Damian was a cyclops. Yes, a real live cyclops. I watched tears trickle out of his single eye as he hung his head of floppy brown hair and cried.
“And I just wonder sometimes, what if my parents don’t live long enough to where they truly get to know my kids?” Damian sobbed with snotty lips.
I intentionally chose to share this snapshot of the Portland Deformity Meetup Group to show our group was much more just about life’s struggles than being deformed. But with that said, don’t be fooled, we are a group of what you would call freaks. Damian is a cyclops, Tina has flippers for arms, Ben has a conjoined fetus sticking out of his torso and I have horns. Well, I used to have horns, but I had them removed and take medication to make sure they won’t grow back.
Some old pissed off guy with no nose once tried to call me out for leading the group even though I was technically no longer deformed, but I shut him up by explaining to him I lived with the horns until I was 39 and showed him my diary entries from when I was going to high school with fucking horns. He left a couple meetings later when someone heard he actually lost his nose because of cocaine use and rhinoplasty and never came back.
I wrapped up the group after Damian got all of his feelings out. We were cutting this week’s meeting short to hit up the late night flea market in our first event together as a group outside of the backroom we used at a coffee shop. A good portion of the group was worried about going out together, but I promised them we would actually be safer from ridicule as a group and besides, it was Portland. We would be tamer than all the intentional freaks walking the streets.
I was right. No one said a single thing caustic thing to any of our 20 or so group members. We were able to haunt the midnight flea market full of weird sex toys, ironically bad vinyl and organic fruit just like every other weirdo.
I was sifting through a hefty pile of random black and white photographs when the night took a turn. I always felt especially morbid whenever I saw these piles of people’s random photos being sold to some hipster who thought it might look cool to have a picture of your dead grandmother on the wall of their studio, but I was still always drawn to them at the same time. I thumbed through countless Polaroids and black and white photos with a numb interest until I saw a larger, sepia print that made me audibly gasp.
The picture was an old portrait of a very small man stiffly posing for the camera in a wrinkled suit, his scowl punctuated by the presence of two slight horns jutting out from above his bushy eyebrows. I had never seen the man before, but I knew who he was… he was my father.
All I knew about my dad was that he had horns like me and spent his entire life in a traveling freak show. Back in the 70s, there were no solutions to the bone malfunction that caused horns so my dad was forced to live with them and the only way he could make consistent money was by working in a freak show.
The only thing I knew about my mother was she was very young when she had me and she worked in the show with my dad. Her pregnancy had to be kept a secret and my father helped my mother give birth secretly in the night and then dropped me off at the adoption agency.
It had been years since I had been by my adoption agent’s office, but the place was exactly the same. The little windowless box of a room still smelled like a chlorinated YMCA locker room and my counselor’s swiveling brown chair still sat behind a mahogany desk cased in a wall covered with poorly-laminated pseudo motivational posters from the 90s.
The man behind the desk had changed a lot in the past 10 years. My adoption counselor Joe looked like he had weathered a heavy storm since I had last seen him. His tall, narrow head of thin blonde hair had eroded into a crusty canvas of scabs, sun spots and wrinkles. His face was tired and beaten down into a permanent frown, his eyes were weary behind his crooked framed glasses, but he genuinely looked happy to see me.
“I thought I would never see you again Lea,” Joe said and formed a smile that looked like it physically hurt.
“I know, I’m sorry. I had just moved past all of this after my parents died,” I interrupted myself and bit my lip. “But I found something.”
Joe let out a hideous cough that sounded like it broke his ribs while I pried the picture of the horned man from the dark recesses of my purse. I slid the portrait past one of those drinking bird contraptions on Joe’s desk and he pulled it up to his glasses.
I knew I was on to something when he stared at the photo for a good 25 seconds before speaking.
“I haven’t seen this face in almost 40 years.”
Joe showed some pep in his body language for the first time during our visit. He sat up in his cushy chair and kept his eyes glued to the portrait.
“That’s him, for sure?” I asked.
“It is, it is,” Joe assured and finally turned his eyes from the picture to me.
He paused for a moment with his eyes locked on me and then flicked his head in the direction of his open office door.
“Close,” he mouthed the word.
I turned around and shuts Joe’s office door and he cleared his clogged throat.
“There are a few things I have always wanted to tell you, but I never could.”
He shot his eyes back at the closed door behind me and lowered his voice.
“Your dad gave you up because he was in danger and you would have been in danger if he kept you. I wasn’t allowed to tell you any of this, because at the time, he didn’t want you to know and live your life in fear. He and your adoptive parents signed the paperwork that legal made it so we couldn’t’ tell you anymore than the few details we gave you about your parents years ago. But hell, my last day on this Earth could be any day now and I don’t want to go under knowing I never told you some things you should know. Your parents worked for a very bad man. Cecil The Extraordinary. He ran the show that your dad toured in and he kept him, and the other performers, on a farm near a remote village in Alaska when they weren’t touring so they wouldn’t escape. He especially was protective of your dad because of his horns. Your dad told me Cecil would cut and grind down his horns each month and would sell the powder as part of some kind of magic elixir to big spender clients and he knew if Cecil knew he had a child, he would do the same thing to them, and he couldn’t bear it, so he had to give you up.”
“But what about my mom?”
“He never told me anything about your mom other than that she was in the tour and they had found ways to keep her pregnancy a secret. He was afraid to even talk to me about her. He told me he wanted to make sure that you knew that he was doing this for you, so you could have a normal life, and I think he was right.”
The salty tears that had fallen into my mouth tasted like a cheap broth of sadness. I couldn’t control myself as I convulsed in emotion in my uncomfortable chair.
“Why didn’t you tell me all this?”
“It wasn’t just that I would get fired. I would go to jail if anyone found out I gave out this information. They don’t mess around with adoption contracts. Besides, you never seemed that interested. I could tell you loved your adoptive parents. There never seemed to be that void that I see with some of my clients.”
The initial swell of rage towards my adoptive parents and Joe that had overcome me quickly faded. I could see tears trickling down the cracked ash that was Joe’s weathered face. I couldn’t blame them for doing what ended up being the right thing, doing things the way my biological father knew would give me the best chance at the normal life I had lived up to this point.
However, I had a feeling that normal life was about to be turned upside down.
“Your dad actually sent you a letter about 15 years ago I have always wanted to give you.”
I watched as Joe looked physically pained by just digging around in his desk for a few moments until he pulled out a wrinkled and faded piece of paper.
The paper was a handwritten letter scrawled in faded black ink that stretched about half the length of a standard piece of notebook paper.
To my daughter –
I always envisioned myself meeting you even though I don’t know what you look like. In my dreams, you look like your mother did when she was young, but I no longer believe that day will come. All I really have time left for is to say sorry for never getting to meet you and to tell you I hope you have had a wonderful life. I say this with all of the heart I have in my body and soul. I am sorry. Your mother is sorry. We were given no choices in life, so I wanted to make sure that you had some. We are sorry we never got to meet you and hope we will meet you on the other side.
Your mother and father
I was so lost in the letter I didn’t notice Joe had slid over another weathered piece of paper. This one was an envelope with a return address scribbled in the same handwriting of the letter.
He didn’t say anything, just gave me a tired wink.