The girl was probably around six or seven—although I'm no good at reading kids' ages—when she marched into my office and saw my decorative Japanese fans. "They're evil fans," she said with glee. "And they're going to chop everyone's heads off!" She jumped on top of my chair and breathlessly spewed intricate fantasies about fans chopping and heads flying and blood spurting.
"So…I need to work," I said. I ushered her to the waiting room with a vague "Um…stay out here and play," then closed my office door and turned the lock. I didn't venture back out until I heard the girl and her mother leave.
But, usually, I like it when kids say exactly what they're thinking. Adults aren't like that. They just stare (but pretend not to stare) at me and try to figure it out for themselves—if it's a birth defect or if I was burned in an accident or I have some scary disease that's deadly or contagious. But kids, they just look at me and say, "Hey, what's wrong with your skin?"
"I heard back from your birthmother," Pat says on the phone. Pat lives 1,200 miles away, in the state where I was born. She's called a "Confidential Intermediary," and I hired her to find my biological parents. Part of her job is to make sure these biological parents actually want to be found before telling me their names and locations. Hiring Pat seemed a lot more humane than me phoning up some woman I'd never met, never talked to, wouldn't recognize, and saying, "So, hey. You gave birth to me thirty-nine years ago. Wassup?"
Pat uses a calm and measured voice whenever she talks to me. I think she's used to people being hysterical about these things. When I started the search for my birthparents, I vowed not to be hysterical. "She needs more time to think about it," Pat says.
"She's already had six months," I say.
When Pat first called my birthmother last spring, the woman wailed, I was promised this would never happen! It's true—in 1967 women were told the kids they were giving away would never know who they were. Since then, magazines and talk shows and bookshelves have exploded with tales of people finding their birthparents and vice versa. Somehow, this phenomenon escaped my birthmother's radar. It's like she forgot she was one of those women, the kind who has an unknown child in the flotsam of the world.
"Let's give her until after the holidays," Pat says. "That's such an emotional time for most people, it's better not to try to force a decision then."
"Okay," I say. "But don't call me about it until after January 4th. That's the day my mom died, and I don't want any additional drama." My mom—the one many people call my "adoptive mother"—died in my arms. I was wearing a flowered dress and black leather boots. I didn't put on makeup that day. Some people refer to my biological mother as my "real mom." I suppose I'm lucky. I've always known, from early on, what makes a mother real.
I was all one color once, for around twenty-three years. I was olive-skinned and tan. Then, out of nowhere, white spots appeared on the undersides of my wrists. Not white like "Caucasian" means white. White, like artists think of it: an absence of color. The spots started out the size and shape of quarters, but then grew oblong. I figured it was just haole-rot, a condition that us Caucasian folks sometimes get in the tropics. It causes the color to just disappear from random patches of skin. All you have to do is put some prescription-strength dandruff shampoo on it for a couple of days, and then it stops spreading. The color comes back the next time you tan.
I'd been to Maui recently, so when those albino quarters showed up on my wrists I spread on some extra strong dandruff shampoo. I was about to be a bridesmaid in a wedding and my dress was sleeveless and peacock blue, so I closed myself in a tanning cocoon to make me all one shade. But those spots stayed white. Matter of fact, they even turned hot red.
Pat calls me on January 4th. "I'm getting ready to go out of town for two weeks," she says. "And I wanted to talk to you before I left."
"Uh-huh," I say. I don't know how to turn her—her information—away.
"I talked to your birthmother for a good long time, and she says she just can't have any contact with you. She's never told her children about you, and she's afraid they won't love her anymore."
Her children—otherwise known as my sister and brother—are adults, and one of them has a daughter, also known as my niece. "That seems a little dramatic."
"I tried to tell her that." Pat knows, really knows: she gave a girl up for adoption in the sixties. Her daughter found her twenty-something years later, meaning Pat had to tell her other kids that they had a sister. "Her father shamed her for having a baby out of wedlock, and she's never gotten over that."
"Maybe she should get some therapy," I suggest. I also sigh, because there has to be something to fill that space between Pat and me.
"She says she's sorry," Pat says, "And that she believes you're probably a lovely person."
"In other words, it's nothing personal," I say. How could it be? She doesn't know me.
I spent one summer semester in Florence. Sometimes, during siesta, I would lie on the roof of the fourteenth century villa where I stayed. The Tuscan sun was hot and I would tan fast, all over. It was still two more years before those white spots would appear on my wrists and splotch the landscape of my body.
With my brown eyes and olive skin, the vendors at the Mercato Centrale always assumed I was a native. Then I'd butcher their language. "Oh, you're an American?" they'd say in surprise.
"Yes, but my father is Italian." This is one of the few things I knew growing up: my birthfather was Italian, and my birthmother was Irish.
"Where is his family from?" the vendors would ask.
"No lo so," I said. I don't know.
I only said that once or twice, because when they asked me, "Perche?" it was too complicated to try to explain why I didn't know, in Italian.
"I finally talked to your birthfather," Pat says. "He said he's always known this call would come."
"In what way did he say that?" I ask. Like, in a This is what I've always wanted way, or a Fuck, she finally tracked me down way?
"He seemed very happy," Pat says. "His wife already knows he fathered another child, so it sounds very positive."
When I started all this a year and a half ago, I suspected my birthfather would be the one to step up to the plate. Maybe it's my love for Deruta pottery and thinly sliced prosciutto, or maybe it's that summer I spent in Italy, but I always figured he and I would be alike. "So, what's next?"
"He'll call me back after he's talked to his wife. I don't want you to get your hopes up," Pat cautioned. "People change their minds about these things all the time. But he sounds like a very nice man."
Pat never said anything like that about my birthmother. Mostly, she used words like "emotional" and "confused" and "naïve." It always left me so baffled—how could I come from someone who's naïve?
When people do get around to asking about my skin—or, if I bring it up because I know it's what they're wondering and I just want to get that wondering out of there—I tell them it's what Michael Jackson says suddenly made him white. The first time I read that in the paper—when the quarters had become alabaster islands up my arms and there was a half-dollar on the side of my neck—I thought, "Wow. I think that's what I have." The dermatologist didn't look at me for more than five seconds before telling me it was the same condition. Vitiligo. She shined a black light over my skin, and the white patches glowed fluorescent—that's what made her diagnosis official. It looked cool in the doctor's office, like I was some kind of superhero and maybe those fluorescent spots meant I was special. Powerful. But when I was in bars trying to meet men, I tried not to stand near black lights. They made me feel weak and weird.
The dermatologist said there was no cure, but it wasn't deadly or contagious. She said it may or may not spread. It may or may not take over my whole body. It may or may not be genetic. There was no way to know.
"He says he needs more time," Pat says. It's been six weeks, six weeks since my birthfather got the I've always known this call would come call. "He really wants to have contact with you, but his wife is worried about how their children will take it."
"You think they'd want to know they have a sister," I say. What's worse, to never know that you have a sister, or to know you have one and never be allowed to meet her?
"I tried to reassure him that telling your kids is never as catastrophic as you think," she says. "But his wife is really afraid."
"I can't do this much longer." It's been nearly a year and a half since I hired Pat, nearly a year and a half of waiting while other people decide. "I turn forty in six weeks."
Everyone says life begins at forty. I can't be forty and still waiting.
"You're like a Palomino," a friend once said. "It's so exotic."
Exotic is when you're half-Argentine, half-Japanese, and have shiny black hair and green eyes. Exotic is a bird with a white tail that floats through eroded canyons. Exotic is a one-armed Belizean slashing though the jungle with a machete.
"I've never liked Palominos," I told my friend. They've always looked dirty.
It's too fragile a time in his family," Pat says from 1200 miles away. "His daughter's been trying to have children for several years, and she just found out that she's infertile."
"If only she had a sister who could have donated eggs," I say.
"Yes," Pat says. Then she's quiet, and I can tell the wheels in her brain are spinning: can she use this as a bribe to get him to agree to meet me? Then it seems she remembers what I already know: at my age, I probably don't have the most viable eggs in the world. To help her, my sister, they would have had to know me years ago. "Listen," Pat says, "He feels really badly about this. I get the impression that he really wants to meet you, but it's his wife who's standing in the way."
He could really do a better job at picking women, I think. "So, it's over," I say.
"I'm sorry," Pat says. "But yes."
To these parents who some call real, I am a shameful skeleton trying to escape from their closet. Four decades ago they decided to close the door on me, and now all they can do is shove me back in.
I thank Pat for everything she's done. I say goodbye. We will never talk again. There's no reason to, really.
One time, a little girl in my waiting room asked if the weird patches on my skin were tattoos. By this time, it was the white skin that looked normal, and my normal skin looked weird. Especially during the summer, because my original skin would still turn nut brown, and the white skin would stay white white.
"No, they're not tattoos," I said. "It's just how my skin is."
"How come?" She drew on typewriter paper with a yellow crayon.
"I don't know," I said. "I'm just that way. Like a giraffe."
"Are you a giraffe?"
This disturbed me way less than the girl who talked about evil fans decapitating people. "I'm too short to be a giraffe," I said. "Are you a giraffe?"
"No." She giggled, then pointed to my arm. "Is your mom and dad like that?"
"I don't know," I said. No lo so. "I'm adopted. Do you know what that means?"
"My older sister's adopted," she said. "She has a tattoo."
"Is it of a giraffe?" I asked, hopeful.
It wasn't a giraffe. The girl couldn't remember what it was. She stopped talking to me and went back to coloring.
It was nothing personal.