking but made only a perfunctory effort to see to it that everyone was well-fed. Frank, by turns jovial and sullen, escaped as often as he could to the street to smoke. Cheryl never spoke. I looked over at Gremlins on TV and, desperate to make conversation, said, “You know, Zach Galligan, the actor who plays the boy—believe it or not, he was in my Modern Poetry class at Columbia. I asked him how to spell desert, was it one s or two? I was so nervous just to ask him that one dumb question. This was before Gremlins, but he’d already appeared on TV, after-school specials and so on. I loved Zach Galligan!”
My story fell flat: no one responded or seemed interested. This incident was like the 1990 real-life equivalent of posting on Facebook and not receiving a single like or comment.
Frank and Marcia, it seemed, did not—especially now on Christmas Day—want to pick up where we’d left off in the letters. In one of those letters, though, Marcia had talked about “lightening things up.” I sensed I was a heavy, awkward presence to others, even when I tried to share about my remote connection to a teen idol. So I focused on food, especially the dark meat and the stuffing and gravy.
Frank Verges, Marcia Cranston—my real parents. I now had them in front of me and tried to feel more, tried to fully accept and come to see these two as my physical creators; I didn’t get very far in this attempt. It’s true that I looked like Marcia; it’s true that I’d studied philosophy, like Frank; but all this had to do with cold, biological nature, not with the warmth and bonds of nurture. Frank Verges, Marcia Cranston—my birth parents. Here we were at our first Christmas dinner, but nothing was happening, no one was moved, no one fully lived the moment, no one was really present, even me. My mind was on young Javier, so far away in Spain. It was as if we’d all assembled for a reading of a new play, except no one could act or direct, and we had a lousy script. Had it really been worth it to go to all this trouble and track down my birth parents? “But then again,” I thought, “I’m in love. That’s what happens when you’re in love. You see one person in this world in living color, and everything and everyone else is black and white and insanely dull.”
“Why do you have an accent?”
Someone had directed the question at me, the question I hated and hate most. It was Joe’s roommate, a bland, barefoot young man in an Ohio State t-shirt.
“You mean they didn’t tell you the full story?” I said. “I have a funny accent because, way back in 1960, I was given up for adoption to an older German-Jewish couple up in San Francisco, and they made me different, they made me very different. I wasn’t like the other kids. I didn’t have many friends. I preferred old people. And I preferred dolls. And now I live in Spain of all places and I’m as different as can be. I came here to try to be less different.” I’d gotten so angry suddenly but couldn’t quite tell how much it showed. For a moment it was as if my vision went dark and all I had in front of me was rage.
“Yea, I heard about a reunion,” said the young man.
“They could’ve filled you in a little better,” I said, “since you’re at this table celebrating with us.”
Here Frank intervened in his most expansive professor mode. “Alex has an accent all his own. Not British, not American, not German. He’s unique!”
I looked over at Marcia, who was avoiding my eyes. And I remembered: “Keep things light, keep things light. That’s what she wants, that’s what they all want.”
“Alex, actually, has done very well for himself,” Marcia said, eyes fixed on the tablecloth. “His parents spoiled him rotten. He may have an accent, but he’s got more things than most of us will ever dream of. And I note he liked the turkey!” Abruptly she rose and began to clear the table, meeting my eyes with a smile. I hated myself for my outburst, if that was what it was.
And dessert was served (again I made another inane reference to Zach Galligan and the spelling of dessert), and the small talk went on, and the plates and glasses clattered and clinked, and—just to give the lie to the notion I came from an “upper-class” background—I let out the loudest burp I’d ever let out in company before.
After dinner Frank, Marcia and I drove around to admire Christmas lights. Frank was behind the wheel, Marcia next him, me behind her. Like a family. “It’s funny,” I said from my backseat, “the way we’re sitting.”
“You mean,” said Marcia, “because the male is driving, the way a male usually does? Or what?”
She didn’t get it. Maybe I’d been too indirect? I could’ve added, “Like a family”; I didn’t intend for this to be a riddle. Frank also failed to respond. Maybe he didn’t understand either or his mind was on something else. We’re riding like a family, don’t you get it? We’re riding like the family we are supposed to be. The three of us. The three of us together. But I didn’t say any more, I just let it go. The last thing I wanted to do was impose on them my private fantasy of erasing years of separation and starting over as mom, dad, and son.
“I’ve got an idea!” said Frank, after a few hits of a joint. “I have to show you the Fallen David.”
And suddenly he veered left and made the most dramatic action-movie U-turn I’ve ever been a part of. Our new destination? A local college where Frank had once taught part-time. Excitedly he shared the story of the Fallen David, explained there used to be a marble replica of Michelangelo’s sculpture at a cemetery, but after it got knocked off its pedestal during an earthquake, someone decided the pieces should be carted off to the campus and displayed for all to see as a new work of art.
We parked and headed over to the spot. Frank and Marcia smoked while I gazed at the dignified marble ruins under a full moon. I couldn’t help thinking of Javier’s nonchalantly rugged physique; I even compared Javier to David. “The face of a boy and the body of a man, that’s the ideal,” I said to Frank, and when I turned I saw Marcia smiling at me—an engaged, amused little smile. David’s head and half of his torso were still intact. The truncated feet stood by themselves on the pedestal, free of a body to support. “I knew you’d appreciate it,” Frank said to me. The three of us walked around the Fallen David, touching it. We could have almost been wandering in the Roman Forum, or around Stonehenge back in the old days when tourists where still allowed up close. Then I remembered: Marcia had named me David on my original birth certificate, the day I was born, before I became Alex. Neither of my birth parents remarked on the coincidence, and I didn’t care to remind them. Then I remembered some history: David came out of the Renaissance, the Rebirth. So stars were aligning—maybe our reunion week was not just the start of my rebirth, but my birth parents themselves could be reborn as real parents. We were being given another chance. But this idea, too, I kept under wraps as I walked around the fallen sculpture, feeling its cold strength. I turned around and noticed Frank had put his arm around Marcia and she wasn’t objecting. Maybe . . . maybe my fantasy of “family” wasn’t so far-fetched after all. I turned away quickly so they wouldn’t know I’d seen . . .
After I flew back to Barcelona and Marcia flew back to Hawaii, my birth parents wrote to each other more often than to me. Frank visited her in Oahu four times and by the end of the summer he wrote me a long letter, including these words: There is something I must tell you—a most important matter indeed—that may make things more difficult rather than less in the short run, though I have high hopes that in the long run it will turn out to be better all around. It concerns my relationship with Marcia, your birth mother. It turns out that this relationship has developed (in spite of your overconfident skepticism about the matter rather cavalierly communicated to me when I broached the topic over breakfast on your second day in Fullerton, that fateful day we all converged on the Marriott)—has morphed into something considerably more than Platonic. We have not only been spending long hours on the phone, but also seeing a great deal of each other, a logistical feat in itself, given that she continues to live in Hawaii. A year later they were wed on an Oahu beach. Marcia left the islands for good and moved in with Frank, turned his crumbling bachelor’s pad into a home, and planted a rose garden.
I left Spain and moved back to the States and settled in Southern California to be near them. In Frank’s very first letter to me he’d written, What I fervently hope and pray for is that we become the closest of friends, loving friends. After the reunion, Marcia had said, “Yes, it would be nice to see you again.” If I had, from the beginning, paid closer attention to the way they used language, I might have adjusted my expectations about my new California life. I lived only twenty miles away from them and was lucky to see Frank three times a year, while Marcia, flitting decorously as if on the other side of a Japanese screen, fretted over her cats and flower beds. This, I convinced myself, was any birth mother’s prerogative.
The night at the Fallen David seems so long ago. Marcia has been dead for nine years, and Frank—white-haired, hard of hearing, half-blind—shuffles around a ramshackle house somewhere in Oregon, under the care of one of his relatives, unable to recall most of his past. He doesn’t remember my birth mother anymore. And he doesn’t remember me.
That Christmas night at the Fallen David we talked and thought and climbed, tourists in a cold season amid slabs of ruined art. I wish I had a few pictures or, better yet, a video of that night to memorialize the three of us blundering along in our awkward way. All I have are these words; they’ll have to be enough.
The Fallen David had once been whole, and here it was on display as fragments, chunks of unburied torso, head, face, feet, legs, arms, with its hopeful gaze perennially directed leftwards, toward stolid buildings and the lower sky. “It’s like us,” I called to Frank and Marcia. “It’s broken,” I said, “and poetic the way it’s fallen, but it wants to be whole—like it’s crying out to be put together again.”
Deep in conversation, they had their backs turned and didn’t hear.