To Tell the Truth
When my real mother dies, I go looking for another one. The Catholic Charities counselor’s word for this other mother I want, after decades, to find is “biological”. Illegitimate is another word for people who end up like me. It’s what I feel now: unlawful, unauthorized, unwarranted here in this office that smells like antiseptic and rubber gloves, hot teeth drilled down to bone.
The Catholic Charities counselor has questions. They’re my questions, too.
What is the nature of your search?
Why has it taken you so long?
I am nearly forty. The counselor is only slightly older, but her hair is gray and cropped like a game-show host’s, like Alex Trebek’s.
The counselor’s beige skirt hits below her knees. My mother, the mother who raised me, called this shade of beige “bone”. She had shoes in this color. My mother had a lot of shoes, high heels, with purses to match. She stacked them in her closet, arranged by color, white to bone to black.
“The rest of me might be going to hell,” she liked to say. “But my legs are good.” At 70, she’d Rockette kick and spin to show how good.
My mother and I had the same size feet, but I couldn’t walk in heels. When she died, I had to decide what to do with all those beautiful shoes I couldn’t bear to give away or leave at Goodwill.
It’s one of the things that bothers me, the idea of strangers walking around in shoes my mother used to dance in.
The Catholic Charities woman doesn’t look the dancing type. She has thick ankles. Her shoes are rubber-soled. Her hands are tight as an onion in her lap. Beneath those hands is my file, my name printed in black Sharpie on the tab. The folder looks new, even though the information inside is decades old.
“Biological,” she says again, and I think of warfare, congressional panels, fear.
“I wasn’t ready before,” I say to the counselor. “And now,” I say, “I am.”
Before Jeopardy, Alex Trebek hosted another game show called To Tell the Truth. On To Tell the Truth, celebrities had to sort a real news-worthy person from a panel of impostors.
Everybody lied. Everybody lied until they didn’t. That was the fun, waiting for the real person to please stand up.
The Catholic Charities counselor has questions. They’re my questions, too, though until now I thought I knew the answers. Here, under interrogation, everything is suspect. Every answer becomes another question.
Who are you? Why are you here?
A silver cross glints at the counselor’s throat. Her face is blank. She doesn’t blink. This seems conscious, as if she wills herself not to blink, as if she believes not-blinking will make her seem open and honest and incapable of lying, even if the subject is someone’s impostered life.
I hate her. A moment later, I feel sorry. The counselor nods. She unfolds her hands and picks up my file. She taps it once against her palm, then sets it on the far side of the desk behind a framed picture of her dog.
The dog, a white poodle, wears a birthday hat. Its front paws straddle a cake shaped like a bone.
The counselor’s dog looks like Tina II, the dog I had growing up. Tina II was a replacement dog, the fallback when Tina I died during surgery for something I can’t remember.
“Goddamn butcher,” my father said of the veterinarian, who’d offered to dispose of Tina I for a fee, no problem. My father went to collect Tina I’s body. He threatened the vet, who reimbursed the cost for the botched surgery.
My father, stooped and heartsick, buried Tina I in the back yard next to my mother’s tomato garden. He didn’t mark the spot, no stone, no sticks, because that would make it hard to mow over.
After a while, weeks maybe, when the grass seed he sprinkled sprouted up and the weeds came back, it was hard to remember where he’d put her. After that, he took my mother and me to a poodle breeder to pick out Tina II.
Back then, age 7 or so, I was lonely and asking for a brother or a sister.
“Now even if we wanted to, how would we do that?” my mother, who couldn’t have children of her own, said.
That’s the phrase people used, “children of her own”.
I didn’t think of myself as a replacement dog. I never asked my mother if she’d known if the baby she lost, the one who nearly killed her, was a boy or a girl.
“We always wanted a girl,” she said, and I figured she meant me.
I used to roll Tina II’s ears in sponge rollers. I held her against my chest while I slept. I told her secrets and my father made her steak and dressed her in a knit sweater and booties and my mother made her a birthday cake with trick candles and Tina II stayed a dog and not a person and after a while I decided maybe everyone, no matter what, ended up alone like me.
Your dog,” I say to the counselor. “He’s cute.” “Yes, well.” She clears her throat and looks off somewhere above my head.
“You should know there aren’t any guarantees. Sometimes the stories are happy like on TV. Sometimes they’re not. Most times, not.”
I nod. There is a blister on the roof of my mouth. I press my tongue against it until it hurts. I press harder and try to get the blister to pop.
The counselor hands me a clipboard. “Don’t leave anything out,” she says, and turns back to her computer.
Even the easiest questions seem like tricks—name, date of birth, known medical history. The others are worse.
What is your expected outcome?
How satisfied are you with your life? Rate from 1 to 10.
Do you consider yourself stable? Content?
If you had one thing to tell your birth parent(s), what would it be?
Outside, Pittsburgh sparkles in the autumn light. All those rivers and bridges, connecting everything to everything.
Once, at the height of his fame, Alex Trebek shaved his trademark
mustache. He wore a fake one on TV, an April Fool’s joke. When he tore it off on-air and showed the world his naked face, it made news. Major networks tracked the evolution of Alex Trebek’s mustache with photo essays, stock footage. Fans grieved.
“I just felt like it,” Trebek said about shaving. “And it got so much press I couldn’t believe it. The wars with Iraq or whatever, and people are all in a stew over my mustache. Get a life.”
When he grew his mustache back, my mother, who loved Jeopardy, said, “Thank god. He looks like himself.”
“You are what people think you are,” my mother liked to say, as if everything came down to perception, as if there were no such thing as a true self.
Back to the questionnaire. I fill it with lies. I rate my life a 9. I write, “I see life as an opportunity for growth.”
Was I content? Yes. Stable? Yes.
What is your expected outcome? What one thing would you tell your birth parent(s)?
I write: “I’d like a medical history.” I write: “I’m happy.” These are, I know, good answers.