Copyright © Lee Ann Mortensen 2002
My lover and I sit outside a Chinese restaurant waiting for our sweet and sour shrimp, and as we think of nothing but the winter sky and the sour tang of the food we will soon be eating, a woman comes out, paces along State Street folding and refolding a napkin. A man comes out, throws his keys onto the sidewalk, says, “Damn you,” and something in Chinese. My lover and I try not to stare, but being relatively curious people, we have to. They pace together, intertwining in their anger. My lover wonders if the woman is his wife. I wonder if she is his mother. Their noses and chins crease in similar ways.
I don’t look like my mixed-race parents, though people think I do. Some say I’ve got the dark, heavy eyebrows and hair of my Mexican father, or the white, casserole sensitivities of my mother’s Utah attitudes. But I’m a girl adopted, my own race unknown, except that my skin goes white in winter, and olive dark in the summer blaze. I’m interbred and waiting for things to happen, my genetics indefinite as my cells erupt with inner surprises, ailments, obsessions no one in the family has seen. Perfect teeth. A craving for heat and the desert. Moodiness. A desire for women and their skin. And those damn kidney stones surprising me last year. The doctors told me I couldn’t drink coffee any more because my genes would turn the oxalates into pebbles that come out rough and bleeding. No one in the family has dealt with that.
For what seem to be indeterminate reasons, though apparently it’s a vagina issue, my parents couldn’t have children, and in the 50’s, even in the New West morality of Phoenix, this meant the neighbors looked at them a little squinty-eyed every time they went outside to pick up the paper. For eleven years Rudy and Joanne busied themselves with a new optical business and the eternal work-ethic of volunteer Mormonism until one high cloud day in January their doctor called and said, “You’ve got a daughter.” They drove their new ‘64 Cadillac to the hospital, trying not to hit light poles and old ladies on the way, and while they waited, they walked the sterile halls and ate free maternity cookies, both of them equally, and oddly absent during the birth process. If they had been smokers, they would have fired up two or three packs waiting to see me, to see if I was blond or Navajo, to see if all my fingers were in place. When the nurse finally came out, carrying a puffy, filled blanket, my new parents took hold of me as if I were spun glass and hurried to their car, nervous the biological mother might change her mind, might come running after them, her gown flapping open behind her. Only after they shut the Caddie’s doors did they open the blanket and look inside at the huge hazelness of my baby eyes.
They started telling me this story when I was old enough to understand language.
“Tell me how big my eyes were again,” I would say every few months.
Two and a half years later, the doctor called again to tell them they had a son, and on that day we became the statistically correct nuclear family, albeit a little on the skimpy side for Mormonism.
In order to avoid the uncomfortable questions about infertility and indiscretion that come up when children don’t look like their parents, everyone was always wanting to notice resemblances that were not there. People think my brother with his sandier hair looks like my mother, and that I am darker like my father. My brother and mother’s desire to play musical instruments seems logical. My father and I enjoy being devil’s advocates which drives my brother and mother a little insane. People nod and smile and feel relief.
But babies grow up and surprise everyone, especially when they’re adopted.
Though they love us without hesitation, I imagine my parents have begun to think adopted children are trouble.
My brother was supposed to take over the family optical business and grow rich like my father, but now he often lives in the tented jails outside Chandler, Arizona waiting for ice and water and the weekend when he can leave to indulge in girls and meth and fast driving. When he gets thrown out of his apartments, he calls. When in a rage he kicks in the doors on his the SAAB my parents bought him, he calls. When the girls who are having his babies call, I sometimes wonder if he’s gotten AIDS yet. It seems he would have by now.
“Are you having safe sex?” I want to ask him.
“I’m so sure,” he would say.
“No, really,” I would say.
“Waaass Uuuup,” he would say.
Maybe he’s just an adoption anomaly.
But then there are my parent’s friends with their two adopted sons who like to shoplift, who sometimes work as hustlers for a little weekend junk money. These are boys who often can’t take care of themselves, who live in top floor condos their parents have bought them, who wait for their mother to bring Costco food to them every Saturday, family sized portions of cubed stake, gallon bottles of orange juice, Twinkies by the fifties.
Of course, parents with biological children get surprised too, like when their own genetic children beat up wives, or beat up gay boys in farm fields, or marry for money, or marry for love, or murder homeless women in Pioneer park, or vote Republican, or vote Democrat, or drink themselves into blindness each night as they try to forget their dead-end lives. You know these stories. You’re related to some of them.
But when you’re adopted, everything you do seems much more shocking.
I am that, a surprise waiting.
A few years ago I surprised myself, and my parents, by saying, shaky voiced, “I’m a Lesbian.”
It took a while to say this. After ten years of being with women I decided it was time. For four days in November during the traditional Gay Coming Out Season of Thanksgiving, every time my parents and I ate some meal, I sat with sweating knees wondering if this was the moment, if this was the second when my voice might leap and frog out the words that would make my parents look down at their turkey and never see food or adoption the same way again.
I was supposed to be the model child, the one who was polite and went to college and had a good job and had a house, granted, a single girl, and not a very good church goer any more, but still successful and decent and nice and relatively stable.
After I told them about the women I always called “friends” who had really been lovers, my parents probably wondered where they went wrong, like many parents do when they find out their children are not like them. But for my parents, the crap shoot that is adoption must have made it all seem harsher.
“What about those boys you dated?” my mother asked. “You were always so excited to go out.”
“I like to go out,” I said. “It wasn’t about the boys.”
“It’s a hard lifestyle,” my father said. “Are you really happy?”
What a question. I decided to at least say, “I’m happier than I was before.” And I’m certainly as happy as anyone can be who lives neurotically on this planet waiting to disappoint her parents, waiting for lovers to leave, waiting for the unknowns of her body to explode.
I am neurotic, but I don’t go around looking for a “real” mother. I will never look her up on the Web to see if she has my beautiful lips and a need for tequila, nor will I pay some detective to find him as he sits in his trailer home, retired and arthritic and smoking cigars in Sun City, Arizona. I will not call Oprah or Missing Persons asking for help. It’s a nightmare scenario I see too often on those tabloid news shows, the heavy, flowered, biological mother running down her genetic offspring’s driveway, cameraman close behind. The genetic daughter running out to hug her biological mother. The tears. The happy sponsors.
To me, this is horrifying.
“I’m your mother,” the strange woman at the door would say. The cameraman would hold his lens close to my chin. I would force my cheek not to twitch. I would smile a little and step back, pushing my dogs away, closing the door down to a slit.
“Ok,” I would say. I would look at her red hair, the hair the only thing my parents knew about her, and I would look at her nose to see if it had an up lift at the tip. I would look at her eyes trying to see something large. My lover would walk in from the kitchen, looking curious and a little worried.
“What diseases have you had?” I would ask, quickly getting to the point as I often do. “I mean, have you had kidney stones? Are your knees bad? I just want to know what I have to look forward to.”
“My little girl,” she would say. She would come closer, pushing at the door a little, then look down at my tattoos, her legs stopping short of the door jamb.
“Is there anyone gay in your family?” I would say. “An uncle maybe. Or some lesbian grandma? Perhaps I have a queer twin? They say it might be genetic, but how would I know?”
The camera would shift to her face. The TV audience would hold off going to the fridge for beer.
“I don’t know anyone gay,” she would say.
Of course not.
No, one set of shocked parents is enough, I say.
And one set of wayward children is enough, my parents say.
Still, I do wonder, though. I am the kind of girl who likes to speculate. Is my biological mother fat? Is my biological father a person of color? Did his dark hair start turning a little salt and pepper when he hit thirty one? Does her skin go white in winter, or does it stay dark and bitter all year? Do they go to bar mitzvah’s or celebrate Cinco de Mayo? Do they have relatives who’ve harvested sugar cane, or died in the Communist uprising in Cuba, or who hid in border town hills to avoid scalping parties? Racially, I feel completely unrooted, and this has begun to bother me lately.
Because of Rudy, I’m a semi-latina with half my cousins speaking nothing but Spanish, telling stories about Pancho Villa and weeping saints and jealous, gun-toting lovers and cousins kept forever in basements. Because of Joanne, I face German levels of discipline from my uncles, and hear all the Mormon pioneer hardship stories of pushing handcarts for thousands of miles and trying to bury dead children in the hard ground of winter. And yet, I can’t claim any of it fully as mine. My biological mother might have been as white as a hospital wall, sent to the desert to have her bastard, Irish child then return to shadier New England streets looking, again, like a virgin. Or she might have been dark, hired only to clean toilets, a person without any family or stories at all, and there in the hospital welfare section having yet another illegitimate child like her mother before her,
But I will never know what I am, and in this biology-wedded, pigeon-holing culture, that’s a sin. People are supposed to be definable. They are supposed to be able to check off the appropriate racial and marital boxes on all the forms they fill out at the doctor’s office and the DMV. But I can never sit back on my green chaise lounge and claim an easy identity without truly lying.
“Uh, well, I was sort of divorced, but now I’m sort of married, but, you know, not exactly, and, well, my father’s half Mexican, so I’m, uh, well, I don’t know what I am, but my skin is rather white, um, and I’m sometimes attracted to men, especially gay men, but not a lot, though sex itself is a different matter, but women are still more interesting, especially tall, nerdy women, and, well, I speak Spanish like a Mexican sometimes, like a city Norteńa, or like a Puerto Riqueńa someone told me once, but my parents don’t know anyone from Puerto Rico, I don’t think, nor have I been there, and because my family is upper class, or has been at times, I never really went to school with Mexicans or Puerto Ricans or really anyone who wasn’t white. So.”
Some postmodern theorists might say no one can really define themselves anyway, at least not for long, so what am I whining about? These poststructuralist pomo chic types might say lacking an awareness of my biological history gives me more freedom to explore and even play with my own constructedness. I, Lee Mortensen, could be a sort of living diorama of fluidity ready at any minute to perform any identity I might have a yen for. Why not be Chicana today? It could happen. Or tomorrow, a divorced Bisexual. On Wednesday I think I’ll be oppressed and Irish. Saturday I’ll celebrate shabbat. And Sunday can be my Fag Hag day. Why not let adoption be a fabulous wild card that allows me to float from one thing to another and back again based merely on will and mojo?
But sometimes, especially lately as I get closer to 40 and wonder what the hell I’ve been all these years, sometimes when I see a dark haired woman seventeen or twenty years older than me, I wonder if she pushed me out of her body in 1964, white Cadillac waiting in the parking lot, the desert air chilled enough for the nurses to wear sweaters to work. Some days I wonder if I might be walking right next to someone who could pin my postmodern ass down with a little clarifying narrative.
But no one ever will. And so I invent stories. For instance, where is my biological mother now?
. . . I imagine her
outside a Tortilla Flats convenience store
sipping beer. Rowdy, tall, she whispers
broken jokes only to the Mexicans
who could have been my father,
but never were.
I see our eyes, yellow and green.
Brown, curving, desert eyes surrounded by hills
and spiny fatigue. We sweat and breathe,
if I can laugh like she laughs, if I can kiss
all the winking Latinos
like she does
and make them think they feel love.
Or maybe the story could go something more like this:
Ok, so that’s yet another fantasy from a girl who grew up in the 70’s. Maybe the “truth” is much less glamorous.
After a night of thick and heavy drinking,
he gets up early, and before the mist
stops rising from his mouth,
he bends his aching knees into the sweat lodge
to ask the mud walls to bring more people
to his Tuba City Gas Mart,
to make Debra his lover stop
with all her dusty anxieties and move in with him.
He asks the mud walls to keep his boy in college smart,
to protect his sister wherever she might be.
And then, for the first time in months,
he remembers how he kept driving past that hospital
in Phoenix, driving in circles,
driving for hours
hitting his forehead to try and make himself go in
and at least look down at his first child’s face,
but now it’s just something else he never did.
Of course, I don’t know any of this. And I really don’t want to know. In spite of my racial confusion, in spite of my kidney stones, I like how the mistiness of my genetic past pushes my imaginings. This way I can feel related to everyone, and no one, and pretend that I am always already where I’m supposed to be.
Copyright © Lee Ann Mortensen 2002