Half the two-car garage had been a crowded catch-all for years. A small area in front was kept clear for winter storage of the mower and lawn furniture, and summer storage of bags of rock salt and snow shovels, but the rest of the space was crammed with stacks of cardboard boxes.
“It’s a boat, for Chrissakes,” Rose had muttered when they’d dragged the first two boxes out onto the driveway. “What’s it need to be inside for?”
But it was not up for debate. Al was a quiet, undemanding man, but when he did stake out something for himself, he was unmovable. He had his own shelf in the bathroom medicine cabinet, and no one would ever consider taking an aspirin from “his” bottle or using “his” toothpaste because the family tube was empty. The basement workshop was his inviolate, tidy domain, Rose’s clutter confined to the corner where the washer and dryer sat. His tools were immaculate, well-oiled and well-honed. Of course his boat couldn’t be left in the driveway exposed to the rain and snow and baking sun of the northern New Jersey seasons.
“Mom? Mom? Can I keep this?”
Janine looked up from surveying an array of cast iron pans, mismatched dinner dishes, and various odds and ends of bric-a-brac spread out on the grass to see her six-year-old son emerge from the garage holding aloft a metal canteen clad in a canvas carrier with a woven strap. His twin brother was close on his heels, and close to tears.
“I opened the box,” Tim complained as both boys reached her. “Larry was afraid of spiders.”
“You’re scared of thunder!” Larry countered. “I’m not scared of thunder, and not lightning, either.”
“All right, enough. You can have the canteen, Larry. And, Tim, you can choose something else to keep.”
“I’ll help you look,” Larry encouraged his brother.
The canteen slung over one skinny shoulder, it was easy for Larry to be magnanimous. But he was usually quick to forget conflicts anyway, and always happy to take part in someone else’s pleasure. He took after his father, Clark, in that. Clark had worn his heart on his sleeve. You always knew where you stood with him. His love had been like a river flowing steadily beneath Janine’s daily life, percolating up into her joys, buoying her over the rough spots. It was a little over two years now since Clark’s death, and there were still moments when she couldn’t believe he was gone.
“We can open all the boxes,” Larry continued.
“Yeah! And I can pick anything I want!”
“Whoa, you guys, I don’t want you unpacking any more. Gram and I will call you when we find good boxes.”
Rose emerged from the back door with a tray on which sat four glasses, a pitcher of lemonade, and a plate of homemade pignoli cookies. Her flowered house dress fluttered around her plump knees in the June breeze. She’d tied a red bandana over her short, salt-and-pepper hair to keep off the dust in the garage. She looked like someone’s cleaning lady. Janine went over to lift the heavy pitcher off the tray. When Rose had settled the tray on a small wrought iron table in the shade of the apple tree, the twins each grabbed a cookie. Rose started pouring lemonade into glasses.
“I want mine in my canteen,” Larry said.
“Better wash it out first. That thing’s as old as the hills,” Rose said.
“What hills?” Tim asked, looking around the flat, grassy yard edged with flower beds and a small vegetable patch where Rose grew tomatoes and peppers.
Janine followed Tim’s scan of the yard. Except for the sycamore tree her father had had to take down because it was rotted with fungus, the yard looked as it had every summer of her life, neat, green, and sunny, as ideal as a picture in a first-grade primer.
“I think we should knock off and start again early tomorrow,” Janine said to her mother.
They’d been working since dawn, when the air had been moist and cool against their bare arms. Janine enjoyed rising with the first light. It was her habit at home in Cape May Point, where the early morning mists carried the smell of the sea. But now, at 11:00, the day’s heat had blossomed, and the humidity was rising.
Inside the house, the telephone began ringing.
“Message machine is on,” Rose said.
“It might be my neighbor,” Janine said. “He’s keeping an eye on things for me.”
She sprinted to the house, hoping that if it were her neighbor, his news wouldn’t be too irksome.
“Is this the Pettorini residence in Teaneck? 528 Terhune Street?” a man’s voice said after Janine had said hello.
“Yes, but if this is a sales call, I’m not—”
“We’re trying to locate a Janine Pettorini.”
“Who is this?”
“I beg your pardon. My name is Hector Wilson. I’m an attorney-at-law in New York City. We have come into possession of a document that may be of interest to Janine Pettorini.”
“That’s me. But my name is Linden now.”
There was a pause, and Janine heard the shuffle of papers.
“The document, Mrs. Linden, relates to the legal matter we handled for you in 1966. You met with Mr. Greenspan. He’s since retired.”
Janine didn’t remember the name, but she remembered the year. She flashed on a fat man seated at a wide desk in a room lined with bookcases. On the other side of the desk, she and her mother were sitting in identical leather chairs, but Rose sat erect, as if poised for battle, while Janine slumped, wanting to disappear. Whom did Rose think was left to battle? Janine had capitulated months before then.
“What kind of document?” she said to Hector Wilson, a tremor in her voice.
The lawyer cleared his throat.
“It relates, as you may have surmised, to your son.”
Janine had fainted only once in her life, when she was 12, during a noon Mass in a crowded church in August. People often fainted in that church in summer. The ushers set up folding chairs in the shade of the open doorways in readiness for the people who fainted. Janine didn’t remember the actual faint, but she remembered what she’d felt right before, and now she experienced that same foundering — a rush of heat to her face, dizziness, the surge of a black shadow between herself and her surroundings. But this time she didn’t collapse. Her head cleared. Nevertheless, she felt physically disturbed, as if something deep inside her, some square peg that had been partially wedged into some round hole for a long, long time had shifted, turned, and come loose.
“I can’t say more at present,” Wilson was going on. “We’ll need you to come in, bring identification.”
Rose appeared in the doorway. She gave Janine a quizzical look.
“All right,” Janine said into the phone. “I can probably be there tomorrow. What’s the address?”
She fumbled in the drawer of the telephone table and found a pad of paper, two pencils with broken leads, and a ball point pen. She scribbled down what Wilson was saying about subway stops and parking lots.
“Didn’t sound like that was about your house,” Rose said when Janine had hung up and was standing staring at the slip of paper.
“A lawyer in New York. He’s got a document for me.”
Rose pulled the bandanna off her head and squeezed it into a ball.
“I’m going into the City tomorrow to get it.”
“Can’t they mail it?”
“Ma, it was the adoption lawyer.”
Frowning, Rose jammed the balled-up bandanna into the pocket of her dress and looked up briefly at the ceiling, as if some noise had attracted her attention. Then she directed her frown at Janine.
“Do you really think it’s a good idea to—”
“I’m keeping the appointment. End of discussion.”
The secretary got up from her desk and walked away down a short hallway. The woman was dressed in a navy blue linen suit with a white blouse trimmed in discreet lace, and her hair was arranged in a French twist. Janine suddenly felt her own outfit to be somehow inappropriate. She’d worn a full cotton skirt printed with yellow flowers and a scoop-necked Mexican blouse with white on white embroidery down the front, and she’d pulled her hair back with a silver clasp. With her olive skin and dark hair, she looked difficult-to-pinpoint “ethnic.” She wondered if she matched what the secretary expected a woman who’d given away her baby to look like.
Janine sat down on the Danish modern couch in the waiting area and forced herself to stop such musings. It was ridiculous to think the secretary was passing judgment. Janine had done nothing shameful, in any case. Most people would say she’d acted nobly and unselfishly, certainly sensibly, when she’d placed her son for adoption. It hadn’t been what she’d wanted, but she had kept her word. She hadn’t changed her mind at the last minute, or sought, in all this time, to interfere with her child’s life. She had given him all she could at 17: a chance with someone else, someone better. Why, then, could an assessing glance from a conservatively dressed secretary so unsettle her? Because, she decided, the woman knew her secret. She didn’t know her, but she knew her secret. And Janine had to admit that she herself found there was, despite everything, shame in it.
A man in a seersucker suit came out to the waiting area followed by the secretary, who returned to her desk without looking at Janine. Mr. Wilson introduced himself and shook Janine’s hand, then led her to his office which, like the waiting area, was furnished in Danish modern. Janine wondered if it were the same room she’d been in on that rainy spring afternoon in 1966.
After she’d shown Mr. Wilson her birth certificate and driver’s license, he took a sealed envelope from a file folder on his desk.
“Your son left you a letter,” he said. “We don’t know what it contains. I’m going to step out so you can read it in private.”
“He was here? How did he find you? Did you tell him I was coming today?”
Mr. Wilson wore a pained expression, which looked more like impatience than sympathy.
“I think, first, Mrs. Linden, you ought to read your letter. Then, depending on what the young man has to say, we can delve into the practical implications, and I’ll be happy to answer what questions I can.”
He left the office, closing the door gently behind him. Janine sat down and stared for a moment at the envelope. It was imprinted in the corner with the address of the law firm. He must have written the letter here in the office. Had he come expecting to get information on how to contact her directly? Might he have meant to show up one day on her doorstep? Or on her parents’ doorstep? Was he as brave as all that? Or as foolhardy? He was young, she reminded herself. She knew what it was to be young and impulsive.
The envelope contained one sheet of plain paper, hand-written in dark blue ink from a fountain pen. Provided by Mr. Wilson? By the prim secretary? If the pen belonged to the boy, what did that say about him? Clark used to use a fountain pen to grade essays. He said it helped him think.
The letter was dated May 25, 1984, a month ago. It began Dear, but the word had been crossed out. Below that, To Whom It May Concern had been written, but it, too, had been crossed out. The boy had finally launched into the letter with no salutation at all.
Sorry about the dumb beginning. I didn’t know I was going to have to write to you. I guess I didn’t really think things through all the way. I figured I’d come here and get your name and address and then go see you or call you. I didn’t have a plan of what to say to you or anything. But all they’ll tell me is that they have “some means” that they might be able to find you and that if they do, they’ll let me know, but only if you say it’s okay. But I’m putting this all backwards. I should’ve started by saying I’ve been wondering about you and about my real father and how we might be alike or not, and other things, too. The lawyer said keep it brief and not put in any identifying information, so I guess I’ll stop now. I hope you get this soon and will say yes to meeting me. Because I really need to.
From, Hunt (The lawyer made me promise not to put my last name, and I don’t want to do anything that might make it that he wouldn’t look for you as hard.)
Janine’s hand was shaking when she replaced the letter in the envelope. Yes, she decided, it sounded as if he were brave. And foolhardy. And young. She was desperately afraid of meeting him. Afraid of disappointing him. Afraid of learning that he’d had a hard or unhappy life. Afraid of his resentment, anger, or blame, all of which were very plausible reactions. But she’d have to meet him. She owed him that, didn’t she?
Every year on her son’s birthday, and many other times, too, she had thought of him and wondered where and how he was. The wondering was a rusty knife twisting in her heart. So maybe she owed it to herself, too, to meet him. Maybe, then, the rusty knife could be pulled out.
There was a rap on the door, and Mr. Wilson poked his head in.
“I’m finished,” Janine said.
He went to his desk and sat down. Leaning back in his big chair, he looked at her expectantly.
“Is his name really Hunt?” Janine smiled feebly. “It seems so…so dramatic. Under the circumstances.”
“Yes, it is.”
“He wrote that he has questions. I guess that’s understandable.”
“I would imagine. But you’re under no obligation.”
“Nothing is legally required of you.”
“It’s a bit of a shock. I never thought…”
“It’s happening more often these days. Adoptees seeking their natural mothers. Fathers, too, sometimes, though fathers are usually harder to locate. Unless the mother has some clue.”
“I don’t know where the father… We didn’t see each other after…”
“I’m not inquiring, Mrs. Linden. We’re getting ahead of ourselves anyway.”
“What’s next, then? Do you give me his address and phone number, or do I authorize you to give him mine?”
The lawyer put up his hand as if he were a traffic cop in a busy intersection.
“Let’s not be precipitous,” he said.
“Precipitous? This letter’s been sitting here for weeks!”
“We acted with due deliberation, I assure you. Our files showed only your maiden name and your address at the time of the relinquishment, which was your parents’ home. We left four phone messages there without result. I was about to inform Hunt that we’d had no success in finding you, but my paralegal suggested we try once more. She’s a bit of a sentimentalist.”
“You left messages? When?”
The lawyer opened the folder that had held Hunt’s letter and consulted a sheet of paper.
“Let’s see…May 28, June 4 and 11, and last week, on June 18.”
Today was Thursday, June 28. Wilson’s office had been trying to reach her for a solid month, and her parents had said nothing to her. Were they hoping the lawyer would give up and go away? And if he had, would they have ever told her? She was 35 years old, a painter who actually managed to sell from time to time, a widow with two children and her own business as a framer, and they were still trying to manage her life.
“These situations are fraught with pitfalls,” Mr. Wilson was going on. “I advise, as a next step, that you answer the letter. Nothing extreme or emotional. No promises. Just tell him a little about yourself. But not anything that would enable him to find you. Ask him about himself. School, hobbies, things like that. Establish a correspondence. Our office can forward the letters back and forth. Once Hunt gives us an address.”
“But he said he wants to meet me.”
“That can happen, in due course, if you find you’re still willing.”
Apparently, Wilson was not a sentimentalist.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Wilson, but I can’t make him wait. There was something in his letter, something between the lines…”
“Well, young people can be melodramatic. Or, if he is troubled in some way, all the more reason to proceed with caution.”
“Do you know something you’re not telling me?”
“I’m just speaking in hypotheticals. It’s a lawyer’s disease.”
“I can’t ask him to wait any longer.”
“Mrs. Linden, your generosity of spirit does you credit. But these things are tricky. Quite often, reunions don’t work out in the long run. The parent who gave up her child can’t fit him into her present life or doesn’t want to, and the child feels rejected or deserted. Or, conversely, he may turn away from you. It’s better to go slowly.”
“I want his information, and I want him to have mine,” Janine insisted. “Now.”
The lawyer sighed. Janine realized that he was honestly trying to protect both her and Hunt. She also realized that part of her insistence on barreling ahead was a belated defiance of her parents, who had bullied her during the pregnancy to get her to agree to adoption and who had kept the lawyer’s messages from her. A small voice was telling her not to be ruled by such feelings, but she stifled it.
“Hunt called here a week after leaving the letter, but not since,” Mr. Wilson explained. “And the number he provided us isn’t a personal line. My secretary says that whoever answers merely says a message will be posted. We’ll try reaching him again, but if I were you, I wouldn’t get my hopes up.”
“You’re not me,” Janine said, standing up. “I’d like the number, please.”
“Mrs. Linden,” he replied, oozing reasonableness, “there’s no need to get upset. I strongly advise that you—”
“Mr. Wilson, I’m sure your advice is well-meant and valid, as far as it goes. But this isn’t simply a legal matter. It’s a…a thing of the heart. If that makes me sound like a ranting, illogical female, so be it. I need that number.”
Mr. Wilson inflated his chest and glowered at Janine.
“We will make every appropriate effort to reach your son, Mrs. Linden. When and if he assures us, in writing, that he has no objection to your being given access to his contact information, we will call you. That’s the best I can do.”
Janine felt like grabbing the lawyer by his punctilious lapels and shaking him. She wanted to dump out all the filing cabinets and ransack every drawer in every desk in the entire office suite until she found Hunt’s number. Not that such wild actions would be likely to get her what she wanted. Oh, but wouldn’t she make a lovely mess?
“Well, it’s not the best I can do,” she said tersely.
Her implied threat was a shapeless blob even to her own ears. Mr. Wilson appeared unperturbed. Janine turned and left.
Janine had taken public transportation because she hadn’t wanted the hassle of Manhattan traffic. But now, crossing the George Washington Bridge ensconced in the frigid air of a New Jersey Transit bus, she longed for the freedom of her car. Then she could be speeding off anywhere instead of heading towards the two people she least wanted to see at the moment, her mother and father.
“Be careful,” Rose had warned her as she was leaving the house.
“Careful?” she’d replied. “What do you think is going to happen, for heaven’s sake?”
And what had happened? Janine thought as the bus reached the Jersey side of the Hudson. A lot and not a lot. Almost too much to bear, and yet not nearly enough. I’ve heard from my son, she thought, tightening her grip on her purse, where she’d tucked Hunt’s letter into a zippered pocket. It was more than she’d ever expected, but it raised more questions than it answered. And despite her parting words to Wilson, she didn’t know how she’d find answers. Or if she ought to try.
But had it been left to her parents, she wouldn’t have the option. Hunt’s letter would have been returned to him or filed away in some dusty box labeled “old cases.” She wouldn’t know it had ever existed. Hunt would be left with even more unanswered questions than she. Worse, he might decide that he’d gotten an answer, which was that she had turned her back on him. Again.
She flirted with the idea of getting off the bus and catching another one back into the City to walk its crowded, anonymous streets until dark. But when the bus reached her stop on Cedar Lane, she disembarked and set off on the long walk down Catalpa Avenue. As she trudged along, the sun’s heat simultaneously bearing down on her head and floating up in waves from the black macadam did nothing to improve her disposition.
Turning left on to Terhune Street, she heard her boys squealing with delight. They were at the curb in front of her parents’ house helping their grandfather wash his new boat, and they were almost as wet as the soapy hull.
“Mom!” yelled Tim, waving a dripping sponge over his head. Larry popped his head around the stern of the boat and waved, too.
Garden hose in hand, Al smiled hello at Janine. He was a vigorously handsome man, with wavy, snow-white hair. People liked seeing him smile, and he knew it.
“How’d it go?” he asked.
“Grandpa, we’re ready to rinse!” Larry said, coming up beside them.
Janine drew the letter out of her purse.
“Where’s Ma?” she asked her father.
He raised his eyebrows at the sharp tone of her voice, but she knew he wouldn’t question her. He mostly stayed out of interactions between his wife and daughter, as if they were both members of some mysterious tribe whose customs he could never hope to understand.
“Out back,” he replied.
Rose, surrounded by half-empty cardboard boxes, had her back to Janine. She was pawing through a large plastic bin, shaking out old tablecloths, then re-folding them and adding them to a stack on the ground.
Janine recalled packing up Clark’s belongings six months after he died. She’d spent hours going through his desk and dresser, his side of the closet, the shelves in the garden shed. She carefully put away items the boys might want in the future — Clark’s watch and battered wallet, his first editions of Hemingway and Woolf and D. H. Lawrence, the notes from the anthology he was working on at the time of his death, his mitt and cap from the Teacher’s Union softball team, and his own father’s pipe, still smelling of apples and burnt tobacco after decades of disuse. She kept out the old shirt of his she liked for sleeping in summer, and his favorite sweater. Then in one final, frenzied hour, she’d boxed up everything else and driven with it to Goodwill.
The donation center was closed when she arrived. She’d broken into tears, hauling the boxes out of the trunk and the back seat and piling them haphazardly in front of the building. She had to struggle not to look at them as she drove away. River’s rising, keep your wits dry, her mother was known to say. She had a storehouse of such sayings. What was that other one? It’s all blood under the bridge.
“I’m back,” Janine said.
Rose straightened up, a white tablecloth bunched in her arms.
“This one’s long,” she said. “Help me fold it.”
Tucking Hunt’s letter in the waistband of her skirt, Janine took one end of the rectangular cloth, and together, they folded it into a neat packet. Rose plopped it on top of her pile.
“Come on inside,” she said. “I’ve got iced tea.” She started towards the back door.
Rose turned around.
“Why in the hell didn’t you call that lawyer back?”
Rose looked abashed.
“You knew, didn’t you? You knew what it was probably about.”
Janine saw Rose’s hand begin to reach for her, so she stepped back out of touching range.
“He called for me — for me, not you — and you didn’t tell me!”
Janine was holding her voice down so that the boys wouldn’t hear, but her anger was nearly choking her.
“You have so much on your plate, honey, I didn’t want you to have to—”
“What am I, made out of glass?” Janine was louder now. “Do you think I’m some kind of basket case who can’t handle her own life?”
“No, of course not.” Rose wiped the back of her hand across her sweaty brow. “But just look how upset you are. Maybe I wasn’t so wrong, was I? It’s not healthy to stir up—”
Janine shoved Hunt’s letter at her. Slowly, Rose opened it and read it. When she raised her head, her eyes were brightly alert, like a hawk’s.
“What’s it mean?” she said hoarsely.
“Just what it says.”
Rose re-folded the letter and handed it back.
“You have your own sons to think of, Janine,” she said sternly. “They need you now more than ever. How will you explain that boy to them?” She pointed to the letter. “Tim and Larry should come first. That’s what Clark would have wanted.”
“Clark would have backed me up 100%, no matter what. And ‘that boy’ is my own son, too.”
“Not really, Janine,” Rose said, her voice gentler. “Not in the same way. He has a mother, and it’s not you.”
This should have made Janine angrier, but instead, it deflated her. It was her deepest guilt voiced. She wasn’t Hunt’s mother in any important sense, except for basic biology. If they ever met, surely he’d see that, too, no matter what romantic notions he might be harboring, no matter how welcoming she was. His bones and muscles and organs had formed inside her, her body had fed and sheltered him for nine months, but all the rest of his growing and shaping, physical and psychological, had happened without her. Someone else had stayed up with him at night when he was sick. Someone else had read his report cards, pulled his splinters, cooked his meals, taught him to drive, guided his values. She had forfeited any claim to his good regard on the day she signed the relinquishment paper.
“I have to answer his letter somehow, Ma. In whatever limited way I am his mother, I have to try.”
Rose’s face, soft with concern a moment ago, tightened. She was not accustomed to defeat.
“But you can’t expect—” she began.
“Boat’s done!” Larry shouted, running down the driveway, Tim running beside him, Al walking a few yards behind.
“Grandpa says we can pour Coke on it the first time it goes in the lake,” Tim announced. “Instead of champagne. That’s what they do for battleships.”
“Hungry, Al?” Rose asked. “I’ve got chicken salad and fresh tomatoes for lunch.”
“I’m hungry!” exclaimed Larry.
“Can we have grilled cheese?” Tim said.
“We’ve got chicken salad,” Rose repeated.
“That’s too slippery,” Larry replied. “We like grilled cheese better.”
“Go inside and wash up, boys,” Janine said.
Larry threw her a beseeching look, but then he scooted after Tim.
“And put on dry clothes before you sit on my chairs,” Rose added, following them.
Al turned to go in, too, but Janine planted herself squarely in front of him.
“And what did you think about covering up the messages about my baby?”
“They never said it was—”
“Because they could only say it to me. You know: me, your grown-up daughter? The one who can make decisions for herself now, thank you very much?”
He stood glumly silent. She gave him the letter. He read it and re-read it. Shaking his head, he gave it back to her.
“She thought it was best, Janine,” he said softly, looking down at the ground. “We both did.”
Janine studied his downcast face. Was he referring only to hiding the messages from the lawyer, or did he mean to include persuading her to put her baby up for adoption 18 years ago? Could it fairly be called persuasion? At the time, she’d felt like a dry leaf being swept on a raging flood into a storm sewer. No, nothing so poetic as a leaf — a crumpled, empty cigarette packet maybe, or a sticky, discarded candy wrapper. Except that she hadn’t been empty. But she couldn’t ask her father for clarification. She was too perilously close to tears. And there seemed way too much to cry over to give in to the catch in her throat, the knot in her chest.
“I do know you’re able to make up your own mind,” Al went on, looking into her face. “But you’ll always be my little girl. I can’t help that.”
She nodded. It was all she could manage. Then she went to rescue the boys from the excessive mayonnaise of her mother’s chicken salad.
The novel, Out of Love, was published by La Sirena Press in 2013.
Out of Love is available as a trade paperback and an e-book on Amazon.com.