Her terror of the ticking biological clock. All his genetic stuff about being a provider. These things are real. They are scary. And they will follow you, even from Chapel Hill to China.



A Short Story by Thomas Mullen

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It wasn’t officially called The Stork Hotel. It had won the nickname because it was only four blocks from the Ministry of Unwanted Baby Girls, or whatever that was technically called, so all the incoming parents-to-be stayed here. This building no doubt housed the greatest percentage of infertile humans on earth.

The bar at the Stork Hotel was like any other hotel bar. Score one for globalization. Tiny lamps designed to look like candles sat in the center of the small tables; indecipherable trance pop emanated from invisible speakers. Scattered about were four or five couples — the youngest of them looked to be in their late 30s, all fellow professionals who had tempted biology by waiting too long. Every couple was holding hands.

Kelly and I had wandered the neighborhood that evening and had been amazed by the thriving industry that had sprung up around the place, everyone hawking knock-off baby strollers and Pack-n-Plays, locally sewn onesies, cartons of diapers. The prices were fabulously cheap.

I was solo now, sipping my rum and “soda” (didn’t quite taste like Coke) a respectful three stools away from the only other loner, a woman with dark hair gone streaky with gray.

“Here for a baby?” I asked her after our eyes had met a couple of times.

“How’d you guess?”

“This is probably the last chance we’ll get to have a normal night’s sleep for years, and here we are drinking.”

“Mine’s just soda,” she said. I considered lying and saying the same thing, but she’d probably heard me order.

What time was it?  The bar had that weird Vegas feeling, everyone jet-lagged and confused, but without the adrenaline. Kelly was out cold in our room, but I felt like I had transcended sleep.

“So,” the lady at the bar continued. We sort of felt like we had to talk to each other now. And she was pretty. Energetic, round eyes that matched her green sweater set. The hotel was unaccountably freezing — it was June, and they seemed to like A/C even more than people back in Carolina do. “How old?”

“Forty-two,” I said, surprised by the question.

“No,” and she laughed, “your kid.”

“Oh,” and I laughed too, “um, 17 months. A girl.”  Duh — they all were.

“Mine’s six months.”

We traded little parenting nuggets, as if we had any clue whether it would be easier to adopt a malleable infant like hers or an intractable toddler like mine. As if we’d ever know which child was the more traumatized by whatever she’d lived through, the abandonment and the Communist orphanage, the hidden invisible diseases that the government claimed to screen for but who really knew, the legacy of genes we’d only learn about with the passage of time.

Our heads turned at the sound of wailing. A new mother was circling in the lobby, a baby girl on her shoulder, her husband offering moral support a few paces back. The parents were wearing pajamas, which wasn’t something you normally saw in a hotel lobby, but here no one cared. This was probably their first night as a family. They’d doubtless tried every calming trick their books had recommended and now were hoping a change of scenery might help. The baby could really wail. I’d seen other American parents with new kids in the elevator, in the restaurants across the street, at the stroller-and-onesie shops. People here greeted each other with “Congratulations” instead of “Hello.”

The girl in the lobby was crying like she’d just seen someone murdered.

“Ahhhhh,” the woman said next to me. I smiled, too.


My wife had given birth over the phone three months ago.

I had answered her call with the usual “Hey, darlin’,” and she’d busted out with “It’s a girl! Fourteen months old! Sixteen pounds! Her name’s Jia!”

I was stunned.  We’d been told it would be at least another nine to 12 months before our application would reach the top of the pile.

“Wait, are you sure?  Are you sure it’s ours?”

“What do you mean ‘sure’?  They called me!”

“But they’d said 12 months. Maybe they mixed up and this is someone else’s?”

“John!  They called me this morning!  She’s ours!  We’re parents!”

It was barely 9. On my screen was the design for a new weave I was working on, shades of indigo and lavender. I’d made a sample of it the other day — it was a sleek modern look and it had good hand (meaning it feels good) but I was having trouble getting it down to the predetermined price point. Out my window I could see massive yellow clouds of pollen in the morning wind, greening the sky.

“Oh my God,” I said. “Oh my God.”

We talked like that for a few minutes, bewildered and happy and confused all at once. The man at the adoption office had emailed Kelly a photo during their call, and Kelly forwarded it to me while we said “Oh my God” a few more times.

My Internet connection took forever to load. Kelly started crying while I waited for the damn email to open.

We had tried to get pregnant for years. It seems you go most of your life desperately hoping to avoid pregnancy, the teen condoms and 20-something IUDs and the cohabitational birth control pills, then suddenly a hinge swings and you’re doing all you can to reproduce, the charts and the basal thermometers and the joyless calendarized sex. I’d once had a condom-breakage incident with a college girlfriend and was so traumatized by the experience that she and I had broken up immediately and I’d gone the rest of the semester celibate. Then time zooms past and you’re in your late 30s (or worse) and fighting against biology and the cruel arithmetic of the market and graduate school and career earnings, and you’d give pretty much anything to have the joy of 19-year-old Trojan-clad fucking just once more.

And to have a kid, of course.

Kelly was two years older than me, an art history professor at Chapel Hill. We’d met back when she was working toward her Ph.D. and I was at the same textile design firm I’d worked at since finishing art school. We’d held off on kids for a while as she finished her degree, and then her first teaching gig had been a part-time, indentured-servitude thing at UVa, so we’d actually been a long-distance couple for the first two years of our marriage.

After we tried in earnest to get pregnant (and that’s what it became, too: earnest; can there be anything less arousing than earnest sex?), we both would wonder how many missed opportunities there’d been over those two long-distance years, how many nights we might have conceived if only we’d been in the same state. Not that I blamed her — the delays and the waiting hadn’t bothered me that much, honestly. Her eggs, however, were less forgiving.

We tried and failed, again and again — suffering four first-trimester miscarriages and countless periods, which showed up at their regularly scheduled date with enraging consistency. Finally we’d started talking adoption. Which meant having a non-white kid. Which I was totally fine with. During those last few years of failed procreation, I’d been mulling over the possibility, had visualized myself dressing a Guatemalan 3-year-old or cleaning semi-hardened applesauce off the pale face of a Korean infant. What was the big deal?  A formerly depressed designer I worked with had recently adopted a Chinese girl, and he recommended it the way any other annoyingly happy middle-aged guy would push yoga or His Savior Jesus Christ.

So there I was at my office, waiting for the horrible Internet connection to bring up the photograph as my wife cried on the line. Zeroes and ones zoomed across the globe and there she was, little Jia with the chubby cheeks that told us at least she wasn’t malnourished over in her little totalitarian state-run orphanage.

I waited for the lump in my throat to loosen. “She’s beautiful.”


Let me be clear: I’m not that stereotypical Gen-X manchild. I work hard, I’ve been promoted five times and been profiled in design magazines twice; I gladly sold a house with seven acres of wilderness, which I loved dearly, so we could buy a cookie-cutter three-bedroom in the snazzy Chapel Hill school district; and I rarely have more than one drink a night (except when the Heels are on — hey, I’m not a monk). I was completely ready for fatherhood, until an hour after Kelly gave birth over the phone.

I spent most of that time calling my parents and my brothers (all of whom where lovingly burdened with multiple children), then surfing the Web for airfare to Beijing and some travel and language books on China. I wandered over to the cubicle of the guy who’d recently adopted from China, and from there the news quickly spread — I wound up chatting with half the company, I was just so out of it and wired.

So I decided to tell my boss.

Theo’s office was at the end of a long hallway decorated with framed photos of some of our most widely used designs. Three of mine had made it onto The Wall — more than anyone else’s. It was like getting your own star on that sidewalk in Hollywood. I usually tapped one of my frames when I walked by, for luck maybe, but that day I was so jazzed that I forgot.

“Hey, Theo,” I said.

“John, hey, thanks for coming.”  His smile looked a little weird. “Sorry to leave such a cryptic message like that.”

“I’m sorry?”

His weird smile was replaced with a weirder blank face. “You didn’t get my message, ’bout half an hour ago?”

“Oh, no, I’ve been on the phone all morning.”  I dimly remembered another call blinking when I’d been talking to some relative or another. “It’s been a strange day. That’s why I’m here, actually. I know you frown on people requesting big chunks of time off in August before High Point, but I’m going to need — ”

“Hey, could you sit down, actually?”

As bosses go, Theo was great. He described himself as one generation removed from hard-core redneck and he liked to make fun of the company’s Northern liberal transplants, as well as the “artsy-fartsy” designers like myself, but the insults felt well-intentioned. That, and he paid the bills.

“Sure,” I said. “What’s up?”

“John, I know we go back, and you know I’m not one to beat around the bush. I wish I knew the best way to do this, but I don’t. And even if I did, there’s really no such thing as a best way to lay someone off, so really all I can do is say it. Which I guess I just did. I’m sorry.”

I missed it. I still felt like I was floating, like the world around me had changed colors and I was searching for the right names for all the new hues. He waited, then tried again.

“It’s nothing personal, and it’s not just you. We’re letting go of seven designers, John. Seven, can you believe it?  I didn’t want to think this was coming, I was in denial, I refused to read the writing on the wall. But it’s NAFTA, John, and all the other free-trade bullshit. I’ve been bleeding for years now and this is the best way I can see fit to stay alive.”

“Wait, you’re laying me off?  Seriously?”

“I’m so sorry, John. You’re one of the best I have. But also one of the most expensive, given your seniority. I’ve been talking to Terry in HR and we can swing a six-month severance — we might could do seven, depending on a few things. Technically I pay her to deliver shitty news like this, but I thought you deserved to hear it from me.”

“I’m fired?  Theo…  What did I do?”

“It’s not about you, John. This is big-picture macroeconomic stuff. I’m telling you, there will be no textile industry in this country in a few years. I’m basically offering prayers to dear Jesus and Confucius that some Chinese firm offers me a good price — it’s that or the death by a thousand cuts. They’re the ones who invented that, right?”

There had been a few layoffs a year earlier, but those had been low-level designers who were hired after an ill-advised expansion, and some administrative people who were probably redundant anyway. I had heard about how China was siphoning textile-manufacturing jobs — anyone in Carolina knew that. But experienced designers like me?  I had figured the grunt work could be exported, the sewing and stitching and dyeing, but that I of the creative class was safe.

“Theo, this is really, really bad timing.”

“Tell me about it. My oldest starts college next year, and the twins are only two years behind.”

“Theo…  I’m going to be a dad.”

“No kidding. Congratulations!  I sort of figured you two weren’t interested.”

He explained that I could remain at the company for three more weeks and that Terry in H.R. would be more than happy to help me try and land at another firm. He then pointed out that every other firm was either laying people off or closing. He asked me if I’d considered going back to school, maybe becoming an art teacher or something.

I went back to my office and stared at the little girl on my screen.


“So,” said Irene, the lady at the Stork Hotel bar. I was in the middle of my second drink, and she had matured from straight soda to whiskey and soda. “Your wife doesn’t share your insomnia?”

“She took a sleeping pill so she’d be on the right schedule. How about your husband?”

“He’s in the process of becoming my ex-husband.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“I’m not. Fuck him.”

Thus far Irene and I had discussed the enraging complexity of international adoption, our various airline travel headaches, and college basketball (she’d gone to Maryland, which allowed us to bond over the fact that we hated each other). Divorce and its discontents seemed a weighty topic to bust out with.

“We went through the adoption process together. There’s no way I forced it on him. Jerry is not the kind of guy who gets forced. We filed the paperwork together, did the interviews, everything. Then when we were finally selected, he tells me he has cold feet. He tells me he doesn’t think he can do it, he isn’t dad material. Well, I am mom material, and I’ll be dad material too if I have to be.”

“Good for you.”

“Raising a kid solo was not my plan, but the way I look at it, when we got that phone call from the Ministry, from that point on, I’m pregnant. Just because my husband decides he can’t handle it doesn’t mean I can just stop being pregnant, y’know? Not after eight years of trying.”

“We tried for four. But it felt like eight.”

“Eight felt like 20.”

We laughed at ourselves then. It was the only thing to do. And I was nervous. She had this way of looking at me when she was talking, really looking. I told myself she wasn’t being flirtatious, she just had a penetrating gaze. But I wondered. I’d noticed that she had a great body, and the booze wasn’t helping.

“Anyway,” she said, “I can’t let them know about the divorce or they might rescind, so I’m lying and saying that my husband couldn’t make the trip due to an unforeseen work assignment, but that we’re still a wonderful couple, perfect candidates. I’ve become a human trafficker, lying to another country so I can take away a child.”

“Except, they’re giving the kids away. ‘Please, take our children, especially the unproductive and costly female ones.  Meanwhile, we’ll take your jobs.' What a great trade system they’ve devised.”

She didn’t know how to answer that. So I added, “You’re doing a good thing.”

Behind the bar two televisions were showing "Friends" reruns with the sound off. Cantonese script ran across the bottom.

“You a Jennifer Aniston fan?” she asked when she followed my eyes.

“No, but see that sofa she’s sitting on?  I designed the fabric for it.”

It was a green jacquard, very fine. Made to look expensive but be affordable. Not necessarily one of my favorites, but it had been a big hit. I also had seen chairs, ottomans and bedspreads endowed with my handiwork on "Seinfeld," "Sex and the City" and "The O.C." If you’ve flown US Airways in the last few years, you’ve sat on another of my patterns — boring, but we made a killing off it.

“Oh, wow. So, you design furniture?”

“I used to. Now I’m a dad.”


By the time I made it home the day of The Phone Call, Kelly had already printed and framed an 8 ½ x 11 version of Jia’s photo. It was hanging in the front hallway, the first thing I saw when I opened the door. Kelly was standing there beside it, looking at me with tears in her eyes. It got me, too, even though it was low res and kind of fuzzy blown up like that.

I didn’t have the guts to tell her about the layoff. We split a bottle of wine with dinner and when she pulled me into bed for the celebratory, no-procreation-pressure lay, I was a less-than-enthusiastic partner. I told her it was the wine, and we fell asleep with vastly different visions of our future family dancing in our heads.

I finally told her the next night, pretending that Theo had just given me the news.

She said all the right things, none of which I wanted to hear. That six months' severance would be more than enough for me to find another position (untrue, with the entire textile industry vanishing). That we had a lot in the bank anyway (untrue, now that we’d been paying a Chapel Hill mortgage with good-school taxes for three years). That she could support us on her own salary for a little while (staggeringly untrue, and what about her oft-stated desire to take a year off and bond with the baby?).

“Look, Kelly. This is really awful, awful timing. I wonder if we should put off the adoption.”

She stared at me for a few seconds. “What?”

“I mean, we need to be able to provide for this child. Food and clothes and — ”

“John, she’s our daughter. We can’t just give her back. There’s no return policy.”

“But we don’t actually have her yet. There must be a way to just ask them to drop us maybe six to 12 months down the list, so I have time to get back on my feet and — ”

“Are you serious?  Are you actually seriously saying this?”

I stood there wondering if there was a way I could rephrase what I was actually seriously saying.

“Sweetie,” and she put her hand on my arm, which she didn’t seem to realize felt so patronizing, “I know this is a hard thing. We need to take time to digest it. But we’ll be okay.”

Surely my skills were transferable, she said. There were plenty of marketing or advertising agencies out there, right?  I didn’t ask if she thought ad agencies were looking for 40-something guys who’d recently designed a bitching curtain set.

Instead, what I said was, “We spent so much time getting your career set up just so, but now that mine is off-kilter, it doesn’t matter, it’s full-speed-ahead with the family thing. That doesn’t seem fair.”

Her eyes welled up.

“This could be our last chance.”  Her voice broke on ‘chance.’  “If we go to them and say ‘No thanks’ or ‘Can we have a time out?,’ how do we know we aren’t blacklisted forever?  What if we’re about to hit some age where we aren’t considered ‘ideal candidates’ anymore?”

“That’s not how it works.”  I felt like I wasn’t directing my own voice anymore, that I was being compelled by outside forces. “Paul at the office has at least five years on me and they adopted in February.”

“I can’t take that chance!”  She marched past me, took the framed photo off the wall. “This is our daughter, John. I’m her Mommy. I’m not giving that up!  Not for unemployment or bankruptcy or a terminal illness!”  For a moment I thought she was going to drop the picture, so I reached forward and steadied it.

She looked down at it too. It was parallel to the ground now, facing up. One of Kelly’s tears landed on Jia’s cheek. We both held opposite corners of the frame.

I told Kelly I was sorry. Then I reached down and wiped the tear off my daughter’s face.


At some point in the evening the stools between mine and Irene’s had disappeared and we were sitting next to each other. She hadn’t been throwing the drinks back as quickly as I had but she still seemed pretty drunk to me.

Another couple sat down next to us, both of them tanned and fit, blond hair going silver.

“Tomorrow the big day for you too?” the guy asked.

“Yes,” Irene said. “I can’t believe it’s finally here.”

“We got here yesterday to acclimate, but now I wish we hadn’t,” the wife said, smiling. “Seeing all the babies everywhere, my God, I just want to go over there now.”

They both looked so fucking happy.

The husband asked what our baby’s name was, and I was about to correct the singularity of that question when Irene startled me by taking one of my hands and answering, “Kai. Four months old.”

“Wow, a little one!” the wife said. “That’s so young for this program.”

“Yeah, it is,” Irene said. “We’re so excited. We’ve been waiting forever.”

My surroundings had already been a bit spinny from drink, but now the heart was really a-pumping. What was she doing?  Did she just not want to explain her complex marital status to these buoyant strangers?  She’d explained it to me easily enough.

I tried not to look so shocked as I turned to face Irene, who gave me the quickest of glances. She was still holding my hand.

Their names were Craig and Bonnie, from New York. They had met at a mutual friend’s second wedding and had endured a few in vitro snafus. I never before had been around people so willing to spill their most intimate secrets, and I wondered if that’s what parenthood was like, if my future would be one of distressingly filterless conversation. Hello, nice to meet you, my wife is infertile, we’ve had years of unproductive sex, how are you?  Let me tell you about my little girl’s bowel movements. I wasn’t sure if I was ready for this.

Fortunately I had Irene to lie for me.

“We live in D.C.,” she told them. It turned out Bonnie had grown up in the D.C. suburbs, so we talked about different neighborhoods of a city I’d only been to twice in my life. Mainly I smiled dumbly and let my “wife” do the talking. Perhaps this was how most fathers feel.

We were nearing the end of our round when the two wives went to the bathroom together, as if they were old college friends. I found myself checking out Irene’s ass as she walked down the hallway.

It occurred to me that this might be my best chance to run from her and her nefarious plans, if I wanted to. I’d never been unfaithful to Kelly. I’d cheated on a girlfriend once in my early 20s and had felt horrible about it, had vowed never again to exile myself to that land of deceit and shame. I’d had my share of crushes over the years (the textile-design business was staffed by a disproportionate share of gorgeous young women), but I’d never acted on them.

"Friends" had been replaced by "Seinfeld." I watched Kramer gesticulate mutely for a bit while Craig told me how excited he was to be taking two months off from the PR firm he ran.

Then the “wives” returned. We chatted more, Irene answering most of the questions. I wondered if she considered this training for tomorrow, when she’d have to lie to the bureaucrats about the lovingly feathered nest she and her husband had prepared for their child.

Then the bartender turned off the TV and told us in barely accented English that the bar was closing. Irene winked at me and said, “I’ll charge it to the room, honey.”



By the time Kelly and I had landed, walked two miles through Beijing Intergalactic Spaceport, made it through customs, retrieved our luggage and taken a taxi to the Stork Hotel, we were dazzled by jetlag and nerves and something akin to the physical terror of being in labor. Also hungry, so we’d gone out for some Chinese food, of course. Fortune cookies are supposedly an American invention, but here they were, and they tasted as bad and Styrofoamy as ever. My fortune, which like the menu was printed in English, said that I was a person of strong character and integrity. Kelly’s told her she would soon meet someone who would change her life.

“It’s odd to be in a country where they actually still make things,” I said as we wandered past the stalls and shops, the baby products sharing space with miniature Great Wall statues, tourist maps and T-shirts with the Chinese flag. “I wonder if they even need to print ‘Made in China’ on anything or if it’s just assumed.”

Over the past few weeks we had accumulated the usual strollers and bouncy seats and infant swings. One day I’d received an email blast from Babies"R"Us informing me in deceptively sedate language that our co-sleeper had been recalled due to some problem with a bolt and spring that could perhaps occasionally lead to the strangulation of your child. I’d looked up the company online and found that the loving deathtrap had been made in China. A few days later that thing about the bath toy whose paint contained lead (also from China) was all over the news. Turned out we had a set of those, too, so I tossed them. It was hard not to panic about this. We didn’t even have the baby yet, and already she was under threat from all sides.

I started to monitor the recall watch lists, a couple parent/consumer Web sites and a rather right-wing anti-Chinese blog that I found kind of funny, if in bad taste. I figured I deserved a little off-color humor after spending hours crafting cover letters and sending groveling emails to old contacts.

A week before our flight, I mentioned the latest recall to Kelly over dinner. (It was the one about those train magnets detaching and becoming a swallowing-and-messing-with-the-kids’-intestines hazard.)

“I don’t need to hear about every one, John.”

“I’m just staying informed. I need to protect the little munchkin.”

“But we don’t have any toy trains.”

“I know, but I’m mentioning it so you don’t go out and buy one by mistake.”

“If it’s recalled, that means you can’t buy it anymore. It’s pulled from the shelves.”

“Well, someone might have bought it for us as a present, and they’ve wrapped it up and are waiting to send it to us until after we come back, and by the time they — ”

She put down her fork. I’d made this amazing pork tenderloin stuffed with spinach and roasted red pepper, spending most of the afternoon on the thing just to avoid my computer.

“You’re going to be in that country in a few days,” she said. “You need to learn how to not hate it.”

I told her maybe I was just nervous about fatherhood. Kelly and I had always had an egalitarian relationship, but all that genetic stuff about being a provider and protecting the clan was kicking in. If the woman who had told me during one of our first dates that she’d never want to be one of those kid-obsessed schoolmarms was going to suddenly spend hours reading about different playschool philosophies, join a knitting club and float the idea of owning a Subaru fucking Outback, then I was allowed to guard our household against cheap consumer goods whose lack of compliance with American safety guidelines posed a mortal risk to our progeny.

She didn’t respond to that, just took a bite of pork, chewed it very slowly and washed it down with the rest of the rather generous glass I’d poured her.

“This is excellent,” she told me.

Less than a month later, we were impulse-shopping in the fabled land of productivity, dazed by the cornucopia. At one of the shops Kelly bought a pink toddler T-shirt that read “Benevolent Dictator.”

“Hey, there’s the answer to your question,” she said, pointing out another baby onesie. It proclaimed, in bold red lettering, “MADE IN CHINA.”


Craig and Bonnie’s room was on the first floor, so after last call we paid our tabs and said goodbye and congratulations in the lobby. Irene was holding my hand again.

She pressed the up button for the elevator. I wondered if she was the type to do this a lot, if that was the real reason she and her husband split up.

The doors opened, we got in, and she pushed the button for floor 5. My room was on floor 7. I realized I was letting the doors close and I hadn’t pressed 7 yet.

She stepped closer to me. Our hands were sweaty. We wound up kissing each other. I’d been hard for a while and she was pressed against me now. The newness was so unreal, the fact that this was an unfamiliar mouth, a tongue that had its own habits. It was as though, up until that moment, I had thought that kissing or even sleeping with someone else would be exactly the way it was with Kelly, that only the body would be different. It woke me up.

The doors slid open. She took a step, still holding my hand, but I told my feet not to move. She smiled at me and tugged harder.

“I’m sorry,” I said. Feeling meek more than loyal, cowardly more than honorable.

“What’s one more celebration?”

The doors started closing. She kicked at them and they reversed, just like in America.

“It’s nothing personal,” I told her.

She watched me for a second. The look in her eyes seemed to say, I’m not one to beg.

“Good luck tomorrow,” I said as the doors closed, this time all the way.


When our alarm went off at the Stork Hotel, I didn’t feel quite as hung over as I should have. Kelly had woken earlier, the sleeping pills wearing off and the circadian rhythm taking hold, but she’d let me stay in bed until two hours before our appointment. If she’d smelled booze on me, she didn’t say anything.

“I can’t believe it’s time,” she said. “I can’t believe it’s today!”

The thing is? I couldn’t either. In a good way. Despite all my fears, I did want to be a dad, and I would never let myself become someone like Irene’s husband, running off with his selfishness at the first sign of sacrifice. I just wished I had more money in my bank account, or a future. Was that so terrible?  So maybe we would fall behind on the mortgage and maybe I would have to teach high school art and we’d have to buy a crumbling bungalow in a shady part of Durham and our little chubby-cheeked Chinese daughter would attend a school that didn’t have metal detectors, but should. Maybe all those things and worse would come to pass. But I’d damn well be there when they happened.

We hugged. Then kissed for like a minute. “Will we be allowed to do this in front of the baby?” I asked.

“Maybe when she isn’t looking.”

We checked that we had all the necessary documents and looked ourselves in the mirror to ensure that we appeared wholesome, responsible and bursting with love. I had counseled Kelly against wearing one of her better tops in case little Jia cried all over her shoulder (because wouldn’t we seem like kidnappers to her? at least at first?) but she was defiantly wearing a white linen blouse that she’d spent 15 minutes ironing. She looked great.

During the walk to the Ministry, I worried that we’d hear the sounds of screaming children inside, but Kelly reminded me that we weren’t going to the orphanage itself, just the building where the bureaucrats handed off the little tykes to their American rescuers.

The waiting room felt like a DMV, only smaller, and Communist. We gave our names to the fluent-in-English clerk, a bored older woman, very non-maternal. She told us to sit and wait.

We sat down directly across from Craig and Bonnie.

“Oh, hi, John,” Craig said, big happy smile on his face. Then he noticed I was with a different wife.

I couldn’t think of what to do. Both he and Bonnie were staring at me, their lips still wearing smiles of recognition but their eyes puzzled. They shifted in their seats uncomfortably.

I finally managed to look at Kelly.

“Oh, Kelly, this is Craig and Bonnie. From New York. I met them last night in the lobby, when I had insomnia.”  Then I faced them again, silently praying. “This is my wife, Kelly.”

“Very nice to meet you,” Bonnie said after a pause. I felt nauseated and my head pounded, as if the hangover had waited until then to kick in.

“I didn’t realize you were up last night,” Kelly said.

“Yeah, well, I couldn’t sleep. Nerves. I was just walking around the lobby and we all got to talking. They’re adopting a little girl too.”

We traded ages and names again. I stared at my feet as the wives chatted. When I looked up, Craig was watching me with what might have been awe or fear.

Then someone called our last name.

Both of Kelly’s hands clamped onto one of mine, the tightest she’d ever gripped it outside a cinema. She was a very nervous movie watcher. Always convinced disaster was about to ensue.

“Ready?” she asked. Craig and Bonnie had vanished, as had so much.

We stood, took the same breath, and walked up to the young bureaucrat who’d called our name. He was smiling as he held open the door to our future.




Eight Questions for Thomas Mullen


Thomas Mullen has brought a distinct voice to Southern literature. His novels — and the story you just read — make brilliant use of allegory to draw attention to big issues that face us all. He’s just got one problem. He’s a Red Sox fan.

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Next Week: 
We Look Under the Kudzu



If you pledge, as The Bitter Southerner has, to cover the “duality of the Southern thing,” that carries with it the obligation to cover the Whole South. Not one group over another, not one standard of beauty over another, but the entire ball of wax. Few people have covered the Whole South as well as Nashville photographer Tamara Reynolds, who traveled through Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, the Carolinas and Tennessee to gather next week's photography special, “Southern Route.” This incredible series of photographs represents Reynolds' own lifelong wrestling match with the duality. “I cringe at how the country has stereotyped the South as hillbilly, religious fanatic and racist. Although there is evidence of it, I have also learned that there is a restrained dignity, a generous affection, an infectious humor, a trusting nature, and a loyalty to family that Southerners possess intrinsically,” she says. “There is more to be revealed under the surface of things. Like kudzu, things may appear different from above than what lies beneath. While questioning my appreciation of the South, I found the beauty that is within. And through compassion I have come to accept.”

As should we all.



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