I am finally going to meet the birth mother, at her request, at a mall in Paramus, N.J.
I have a lot of feelings about the meeting. I have had a lot of feelings for a long time now. After several years of trying to have a child, and after several more years of science trying on our behalf, my husband and I decided to adopt. Somehow we thought that once we let go of the genetic link, out of the ether, a child would appear. I have been wrong before, but never have I been quite this wrong.
We are engaged in an open domestic adoption process, which means that all parties know one another in some capacity: the birth mother, the adoptive parents and eventually, the child. Potential birth mothers can find us through our agency and contact us directly. I have talked with many women, but they all chose to keep their babies, or chose other couples who lived nearer to them. This woman, whom I'll call J, is the first one I will meet in person. My husband and I have just returned from a month in Greece. Jetlagged and stuck in traffic on Harlem River Drive, I distract myself from my pounding heart by wondering what time it is in Greece.
J and I had a great connection through e-mail. I asked where she lived and what attracted her to our profile, as I am trained to do (we should not ask what the agency can tell us: what race
she is, what race the father is, if she has been to the doctor, if she has taken drugs
, if she is on drugs now, how old she is, if she has a job, if she has a mental illness, if she has a family history of clubfeet or cleft palates), and she responded that she liked that my husband spoke many languages and that we worked in the arts. She wanted something better for her child than what she'd had, she wrote, and she wanted a good-looking couple, which appealed to my vanity.
While we were in Greece -- at my husband's mother's house on an island so beautiful it makes me ache, but I must add, so can my mother-in-law -- J and I e-mailed daily. What does she love? Painting and photography. What are we eating in Greece? Moussaka, which is made with eggplant, I told her. Dolmades - grape leaves from the garden, stuffed with rice. "My mother-in-law is a terrific cook!" I wrote. "I wish I were a more adventurous cook," she responded. I sent recipes.
It is slow going over the George Washington Bridge. My husband is driving, but he won't come to the meeting; J has asked that it only be the two of us. The agency has not yet received the paperwork from J's doctor, confirming her pregnancy, but I am optimistic. I am remembering the time when my husband - then my boyfriend - and I cycled here from Brooklyn, the exhilaration of hitting the bridge, heading out over the glistening river, and then my sudden, paralyzing fear. I could not move, forward or backward. That was the day I discovered I had vertigo.
But no matter! We walked our bikes off the bridge, cycled home and wolfed down burgers and too many beers. I remember it as one of those days that I recognized as a memory, even while it was happening.
This was before we turned to each other and said let's have children, and so it was before we failed at this, over and over, while our friends and family made families and grew them around us. That day, my tire at the tip of the bridge, sailboats slicing the water beneath us, has gotten further and further away.
I think of what J will look like. She has seen countless pictures of us, but we know only what she has told us. She wrote this in an e-mail: "My pale skin is so burned today!" which made me think both that she was white and that she felt it important to let me know this.
Eventually traffic abates, and while we thought we might have trouble finding the mall, we don't because it is nearly as big as the island we've just flown away from, and instead we have trouble finding the restaurant within it. When we finally do, it's 3:30, and I rush inside, exactly on time. My husband, who has spent about as much time in malls as I had spent on Greek islands before meeting him, staggers into the mall to kill time.
I am the only person in the restaurant. I sit in a booth and watch the teenagers pass by, impossibly young girls, their thin arms and legs tan and exposed, wrists wrapped in bracelets. There is a distinct smell of something foul covered over. I am too jetlagged to read, so I stare at the menu and rub my thumbnail along the polyester tablecloth, waiting, and after 45 minutes I get a text from J. "Sorry I'm late," it says, "be there soon!!!"
Fifteen minutes later, she enters the restaurant. I know it's her because her eyes search for me. She is white. She doesn't look particularly pregnant, but she is heavy enough that it's hard to tell. She sits down across from me and I try to ease the awkwardness by giving her some Greek lotions, and telling her how wonderful it is to meet her.
"I'm starving," she says.
It is a strange hour to eat in America and a strange hour to eat at my mother-in-law's in Greece.
"Order something," I said. "Please."
She orders a burger, very well done, and I order a green salad, which makes me uncomfortable, as I have told her, truthfully, how much I like to eat, but this does not support my point. When the food arrives I pick a fry off her plate. I realize I do this to prove that I enjoy food, and also, that I am extremely comfortable with her, and with the fraught situation.
"Tell me everything," I say, chewing on her fry.
Her iPhone rings and she answers it. Then she hangs up and, after several failed calls to different pizzerias, she orders her mother a large pizza.
"Sorry," she says, picking up her burger.
"How open do you want your relationship with the adoptive parents to be?" I ask after some more small talk.
She shrugs. "I'll figure that out later," she says. "I'm talking to two other families. One keeps drunk texting me that they want a girl. They want a white baby, which this is."
I expect her to look at her stomach but she doesn't. I realize that she has no idea how many boxes we've checked for our desired child. We have checked African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Caucasian, Middle-Eastern and 30 other boxes that create astounding combinations. In any case, I have trouble believing anyone would text a birth mother, drunk or not, to demand a white girl baby.
I try to get back on track. "When are you due?"
"Sometime in December," she says. Six months away.
"Can I ask what made you decide, generously, on open adoption?" I remember not to say "What made you decide to give up your child?" And only then does it arrive, the suspicion I already held: she will not give us a child. She is not pregnant enough to feel what this will mean.
She shrugs again. "I'm adopted too?" she says. "My boyfriend and I have big dreams. A baby doesn't fit into them?"
I nod. "I understand," I say. "I hope we can continue talking."
She nods back, looking away.
After I've paid the bill and J has wandered away and into J.C. Penney, I call my husband and he pulls the car around."You've been in the car?"
"It's more comfortable here," he says.
There is a long silence. "Are you going to tell me about it?" he asks.
I tell him I need a minute. "I'm not sure what just happened. She didn't sound like the person writing all those e-mails. But I'm wondering if that's not my issue. I mean, maybe she is."
We drive onto 17, and then there is more traffic at the bridge.
I think of flying over Manhattan the night before, leaning in to see our glittering city below. Arriving home I never cease to feel amazed that we live here.
"I just don't know," I say, and if I don't cry it will mean that this is true.
Instead of crying, I imagine J leaving the mall and heading to her doctor's, faxing the paperwork immediately, so moved was she by me and my creams and my comfort in sharing. I think of riding my bike with my about-to-be husband onto the George Washington Bridge, the brilliant skyline before us, the feeling of having ridden so far uptown. I don't know yet that I will not be able to make it across.
I don't know yet that J will begin texting me obsessively. She will tell me she's been to the doctor and it was awesome and that she knows what "it" is. When I don't respond, because now I know where this is headed, she will text again about her sunburn and again about the doctor, but she will never send in the paperwork.
As we drive along the West Side Highway, I don't know yet that J is probably not a birth mother at all and that I will never learn why she pretended she was. Later, our social worker will call to tell me that this was likely an emotional scam, that it happens surprisingly frequently, and that I should cut off all contact with J. "What did she gain?" I'll wonder when I hang up the phone.
For now, I remember something else. It's from my first few days in New York, over 15 years ago. A woman, strapped by many bags, was bent over, trying to lift a stroller with a screaming baby inside down the subway stairs. I took the front end, and with ease we made it down. As I walked away from the crying child, I thought, that is never going to be me. Did I mean that I would be more organized? That I would travel only by hired car? Hardly. Driving home, I don't yet know that my greatest fear is that this is the time I may be right.
Jennifer Gilmore is the author of the novels "Golden Country" and "Something Red."
This essay was originally published in The New York Times online.