Cousin Juliana walked out of the delivery room cradling a bloodstained little bundle. She had been the family’s midwife for a long time, so the anxiety pursing her lips told me the surrogate had given birth to another girl. Three girls in five years.
“I am sorry, Lisandro.”
“Yeah,” I said, and turned around to leave the kitchen that doubled as waiting room.
“Lisandro, the girl is dead.”
I sighed. “It’s probably for the best.”
The men in my family don’t marry or raise girls. We give female children up for adoption and take care of them financially until they are adults. But we never see them grow up. I’ve always wondered what goes through these girls’ minds. Can they accomplish anything in life growing up knowing that their own dads don’t want them? Yes, I thought, death’s best.
Before I could reach the door, Cousin Juliana said, “The surrogate mother is dead.”
I stood in front of the door, squeezing the knob as tightly as I was clenching my jaw. “You’ll take care of things then?” I had wanted it to be a statement, but the words and the tone of my voice betrayed me, and the whole thing came out as a shaky question.
“I will clean her up if that is what you mean.”
“I can’t, Juliana. I have work. I don’t—”
“You can and you will, Lisandro Darleno Tapia.”
“Juliana, you don’t—”
“No, Lisandro.” Cousin Juliana pushed the burden into my chest and started shaking her finger an inch from my eyes. “You are the one who will not shame our family name. No one is requiring you to take a wife or be father to your child forever. Twenty-eight months, Lisandro. Like every Tapia man has done for as long as any of our history cares to remember. No one is asking you to be a father, but you will do your duty.” She went back into the delivery room and slammed the door shut.
Cousin Juliana’s shouts and the bang of the door echoed in my head. Nothing can sleep through this ruckus, I thought.
The universe was sprinkled with sparks of kindness. One could’ve touched the girl and sent her drifting away after her mother. I looked down at her for the first time, and found large dark eyes staring back at me, reminding me that the universe was also black, cryptic and unforgiving.
I tried holding the girl’s gaze, but ended up blinking before she did. “Your eyes are supposed to be closed,” I said. “You were just born, kid.”
Still staring at me, she wrinkled her face, stretched her small body and let out a noise that filled the kitchen with a stench that would’ve made a drunken grown man proud.
“Someone’s gonna have to clean that?” I said to her.
She continued watching me. And although I knew that a girl who had been in the world only for a few hours couldn’t know anything, I was sure the dark eyes studying my face were saying, I know my shit needs to be cleaned, man. You should get to it.
Darlene was three-years-old and we hadn’t been able to find an adoptive family good enough to raise her. The twelve couples Cousin Juliana and I had interviewed in the last seven and a half months had seemed all right at first, but completely wrong after we watched them interact with Darlene while they thought no one was looking.
Cousin Juliana and I sat in front of my laptop watching the latest prospective mother play with Darlene. The adoption was almost finalized, but I wanted to know if this woman would do anything for my girl. I was sure she would refuse, when I asked her if she would have a play date with Darlene without going through the adoption agency. She was delighted to oblige. I was looking for reasons strangle her.
“Lisandro, Mr. and Mrs. Ricks will be good to Darlene. The man is a sweetheart and the woman loves to play with the girl. Look at them together.” She pointed at the image of Mrs. Ricks waving a lollipop in front of Darlene’s face and giggling. “Do you know how hard it is to find a woman who can afford to be a stay at home mom?”
“My girl doesn’t like her,” I said, crossing my arms. “Look how annoyed she looks.”
“Of course she is annoyed,” Cousin Juliana said. “Mrs. Ricks is keeping the lollipop from her, and Darlene is as greedy and self-centered as all three-year-olds.”
“I think’s more than that, Juliana. Really look at her face, at her eyes, at her hands.”
Cousin Juliana began to shake her head, but stopped midway. She cocked her head to one side. “Hm,” she said, and clicked the speaker icon on the laptop.
“Please candy,” Darlene was saying to the woman.
“Nope,” Mrs. Ricks told her waving the lollipop in her face. “You didn’t say it quick enough.”
“Please.” Darlene stretched her little hand towards the lollipop.
Mrs. Ricks smiled at her, shaking her head as she put the lollipop in her own mouth. “Next time, you’ll remember to use your manners. In our family we work for what we want.”
Darlene’s shiny eyes stared at the bulge the lollipop made in Mrs. Ricks’ cheek. “Please,” she said, in a voice made of tears, “candy.”
Mrs. Ricks took the lollipop out of her mouth, glanced back and forth between the red candy and Darlene, and stuck the lollipop back into her mouth, “Manners—”
Darlene hugged Mrs. Ricks by the neck, and clamped all twenty of her baby teeth around the bulge the lollipop made under the woman’s cheek.
Cousin Juliana and I ran into the room. She took Darlene away. I stayed to take care of the screaming Mrs. Ricks.
Half an hour later, I found Cousin Juliana lying on Darlene’s floor watching my girl play with Oliver, her favorite toy.
When Darlene saw me, she handed Oliver to me, and said, “Pop, Dad, pop.”
I got a lollipop out of my jacket pocket and offered it to Darlene.
She shook her head. “Oliver pop, Dad, pop, pop,” she said with a determined look on her face.
“She heard the shots,” Cousin Juliana said.
“Yes, Darlene my darling, Oliver pop,” I said.
Darlene smiled at me and went back to play with Oliver and the rest of her dolls.
I looked at the dark wavy hair on the back of Darlene’s head, and felt that I was looking into a mirror and seeing my own head. “She’s my girl, Juliana.” I swallowed. “I just won’t—”
“You will not have to, Lisandro. You are her father. My father raised me and I turned out all right. I can watch her while you are out on a job.”
“I don’t think my Darlene is cutout to be a midwife.”
Cousin Juliana chuckled. “All she has to do is be Darlene.”
Nineteen years later, my girl sat on the hood of her car staring at a pair of sneakers. I hid behind a tree wondering what Darlene Juliana Tapia would do to the roommate who had just disrespected her in front of me. I thought of what Cousin Juliana said the day I chose to be Darlene’s Dad, and told myself, “Darlene will be Darlene.”
Those of you who have been reading my tales for a while already know how Darlene dealt with the “disrespect.” For those who haven’t and want to find out, here is “Darlene.”
for Magpie Tales 224
Not To Be Reproduced, by Rene Magritte