When I was three years old, my mother told me that I was adopted. She told me that my real parents were sparkly mermaids who emerged from the ocean via gilded ladders and birthed me, with my furry dark head of hair, onto the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in a basket woven with pearls. And thus began the Book of Harris.
Actually, no. When I was three, I found out that my real mother might have been (according to a bunch of lawyers who really weren’t allowed to divulge anything) a 19-year-old girl who had sex with a (sexually frustrated? lecherous? irresistibly attractive?) man in Northeastern Philadelphia next to rust-filled parking lots and ugly buildings with shattered windowpanes. Afterward, my mother, overwhelmed with shame, decided she didn’t want me anymore. Cool.
The mom I have now, who cleaned my poop and fed me chopped liver throughout my toddler years, purchased some high-powered binoculars, planted herself on her porch, and kept her eyes peeled for a child. Actually, she hired a dark-suited Jewish lawyer and told him she wanted a white baby who had emerged from the body of someone she would never meet. She found me, like a pot of gold, at the end of an endless rainbow of attorneys, agencies, invasive medical tests, literal blood and literal tears. And piles and piles of things to sign.
It was a glorious moment for her and her husband. A Mozartian Sanctus played from a celestial organ while six-winged seraphim made loop-the-loops around my head. Everyone smoked cigars and was happy. No one had stretch marks or dilated veins. Rather, there I was, their little six-pound four-ounce ball of false progeny.
Last year, I found a piece of paper in the dank recesses of my home. It’s from a law firm with three stern male-sounding family names. August 11, 1988:
Dear Mr. & Mrs. Sockel:
Enclosed please find the original Certificate of Adoption. Given all that you have been through, I wish you much happiness with Harris!
I would appreciate it if you would reimburse this office in the amount of $9.60 for obtaining the certified copy of the Adoption Certificate and $4.00 for obtaining the amended birth certificate.
$13.60. Simple. Send us those $13.60 clams, and he’s yours. We wish you much happiness. Come again. Keep our card in a safe place, for the next time you need to acquire a human being.
That’s ME. Again — that’s ME, at the end of that sentence up there! I rarely use exclamation points, but what else am I supposed to do? That’s ME, sucking my thumb as I was handed over like a wind chime.
Who would I have been if it weren’t for that house of paperwork? Would I pray to Jesus everyday? Would I be a famous entrepreneur-singer-writer-everything I want? Or that white kid with brown teeth you see on your way to work, holding his dog and the cardboard sign and the can?
Thank god for that house of shame, serendipity, property, promises. Thank god for my wonderful parents who sat on that porch for hours and hours with those binoculars until they found naked little old me, and fed me things and put me through college with no student loans to speak of (thanks, again, for that. seriously.) And through that whole process I was like a message in a bottle — I could have ended up anywhere. An open letter. “To Whom It May Concern…”
And I ended up here. New York. Money. Oysters. Honestly, pretty happy.
I know I keep devolving into magical realism as I describe all this. But, to give it some grounding, think about how common it is for people to be acquired by other people. Think about all of the ways we’ve used and been used. I don’t mean as consumers who submit to PR wizardry. I mean 1:1, with people we love. Who are you to the people who’ve selected you as one of their iPhone favorites, the people who kiss you before you brush your teeth at night? Who are you to your parents, who either created you out of some lust and hope, or endeavored to capture you through the bureaucratic energy afforded by a lawyer and some logistical maneuvering? What does it mean to be the culmination of these kinds of creation/ownership?
I know it’s heavy-handed to draw a parallel between the way my parents bought me on a piece of legal stationery and the way we’re all somehow captured by the things that want us, even if they don’t realize it. But I think there’s something true about this way we seize each other. I want that baby. I want that boss. I want that woman across the subway platform to compliment my graphic tee. “Friend” is such a fungible word. What kind of “friend” are you? What are you selling, you compliment-hucksters and love-hawkers? Each of my iPhone favorites gives me something that I may or may not return to them — there’s the one that helps me fill out my W-2s, the one that listens to me cry about dumb shit and won’t tell anyone, the one that’s super rich and might give me money or a job one day, the one who loves me more than I love them, and the one who pays the other half of my rent. This is the oldest thing in the world. We’re all bound up in contracts with one another, though they’re not always written out as explicitly as the ones that dictated my life trajectory.
It’s been difficult for me to accept that my parents actually love me, and that they’re not just putting me on a shelf somewhere to gawk at and to call their own. I’m still figuring it out. Being adopted is great because it forces your imagination open with a monkey wrench — I can spend entire afternoons nursing the fantasy that my real mother is Tina Fey (she is almost the right age and grew up in exactly the right part of Philly, so…just wait until that one hits US Weekly!). Being adopted isn’t so cool for other obvious reasons (among them, I have no clue re: diseases that run in my family; I might drop dead in ten years from a heart attack or some obscure cancer). If it weren’t for that $13.60 and a few pieces of paper, though, I might be wandering Manhattan like Pip in Great Expectations, meeting inn-keepers and eating pudding.
So what does it feel like to be adopted? A weird amalgamation of rejection and acceptance. Someone’s trash is someone else’s treasure.
I don’t know this woman’s hair color, or how her thighs smell when I lean my head on them, or what color she paints her fingernails and what sound they make on a Formica countertop when she’s upset. I don’t know if she looks at the moon and thinks about me every night, or if she’s managed to lobotomize me from her memory. I don’t know her name. All I can do is look in the mirror after my roommates have gone to bed and try, like some crude forensic scientist, to imagine, “if I were a 44-year-old woman, what would I look like?!?”
And to know that someone in this world created me but is ashamed that I exist? Well, duh, that doesn’t feel like a bouquet of roses.
Mommy, if you’re out there and want to hang out, can you please reply in the comments section? I’ll buy you coffee sometime.