Martha recently arrived in the U.S. from Mexico. She has no money, no job, and no English. She’s twenty-three years old and three months pregnant.
Our adoption attorney calls and says that there’s a young woman in southern California who wants to meet us––us and another couple––but that if we meet her first, our chances will be much better. “How soon can you get here?” We try but can’t find a pet-sitter on such short notice.
Finally, we just put the dogs in the car and go.
After three days of driving south, we arrive. I’m worried about what to wear. Should we try to look rich? We’re not. We finally decide to dress like us, but cleaner. Our attorney has arranged for us to meet Martha at an IHOP. James parks our car around the corner, out of sight. I’m worried, somehow, that Martha will notice how dirty it is, and judge us.
We want to adopt her baby.
We’re the first ones there. The only available table is between the front door and the checkout counter, right in the middle of the restaurant. We sit down. The translator, who our attorney suggested we hire, shows up next. We talk to him for a few minutes while we wait for the others. He used to be a piano teacher, he tells us, but there is a big need for translators in this small, mostly Mexican-American farming community and not much custom for music lessons. Our attorney arrives. “Can’t we get a table in the back?” She asks. “I’m sorry, Ma’am,” says a passing waiter, “that part of the restaurant is closed today.”
I worry about what to order. I want cake but don’t want Martha to think I’m frivolous. I want her to think I’m healthy and virtuous. I worry that if I eat cake for lunch, she won’t want to adopt her baby to us. The cake looks good. I notice how fat the IHOP staff are and wonder if it’s from eating the IHOP food.
I decide to get a salad.
Martha walks through the door. She’s tiny and gorgeous and looks cool, with bright red lipstick and a motorcycle jacket. I’m glad we didn’t dress up. She sits down. A waiter appears. Martha says something, softly, to the translator. “A large side of French fries, please,” he tells the waiter. The rest of us order. The waiter leaves. At first, there’s just the sound of paper napkins being unfolded, water glasses lifted, then put back down. I fiddle with my silverware, then look at Martha. She’s watching me. “Are you very nervous?” she asks through the translator, but I understand the first time.
“¿Estás muy nerviosa?”
“Yes. Si, estoy muy.”
She laughs. “Yo Tambien,” she says––“me too.”
All of my preconceptions that I didn’t, until now, even realize that I had, get blown apart. The image I’d had––of a poor, hapless, irresponsible, and ignorant young Mexican girl––is wrong. Instead, she’s calm and well-spoken and self-possessed. And she’s funny. Veering in the other direction, I begin to build her a pedestal.
Martha talks about music. Her friends make fun of her because she only listens to cheesy American Seventies bands, she says, and laughs. This is so unexpected. I pick at my salad. She’s very young and full of life, I think. I correct myself: two lives. She laughs again. I wonder if she cares that I’m twice her age. I’m too old to get pregnant again. We’ve been trying to adopt for six years. Just a few weeks ago, we had been in the car, driving south to meet a birth-mother. We had gotten the call in the morning and left the same day. I had been in a panic: “we don’t have a crib! Nothing is set up! We’ll be gone for weeks… I have to quit my job!”
I had run down the street to where I worked part-time at the laundromat and quit. It was the second time I had quit the same job in two months, and for the same reason. But after a few hours on the road, our attorney called to tell us that it wasn’t going to happen, after all. I went back to work at the laundromat the next day. Everyone at work just looked at me––I guess they didn’t know what to say.
Martha tells us that she likes to write. It’s how she processes things, she says. “Me too,” I say.
I wonder if she’ll write about this. Nobody is really eating. Martha digs around in her bag and pulls out a large envelope. She hands it to me, smiling. It’s an ultrasound of the baby. I start to cry. I don’t want to, but can’t help it. I worry that she’ll think I’m too emotional––but then again, maybe it will impress her––make her think I’m tender, maternal.
We make conversation, haltingly, through the translator. I make jokes, which he repeats, and each time Martha laughs. I tell her that James and I are both musicians.
“I play Klezmer music, ” I say, then start to worry. I wonder if she’s Catholic. I wonder if that’s why she hasn’t had an abortion. Maybe, if she thinks we’re Jewish, she won’t want to adopt her baby to us. Martha doesn’t say anything. She takes out her phone and starts going through photos. I wait. “Mira,” she says and hands the phone to me. There’s a photo of a man and a little boy. They’re sitting on the low wall of a fountain in the middle of a town square. They’re dressed in old-fashioned costumes. There are lots of other people milling around the square, also in costumes. “It’s the Jewish festival; it happens every year in San Miguel de Allende, my town. This is my father and my son, dressed as Jewish people from a long time ago. There is a lot of Klezmer music. We like to listen to it.” Then, as if sensing my question, she adds: “Soy no religioso.”
Maybe, I think, it’s time to start being myself.
I wonder why Martha doesn’t go home to San Miguel, to her father and her son. I ask questions about her family. She tells us that she has four sisters and that her boy, who is five, lives with her parents. “I had him very young,” she says. She wants to work in the U.S. for a while so she can send money to her family. Her mother, she adds quietly, is opposed to the adoption and wants to raise this baby too. Hearing it, I realize for the first time that adopting, which would be so wonderful for us, is bound to be a tragedy for someone else.
After a couple of hours, Martha and the translator get up to leave. I stand up too. “Goodbye… thank you.” We don’t embrace. The attorney stays behind. She goes over some paperwork with us, then says, “she’s very pretty,” several times, and I nod. “I have to get to my next case,” she says finally. “I think Martha liked you. I’ll let you know as soon as she contacts me.” She leaves, and James and I sit for a few moments in silence.
“We’d like you to have this––on the house.”
I look up: several of the staff are standing over us––one of them, an overweight young woman with a blonde ponytail, is holding a plate with a big slice of cake on it.
“We couldn’t help overhearing everything at your table… and we really feel for you!” She says. The others are nodding sympathetically. “What an intense situation! And you’re doing such an amazing thing! That girl is so lucky to have found you two.” She sets the cake down on the table in front of us. “Thank you,” we say. Of course, I know that we’re the lucky ones.
All of my preconceptions about IHOP workers fall away.
Eventually, we learn Martha’s whole story. We hire a social worker to meet with her, give her advice, make sure she’s considered other options. But Martha doesn’t want this baby, and after I read the social worker’s notes, I understand why.
Martha had been with a guy. They had moved to Texas from Mexico together. He was, I imagine, one of those charming, enigmatic guys who gets all the bright, beautiful girls to fall in love with him and then turns. He had turned, among other things, violent. He kept her locked in their Dallas apartment for five months, beating her, sometimes bringing his friends over to gang rape her. Finally, she got ahold of his phone and called the police, who rescued her and arrested him.
Not long after she escaped, Martha discovered that she was pregnant.
I’m glad she didn’t tell us this stuff herself. I might have faltered and told her about my ex-boyfriend, who beat me and whose baby I aborted when I was twenty-three. I don’t want her to think I’m the kind of person who would be in an abusive relationship. I worry that she’ll judge me. I don’t judge her, only sympathize, but somehow I’m unable to apply the same sympathy to myself.
I don’t want to tell her about the abortion.
A couple of months before Martha’s due date, James and I move into a rental house in a nearby town. We take her to doctor’s appointments and lunch while she and her new boyfriend, Santiago, arrange a picnic on the beach for us. They do all the cooking. The food looks good. I help myself to a kind of salad; there are avocados and oranges and something crispy. “It’s pigskin,” says Martha, and I blench, then spit it out. “Sorry,” I explain, “we’re vegetarians.”
We’re not, but I worry she won’t want to adopt her baby to a vegan.
The house we’re renting is in an even tinier farming town, so completely Latino that it’s hard to believe we’re still in California. It’s strange to me that we’re going to take the child away from this culture and into our own, which will become his. It’s strange to think that he’ll be an American, not a Mexican, that English, not Spanish, will be his native language, and that he’ll have no say in any of it.
It’s strange to think that, if all goes well, we’re going to take this child away from his mother. Six months after our meeting in IHOP, Martha goes into labor. Her due date has come and gone. I sit with her in the hospital room. Her mom calls from Mexico. Martha argues with her, softly. “No, Mamá. No. Ya está decidido.” I look away. There’s a glare, even in the daytime, of the overhead lights. I feel slightly nauseated. Nerves, maybe. I go out and stand in the hallway, just waiting, thirsty, hot, unsure. My body feels heavy, clothes too tight. I go back into the room and sit on the vinyl bench by the window. We make small talk, but maybe it’s not. We talk about how shitty men are. Except, we agree, for the good ones. Like James, for instance, and, I suggest, Santiago, who will be coming to the hospital as soon as he gets off work. He has no interest in fathering this baby, says Martha, which is a relief to me. Anyhow, she adds, we’re just friends now, he’s not my boyfriend anymore––and then she grimaces. Should I call the nurse? I say, but she shakes her head.
I watch her labor like this, silently, a grimace, followed by a wan, self-conscious smile, for twelve hours. People come and go. James sits with us for a while. Santiago too. Finally the doctor decides to induce the birth. James leaves to wait in the hallway. Santiago tries to leave too but the nurse grabs him. “What are you doing? Here!” The nurse lifts one of Martha’s legs up by the ankle and holds it out toward him. “Take this leg!” And he does. It wasn’t what they had planned, but Santiago has no English and it’s too hard, in the moment, for him to explain to this nurse that he isn’t the father, or that they’d only just started dating, or that at the moment they’re broken up.
Anyhow, there isn’t time. I take Martha’s other leg, and we stand there like that, staring at her, her face, while she turns her head away, eyes closed. The room is dark. She groans. The baby’s head crowns. A nurse rushes in and tells the doctor he’s needed for an emergency surgery downstairs. He runs out. The baby’s head sits there, wet and dark, an impossible girth. Martha bites the sheets and groans. The replacement doctor comes in, he was on call but is reeking of booze. “Push!” he barks, and she does.
Not long afterward––a couple of months––I discover the miscarriage. I flush it down the toilet. What else can you do. I had heard of this happening––of people getting pregnant only when they had truly given up. It feels like a kind of failure. But mixed up with my grief is relief. We have a nice healthy baby already.
I cry anyway.
We keep in touch. Martha gets engaged to Santiago. She continues to be friendly, even, and kind. When the baby is a year old we take him to visit her. He laughs and coos and smiles. He, Martha and I agree, is clearly one of the good ones. Martha puts us on Skype with her mother and sisters in Mexico. Her mother looks at us and our baby, her grandson, and begins to cry. For a moment, I feel like what we’ve done is criminal. “It’s hard, for everyone,” says Martha.
Martha tells us that she’s happy in her choice. “Thank you,” says James, “that means everything to us.”
And it does. Somehow this person thinks that we’re good enough––that I’m good enough––to love her baby.
Finally I realize that, for his sake, it’s time for me to start believing it too.
Sarah Feldman is a writer and musician. She lives in CA with her husband and son.