Photos by Sorryimworking
met Velveteen when I was 45, but I felt still young. I looked young too. This is probably because I had not done many of the things most people of that age have done: I’d had no children and no successful career. I married late after crashing through a series of relationships and an intense half-life as an artist visible only in Lower Manhattan, the other half of my life being that of a drug addict.
I met my husband in Narcotics Anonymous; he lived in the city then, though we’ve since moved to a small town upstate. He makes a good living as a tenured English professor at a small college. A lot of his income goes to support his wife and daughter from a previous marriage, and we live in an old faculty-housing unit long on charm and short on function. Not owning doesn’t bother us, though. We are comfortable, and we are happy with each other. We go out to eat a lot and travel in the summer.
When people ask me what I do now, I sometimes say, “I’m retired,” sometimes, “I’m transitioning,” and very occasionally, “I’m a painter.” I’m embarrassed to say the last part even though it’s true: I paint almost every day, and I think I’m better than I was when I showed at a downtown gallery 20 years ago. But I’m embarrassed anyway because I know I sound foolish to people here, people who have kids, and jobs too, and who wouldn’t understand my life before I came here. There are a few—women who paint at home, too—who I’ve been able to talk about it with, describe what art used to be to me, and what I’m trying to make it be again: a place more real than anything in “real” life. A place I remember dimly, a place of deep joy, where, when I could get to it, was like tuning in to a radio frequency that was sacred to me. Regardless of anything else, nothing was more important than carrying that frequency on the dial of myself.
The problem was, other people created interference. It was hard for me to be close with them and to hear the signal at the same time. I realize that makes me sound strange. I am strange, more than the bare facts of my life would say. But I have slowly come to realize that so many people are strange that maybe the word is nearly meaningless when applied to human beings. Still, people interfered. And so I created ways to keep them at a distance, including an increasingly expensive drug habit. What I didn’t see, or allow myself to see, was that drugs created even more interference than people; they were a sinister signal all their own, one that enhanced and blended with, then finally blotted out, the original one. When that happened, I got completely lost, and for many years didn’t even know it.
When I met Paul, I was 40 and he was 46. I hadn’t done art for a couple of years; it had all but gone dead for me. We went to the same Narcotics Anonymous meeting, a stunned, bright-lit place with no signals, just people. Even though it was a year before we had coffee together, I immediately noticed his deep eyes, the animal eloquence of his hairy hands.
When we moved out of the city, I began to feel the signal again, but differently. I felt it even when I was with Paul, which did not surprise me—he was not “other people.” But I began to feel it with actual other people too, or rather through them, in the density of families living in homes, going back for generations in this town. I would see women with babies in strollers or with their little children in the grocery store, and I would feel their rootedness in the place around us and beyond—in the grass and earth, trees and sky.
To feel so much through something I was not part of was, of course, lonely. I began to wonder if it had been a mistake not to have children, to wonder what would’ve happened if I’d met Paul when I was younger. The third time we had sex, he said, “I want to make you pregnant.” I must’ve had sex hundreds of times before, but no one had ever said that to me. I never wanted anyone to say it; girlfriends would tell me a guy had said that, and I would think, How sickening! But when Paul said it, I heard “I love you.” I felt the same; we made love, and I pictured my belly swelling against all odds.
It was too late. I didn’t get pregnant. Instead my sister Melinda died. I know the two things don’t go together. But in my mind they do. My sister lived in Cleveland, Ohio. She had been sick a long time; she had so many things wrong with her that nobody wanted to think about her, including me. She was drunk and mean and crazy and would call saying fucked-up things in the middle of the night. When she was younger, she’d hung around with a sad-sack, small-time biker gang, and now that she was falling off a cliff—my guess is they were, too—they didn’t want to talk to her. I didn’t want to talk to her either, but I would, closing my eyes and forcing myself to listen. I would listen until I could remember the feeling of her and me as little girls, drawing together, cuddled up on the couch, eating ice cream out of teacups. Sometimes I couldn’t listen, couldn’t remember; she’d talk and I’d check my email and wait for her to go away. And then she did.
She had a stroke while she was taking a shower. The water was still running on her when they found her a few days later. It was summer and her body was waterlogged and swollen. Still I could identify her, even with her thin, tiny mouth nearly lost in her cheeks, and her chin and her brows pulled into an inhuman expression.
Paul went with me to clear out her apartment. I hadn’t been to visit her for at least a decade—she always preferred to visit me or my mother, and I could see why. Her apartment was filthy, full of old takeout containers, used paper plates and plastic utensils, boxes and bags crammed with the junk she’d been meaning to take out for years. Months of unopened mail lay on every surface. There was black mold on the walls. Paul and I stood there in the middle of it and thought, Why didn’t we help her? The obvious answer was we had helped her. We had sent her money, we had flown her out to visit on Christmas. I had talked to her, even when I didn’t want to. But, standing in her apartment, I knew it hadn’t been enough. She’d known when I hadn’t wanted to talk, which was about half the time. Given that, what good was the money?
When the shock was still wearing off, I would go for long walks through the small center of town, out on to country roads, then back into town again. I’d look at the women with their children; I’d look into the tiny, beautiful faces and think of Melinda when she was like that. There was this one time I remember when our washing machine was broken, and I had to go to the laundromat; I was there by myself and this song came on the radio station that the management had on. It was a song that was popular in the 70s, about a girl and a horse who both die. I was folding clothes when I recognized it. The singer’s voice is thin and fake, but it’s pretty, and somewhere in the fakery is the true sadness of smallness and failure and believing in beautiful things that aren’t real because that’s the only way to get through. Tears came to my eyes. When Melinda was little, she loved horses. For a while she even rode them. We couldn’t afford lessons, so she worked in a stable to earn them. Once I went with my mother to pick Melinda up from there, and I saw her riding in the fenced area beside the stable. She looked so confident and happy I didn’t recognize her; I wondered who that beautiful girl was. “They say she died one winter / When there came a killin’ frost / And the pony she named Wildfire busted down its stall / In the blizzard she was lost.” It was a crap song. It didn’t matter. It made me picture my sister before she was ruined, coming toward me on a beautiful golden horse. “She’s comin’ for me I know / And on Wildfire we’re both gonna go.” I cried quietly, still folding the clothes. No one was there to see me.
It was maybe a year later that I started talking to Paul about adoption. At first he said, “We can’t.” Although he didn’t say it, I think he was hurt that I hadn’t really tried to have his child, but now I wanted some random one. Also, his daughter from his first marriage, Edie, didn’t want to go to school where he taught, and he’d promised to pay her tuition at Brown after his ex-wife had thrown a fit about it. Even if money wasn’t an issue, he didn’t think we would have the physical energy for a baby.
“What about an older child?” I had asked. “Like a seven-year-old? But we wouldn’t know anything about the kid,” he’d said. They would come fully formed in ways that would be problematic and invisible to us until it was too late.
We went back and forth on the subject, not intensely, but persistently, in bed at night and at breakfast. Months went by; spring came and the dry, frigid winter air went raw and wet, then grew full and soft. Paul’s eyes began to be soft when we talked too. One of his friends told him about an organization that brought poor inner-city kids up to stay with country families for a few weeks. The friend suggested it as a way to “test the waters,” to see what it might be like to have somebody else’s fully formed kid around.
We called the organization and they sent us information, including a brochure of white kids and black kids holding flowers and smiling, of white adults hugging black kids, and of a slender black girl touching a woolly white sheep. It was sentimental and flattering to white vanity and manipulative as hell. It was also irresistible. It made you think the beautiful sentiments you pretend to believe in really might be true. “Yes,” I said. “Let’s do it. It’s only two weeks. We could find out what it’s like. We could give a kid a nice summer, anyway.”
The bus came late. We waited in a hot schoolyard for an hour because we didn’t get the message. We figured it out when we saw nobody else was there, but we were afraid to go get a cold drink because we weren’t sure how early we were. Paul sat in the car with the door open listening to the radio. I got out and paced up and down the asphalt. I didn’t like the look of it, this dry flat line between earth and sky—who would want somebody else’s empty schoolyard to be the first thing they saw in a new place? I thought about the voice of the girl on the phone, Velvet. She sounded so full and round, sweet and fresh.
I wanted to give that voice sweet, fresh things, to gather up everything good and give it. The night before, we had gone out and bought food for her—boxes of cereal and fruit to put on it, eggs in case she didn’t want cereal, orange juice and bacon and white bread, sliced ham and cheese, chicken for barbecue, chocolate milk, carrots. “Did your daughter like carrots when she was little?” I asked Paul. “I don’t remember,” he said. “I think so.” “All kids eat carrots,” I said, and put them in the shopping cart. “Ginger, don’t worry so much,” he said. “Kids are simple. As long as you’re nice to them and take care of them, they’ll like you. OK?”
But that is not how I remembered kids. I paced the asphalt. The way I remembered kids was that they wanted things to be a certain way—or was that just us? I remembered me and Melinda sitting out in the middle of the street on the Fourth of July, eating Jell-O pudding and watching fireworks, both of us thinking we saw Tinker Bell in the sky just like on TV, holding hands, everything perfect. We were happy then. But our happiness was fragile, and it took very little to break it.
Other cars with middle-aged white people were beginning to arrive in the lot. The thing was, I wasn’t sure if I had everything good to give. Or even anything. “Yourself,” Paul had said, holding me one night. “The real self is the best thing anyone can give to anybody.” And I believed that. But I did not think it would be an easy thing to give.
Paul got out of the car. “Look,” he said. “They’re here.” And there were the buses, two of them huffing into the yard. I thought, Act normal. The buses stopped; doors jerked open and rumpled, hot-looking adults poured out, smiles on their faces. Last names and numbers were shouted out. Kids jumped out of the buses, some of them blinking eagerly in the sunlight, some looking down like they were embarrassed or scared.
And then there was this one. Her round head was too big for her skinny body, and her long, kinky hair made it seem even bigger. Her skin was golden brown, her lips were full, her cheekbones strong. She had a broad, gentle forehead, broad nose, and brown eyes that were enormous and heavy-lashed, with intense brows. She had a purity of expression that stunned my heart.
I heard Paul’s name. We came forward. The child turned her eyes fully on us. I had an impulse to cover my stunned heart with my hand and a stronger impulse to touch the girl’s face. “This is Velvet,” said a nondescript someone with a smile in her voice. “Velvet, this is Mr. and Mrs. Adams.” She was ours!
She was so beautiful, so solid in her body, but so shy in the way she took things. I felt excited and scared about how to act—I couldn’t even respond properly to my own family, how could I take care of a needy child from another culture? It was a cliché to think that way, but I could feel her difference. At the same time, I could feel her child’s goodness, her willingness to help us, and that was more compelling. We gave her privacy to talk to her mother, and when we got downstairs, I whispered to Paul, “What do you think?”
“She’s a sweetheart,” he said. “It’s going to be fine.”
She came downstairs almost immediately. Her face was sad, and the shift of emotion was profound—for a moment, I thought something terrible had happened. But she just said her mom wasn’t home. I got her to eat some cookies and asked her what she wanted to do. I said we could go to see the town or to the lake or the bowling alley or for a walk around the neighborhood. Or we could walk over and visit the horses in the stables across the road from us. “The horses,” she said, some cookie in her mouth. “We could see the horses?”
When we got back to the house, she wanted to eat a sandwich, so I fixed her a ham and cheese, with tomatoes for health. She asked if there were any pickles, and I said no, I was sorry. She looked at me quizzically while she ate. Tomatoes dripped out. She asked if those girls would be at the barn when she went for her lesson. I said I didn’t know. I wondered if they said something racial to her, but I didn’t want to embarrass her by asking. I didn’t think there would be direct racism in this town. But it might come in a subtler form.
“What did you think of them?” I asked.
“I dunno,” she said.
“Would you want to see them again?”
I asked if she’d brought a swimsuit. She said yes. I told her we’d gotten a life jacket for her, for when we went to the lake. She asked to see it, and when I brought it, she put it on and frowned; it was too small. My heart sank a little. We both went out to the garden where Paul was pulling weeds and told him we were going to the store to get a new life jacket. He said he would go with us. She wore the life jacket into the car, and I was aware of her fiddling with it as we drove. When we went over the Kingston Bridge, I sensed her stop fiddling for a moment; I turned and saw her hands still in her lap, her soft, responsive profile as she looked out the window reacting to the huge bright sky and sparkling water. I felt pulled by big feelings, but I didn’t know what they were.
When we got to the parking lot of the store and found a place, she said, “I made it fit.” And she had! She had worked out the adjustable straps and fasteners that we hadn’t even thought to look for. Paul said, “You’re smarter than us!” And her eyes sparkled shyly.
We decided that since we were at the mall, we would buy her a bike. It took a long time because she was so uncomfortable about choosing one. We kept asking, What about this one? Do you like this one? Do you like the color? And she would say, “I dunno,” and look down, as if confused. I asked her, “Do you want a bike?” She said yes, but almost in the same way she might say no. A salesman came over and that only made it worse. I was beginning to feel we were doing some strange violence to her, when she said, “That one,” and pointed to a violet bike with flowers on it.
When we got back home, Paul and I got our bikes, and we all went for a ride in the neighborhood across the county road behind our house. It was a short ride, but it seemed like an adventure, and it linked the three of us. We sweated up some hills and then coasted down fast. We came to some broken asphalt—I yelled, “Lumpety bumpety!” And Velvet grinned triumphantly as we bounced over it. When we came to a little park with a duck pond, she wanted to stop and see the ducks. There was a swing set, and even though it was preschool size, Velvet wanted to swing on it. We were too big to swing with her, and so we took turns pushing her. We played on the teeter-totter and the rickety wooden go-round, then she wanted to go back to the swings. She did everything with enchanted hunger, like she was maybe too old for this but wanted it anyway, because she knew it was something she should’ve had earlier. Besides, it was fun—or, at least, we thought it was fun.
When we got home, Paul asked Velvet if she liked Celia Cruz. She said, “Yes!” So he put on a Cruz CD and turned it up loud enough so that you could hear it in the backyard. Velvet kept me company while I made the salad and got the chicken ready for Paul to cook outside. It felt good to make food for her. I remembered my mom fixing food in the kitchen, her hips solid against the counter as she moved her hands; I remembered the feeling of love and trust in it. I wanted to be that, even if it was only for a little while. When Paul came in with the chicken on a big plate, I knew he was enjoying it, too.
At dinner we asked about her family. She told us about her brother, who was also visiting another family. She told us her mother worked as an old person’s aide. She asked if we had any kids. Paul told her about his daughter; Velvet was disappointed when Paul told her that Edie was in Italy. Velvet didn’t ask me about kids, but she looked at me curiously. When I didn’t say anything, she said she wanted to try her mother again.
Velvet sounded happy when her mom answered. She said, “Ma-mi!” But right away the woman started yelling. She was yelling so loud I could hear her from a foot away. Velvet spoke quickly, sometimes arguing, sometimes almost pleading. I heard “Celia Cruz” said hopefully; the mother just kept yelling. Finally Velvet looked at me and said, “My mom says thank you for buying me the bike.” Then she put the phone down, looking both mad and happy.
We watched some videos. I had one I’d picked out in advance, a movie about a tough Hispanic girl who learns how to box and triumphs over her crappy life. I hadn’t seen it, but I’d seen trailers for it; they showed one person after another yelling at the girl about how she was no good while the words “Prove them wrong!” flashed on the screen. Then they showed the girl punching the crap out of a bag, then Latin music. I thought it was inspiring—Prove them wrong!—and I looked forward to sitting there with Velvet, being inspired together. We put it on, and there was the first scene of the girl’s father yelling at her that she was no good. Velvet looked depressed. “It’s going to get better,” I said encouragingly. The yelling at home went on for a long time. Then the girl got to school and a teacher yelled at her. Other girls insulted her, and pretty soon, she was in the bathroom, beating on somebody. “Can we watch something else?” Velvet asked.
Embarrassed, I showed her the other ones: something about a Pakistani girl overcoming prejudice to become a soccer star in England, and something about a blond girl discovering that she is a princess. Velvet picked the second one. We watched it together on the couch. Yearningly, Velvet drank in its scenes of senseless abundance and approval. An actress who was famous for playing a beautiful, fun-loving nun when I was a kid took the princess into a room and gave her tons of jewelry. In a trance of pleasure, this little girl who did not know me leaned against me and put her head on my shoulder. Shyly I touched her hair. Paul came into the room, and I felt his warmth even though the lights were down and I couldn’t see his face.
That night Paul and I went to bed feeling close, our arms wrapped around each other. When I woke up in the middle of the night, scared and sad from a dream I couldn’t remember, I reached for him, pressing myself against his back. But instead of his name I heard myself say, “M’lindie!” which is what I called Melinda when I was five. Then I was awake enough to know it was Paul’s big male back I was holding—but still I whispered again, “Melinda.” And then I fell back to sleep.
Which maybe isn’t as weird as it sounds. Melinda and I slept together for the first six years of our lives.
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