I chose Sugar Daddy’s via a Google search after three polite rounds of, “It’s your neck of the woods. Where would you like to go?” “It don’t matter to me.” I searched the keywords: “Chicago,” “South Side,” and “soul food.” Over the phone, I ran the list by her. We weeded out the places that are too far from where she lives and those that have probably not passed health inspection.
The road I take to the restaurant is the same one I took to meet her for the first time. But the road is still unfamiliar. Our meeting then was between strangers; this one is between birth mother and adoptive mother. With a year under our belts, we are only slightly more familiar. Still, essentially, strangers.
Will she think of me as a stranger? As strange? At the placement ceremony, we had the baby to ooh and ahh over, and she didn’t have much to say. We might have nothing besides Peyton in common. What if we sit in silence all night? Or, what if I dominate the conversation, realize I’m doing it, but fail to stop myself, like I always do when I’m nervous?
Why did I even call? I could have flown in for the writers’ conference and back out on Sunday, and she would have never known I was here. Maybe she just agreed to see me to be polite. After all, the correspondence between us has been one-way. What are the chances she’s been saving all her burning questions about Peyton for an occasion such as this? And my questions for her . . . they are lodged in my throat like hot coals.
At Sugar Daddy’s, a waitress, who does not tell me her name, eventually points to a small table near the door. A blast of icy air rushes beneath my skirt every time someone leaves or enters.
Even with a 20-minute wait before being seated, I am looking at my watch and starting to worry, when finally she arrives. We hug — it’s more like I pull her into me — and my arms wrap all the way around her. The last time I saw her, an oversized sweatshirt obscured her slight-to-medium frame. I am less than five inches taller, but I feel like Michael Jordan to her Spud Web.
Her hair, pulled back tight into a ponytail, is neat and unfazed by the wind for which her city is famous. I wonder if she braved public transportation in all this cold, or if someone dropped her off. She does not have a car. I feel rude for not offering to pick her up, but I want to respect her privacy and not put her in the uncomfortable position of having to say “no.”
She drapes her coat over the back of her chair. Melting snowflakes trickle down the sleeves.
“I grew up in Florida, and in winter time, folks had the nerve to complain about The Hawk,” I say. “Even if it was north Florida, that’s nothing compared to your Hawk.”
Chicago is colder than Florida. Brilliant observation.
Still, she laughs politely from behind her hand. I remember this shy habit of hers. But when she asks our put-upon waitress to give us a table away from the revolving arctic door, matching the woman’s funky attitude glare for glare, I realize I have I mistaken Angela’s* self-consciousness about her need for dental care for shyness. I see now where Peyton gets her feistiness. It’s in her blood.
In Angela’s face, I see Peyton’s button nose, the lips ready to purse with mischief at a moment’s notice. Angela is creeping up on 40, but she looks a decade younger. Not youthful, but that good-living, unlined way many black women’s faces age. Black don’t crack.
After the waitress slams our silverware and placemats down at the new table, we peruse the menu. A woman at a neighboring table complains loudly about the bones in the fish until the chef herself, a big-busted matron, comes out of the kitchen to explain that whiting is practically impossible to filet.
I nod and say to Angela, “She’s right. That’s how people eat it Down South. My grandmother fried fish, usually whitings, once a week . . .”
Angela listens as I go on a little too long about the whiting and chitlins of my childhood, about my grandmother and the cast of other colorful, just-folks characters from my less-than-affluent past. I know these economics: trying too hard yields diminishing returns such as condescension.
Angela orders shrimp and grits. I order the same, then change to an easy subject: Peyton. I do most of the talking.
“At the agency, I kept telling you ‘thank you,’ but that seemed so . . . inadequate. I still can’t tell you how much we appreciate your choosing us, trusting us with Peyton’s life.” My words sound hollow to my own ears, even though I know I am sincere. It’s so rare that I speak without any self-protective sarcasm or self-deprecating humor or fear or anticipation of what the other person will say next and what I will say after that, that it’s like I’m speaking a foreign language right now. A language rusty from lack of use, a language Angela must be only vaguely familiar with as well, given the way she keeps her eyes lowered.
“Okay,” I say. “True Confessions time.” In Angela’s face, I see Peyton starring in an R-rated slideshow of abuse, neglect, an undisclosed family history of alcoholism or insanity . . .
I tell her not to worry. Peyton is fine. But . . . she loves eating off the floor. In her short life, she has eaten: cat food, diaper ointment, dried leaves, miniature race car tires, pencil erasers, red curling ribbon (located in her diaper, post-bowel movement), and a few things so thoroughly chewed I could not identify them after fishing them out.
“She loves to eat!” Angela gushes right before her smile sets once again behind her hand.
I share more zany, ready-for-“American’s Funniest Home Videos” moments.
But I really want to say: I am not the ubiquitous photographer-of-children/chronicler-of-teeth-eruptions-and-other-milestones my letters make me out to be. Well, I am, but there is more to me than that — or less, depending on the day you catch me. That plastic-covered, spiral-bound, condensation of our lives you read gave no indication I would stomp around a parking lot like a madwoman, screaming at my husband at the top of my lungs as Peyton dozed in the car, as I did recently. Those eight pages did not capture my shortcomings as a wife, a mother, a friend. They did not convey the italicized, asterisked, caveated, unspoken me.
Have I let you down?
Our waitress, Miss Congeniality, delivers our shrimp and grits. Like Bubba and Forrest, Angela and I discuss shrimp — scampi, fried, cocktail, the importance of deveining — because I have no vocabulary for this: I worry about you. About your financial and housing concerns, about how you still move in that slow, post-C-section way you moved a year ago. Are you okay? It’s none of my business, but I wonder about Eric. He made excuses not to come in for the placement ceremony. Has he been there for you? Are you still involved? I wonder if you are happy. Are you happy like I’m happy? For the usual, life, health, and strength, beautiful children, loving friends and family, but still missing that elusive Something? Is Peyton that Something for you?
And then Angela says something she has never said to me. “Thank you. Thank you for loving her.”
Now tears flow instead of conversation. There is so much I want to say to Angela before we leave, but I cannot find the words. Even what little I managed to say here, I have not said. Because this dinner, that bone-filled whiting, those awkward silences, these tears — they exist only in the landscape of wishes, dreams, and other improbabilities.
So is this a true story? It’s as true and perfect as Peyton’s gap-toothed grin. But writer John Edgar Wideman says it even simpler: All stories are true.
* Some names changed for reasons of privacy