“Damn!” murmured Laia as she threw the phone to her side where it skittered and settled by the trim on the carpeted floor. The room was silent, lit only by the occasional headlight visible through the thin blinds of their room. Regretting the impulsive action, Laia forced herself out of bed to reach her phone.
Maya’s voice floated her way.
“Want to talk?”
Did she want to talk? Laia considered it for a moment pocketing her phone and creeping back under her covers.
The darkness is seductive, wiggling confessions out of unwilling participants.
“You will not understand”
Laia pulled herself up and settled comfortably against her pillow. Bright yellow and red pillow cases her mom had picked out, glowed when their room lit up as yet another straggler returned to the dorm.
Looking at the dark shape on the bed across her, Laia said, “Just got off the phone with mom. I know she wants me to be home for fall break. I just wish she would say so outright instead of tiptoeing around me.”
“I am adopted” Laia says as if that would answer all the questions that hung in the air between Maya and her.
“Go home then. Its simple right? You want to go home. Your mom wants you to be home.” Maya sounds rational, maddeningly so.
“It is not as simple. My birth mom lives an hour away. I was planning to visit her.”
Laia hears Maya pull herself up. The night lamp by Maya’s table comes on casting a yellow hue on everything. Her eyes are alert and instead of curiosity there is something else, a hunger Laia can’t seem to understand.
“OK, Does your mom not want you to go? What is holding you back?”
Laia considers the question and looks at Maya. They have been roommates for a couple of weeks now. They had exchanged basic family details. They had missed meeting each other’s families as Maya had moved in a day prior and had been away the day Laia moved in. Laia realized she had not seen any personal effects on Maya’s side of the room. She had not set up her stuff either.
Did she really want to talk about this to Maya? Perhaps it is the darkness, perhaps it is that she can’t seem to hold it in anymore.
“Nope, nothing is holding me back. I wish she had said something. She said that was OK if that is what I wanted to do.”
“It’s maddening when she does that.” Laia’s voice is petulant.
“Sometimes I wish she would just be outright jealous and tell me I can’t go. Then I could hate her without feeling guilty…”
“What about your birth mom? Does she want to have you over?” Maya’s voice is insistent.
“Yeah, she said if my parents said yes, I could come stay with her. It is like the two of them have this intricate relationship dance no one else is privy to. I fucking hate being caught in the middle”
“I have a good mind to stay back in the dorm and not go anywhere” she says punching her pillow.
Her words lie in the semi darkness mutating and congealing into a hard mass that she swallows and lets lodge in that place between her heart and stomach.
“Forget I said anything” she says and curls into a fetal position inside her warm blanket.
She hears Maya sidle off her bed and make her way to her. The last thing she wants is pity, least of all from someone who has no clue about what she is going through. She prepares to rebuff any attention when she feels Maya’s weight at the foot of her bed where she is perched birdlike.
“We each carry our crosses, you know”
Laia hears the words, not really comprehending what Maya is saying. She wonders if she should crawl from under the covers. The weight of Maya on her bed is insistent. “What demons are you fighting?” she asks as she raises herself up.
Maya waits before replying and when she does, the words have an edge to them.
“We will talk about me another day. Tell me about your family.”
Stung by her abruptness, Laia slides back under her covers and says,”Good Night!”
Maya flounces back to her bed and the nightlamp goes out.
Laia wonders if she should apologize and for what?
She settles into an uneasy wakefulness.
They had moved to Texas when she was in third grade and her parents had left it to her to decide what to share at school. She had said nothing leaving her class to draw their own conclusions when her family had turned up to cheer her as she played the part of a tree for the variety show.
They had done road trips every summer driving to Indianapolis to meet her birth family. She had gone back to school guarding the weeks spent away jealously. The pictures and relics from each trip had been put away at the bottom of her closet away from prying eyes only to be dug out in the hazy hours between wakefulness and sleep. Often she would wake up clutching a picture or a bracelet. A tenuous link to the life that could have been.
Her parents had sat her down often, pushing her to talk, to share what she felt. She had always shrugged it off insisting there was nothing to talk. She was fine.
She had been fine. Then she had turned eighteen over the summer. Everything had changed. Her parents had sat her down in the formal living room for the ‘talk’. Laia had been sure it had to do with drugs, boys and sex. She was caught off guard when they had talked to her about freedom. She was eighteen. Legally old enough to decide what she wanted to do with her time. She was not bound to be under their guardianship anymore. Except when they said it, there had been grief and something akin to fear.
She was free to spend time with her birth family and they were OK with it. Really OK they stressed. They had hugged and promised each other nothing would change. Nothing had until Laia had brought up the topic of spending fall break with her birth mom. They had said yes of course but there had been that underlying sadness, a feeling of guilt that had crept in with the acceptance. Then there had been her birth mom. Laia had expected her to be overjoyed at the prospect of spending a week all by themselves. Her first question had been “Are your parents OK with this?”
“Yes,” she had reassured but there had been an uneasiness she could not put her finger on.
Sleep claimed her even as dawn crept through the window and filled the room with light.
Maya was gone by the time she woke. She felt relief wash over her. What had she been thinking sharing things that she had not voiced in years?
Yet, the sadness in Maya’s voice gnawed at her.
“Can we meet at the Oval for lunch? Please!” read the text from Laia. Maya put her phone away. She knew she had clammed up last night. Yet, she was not sure lunch was the best time to talk about these things.
“Let’s do dinner instead. I will grab Chinese takeout. OK with you?” she typed back and looked up at the lecturer who was now looking at her pointedly. Making a show of putting the phone away, Maya pulled up her textbook and looked at the board instead.
Thoughts she had kept buried for years swirled in her head. She had always known she was adopted. It was easy considering her parents were white and she was the color of caramel. Her parents had made a big deal about her homecoming day as they called it. When she had been younger, she had enjoyed the attention. Older, she had been vaguely upset but had said nothing knowing her parents really enjoyed doing things for her. When she had been fifteen, she had asked about her birth family. There had been an awkward silence and her mom had gone upstairs and returned with a file marked adoption.
They had sat down as a family and read every scrap of paper that was in there. The adoption dossier, copies of everything her parents had filed and a thin manilla envelope marked “Maya”. It contained all of four sheets of paper. Intake paperwork at the orphanage where she had been before her parents adopted her.
Age, weight, height, eye color, demeanor and descriptions of even her bowel movements were detailed. Under birth history, there was just one entry. Child left at hospital under ‘Cradle Baby’ scheme. Date of birth unknown. Approximately a week old at the time of intake. There had been no notes, nothing that could link her back to a woman in India who had given birth to her.
When she turned sixteen, they had made a journey to her homeland chasing paper trails at the orphanage and hospital. Everything stopped at the hospital door. They had returned disheartened but convinced they had tried everything that they possibly could have.
Maya thought about Laia and her easy access to her birth history and wished she could have been her. If she had to have been adopted why not within India? Even if she had been cut off from her family she would have grown up in the culture that was hers. Her parents had done their best to celebrate Pongal and Diwali and cook south Indian dishes at home but at best it had been a token offering. A pale imitation of what could have been. The past couple of years had left her with a burning need for connection with someone biologically related to her. She had haunted adoptee forums and had been saving up to get her DNA analyzed from 23andMe.
She woke with a start when she realized the Professor was asking her something. Excusing herself, she left the class.
The day stretched long and languorous, her next class after lunch. She walked back to her dorm room on impulse and was surprised to see Laia there.
“Sorry” she said hoping it would be enough.
“I am sorry too” Laia said looking up from a slew of personal effects on her bed.
Maya walked past Laia’s bed realizing Laia wanted to be left alone. Her eyes fell on a photo frame now set on the window sill. Laia was flanked by her parents and another girl with an open smile and lovely black curls. But what stopped her though were Laia’s parents. They were Indian. Kind of like the family she had pictured for herself in her mind. Next to them Laia stood out. Pale, a sheet of blonde hair framing her face, her brown eyes mirrored the cheer in the rest of their eyes. Unable to stop herself, she picked the picture and sat down next to Laia.
“Yup! Bet you didn’t expect that right?”
“We stood out as a family alright!”
When Maya did not say anything, Laia moved the albums surrounding her and indicated for Maya to sit next to her. They spent the next hour poring through old pictures. Laia had been raised Hindu, her parents were South Indian and she had grown up vegetarian.
“Wait a second” said Maya as she made her way to her chest of drawers. Rummaging around, she pulled out an album and a framed picture.
“Your parents are white? You are adopted??”
“Yup! And I am their only child. I was raised Christian and we went to Church every Sunday.”
Laia tried to reconcile what she was seeing with their aborted conversation from the previous night.
“Where were you adopted from? South India?” Laia asked making the connection between Maya’s features and all of her relatives in India.
“Near Salem in Tamilnadu. I was adopted from an orphanage. Tried looking for my birth parents but never really got further than the hospital I was left in.”
Shrugging her shoulders in a way that reminded Laia of her mom, Maya continued.
“Never really minded it much growing up. The past couple of years have been rough, trying to find a connection to the people and place I came from.”
“I envy you. You seem to have everything I want. Being raised in an Indian home, access to birth family…”
Maya trails off feeling overcome. Just when it feels like the silence would overwhelm them, Laya’s voice seemed to fill the room.
“You know what, I sometimes wish I had only one family. That way I wouldn’t have to feel so torn…”
“It is like I know there is all my family out here in Indianapolis but they are not really mine. I don’t fit in either space. My parents love me and so does my sister. Yet, the fact that I am adopted is like the elephant in the room. Sometimes, I wish I had been born to them. I crave the kind of connection my sister has with them. I visit my birth family and everything there is strange too. The food, the culture…”
The silence seemed to fill the space between them, bridging gaps and answering rhetorical questions.
Laia was surprised to find Maya’s hand in hers. Looking up, she found her eyes were shining with tears, too.