Mary McLauglin Sletcha
The Chinese Baby
“What’s wrong with saying ‘Chinese Baby’?” he asked for the second time. Shelley had been pouting since he’d made the unfortunate remark. Now they were seated on a loveseat in their neighbors’ den, removed from the dozen other guests who had carried plates and drinks onto the patio.
“Forget it,” she said.
Jim had already had lots to drink. “Aren’t we waiting for a Chinese baby?” He took a long swallow from a beer bottle and hoped she was hurting. She had certainly made him look the fool. “Or am I not supposed to mention the only subject you ever think about?”
“You’re an asshole,” she whispered, her voice hissing like a steam valve. Instinctively, he flinched. Despite its heated eruption, it was a tone that foretold weeks of icy cruelty built on small omissions. No warm, pulsing body spooned against his own under the covers. No clean, dry towel replacing the barely damp one. No sunny inquiries concerning his quality of sleep, his Achilles tendon after a jog, the digestion of his lunch, the status of his promotion, his mother.
The Millers stopped by to ask how the adoption was coming. “Terrible bureaucracy,” Tod Miller intoned. “It took forever to get our Lily.” His petite wife, whose name they never remembered in time, fit perfectly under his armpit. So small were her eyes and breasts that not for the first time, Jim wondered if she weren’t Chinese herself. She smiled to show how happy they were together. How well everything had turned out.
When they were alone again, Jim laughed out loud.
“What?” she asked.
“See!” He hated being goaded into stating the obvious. “People are interested.”
“Then just say ‘baby,’” she said. “I’m sick of this Chinese Baby.”
“Oh.” He thought he understood now. “So that’s the problem: China.”
Shelley drew her arms across her chest and fixed her attention on the blank television screen at the far end of the room.
“Maybe it’s time to go home,” she said, but right then Kathy called her to help in the kitchen. She went there instead.
Shelley carried stacks of cups and saucers to the dining room table. She fanned the silver forks and the white desert napkins. As always, she admired the orderliness of Kathy’s house. Through the spotless window, she assessed her own abandoned property with grass peeping over the tops of the gutters and the green paint peeling above the yellow. Although it had been an unusually warm spring, the garden beds on the other side of Kathy’s whitewashed fence still suffocated under their winter mat of brown leaves. Kathy’s line of lilac trees would soon tower over the pickets and be beautiful enough and large enough to adorn both yards.
From the basement, she heard a sudden string of loud barking from one of the family pets, a friendly lab named Trigger. Like the children entertaining themselves upstairs, taking or fetching coats at proper intervals and making courteous chitchat about high grades and soccer teams, Trigger accepted the boundaries placed on his burly black self. With a quick word from Kathy, delivered with the fierceness Shelley found peculiar to dog owners, he immediately settled down.
“Where’s Boots?” Shelley inquired as she rejoined Kathy in the kitchen.
Unless someone turned up allergic, the family cat was allowed to roam during parties, seeking out the lap or leg of the less socially adept guests. Boots worked as hard as Kathy and her husband to make everyone feel included and happy in their home. Outside in the yard, Boots visited Shelley by weaving in and out between her legs as she gardened.
Kathy looked up from cutting the tarts and a light seemed to switch on in her eyes. “We haven’t talked in a while, have we?” Shelley thought of the countless e-mails and phone calls she’d made to China in the past week alone. April was nearly over and she hadn’t stepped foot in the back yard.
“Even with shots, Kimmy can’t tolerate being in the same room with Boots anymore. We had to leave her on my aunt’s farm in Jersey. Two weeks ago.”
“You didn’t!” Shelley put a hand against the sudden pounding in her head. She focused on a curio cabinet in the corner of the room and took deep, cleansing breaths. “We’d have taken him.”
“But you’re so busy right now,” Kathy said tactfully. She carefully lifted slices of tart onto plates. By magic, Kimmy and her twin sister Chris appeared in the doorway. “Call the guests,” their mother told them without turning. “And then come back to help.” Trigger gave a lonely howl from behind the cellar door.
“Misses Boots too, I imagine,” Kathy said. “We all do.”
Shelley was close to tears remembering Boot’s soft calico head pressing into the palm of her hand. “Jim and I could go down there and bring Boots back,” she told Kathy. “Couldn’t we do that? Then Boots would be living right next door.”
“Well, it’s like this,” Kathy said quickly. The guests were coming in flushed from outdoors, stacking plates recklessly in the sink and depositing wine glasses and beer bottles on every available counter and tabletop. There were loud shouts of praise for the tarts and the coffee. Someone was clamoring for decaf, another for herbal tea, and the spoons had been forgotten. “My aunt’s grandchildren have become pretty attached.”
“You don’t think we could pay them?” Shelley asked softly, but already Kathy was turning her attention to the others, pointing and reaching for things, marshalling the girls. Putting a sugar bowl in Shelley’s outstretched hands, she paused only long enough to say “I miss your pretty smile.” Shelley opened her mouth but whatever intended to be heard was taking entirely too long. If not for the firm, motherly hand nudging her towards the dining room, she would have held her ground and wailed like the deposed Trigger.
“I won’t say it anymore,” Jim whispered when she brought him a slice of strawberry tart. He hadn’t moved from the couch but had turned the ballgame on mute. Except for someone’s abandoned old father, who could have used Boots’ therapeutic company, everyone had returned to the patio.
She put her head on his shoulder and he wrapped her in his arm. “I hate those damn Chinese,” she burbled and as though on cue, the old man lifted a bony chin from its nest in his rumpled shirt. He turned his head like an owl. A Chinese owl, Jim instantly thought with guilt, and the louder Shelley complimented the tart, the more the man’s blank stare seemed to confirm he’d taken offense. The indifference with which he finally dismissed them, the flop of his sparsely feathered gray head, awakened Jim’s outrage at his own powerlessness.
“But she’ll be Chinese,” he whispered in an even lower voice, certain this was what she needed to understand. ___“Yellow skin, black hair, dark slanted eyes.” He held Shelley to him even as she pulled away. “You can’t change that.”
“She’ll be ours,” Shelley challenged. “Her own people don’t give a damn about her.” This time her eyes, still pooled with tears, flashed towards the slumbering man with a venomous rage.
Jim knew then he had to stop. Had to set his plate and coffee mug on the coffee table, find Kathy and her husband among the variously reddened faces on the deck, endure the effusive flutter of nice to see you and good luck with the baby, and go home. He quickly checked the screen for a score and any reaction from other quarters. Their only company in the living room snored his complete and total lack of interest.
Jim needn’t have worried about a total breakdown at home. Shelley was through with crying. She went into the predictable frozen stupor for a few weeks and then the craziness was over and forgotten with a single phone message. Two weeks later they were squashed together on the first leg of the trip home, trying to rouse an emotion from their very solemn, still daughter. Or at least he was trying, increasingly reminded of publicized accounts of Americans duped into adopting damaged children. Shelley was too busy telling everyone in earshot what a good, good baby she was. Every couple hours or so, to great excitement on Shelley’s part, her puffy, red eyelids would flicker and her rosebud lips purse into a soundless shape. Jim wished they’d come with the drinks already. He was sure his health care plan would cover most situations, but the daily strain of a disability terrified him. Didn’t he know that from his younger brother, thirty-five at home in diapers?
Grateful at last for a cool beer, he tried to repeat the sounds of her Chinese name for the pretty flight attendant.___“We haven’t decided on an American name yet,” he explained.
Shelley’s face lit up. “Theresa,” she told the attendant.
“Like Mother Teresa,” he said, half-questioning, and instantly worried the irony would disturb her. This unsmiling baby, now apparently named for a Carmelite nun, was already starting out life in a shabby blanket borrowed from his mother’s keepsakes. “Take good care of it,” she’d confided at their last meeting, “Maybe once Shelley relaxes, you’ll need it again, for one of your own.”
The flight attendant looked confused. “Is your baby Indian?”
“Chinese,” Shelley said indignantly. “It’s a family name.”
“Hi, Terry,” the attendant said, wiggling her finger in front of stone features. Jim jiggled the blanket to prompt a reaction, which didn’t come. “Bye-bye,” she said, repeating the gesture, before she and the drink cart bumped along to the next passengers.
“Terry,” Jim thought to himself. “Tod Miller’s wife.” The name they could never remember. He didn’t think it wise to mention this to Shelley. She had that dazzling, crooked smile when everything worked out according to plan.
* * *
Six months later the universe had comfortably shrunk to their cozy three-bedroom cape cod, further insulated by three days of heavy snow and canceled out-of-town obligations to Jim’s family. Inside and out, the house was decorated for Christmas. Theresa’s first Christmas. As Shelley’s Christmas letter to family and friends had cheerfully pointed out, this was “Jim, Shelley, and Theresa’s first Christmas as a family, but their last in a house love had quickly outgrown.”
Theresa was splashing at a bar of soap in the tub, delighted at its reappearance each time she batted it under water, and Shelley was thinking how perfect life could be. How, despite the Chinese bureaucrats she resolved to face again for the sake of a sister, a single moment could emerge, as thoroughly pure as the little barge. “Soap can never be truly dirty,” she said aloud, startling herself with this revelation. Theresa, surprised too, paused and tilted her head to hear the wise, wise words of her mother.
Cupping the tiny head in her hand like a certain calico cat she still mourned, Shelley stared into the dark pools of her daughter’s eyes. She was startled by the transient stillness of the flat features her mother-in-law had been overheard to describe as dumb. In the absence of language and in the presence of difference, it was easy to imagine almost anything. For one, that Theresa’s speech would emerge as unrecognizable as her face, or two, that she was as damaged as Jim sometimes hinted. Jim, who couldn’t stay five minutes in a room with his brother, now constantly hustled between work and household projects, with frequent excursions to the Home Depot. She would never admit it, but much as she fought them, he and his family had planted a seed of doubt that threatened the happy future she’d planned for Theresa.
Uttering a sob at the dire possibilities, Shelley inspired not a commiserate wailing but a frenzy of splashing and a miniature likeness to her own crooked smile. Seeing its familiar confidence, stylized by the scalloped row of tiny teeth, she was very much relieved and more determined.