From writing the Unearthly series to being one of the Lady Janies, the one and only Cynthia Hand has been killing it time and time again with her writing. And today, we get to present The How & The Why, Cynthia’s latest powerful and beautiful book.
Told in alternating perspectives, The How & the Why is a story about a girl who has everything she wants in life. She’s happy. But, there’s one problem: she still has questions, questions her loving parents can’t answer. Like where she came from. Cass is adopted, and once she turns 18, she’s grappling with the search for her birth mother. Oh, and the other POV in the book? A series of letters written for Cass 18 years ago, from a woman known only as ‘S.’
Can you hear that? It’s the sound of our heartstrings being tugged.
This is an emotional and stunning story, and you should expect to feel all the feelings on this reading journey. Start the first couple chapters of The How & the Why now!
Today Melly has us writing letters to our babies.
I’m not keeping you, so this felt like cruel and unusual punishment. There are fifty girls at this school, and only a few of us are choosing adoption, and most of those are open adoptions, where everyone knows each other’s names and you send emails back and forth to the new parents and get pictures and an update every month or something. But I’m not doing that, either.
So I said I’d like to opt out of this assignment.
Melly said fine, I could opt out if I wanted to, but then she said that there’s a program where you write a letter to your baby, which they can request when they turn eighteen. So if there’s something you want to say that can’t be done by checking a box or writing down your blood type, here’s your chance.
“You can write whatever you want,” Melly said. “Anything.”
“But it’s optional, right?” I asked.
“Which means I don’t have to do it.”
“Okay,” Melly said. “You just sit here and chill.”
Then she passed around some yellow notepads, like legal ones (which seems kind of old school if you ask me) and she gave one to me, too. “Just in case,” she said. Sneaky Melly.
The other girls started scribbling away. Apparently they all have important things to tell their babies.
Not me. No offense, but I don’t even know you that well.
To me, you’re still sort of intangible. I know you’re in there, but you’re not obvious yet.
You’re tight pants.
You’re the space alien slowly taking over my body.
I can’t imagine you as an actual baby, let alone an eighteen-year-old person reading this letter. I’m not even eighteen yet myself.
So what could I possibly have to say to you? I don’t have any great wisdom to pass along that couldn’t be summed up by the words use birth control, girls. But that’s complicated, because if I’d done that, you wouldn’t exist. I’m sure you prefer existing.
Some things are better left unsaid, was my thinking. So I sat there, chilling. Not writing a letter.
But obviously I changed my mind.
I started to consider you, I guess. If I were an adopted kid, I’d want there to be a letter for me. Because I’d want to find out the things that aren’t in the paperwork. I’d be curious. I’d want to know.
So . . . hi. I’m your birth mother, aka the person who lugged you around inside of me for nine months.
I have blue eyes and brown hair and I’m a Libra, if you’re the kind of person who’s interested in signs. There’s not much more to tell about me, I’m afraid. I’m solidly average—sorry, I wish I could report that I’m a genius or gorgeous or spectacularly gifted at the piano or chess. But I’m just typical. My grades aren’t fantastic. I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I’m not a cheerleader. I don’t do sports.
I am into music. I collect old vinyl records. I go to concerts, music festivals, that kind of thing. I follow some of the local bands.
Right now I’m living at Booth Memorial, a place where pregnant teens go to finish high school. It’s a school, but it’s also a group home—like in those days when girls used to disappear for months and their parents would tell everybody they were “visiting an aunt.” Most of the homes for unwed mothers around the country have closed, since having a baby out of wedlock isn’t the super shocking thing it used to be. This place is mainly a school now. A few of us live here, but the majority of the students live at home, and, like I said, they’re keeping their babies. There’s a daycare on campus where they can bring them after they give birth.
I guess you must be wondering why I’m not keeping you. The simplest answer is this: I’m not cut out to be a mother.
Not that I’m a terrible person. But I’m sixteen years old. I don’t think anybody is exactly qualified to be a mother at sixteen. I’m trying not to be judgmental, but the girls around here, the ones who are keeping their babies and who look at me like I’m some kind of monster because I’m not keeping mine, they think it’s going to be sharing clothes and braiding each other’s hair and being BFFs. But that’s not the real world.
The real world. God, I sound like my father. He would not approve of this letter-writing thing. Dad’s a believer in the clean-slate philosophy. “After this, you can start over,” he keeps telling me. “You can wipe the slate clean.”
What he doesn’t say, but I hear anyway, is, “And then nobody will have to know.”
So here I am, hiding out like it’s the fifties. At school—at my old school, I mean—nobody knows about my predicament except my best friend. I’m sure people are asking her where I am. I don’t know what she tells them. But maybe it’s easier being here than parading my pregnant belly through the halls of BHS. It’s less to deal with, anyway.
The point is, I hope you get it—the why of the whole thing. I hope you have a good life—a boring, no-drama, no-real-problems kind of life.
Good luck, X. I wish you the best.
Your host body,
“Happy birthday, Cass,” says Nyla.
“Thanks.” I dunk a chip into the salsa and eye the mariachi band singing in the corner of the restaurant. I hope Nyla didn’t tell them it’s my birthday.
“So how does it feel,” she asks, “the great one eight?”
I shrug. “It’s not a big deal.”
“Not a big deal?” she scoffs. “But now you can buy cigarettes.”
“Ew.” I crunch the chip. “Like I would ever.”
“Agreed—ew—but you can do so much now,” she elaborates. “You can purchase lottery tickets. You can open your very own bank account, or get a tattoo. You can drink alcohol in Europe.”
“Yeah, I’ll get right on that.”
“My point is, now you’re a grown-up.” She leans forward across the table, like she’s about to impart some secret of the universe. “You’re an adult,” she whispers.
I lean forward, too. “I kind of liked being a kid.”
She sighs and sits back. “Boo. You’re no fun.”
“You’re just jealous because you’re not going to be eighteen for another twenty-nine days.” I love lording it over Nyla that I’m exactly one month older than she is. And therefore wiser.
She scoffs. “When we’re forty you’re going to wish you were the younger one.”
“When we’re forty, I definitely will.” I grin. “But right now I’m happy to be your elder.”
She sticks her tongue out at me.
“Hey, now. Respect your elders,” I scold her, and she rolls her eyes.
I check my watch. It’s seven thirty. Still time to sneak in to see Mom. “We should get going,” I start to say, but at that moment the mariachi guys show up to serenade me with “Happy Birthday” in Spanish. Nyla sings along as I glare at her. The waitress plops a giant serving of fried ice cream down in front of me, a single candle burning in the middle.
Everyone in Garcia’s turns to look.
“Oh wow . . . thank you . . . so much.” I blow out the candle and push the bowl of melty ice cream into the middle of the table so Nyla can share. “I hate you, by the way.”
“No, you don’t.” She licks ice cream off her spoon. “I’m pretty sure you love me.”
“Fine, I love you,” I grumble. I notice that the elderly couple at the next table over is not-so-subtly staring at Nyla. It happens. Occasionally people in this white-bread Idaho town act surprised when they see a black person. It’s what Nyla calls the unicorn effect. People see her and stare like she’s some rare and magical creature that they’ve only heard about in storybooks. Which is weird for Nyla, because she was raised by a white family in a white town and doesn’t totally identify as American Black.
We ignore the gawkers and polish off the rest of the ice cream. Nyla gestures at the waitress for the bill. Which she pays. She always pays, birthday or not. I try not to feel guilty about it.
“Dinner was excelente,” I say as we walk out to Bernice, Nyla’s car. “Gracias, señorita.”
“De nada,” Nyla replies. Yay for three years of middle school Spanish. This is unfortunately about the collective sum of our ability in that language.
We climb into the car. “Seat belts,” Nyla says primly, and we’re off.
I get the sensation that we’re sailing instead of driving, which is normal. Bernice is a boat. She’s named after Nyla’s grandma, because she’s a total grandma car—silvery blue and enormous and built like a tank. But Bernice always gets us where we need to go.
“On the road again,” Nyla sings as we’re cruising along through Idaho Falls.
“Just can’t wait to get on the road again,” I join in.
I check my watch. Seven forty. Still time. Then I realize we’re heading in the opposite direction of home. “Hey, where are we going?”
“Oh, I thought we could take a drive,” Nyla says mysteriously.
Like this is something people do: take drives. “A drive where?” I ask as we turn onto Hitt Road. Hitt Road, I think for more than the hundredth time, is an epically bad name for a road. Why not call it Smash Street? Insurance Claim Lane?
Nyla glances in the rearview mirror. “To Thunder Ridge.”
“Um . . . why?” Thunder Ridge is a hill that overlooks the city. As far as I know, making out is about all people do there.
“It has a nice view,” Nyla says. “I thought we could hang out a bit. Talk.”
“We’ve been talking all day. That’s practically all we do, is talk.”
“Nyla.” I give her a look. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing. Can’t a girl take her bestie to a quiet spot to contemplate the meaning of life and birthdays?”
“I guess, but you know my dad has that birthday tradition where he tells me the story of the day they got me, and we look at my baby book, and there’s me in a bunch of frilly pink dresses, and I want to vomit, but I also kind of love it? I don’t want to miss that.”
“You won’t miss it.” She’s got her phone out now. She’s driving and texting. She knows I loathe driving and texting. I hate texting, period, especially when you’re supposed to be having real time with someone. It’s important to be present, my mom always says. And, come to think of it, Nyla was texting all through dinner. Which is not normal Nyla behavior.
“Ny, come on,” I say. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” she says, and then suddenly changes her mind: “You’re right. Thunder Ridge is a silly idea. I’ll take you home.”
She pulls into a subdivision and then flips a U at the entrance and turns us around.
We drive back toward our part of town.
“Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong,” Nyla sings.
I don’t sing along this time. I’m confused. I feel like I’m failing at some kind of crucial friend test. We stop at a light, and Nyla finishes singing John Denver. She looks at her phone. Touches up her lipstick in the mirror. Checks her phone again.
“Is there something you specifically want to talk about?” I ask. “Because I can talk.”
“Nah, I’m good,” she says. But obviously she’s still being weird.
“I do love our meaning-of-life conversations.”
She smiles. “Me too.”
“I’m here for you.”
“So . . . you can talk if you need to talk. I’m listening. I swear.”
She seems to consider this for a minute, and then she says, “I can’t think of anything to say. Besides, we’re almost there.”
We are. Bernice veers off into my neighborhood. There are a bunch of cars parked along the street in front of my house. Nyla has to park a little ways down.
“You want to come in for a minute?” I ask. “We could—I don’t know—talk?”
She smiles. “Did you know that now you’re eligible for jury duty? You can be called upon anytime, and you have to do it.”
And yay, we’re back on the subject of being eighteen again. I make a face. “Excellent.”
“Plus, now you can vote.”
“I can’t wait.”
“You can enlist in the army,” she adds as we make our way up the sidewalk and onto my front porch.
“No, thank you.” I gaze at my house. The windows are dark—the living room curtains drawn. I wonder if Dad’s already at the hospital.
“You can buy fireworks,” Nyla continues. “Or go skydiving. Or go to real-people jail.” She gasps and grabs my arm. “You can get married without the permission of your parents!”
I arch an eyebrow at her. “That’s great news, Ny. Too bad I’m single.” She knows this. She also knows that I don’t plan to get married until I’m at least twenty-five. “Though speaking of which, there is one thing I do want to do,” I say as I fumble with my keys at the front door. “Now that I’m officially eighteen.”
“Oh yeah?” Nyla cocks her head at me, her curly hair like a dark halo around her head. “Don’t tell me you want to get your belly button pierced. Because I do not approve.”
“Ouch. No.” The lock clicks and the door swings open, but I stop and turn to face Nyla. “I want to have sex,” I announce. “I think it’s time. I’m ready.”
I don’t know why I say it like that. It’s not really the sex part I’m ready for, exactly. It’s the boyfriend part. I’m eighteen now, and I’ve never had a real boyfriend. I’ve gone on a few dates here and there, kissed a guy or two, made out a little, but I’ve never been in love, never felt that way about anybody. But somehow it’s easier to talk about sex than it is to confess that I want to fall in love, which sounds cheesy. It’s also fun to say something shocking to Nyla every now and then. Which totally worked; she’s frowning, staring past me over my shoulder into the dark house like she wants to go inside. “Uh, Cass—”
“I mean, obviously I don’t want to have sex just for the sake of having sex,” I clarify. “That’s stupid. I know. I want to be a responsible adult now that I’m actually an adult. I would want it to be with the right guy. And maybe the right guy won’t come along this year, because—come on, do we know any guys who are, like, boyfriend material? Not really, right? And I’m okay with that.”
“Okay. . .” Nyla still looks super uncomfortable.
“All I’m saying is, if the right guy does come along, I’m open to the idea of having sex.”
That said, I turn to go into the house and almost run smack into my dad inside the doorway. He’s wearing a paper party hat. Holding a flaming birthday cake. Surrounded by my grandma and my uncle Pete and, like, ten of my friends.
“Surprise?” my dad whispers.
“Oh my God.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I know.”
“You were all standing here.”
He gives a painful smile. “We were.”
“I say go for it, honey,” says Grandma. “Seize the day.”
“I’m a big no on this one,” says Uncle Pete. “No sex for you. Possibly ever.”
“Wait, how am I not considered boyfriend material?” says my friend Bender. “I’m, like, hot.”
“Does this mean I’m going to need a shotgun?” asks Dad.
I’m humiliated for all of five seconds. But then Nyla starts giggling, which makes me start giggling, and then we’re all outright laughing, then singing, and then I blow out the eighteen candles on the cake.
“Was it a good cake?” Mom asks later, at the hospital.
“It was grocery store cake.” I sit on the edge of the bed and rub her feet under the covers. Even through the blankets they feel like blocks of ice. “Dad can’t make himself go to the shop.”
“I miss it.” Mom sighs. “I miss everything.”
I nod. “I used to think the shop was actual magic.”
“It was,” Mom agrees, but then she does that thing where she makes a conscious choice not to dwell on what she’s lost. “So. Happy birthday. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there for your party.”
“It was no big deal,” I say, and actually I’m glad this time that she wasn’t at my party, so she didn’t get to hear my embarrassing announcement regarding boys. Which I’m pretty sure no one else is ever going to let me live down.
She reaches over to the bedside table, where there is a small package wrapped in blue paper. “Here.”
I unwrap it. It’s a ring box. Inside is a silver ring with a circle of stars around the circumference.
“It’s a copy of a sixteenth-century English ring in the British Museum,” Mom explains. “It’s called a poesy ring.”
I get an instant lump in my throat. Do not, I think, under any circumstances, cry in front of your sick mother.
Mom takes the ring and reads the inscription on the inside: “Many are the starrs I see, but in my eye no starr like thee.”
“It’s perfect.” I slide the ring onto the middle finger of my right hand, where it fits, well, perfectly.
“You’ve always been my star.” Mom opens her arms for a hug. “Happy birthday, darling girl.”
“I’ll never take it off,” I promise into her bony shoulder. “Never ever.”
She lies back against the bed again, her face pale. “I can’t believe you’re eighteen,” she murmurs. “It feels like I blinked, and you went from being a baby to being all grown up. How did that happen?”
“You fed me,” I answer. “I think that’s how it works.”
Mom laughs. “You used to cry from ten o’clock at night to a little past two in the morning, every single night until you were almost six months old. No matter what we tried.”
“It’s amazing you didn’t send me back and ask for a refund. I was clearly a faulty baby.”
Mom shakes her head. “We were thrilled to have you. We didn’t care about the crying.”
This is a familiar scene between us. Mom always says, “You were the most gorgeous baby. I couldn’t believe it, the first time I saw you.”
Then I say, “You were the most gorgeous mom.”
And then Mom says something like: “I would have been happy with a boring, regular baby. That’s all I was thinking about—that I wanted a baby. Any baby would do. But you’ve always been extraordinary. So smart. So funny. So beautiful. I could never have imagined in a million years that I’d be so lucky to end up with a daughter like you.”
And I say, “Okay, Mom, stop. You’re making me blush.”
I wait for it, but this time Mom doesn’t go into any of that. She’s quiet.
“Are you okay?” I ask. Mom’s always been a talker. Silence is usually a bad sign.
“I’m so tired of being here,” she says.
My breath catches. It’s been more than a year since that night in the movie theater when she had the heart attack. One minute she was munching popcorn and laughing at Chewbacca, and the next she said it felt like an elephant was sitting on her chest. We called an ambulance immediately and rushed her straight to the hospital. She spent hours in surgery and months in a state of touch and go. For a while she got to come home, hooked up to a machine that pumps her blood for her, but a few months ago she had to go back to the hospital full-time.
She needs a transplant. I’m choosing to believe that she’s going to get a new heart. Soon. I hope.
But here’s the thing: through all the ups and the downs of this past year, my mother has never complained. It’s an unspoken rule we have. For my sake, Mom tries not to show me how painful and exhausting it is now just to make it from one day to the next. And I, in return, try not to show her how terrified I am of losing her. And so we go on pretending that life is basically normal. I act like a standard-issue teenager—I keep my grades up and keep performing in plays for the high school theater and keep talking about boys and the drama club and how gross the cafeteria food is, and my parents act like Mom’s stay at the hospital is a minor inconvenience, a temporary thing.
Normalcy. That’s our goal. We’ve gotten really good at acting like everything’s fine.
But now Mom said she’s tired of being here, and I don’t know if she’s being literal or figurative. And I don’t know what to say.
“I’m sorry,” I go with finally. “I know this sucks.”
She closes her eyes and smiles faintly. “The universe unfolds as it should,” she murmurs. This, too, is what she always says. She’s not religious, but she believes in this greater force: the universe. Which somehow, in her mind, anyway, makes her heart problems part of some bigger picture. She has faith in that.
Her leg jerks slightly, her hand relaxing in mine. Her breath becomes even and deep. She’s fallen asleep. She does that a lot—conks out mid-conversation. I tuck her in, being careful not to tangle the covers in the hand with her IV. Then I sit watching the rise and fall of her chest, trying to commit every part of her face to memory. The gentle curve of her eyebrows. Her nose. The shape of her ears.
People who don’t know I’m adopted always tell me I look like her. I choose to take it as a compliment. Mom has long blond hair and gorgeous hazel eyes that are this perfect mix of green and brown. I don’t resemble her at all, really. But everyone keeps saying I’m the spitting image of my mother, unless they don’t know her, in which case they tell me I look like my redheaded, green-eyed, freckle-faced dad. Whom I resemble even less.
I turn her words over in my head: the universe unfolds as it should. If that’s true, then I have issues with the universe, because it’s not fair. My mom has the best heart, and it’s failing her.
Screw you, universe, I think. But I also kind of think: Please help?
I stand up and turn off the light, waiting in the dark, listening as the vitals monitor beeps and beeps, a steady, comforting sound, because it means she’s still here.
“Good night, Mom,” I whisper, and then I sneak out and close the door.
Dad’s up grading papers when I get home. He’s a fifth-grade teacher, the cool kind that all the kids wish was their dad. He works ridiculously hard, long hours for terrible pay, but he loves it.
“How is she?” he asks when I pop my head into the spare room he uses as an office.
“She seemed kind of low,” I report.
He nods. “She hates missing out on special occasions.”
“Speaking of special occasions, I’ve got something extra special for you.” He puts down his pencil and goes to the closet, where he pulls out another wrapped gift, which turns out to be a shirt for Boise State University, because it’s Dad’s lifelong dream that I attend BSU (like my father before me, he always says—a Star Wars joke) and watch football games on the famous blue “Smurf Turf.” Even though no one in my family is really into football.
“Oh, Dad, come on,” I groan.
“I know,” he agrees. “But I happen to think you look particularly good in blue and orange.” He waggles his eyebrows at me. “It’s almost time to start applying. I don’t want to pressure you, or to rush you, sweetie. But now’s the time to spread your wings, if you know what I mean.”
“I know, I know.” I hug the shirt to my chest. “Thanks, Dad.” I try to keep my expression neutral, which frankly is a big test of my acting ability. Not that there’s anything wrong with Boise State. It just feels so . . . small potatoes. So Idaho. I have dreams, bigger dreams than Boise State, wild, improbable dreams, and I’m not ready to wake up and face reality yet. Plus, it’s hard to even think about going to college right now, what with Mom in the hospital. So I change the subject. “Thanks for the party, too, by the way. It was fun.”
“It was . . . illuminating. Do we need to talk about sex?”
“Um, no. We already did that.” It was like five years ago when my parents sat me down and explained sex to me, in detail, with props like a banana and a condom. It was informative, but not something I’d ever want to hear again. Like, ever.
“Do you need me to get you a prescription for anything?” he asks now.
“There’s no boy, Dad,” I explain. “I don’t know why I said all that earlier. I didn’t know you were . . . I didn’t mean it.”
“It’s fine if you did mean it,” he says. “But I want you to be safe.”
And this is why Dad can be mortifying, but also kind of great. He has no shame about letting me know how things are (my parents are both prone to grand, inspirational speeches from time to time, usually about how very “special” I am—it’s embarrassing), but then Dad always steps back and lets me decide the best course of action for myself. He calls it “respecting my autonomy.” So I know Dad’s opinion, but what I do is up to me.
“I . . . I was thinking it would be nice to finally have a boyfriend,” I confess. “That’s all.”
He nods. “I can see that. You’ve had a lot going on over the last year.”
I bite my lip. “You don’t think it’s too much? That I’m just a meat bag full of hormones, and I should wait until . . . until things settle down . . . before adding boys to everything else?”
He snorts. “Aren’t we all just meat bags full of hormones?” He ruffles my bangs. “In my experience, which, yes, I understand is going to be totally different from your experience, big life events happen when they’re ready to happen, no matter what you’ve already got going on.”
“The universe unfolds as it should,” I murmur.
He nods a bit sadly, because now he’s thinking of Mom. “So be careful, sure. Try to make good choices. Be kind. Be aware that feelings are just that—feelings. Feelings can be fickle. But be open to the possibilities.”
And that’s the inspirational speech for today. “Fine,” I sigh dramatically. “Consider me open to the possibilities.”
His eyebrows come together. “But there’s no actual boy right now? You’re only talking about a theoretical boy?”
“Yes. A theoretical boy.”
“Right.” He cringes. “I would never threaten anybody with a shotgun. That was a joke, earlier.”
“I find the whole shotgun thing totally patronizing.”
“And you don’t own a shotgun,” I remind him.
I give him a quick hug. “I’m going to bed now, Dad. Night.”
He presses a kiss to the top of my head. “Good night, Boo. I hope you had a decent birthday. There’s leftover cake in the kitchen. But it’s not the best cake, is it?”
“It’s definitely subpar,” I agree.
I get a slice anyway and go to my room and sit at my desk for a while, picking off the frosting and wasting time on my laptop. Then I get ready for bed and spend like an hour staring up at the ceiling and twisting my new ring around and around on my finger, pondering the meaning of life, birthdays, college, and the existence of theoretical boys, which seems more than silly now, considering that my life is firmly in this bubble of high school and theater and hospital, and it’s unlikely that I’m going to randomly bump into a new guy. And that gets me contemplating the overall will of the universe.
This weird unreliable universe.
Which gets me thinking about my birth mother.
I always think about her on my birthday. Probably because it’s the one thing I definitely know about my birth mother: that on September seventeenth, eighteen years ago, a sixteen-year-old girl had a baby, and that baby was me.
It was just one of the facts I grew up knowing about myself: I have blue eyes, my favorite color is purple, I like pizza, and I’m adopted. When I was little my parents told me they picked me out of a cabbage patch. As I got older my dad started to claim that I was left in the backyard by an alien spacecraft. Those were meant to be jokes, but there was a real story there, too, one they told me again and again, about a lonely couple who desperately desired a child, and a brave young woman who wanted to give a better life to her baby. It’s always felt like a fairy tale written specifically about me. One where I was the happy ending.
But that’s the thing, I think, frowning up at the ceiling. I’m the ending of the story. I don’t even know the beginning.
And I’m eighteen now. I’m an adult. Legally, anyway.
I get up and go to the doorway of my room, peering down the hall, where I can see Dad’s finally gone to bed. Then I close my door, lock it, and open my laptop again.
Like I said, I think about my birth mother. When I was six and went to vacation Bible school with my friend Alice, and they told us the story of Moses and his mother weaving a basket out of reeds and setting him afloat on the Nile, hoping to save his life. Or at dinner at another friend’s house when I was eight, when I looked around the table and noticed that every single member of her family had the same nose. Or when my mom took me to a Broadway show when I was twelve, and little orphan Annie sang this song about her parents, wondering if they were far away or close by, wondering if her mother played piano, if she collected art, if she sewed. And suddenly my chest felt tight.
“Betcha they’re good,” Annie sang out into the darkness. “Why shouldn’t they be? Their one mistake was giving up me.”
That was when it really hit me. My birth mother was out there, somewhere. Then I looked at my actual mother sitting next to me with this pained look on her face, but also like she was trying to be brave, for me, and I dashed away the tears that had filled my eyes. I smiled. Because I didn’t want her to feel like that’s how I saw her and Dad—like a place my birth parents had dumped me.
After that I thought about my birth mother more often. On birthdays. Or those times that inevitably your friends start talking about the things they inherited from their parents that they wished they hadn’t—a cleft chin or double-jointed elbows or nearsightedness. It always kind of bugs me, how much I don’t know about that kind of thing—what’s lurking in my genes—how there’s this entire set of information that I am totally clueless about. So a couple years ago curiosity finally got the better of me, and I went online and did a few internet searches, not to find my birth mother, exactly, but to discover who she was. Who she is.
And maybe, by extension, who I am.
I didn’t find anything. But I remember that there was something about being eighteen and requesting my official birth certificate—not the one they issued to my parents, with their names listed and my name as the one they gave me, but the original. The one with my birth mother’s name.
It only takes me a minute now to locate the request form for Idaho and the county I was born in. I fill it out and use my emergency credit card to pay for the processing fee. But my finger hovers over the mouse before I confirm the order. Waiting. Excited. Scared. A little guilty, maybe, because I don’t know how my parents would feel about this, and they’ve got so much to deal with right now.
But they don’t have to know.
I bite my lip. Close my eyes. Take a breath. And click confirm.
I only want to find out her name, I tell myself. Because I always think about my birth mother on my birthday. It’d be nice if I could put a name to that hazy image of her in my mind, that teenage girl, who maybe looks like me.
I wonder if she thinks about me, too.
Me again. Who else, right? Last night after dinner the girls in the dorm somehow got to talking about the letters. Then Brit had the idea that we should all read one another’s. I protested, but I was outvoted. So this is peer pressure, really. Take note. Peer pressure is not only about drinking beer.
Brit’s letter was the longest—she tried to write out her entire life story and every tiny detail about who she is and how she ended up here. Her baby’s a girl. If it weren’t for the unfortunate circumstances—she’s thirteen, and the father is a married volleyball coach; she’s right out of a daytime talk show, Brit—she’d keep her baby, she says. She has this idea that when the girl turns eighteen she’ll find her again, and they’ll simply pick up where they left off, mother and daughter, happily ever after.
She’s clearly not a fan of reality. But I didn’t say anything. She’s just a kid.
Teresa’s letter was like a confession—she wrote about God and her sins and how she hopes her baby can grow up without shame. Which made us all go quiet for a while.
Out of the four of us who are currently living here at Booth, Heather’s letter was the best. She talked about the better life she wants for her baby, and she listed some things that it would be helpful to know, like that blushing runs in the family and not to be embarrassed if he/she turns out to be one of those people who blush easily, because somewhere in the world she’s out there blushing, too. She was bright red the whole time we were reading the letters. It was sweet.
My letter was the shortest, and everyone agreed that it was terrible. Impersonal. Unhelpful. In other words, I got it all wrong.
“You didn’t say anything that will help the baby get to know you,” Brit complained.
“Because I don’t want to be known,” I said. No offense, X, but I think that’s for the best. You go your way. I’ll go mine.
Brit looked at me all full of pity. Like she felt sorry for me.
“You’re a good writer,” Heather piped up, blushing, of course. “But . . .”
They all think I should rewrite my letter.
I told them to mind their own business and went to bed. I wasn’t going to write anything else. I don’t owe you my life story or any real explanations for anything. That’s not how this process works. I am giving you freedom and a chance to start fresh. A clean slate for both of us, really. I don’t want to mess that up with my baggage.
But today I had some downtime in my room, and I kept thinking about the other girls’ letters. If I were Brit’s baby, I’d read that long, detailed letter, and I’d understand so much. Maybe more than I’d want to know. But it got me thinking again that I’d want to. Know, I mean. I’d want to know more about where I came from. The how and the why. The story.
I don’t want you to feel shame, like Teresa wrote about. I don’t want to label you a mistake, but you aren’t my brightest shining moment, either. That’s not your fault. You’re a good thing. You shouldn’t have to feel ashamed of the way you ended up in this world.
And Heather was right in what she wrote about blushing in her family. I’m sure there will be connections between us, like blushing, like how easily we get cavities, that sort of thing, that are always going to be there, invisible but also unerasable. It makes me wonder about you. The ways you will turn out like me, and we won’t even know it. The pieces we will share.
So I might owe you something, after all.
You see, when a man and a woman love each other very, very much . . .
Ha-ha. Well, that’s not my job, telling you about that. You’re eighteen. If you don’t know this stuff already, I’m not going to be the one to tell you.
If I were you, though, I’d be curious about the guy who spawned you—the sperm donor, so to speak. He’s never going to be your father in any real sense of the word, the same way I’m never going to be your mother, but you should know something more about him than what the paperwork will tell you—that he’s nineteen years old and 6’1″ and he’s got green eyes and blond hair.
Yep, I fell for the older guy. I’m an idiot. I think we’ve established that.
I’m going to call him Dawson. That’s not his real name. There’s a TV show I used to love that you’ve probably never heard of, and he looks a little bit like the guy on that show. Tall. Blond. But the TV Dawson was into movies, and my Dawson is into music.
This was all because of the music.
So last November I went to a Pearl Jam concert at the Idaho Center Arena. Don’t judge me if Pearl Jam is washed-up by the time you’re reading this. I love them. I will always love them—I will go to my grave loving Pearl Jam. I love them so much I paid out the nose for a seat near the stage. So I’m there, and there’s an empty seat next to me. I notice this blond guy skulking around in the aisle, and I can tell by looking at him that he’s trying to find a better seat than the one he’s got. He keeps eyeballing the seat next to mine, but he waits, he waits until the opening band starts up. He waits until we’re all screaming—Matt Cameron is sliding behind the drums, Eddie Vedder taking the stage, and Mike McCready and Stone Gossard strapping on their guitars—and the blond guy makes his move and scoots in next to me.
Usually I wouldn’t care. But I paid a lot for my seat. I stood in a ridiculously long line to get it. I had to plead with my dad. I had to promise not to smoke pot, which is what my dad assumes is all that happens at Pearl Jam concerts, I guess. I had to be a committed fan to get this seat. So I turn to the guy.
“Hey, can I see your ticket?” I ask him. “I don’t think this is your seat.”
It’s loud. The stage lights have all gone red. The band’s playing. Eddie’s starting in on “Of the Girl.” People are screaming and cheering and jumping up and down, hands raised.
The blond guy doesn’t hear me. Or at least he acts like he doesn’t.
“Hey! You! That’s not your seat!” I grab his shoulder.
He turns. Smiles.
“Heavy the fall, quarter to four,” he sings along, like it’s right to me, “fills his mind with the thought of a girl.” He looks into my eyes. As if I’m the girl in the song. As if I’m the point of him being here.
I know. I shouldn’t have fallen for it. But he’s hot—I hope you end up looking like him, because frankly, he’s a specimen. The biting words I had planned—the scathing condemnation of this jerk-off taking someone else’s hard-earned seat—die on my lips. The guy’s still smiling, still singing, and he knows the words by heart. The lights change blue. Eddie’s voice wraps itself around us like a seductive serpent of alternative goodness. I become aware that I’m still hanging on to the guy’s shoulder. He’s warm under my fingers. I let go. The guy angles back toward the stage, still singing. I can’t hear his voice over Eddie’s, but it’s like I can feel it, and I start singing, too, waving my hands in the air, and that’s how it goes, the entire concert. We sing. We move to the rhythm. We stare up at Eddie Vedder, so close we can see the beads of sweat on his forehead, we sing and sing, we sway, we forget about everything else, we let the music take us.
Then, hours later, it’s over. I feel like I’m waking up from a dream. The band leaves the stage. The lights come up.
The guy turns to me again. He tells me his name. I tell him mine.
“There’s a band you should listen to,” he says like he knows me, as we’re walking out. “You’d love their sound. They’re playing here.” He writes an address down for me on a scrap of paper. “Next Saturday night. The Sub. Nine o’clock.”
The Sub must be a bar or something, I think. I’m not old enough to go to bars.
“Okay.” I wait for him to ask me to go with him to said bar to listen to said band. But he doesn’t. He smiles, and his eyes are green, I notice again, and he smells good, like sandalwood and pot smoke, maybe—don’t tell my dad, and don’t smoke pot, kid, cuz blah blah blah, just say no—and that’s it. That’s how I became acquainted with the person who contributed to half of your DNA.
So now you know how your story started. With a guy I randomly met at a concert.
I hope that’s enough.