It was fudge sauce, thick and cold from the back of the fridge, mounded on a spoon and then dragged through the gourmet raspberry jam—the kind from France with the understated label—suckled in my mouth, a frosty stainless steel mug of milk tremoring faintly in my left hand, to be gulped in indelicate swaths allowing a shaky dribble down my front, the first time I hit her.
Not really hit. Shoved. A forceful push. A push that began with contact. The contact of my hand wedging so neatly between her small sharp shoulder blades, wedging in so that I almost could not retract myself from the catapulting force I’d started, launching her into the tub. Not a hit—there was no smacking, cracking, sharp stinging rebound. No bruise afterwards.
She’d laughed. She’d thought it was a game. Like when I clapped my hands together as she went up the stairs, clapping and crowing and fake chasing her all the way up, up, and around the giant ball of a banister post, and yelling gonna-git-you-gonna-git-you for five more bounding steps till she leaped onto her bed and my tickle monster fingers poked and prodded and she flailed and shrieked, sweaty and wispy-haired, before calming down for pajamas-teeth-potty-story bedtime.
It was a tear-open package of Albanese World’s Best 12 Flavor Gummi Bears, Fat Free Guilt Free Low Sodium, the bears surprisingly pillowy soft and the flavors gentle—like sinking my teeth into what ‘cozy’ would taste like—eaten one by one with my shoulders hunched over the steering wheel, the first time I marched her from a store authoritatively crushing her hand inside my own, dodging commuters rushing from the Whole Foods parking lot with their pre-made dinners conveniently packaged so as to keep out cold, moisture, and guilt.
Two days later she’d played house on the rug at my feet except this time she said she was playing grocery store and she brought out model cars to make a parking lot and then rushed her dolls through the lot telling them to watch out for cars and every single time the little doll stumbled and fell and the big doll scolded her, scolded her in a low, husky-harsh, barely-audible whisper: bad-bad-girl bad-bad-girl.
I remembered, once, remembered back four months ago now, that it was Annie’s Guilt Free Cheddar Bunny Tail Snack Crackers before, during, and after the first social worker visit. I poured them from the package into my grandmother’s cut glass candy dish and set them, delicately, in the center of my dining room table right where the design of the lace tablecloth marked the precise center to be. I invited everyone to partake as we passed forms back and forth sign-here-sign-here-sign-here. The social worker declined every time but the girl, my girl, my brand new foster daughter in my home less than 24 hours girl, she devoured them. Handfuls scooped and shoveled while she stood on the chair seat and leaned over the bowl, one hand moving mechanically from the bowl to her mouth while the other braced her tiny, but insistent, weight on the table and I watched the tablecloth slipping, one millimeter at a time, off its center.
It was a McDonald’s hot fudge sundae, two orders please, on the way home from The Good-Bye Visit after parental rights were terminated. And me pulled over in the space reserved for cars waiting for a delayed drive-through order even though there was no delay and I had our order in hand, feeling the glare of the middle-aged woman manning the drive-through window though I could not see her and did not know if she saw me, but feeling her glare nonetheless. Then twisting around, ripping off the thin, clear, plastic wrapper from the black plastic spoon with my teeth and spitting that end at the floor of my car before mouthing the spoon free from the remainder of the wrapper so that I could shove that spoon deep into the glistening, soup-ing soft serve utterly lacking in the fortitude needed to hold up the hot and heavy fake-chocolate sauce glommed onto its top. Shoving that spoon deep into the puddled mess and then shoving it, shoveling it, I-don’t-care-just-shoving-it into her gaping maw as she wailed and wailed and wailed for her mother.
It was plain green olives, pitted, pimento-stuffed, and her small, plaintive voice saying aloud: But I don’t like olives. And my silent, internal, previously unacknowledged by now irreversibly known in my soul response that ended the whole charade: And I don’t like you.
Some people do not like olives. They just don’t. And nothing is going to change that, no matter how needy and worthy those olives are. Even when, or perhaps especially when, their husband never knew anything about olives to begin with and he’s begun looking at the scene with an ever-growing sense of alarm as it dawns on him to wonder what it says about him that he’s married to a person who can’t like even one small, needy, and perfectly photogenic olive.
It was macaroni and cheese from the box for her and pot roast with roasted and glazed root vegetables for us when we told her. He and I in our places across the dining table and she in her plastic draped chair standing squarely on the plastic carpet protector pushed up firmly to her giant plastic placemat and suction-cupped plate. We ate our nice dinner and told her, using notes from the tiny crib sheet I’d tucked discreetly under my napkin, about her new home. The kind of home that was supposed to be a forever home. For girls like her.
The sushi was bright and beautiful and showy and the white wine cold and crisp and sweet and all of it “ooh!” inducing as we sat, my three girlfriends and I sat, we ladies who didn’t quite lunch but mock-pretended we did, the shiny food and sparkly glasses the perfect complement to our pearlescent pink or mauve nails—pearlescent was our nail tech’s new favorite shade—she called it Daytime Chic and we said “ooh” on cue. The sun was bright and warm on my cheek and the perfect swirl of the deep brown eel sauce complementing the reddish-orange hue of the delicate roe on my Sushi Master’s Selects Platter shone encouragingly before me as I told my sad, sad tale to the table. Of course I’d loved her, been madly, madly in love with her and of course I’d wanted to keep her, my only wish to make our home her forever home but, the courts, you know, the system, you know, what can one do? A tragedy.
He found me emptying the pantry. Still full packages of bread and crackers and cereal and the most disgusting pasta I’d ever tried—corn-based faux noodles that melted to mush in the pot—all going into the X-Large with Built-In Drawstrings kitchen-sized trash bags. He asked me what I was doing and I turned and looked at him and blinked and did not have words. I looked down at the bag resting on the floor beside me, its sides straining ominously where the hard-sided box corners elbowed each other to escape, and then back up at him. But she’s gone, I said. Yes, he said, but she never ate that stuff; she wasn’t gluten free. Gluten free? I asked. And I looked down again and saw, this time really saw, all those labels on all those packages. Gluten Free they said. Not guilt free. They were only gluten free. They’d never fed me Guilt-Free at all.