The woman who calls herself my sister is Blonde4eva. This is her e-mail address.
I find this upsetting, even though I’m 41 and dye my hair blonde. “I’ve always been a natural blonde,” I say, meaning I dye my hair to match my baby pictures.
“What do you think it means?” I ask my husband, who rolls his eyes. My husband says I shouldn’t judge people by their e-mail addresses.
Fluffykitty1000. Poetgrrrl. Flyguy. Blonde4eva.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” my husband says.
The Catholic Charities counselor in charge of my adoption search has promised to be in touch. She wants to contact the birth family. “I have to advise you to not continue this correspondence until we speak with the family,” the counselor says. “Until then, we can neither confirm nor deny that this woman is or is not who she says she is.”
“Just like a politician,” I say.
“What?” she says.
“Thank you,” I say, “I will.”
I save Blonde4eva’s e-mail messages. I read them over and over. They’re a puzzle, blue and white pieces of sky that don’t seem to fit. I’ve loved words so deeply and for so long I thought it was genetic. But Blonde4eva struggles with grammar, syntax.
“I’m not judging,” I tell my husband, though of course I am.
It’s a shitty thing to do.
* * *
I don’t come from a family of readers. Growing up, I kept a Webster’s dictionary in the bathroom to read. The cover was denim blue, designed to look like the back pocket of a pair of jeans, an everyday thing. I hid it behind stacks of toilet paper. My mother didn’t approve of bathroom reading.
“Shit or get off the pot,” she’d say.
“The mouth on that one,” my father, the mill worker, would say when they fought. “Just like her mother.”
I read and memorized dictionary pages. I liked finding smug new words and using them in sentences at dinner.
Words I liked: Flibbertigibbet. Oxymoron. Loquacious.
I could wipe my ass with what you know about love, my father liked to say.
I was not my parents’ child.
* * *
My father once bought a set of encyclopedias from a man who was selling them door to door. My father never opened the door for strangers, but this time he did. I don’t know why. The set was The World Book of Knowledge. The books looked like bibles, egg-shell colored covers, gold spines, gold-tipped pages with strings sewn into the binding to use as bookmarks.
“She’s smart,” my father would say to explain why I’d hole up for hours reading A-C when my mother thought I should be outside playing.
“She’ll ruin her eyes,” my mother said. “She’ll get ideas.”
My father bought a bookshelf, the only one in the house, a low two-shelved number he put together himself just for the encyclopedias. The bookshelf had a glass door that slid open and closed to keep the books safe from dust. A display. My mother dusted the bookshelf with a pink feather duster. As far as I knew, she never opened any of the books.
* * *
My friend Patience says an encyclopedia salesman came to her house, too. Patience was eight, in Albion, Pennsylvania—farm country, tornado country, the 1970s, the kind of place where people name their children after virtues or deserts or saints. There were a lot of girls named Hope and Mary in Patience’s school, and one girl named Sahara, but people called her Sara instead.
The day of the encyclopedia, the doorbell rang. Patience’s mother, expecting hair brushes or vacuum cleaners or a new kind of floor soap, opened the door, and this man, dressed for the city, said, “Might I borrow a few moments of your time, miss?”
Patience’s mother looked more than her age. She looked like a woman with housecoats and three children and a life in Albion, Pennsylvania. She looked like a woman who’d welcome the opportunity to purchase a new kind of floor soap and she knew it.
The man held up a big white book. The words Wonderland of Knowledge were embossed in gold on the cover and there was a picture of a globe, shiny blue for water, more gold for the land.
Patience peeked from behind her mother.
The man bent down. “Hello there, honey,” he said. “Do you like to read? I know I do.”
Patience liked to read. Patience liked globes, too.
The man stood up and smiled. He made a one-handed flourish, a magic trick he’d been taught. He tried to present the book to Patience’s mother, who kept both hands tight on the doorframe.
“You’ll be giving your beautiful daughter here a head start,” he said. “She’ll have such an advantage over the other kids.”
Patience grew up to be a librarian.
She took care of both her parents until they died.
She lives alone in a small apartment with a cat and many books, and says she doesn’t like people though both of us know it’s not true.
Patience’s car is filled with books on tape. When she drives, she turns up the volume and likes the feel of the stories, all those worlds building up and spinning around inside her.
Back then, in Patience’s house in Albion, there was only the bible and copies of Highlights for Children lifted from the dentist’s office. There was The Farmer’s Almanac. There was TV Guide.
The salesman held his magic book like a lantern. Patience watched her mother do a once-over—first at his shined shoes, his tweed pants, then at his smooth hands, then up into his eyes.
“Now why,” she said, the words slow, clicking like deadbolts, “would my daughter deserve an advantage over anyone?”
Then she shut the door hard.
* * *
Blonde4eva writes: “My mother was born of two Irish imagrants. And I suppose no I know that things were no good. We have 3 other siblings.”
It wasn’t just the grammar. It was the implied sense of drama—“And I suppose no I know.”
“What do you think it means?” my husband asks back, and I don’t answer.
* * *
When my friend Jan first found her birth mother, her birth mother sent a lot of letters. The letters were written on stationery, parchment-ish paper with butterflies skittering around the scalloped edges. This bothered Jan a lot. Jan dyes her hair white blonde and keeps it shorn a half inch all around. She wears black biker jackets. She wears serious black glasses. She writes poems about Jim Morrison pissing onstage.
“This cannot be my mother,” she’d say and wave the letters in the air like surrender.
The writing on the letters was off, too. Big loopy script. Bubble-dotted i’s. Lots of talk about God and how much Jan’s mother relied on him at times like these.
Praise God. God willing. God forgive me. God forgive you.
“I’ll pray for you,” my own birth mother will write to me very soon.
It will be the most awful thing she does until she does something worse.
* * *
Blonde4eva says she found out about me two years ago. “One of my cousins dropped the bomb on me,” she writes.
She says her mother denied it, then admitted it. She gave few details.
“Were you born with a club foot?” Blonde4eva wants to know, and I want to tell her no, two.
* * *
I wonder if the story, the one my parents told me and the one I helped invent, has been wrong from the start.
“You are probably as weary as I, to determine the truth so that nobody gets hurt,” Blonde4eva writes.
There are so many versions of the truth.
All of them would hurt someone, I think.
* * *
Blonde4eva writes: “If it turns out that you are not the same child you are definitely close to finding out who is.”
“Do you want a sandwich?” my husband asks from the kitchen. I can see him in there, eating cheese from the bag, a stack of buns on the cutting board.
I know he wants me to come in and help, fry some lunch meat in a pan.
“Eat something,” he says, like he’s my mother.
* * *
It’s 5 a.m. Last night, I fell asleep on the couch and stayed there. Now Locklin’s awake. He pries my fingers open, latches on a gate.
I sleep fetal, hands balled into fists. My fingers are sore from the strain, like I’ve been punching someone.
Locklin’s face is inches from mine. His breath smells like chocolate milk and sleep. I squint awake as he presses a doll into my hand.
“Be him,” my son orders.
The lines of light from the window blinds make my son’s face look caged. It’s what I feel, too.
Somehow, Locklin’s dragged the plastic toy bin across the room. He’s dumped everything onto the floor, and my first thought is I’ll have to clean it up. I’ll have to get off this couch and clean and how could I possibly be expected do this now.
Over on the table, the computer screen is blinking. It’s an Apple computer, shiny and sports-car red. It looks like a toy. I wonder about Blonde4eva, her e-mail, so intimate and impersonal all at once.
“We can neither confirm nor deny,” the Catholic Charities counselor said.
I close my eyes again.
My son’s hard little finger pokes my cheek, like he’s testing a cake to see if it’s done.
“Be him,” Locklin says.
The last time my husband fell asleep on the couch like this and tried to brush Locklin off, Locklin crumbled Cocoa Pebbles cereal and sprinkled it on my husband’s face until he woke up, furious, choking, chocolatey rice flakes in his nose, in his eyelashes. It was 5 a.m. then, too.
“Done sleeping,” Locklin said, to explain things.
“Who does something like that?” my husband asked our son, who looked confused.
Now Locklin tries to grab my eyelashes and pull one of my eyes open.
“Puppets,” Locklin says, which is what he calls this game, one of his favorites.
This early in the morning, I dread it.
Toppled from the toy bin, there’s a huge collection of stuffed animals, action figures and dolls. Locklin calls all of them puppets. When he says “be him,” he means method acting. He means “once again, with feeling.”
Some puppets are easier than others. Like Elmo—that helium squeal, the ratcheted maniacal giggling. But this doll in my hands is another thing. He’s anonymous, non-descript. He looks like a prince, maybe, or a good pirate. I don’t recognize him from any movie. His jaw is sharp enough to clean my nails. His eyes are very blue. He’s blonde, which is what my son calls him. Blondie.
It will take me a while to see this and appreciate the irony.
“Be Blondie,” Locklin commands, and I try, but I always fail.
My son has invented an entire life for Blondie, but no one knows what that life is because Locklin won’t explain. There’s no way to know what he thinks Blondie should sound like. There’s no way to guess the role he’s mapped out for Blondie in his mind. Locklin just shakes his head and says again, “Be him,” but I don’t know the lines. I don’t know the gestures. I’m supposed to understand—through osmosis, maybe—Blondie’s life story channeling through his tan plastic skin into mine.
* * *
Growing up, I had fantasies about a sister. She’d show up on the porch, drooping blonde pig-tails, banged-up suitcase, a note from the adoption agency. We’d be best and instant friends. We’d do each other’s hair. We’d side against my parents, who’d become our parents, who’d become strangers who could never understand us.
Two castaways. Two lost princesses. Two beautiful lonely girls, one pink, one blue, like the two girls in the kitschy paintings my mother bought at Woolworth’s and hung over the couch. Two sad-eyed moppets with mandolins at their feet, waiting for something.
We’d stay up late, reading, flashlights under our covers, our matching shadows showing through the sheets.
My sister would be kind, like the mother who’d given us both up, even though we knew she didn’t want to, even though she loved us very much, even though one day she’d come back.
“Hope to hear from you,” Blonde4eva writes.
* * *
“Be him,” my son says now about Blondie.
I try a generic Disney swagger, a low-voiced “hi there.”
“No,” my son says, and he looks like he might cry, he’s that disappointed, distressed. He takes Blondie out of my hand and dances him against my cheek. “BE him.”
But I don’t know how.
I don’t know who he could possibly be.
Lori Jakiela is the author of a memoir, Miss New York Has Everything (Hatchette 2006), and three poetry chapbooks. Her full-length poetry collection, Spot the Terrorist!, will be published in April 2012. Her essays and poems have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, 5 AM and elsewhere. She lives outside of Pittsburgh, directs the writing program at The University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg, and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Chatham University.