It’s been six months since Gloria decided to keep the baby. It had been painful in the beginning, but we’d known the risk, taken the chance she might change her mind. And now we’re free! Sailing up the One, the ocean stretching blue into forever, hair whipping because we rented a convertible, why not? Gloria had to give the money back, which must have been a real sacrifice considering she’s nineteen and unemployed and lives with her mother. We only met her once before the birth, flying LAX to Logan, and she was too embarrassed for a home visit, so we opted for a diner instead, with blue vinyl booths and a server with ample cleavage. We went there to appear unassuming, wore jeans and knobby sweaters and glasses instead of contacts and Gloria ate a whole plate of bacon, guzzled a glass of skim milk, and we managed to smile and make small talk and avoid telling her about the hormones in her food, how they would surely taint the baby, not our baby, and most certainly not Abelyn—what we called her in private. The adoption agent and our therapist had agreed on the absence of the possessive—Gloria wasn’t to be reminded that the baby wasn’t hers, and it was most certainly not to be given a name.
“You have to love her,” she said, a cough catching at the back of her throat, no doubt due to the dairy. “You have to love her more than you love yourselves. More than you love each other. Can you do that?”
We’d nodded dumbly, then said it together, “Yes,” but she must have seen doubt in our eyes.
Of course we had intended to try, but it was hard to imagine that anyone, even a baby, even our baby could generate so much feeling. It didn’t seem possible to love someone else so much; we weren’t sure we’d have room in our WeHo two-bedroom.
Gloria lied then, or maybe it was the hormones, when she reached across the table and took our hands. “You’re perfect. I can’t imagine a more beautiful couple to raise my baby.”
We should have known. My baby. Our therapist had warned us it might happen. We’d fired her and rehired her and fired her again for it. When we came slinking back, she had the gall to tell us no, to recommend someone whom you might trust for the long-term, as if she couldn’t see our pain, or worse, she could and didn’t care to fix it.
We take trips instead, like this one, driving up the One to Santa Barbara, then cutting east in the rented convertible, stopping at every fruit stand along the way, eating figs and blackberries and walnuts and weaving our way through the wineries, sampling that too, barely making it to The Madonna Inn alive, the blue and gold room with its circle bed and shag carpeting and crystal chandelier.
We eat dinner at the hotel’s steak house, red meat oozing blood and baked potatoes slathered in sour cream and butter and cheese—we’re not pregnant—and we get terribly drunk and take a dip in the pool. It’s the kind with a gradual incline meant to mimic the ocean floor, and we descend, swimming laps and splashing and tugging at each other’s ankles, until we see him, the boy in the Jacuzzi who is decidedly high. We ask him what he’s on, and he smiles up at the hazy night sky and tells us about the mushrooms he bought for the Willie Nelson concert he’s going to tomorrow night at a winery in Paso Robles. “With my parents,” he says.
“Can we have some? We’ll pay.”
“I only have enough for myself, but if you want your own, find the downtown kids.”
“The downtown kids?”
“They’ll be under the bridge by the Mission.”
Under the bridge by the Mission. We are intrigued and go back to the room for clothes, to call an Uber, for a brief bathroom interlude, seven minutes of insufferable separation.
The bathroom is a place for peace, a place to regain one’s self, I often tell Evan when I shut the door in his face. Our bathroom interludes, he calls them when really they are mine alone.
“I have a voicemail. Client,” I tell him through the door. I can see his two-footed shadow on the white tile floor, but I ignore him, take the space I need, something our therapist in her perfectly choreographed outfits repeated often before she fired us. Her crisp shoulder-length curls never moved, not once in all our visits, her calm eerie and off-putting as she droned on about our attachment, our codependence, eyes on me as if to say, You’re going to have to do something about this. “But we’ve always been this way,” Evan would tell her, which isn’t exactly true. It’s gotten worse, his neediness, since the whole Gloria fiasco.
I listen to the message from Joel, one of the more successful screenwriters I represent. He has a hot new show about a man who escapes an alien invasion by sailing off on the ocean. Eventually, he gets marooned on an island, where he must fight off hostile locals. Really bad types. Cannibalism is insinuated but never shown. (The show gets a little racist here.) He lives alone until one day an alien ship crashes into the ocean, and he is joined by its pilot. Together, they fight the really bad types and hunt and survive and become friends, no, brothers (never lovers, not on a major network, please).
Joel says, “Glenda, you’ve got to help me. Glenda, they kicked me out of the meeting. You have to—”
I don’t listen to the rest. Babies, a whole world of them. That is what I picture as I’m seated on the toilet, a world full of babies, so many I couldn’t possibly care for them all. I don’t need one to claim as my own, do I? It’s enough to help my clients, those grown orphans toddling around LA, I tell myself.
“What was that?” Evan calls from the other side of the door.
The bathroom has a lousy orange light that shows all my wrinkles, the ones I’ve tried to erase with light therapy and electric pulses and a suction that sloughs off my old skin. Nothing can stop time. At least in my line of work the relationships and wisdom that come with aging are assets not a curse.
Still, I have notions of leaving LA, this plastic place where I learned I’d never be a mother, not of the biological variety, despite doctors and treatments and herbal tinctures and Evan with his fertility calendar. They extracted my ova and introduced them to Evan’s sperm in a $15,000 setup that “didn’t take” we were told, and all that was left was Evan, his arm around my waist, his breath on my neck, “At least we have each other.” I started looking into adoption that night.
I don’t mean to, but I think of Abelyn, six months old now. I can still remember her newborn smell, walking the little bundle around the hospital room while Gloria dozed. It was part of the agreement, that she’d have a few hours with the baby, a chance to meet her, to hold her, before she said goodbye. It made me nervous, Evan too, hovering and whispering in my ear, “We are parents. We have a daughter. Should we get some champagne to celebrate?”
“Yes,” I told him.
“Can we go together?”
“I’m not leaving her,” I said.
“We can wait,” he said, frowning and hovering still.
When Gloria woke, she said she had a dream. She said, “Can I hold my baby?” And I heard it, the shift to the possessive, felt it too—that it was over. I handed Abelyn back to her mother, never to hold her again.
“Uber’s here!” Evan shouts. I can tell he’s anxious, that this will be one of his missions, spending our night giving chase to his ever-shifting ghosts.
I decide not to call Joel back. I’m still a little drunk from dinner and he knows I’m on vacation and anyway Evan has designs on getting mushrooms, some plan involving kids who can be found under a bridge. I breathe deep, clip my phone into the holster at my hip, and open the bathroom door.
When the driver asks us to enter our destination we tell him to take us to the downtown kids under the bridge by the Mission.
He says he needs an address. He says he doesn’t know the area all that well. He says the system doesn’t work without one.
“Fine,” we say, “take us to the Mission. Do you know where that is?”
He types it into his phone. “There it is,” he says and we’re off.
Our Uber driver drops us off at the Mission, stucco-sided with an orange tile roof and a trio of bells nested in the belfry, backlit and black, like three men watching as we cross the empty plaza.
This place is definitely haunted, we agree, and hold hands, watching the Mission bells watching us, thinking about all those Indians, no Native Americans, no indigenous peoples, who suffered and died and surely they would have good reason for sticking around and tormenting the living.
We stop before an informational placard and shine a flashlight app from our phone so we can read about the cross that was erected in 1772 to mark the site of the Mission, the first mass celebrated by blessed Junipero Serra outdoors with soldiers and neophytes and his fellow priests. It must have been something, empty of people, grasses glowing gold, the bending limbs of coastal oaks, and grizzlies. The place was overrun with grizzlies, the placard reads, supply ships from Mexico delayed, a cold, bone-dry winter coming, cavernous hunger. We read on, about the great grizzly hunt, the soldiers carving up and shipping 9,000 pounds of dried and salted bear meat to the surrounding missions.
Gross, we agree and follow a path down to the creek lined with giant eucalyptus that block out the moon. On the other side is the back patio of a bar where drunk college kids flirt and paw at one another and snap pics with their phones. A reminder of how we met, at a Westwood college bar with our fake I.D.s in the butt grinding madness of the dance floor, and later, back at the sorority house, the linked legs and spilling of guts, a feeling like surgical alteration, of permanence.
We consider taking a shot like that first night, but no, we have a mission, those under the bridge kids. We follow the path and see an old brick footbridge spotted with base gray paint to cover graffiti. It’s not until we’ve passed under the bridge that we hear a soft ripple of laughter, see them, four, no, five kids dressed in many layers of black, sitting in a circle like some kind of séance and maybe they’re witches? Even better.
Hands locked together, we approach the kids slouching or leaning back in the grass, eyes saying leave us alone. It’s not danger we’re after nor comfort even but some heavenly middle ground, the space where things hurt and heal all at once. “Hello,” we call, “good evening.” The kids say nothing. “A friend of ours from the Madonna Inn told us you were the people to see if we wanted any mushrooms. Is that so?”
“Are you a cop?” one of them asks. Late teens, early twenties? It’s impossible to tell anymore. But young, with a faint beard of acne, a head of short brown dreads. “You have to tell me if you’re a cop.”
“We are not cops.”
“How much do you want?”
It is far too easy, as if divinely intervened, the Mission looming three-eyed behind the under the bridge kids.
“This place is creepy. Why do you hang out here?”
“We live here.”
“What about your parents?”
They laugh a collective laugh. It is a mean-spirited laugh. Some would even call it evil. Our hands, we lock them tighter.
It is not until we’re on the other side of the bridge that we open our mouths and chew up one mushroom each, tasting dirt and decay, kissing deeply.