By Jennifer Downey
If you go hiking in the shadow of Mount San Gorgonio in inland Southern California and forget to bring something to eat, you have a couple of choices: you can either starve your way back down the hill to Redlands or eat at the one restaurant you saw on the drive up to the trailhead. Being people who often fail to plan ahead, my husband and I headed for the restaurant—a cute, woodsy A-frame with a view of a stream and a menu full of burritos, margaritas, and tamales. Mike was tired from the hike and I was dizzy from the altitude sickness I pretend not to suffer from.
It was about 3:00—that no-man’s-land between lunchtime and dinnertime—and the place was empty except for us. We’re not morning people and we tend to eat our meals at odd times of day–traits that match up nicely with our failure to plan ahead.
Our waiter was a local. He subjected us to a lengthy quiz before taking our drink order. Had we been hiking? Wasn’t it a beautiful day? We were such a cute couple—how long had we been married? How many children did we have?
Yes, we’d been for a hike. Yes, the sky is very blue today. We’ve been married 21 years. We don’t have children. May I have a margarita on the rocks and a glass of water, please?
My head was buzzing from the altitude. The tacky sombrero nailed to the wall seemed to shimmy when I blinked. I wanted water, and I wanted to follow it with a margarita. “No kids? Why not?” gasped the waiter.
“We just don’t. I’m not feeling so hot here. May I please have some water?”
“But why not?”
Maybe for the same reason you’re not bringing me water and a margarita?
My child-free friends and I like to come up with snappy answers for these inquiries. Mike likes to say that he’s legally mandated to stay at least 25 feet away from children. My friend Jim says that he and his wife used to have children, but, well, they got hungry and there was nothing in the fridge, so . . .
We share these zingers among ourselves, but we rarely use them when confronted with the question of why we haven’t produced progeny. The asker of the question is almost always too polite, too earnest, or too likely to spit in our food for us to answer with any degree of snark.
I worked with kids, not entirely on purpose, for eight years, first as a Head Start social worker and then as a placement coordinator for a group home serving emotionally disturbed children. The first time, I took the job because I was in the process of moving from Buffalo to Seattle and had no source of income. I interviewed over the phone at my parents’ house in Buffalo and found out I got the job over a pay phone in a tavern in South Dakota surrounded by bikers who had come in droves for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. The job sounded dreadful (looking back, it was dreadful), but with four cats in the car and an equally unemployed boyfriend standing next to me with an anxious look on his face, I accepted. The second time, I took the job as a stop-gap to pay the bills while I looked for something else. Five years later, having failed to even look for, let alone find, anything else, I was laid off and swore off working with kids for good.
The night I decided to leave my hometown of Buffalo was a particularly rough one. I was in my last semester of a social-work program at a good college in a bad neighborhood. The program was designed for people who had day jobs, so all the classes were held at night. It was snowing hard, and I hadn’t been able to find parking on campus, so I left my car in front of a house on Meech Street, making note of the address so I could find it three hours later and excavate it with the snowbrush I carried in my bag.
It was difficult to concentrate in class, especially after we heard the gunshots—three in a row: pow, pow, pow! We all startled, and the professor looked out the window. “Here’s hoping nobody parked on Meech Street,” he said.
It was 1994, and Seattle seemed like the place to be, so six months later, I gathered up my master’s degree, my boyfriend, and my cats, and headed west. We were barely 24—a cute Gen-X couple going on an adventure. I didn’t have a credit card. Mike had one, but no car, so we took mine and filled up the tank along the way with his credit card. When they’d let us, we paid cash for motel rooms, including one in Spokane where we were politely asked if we wanted to pay by the hour or spring for the nightly rate of thirty-eight dollars.
“May I please have a glass of water and a margarita?” I asked the waiter. “The altitude is messing with my vision.” He disappeared to get our drinks and I sighed. “F**king again,” I muttered.
Mike takes these interrogations easier than I do, but even he widened his eyes when the waiter came back with our drinks and announced that the local spring water was known to have positive effects on women’s fertility. He made a rounded hand motion over his belly—the universal sign for a pregnant woman—and gave me a knowing look.
“Maybe I’ll start with the margarita,” I mumbled.
The waiter didn’t seem to like the idea of my drinking a margarita, as if perhaps I might be unknowingly pregnant and drowning my baby in tequila. “You two would have beautiful babies! How can you not want them?” His tone was playfully scolding, but with an edge.
Because they might grow up to ask strangers rude questions.
Because we like to have sex on the kitchen table.
Mike fielded the questions, as he usually does. “We love our nieces and nephews,” and so on.
He is diplomacy personified. I am not.
We had been in Seattle for a year and a half when we made an appointment at City Hall and managed to show up on time. We answered the judge’s questions in the affirmative, signed our names in ink, and were out of there in ten minutes, feeling shaky and different, but not too different. We were 25. We had a joint bank account and two credit cards. We were making payments on a second car through my credit union. I belonged to a credit union.
When we talked about kids, we talked about adoption, and when we talked about adoption, we talked about adopting a little girl from China. We looked into it and found that in order to adopt from China, we had to be at least 35 and have no history of taking antidepressants. That news bought us ten years to keep this little girl, whom Mike wanted to name Sequoia and I wanted to name Amity, hypothetical. I told him that I considered naming a child Sequoia child abuse. He told me that we he heard Amity, he thought of the Amityville Horror.
Mike went to our doctor and requested a vasectomy. The doctor refused. At my next physical, the same doctor wrote a prescription refilling my birth control pills and then ever-so-gingerly informed me in a stage whisper that my husband had asked him about the possibility of a vasectomy, apparently prepared to withstand the freak-out he assumed I’d throw. I assured him that I was aware and expressed my disappointment that he had refused. I also told him I was having bad days, really bad days, and that sometimes I had trouble getting out of bed and interacting with people. Maybe it was the gloomy Seattle weather, but I’d had these spells before. He wrote me a prescription for Zoloft, an antidepressant.
“Have you thought about who will take care of you when you’re old?” the waiter asked, setting down our burritos. I ordered a second margarita, wondering why anyone would have a child for such a selfish reason.
Well, I’m kind of hoping Alexander Skarsgård will take the gig.
Gee, we haven’t thought about that. Oh, hey—how about you?
We considered switching doctors, but we switched states instead. Seattle in the 90s wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, so Mike lined up a job in Southern California. By then, we could afford to hire a moving service to take our stuff while we drove down the coast with the same four cats. By then, we actually had stuff.
Once we got to California, I took the stop-gap job and didn’t even pretend to look for something better. We bought a hundred-year-old house with good bones and got to work scraping off wallpaper and refinishing floors. We never talked about which room would be Amity’s (Mike had given up on Sequoia). We turned 30. Mike found a doctor to perform the vasectomy, and I signed a form saying I was okay with it. We adopted two rescued greyhounds. I switched from Zoloft to Celexa. We bought a new car to replace the one I dug out of the snow the night I heard gunshots on Meech Street. The first of the four cats died, and I cried until I hyperventilated.
“You only ate half!” the waiter said when I asked for a to-go box. “Come on now, between the protein and the spring water, things should fall into line. After all, without kids, what keeps you together?”
Mike and I caught each other’s eyes and silently agreed to do a thing we had talked about doing before, albeit in another context. We decided to lie.
“The doctor said we can’t, so can we please just not talk about it?” Mike asked the waiter. Horrified, the waiter, instead of shutting the f**k up, asked if we’d requested a second opinion. “It’s just not in the cards for us,” Mike said. I sipped my margarita and gave the waiter the Stare of Death.
At 33, I was laid off from my last kid-centered job. I took the opportunity to get another graduate degree, this time in library and information science. By the time I completed the degree, we were 35. We went to Europe for the first time. We had the biggest fight we’d ever had, which led to a series of other fights, which led to each of us, separately and together, walking right up to the Marriage Precipice, looking down into the Valley of Divorce, and tiptoeing back in a panic. We slowly, tentatively made up. One of the three remaining cats got sick and had a kidney removed. We remodeled the kitchen. Mike’s father died, suddenly and unexpectedly, and we sat next to each other on a flight to upstate New York in stunned silence, holding hands.
We were 35. We had hit the finish line—or was it the starting line?
It was time to talk about Amity.
If we were going to adopt, we’d either have to look outside China or lie about my use of antidepressants. We decided we would lie. We said would, not will. Would left room to change our minds. If we did this, we would lie; not when we do this, we will lie. We were careful to keep Amity in that hypothetical place where she had been for so long.
The waiter came back to clear our plates from the table. “I hear alternative medicine is making big strides,” he said, acting somewhat sheepish, but still determined. I considered ordering a third margarita just to piss him off, but didn’t. We paid the bill and left a 20 percent tip because that’s the kind of people we are. Driving back down the hill, we vowed never to return.
The website of an organization called Families with Children from China offered a wealth of information about adopting. I read the stories about cute Gen-X couples like us who went to China, stayed for a week or two, saw the sights, learned all they could about the culture so they could someday teach their child about it, and came back with babies. I scrolled through the photos of the Yangtze River cruises, the temples, the Great Wall. It all looked incredible and life-changing—until I remembered the part about the babies.
In a dazed moment of clarity, I admitted something to myself that I kind of already knew: I didn’t want to adopt a baby from China; I wanted to go to China. I didn’t want to lie about taking antidepressants. I didn’t want to misrepresent myself or anyone else. I was a taker of psychotropic drugs, and I was not a woman lacking a baby. I liked my life. I was content.
Much like Seattle in the 90s, being 35 wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. The image in my head of motherhood shifted from one of me reading peacefully with a sleeping Amity in my arms (in my head, she was pretty much always asleep, which was convenient because that meant she barely cried, or even moved for that matter) to the reality of Amity being real and human and awake and so, so loud. And on the fringes of this image I saw myself spending way too much time in a filthy kitchen and tripping my way through a living room filled with ugly, plastic things that beeped and talked when you pushed buttons.
I didn’t want that life. What I had was good. It was enough, and I didn’t want more.
With no small amount of guilt, I realized that I didn’t want Amity.
We never did lie to adopt a child, but we lied to get the waiter off our backs. Telling Mike I wanted out of the whole plan wasn’t hard at all, because we had never actually committed ourselves to it in the first place. Amity was imaginary, and we were real. Still, though, I knew she was out there, waiting, and I desperately hope someone has adopted her and given her a name and a home for all the right reasons.
We can’t tell all this to relentlessly nosy waiters, or to anyone relentlessly nosy, because it takes too long, and because it’s the whole story of our lives, and because it’s personal and parts of it are hard to talk about. But the waiter wanted to know what keeps us together, and I that’s a question I can answer.
For Mike and me, what keeps us together isn’t Amity, because we have amity.
What keeps us together is everything I just told you.