Chapter 1 - Nate
On July 13th 1996, a miracle happened. I’m not sure how well I believe in God, god, or gods, but that day was a victory for faith no matter how you cut it. Love prevailed on that muggy summer afternoon. A ray of sunshine broke through the clouds and cast some hope into my miserable little existence.
In a fun twist, on July 13th 1996, I punched my aging female case worker in the face and called two kind, generous men “disgusting faggots” and threatened to kill them in their sleep.
Let’s back it up a bit, shall we? Quick history lesson -- about six years prior to the day in question, Patrick Nguyen met Edward Parker at a dinner party. Patrick was a 26 year old lawyer who had just passed the New York state bar. Edward was just finishing his first year of medical school. The party was a birthday party, hosted by Veronica, a mutual friend who Patrick had met in law school and Edward met in his freshman year of college.
Ed and Pat hated each other instantaneously. Edward thought Patrick was arrogant. Patrick thought Edward’s sarcasm was unnecessarily biting. They spent most of the party locked in fierce debate. They fought about U.S.-Soviet relations over hor d’oeuvres. They debated the ethics of Wall Street over cocktails. Shortly after sitting down to eat, Ed learned that Pat was raised Catholic which begat a furious debate regarding the validity of the sacrament.
Just before desert, Veronica leaned over and whispered to Pat. “Eddie’s single,” she murmured. “His boyfriend just moved to California.”
After that, the tone of their conversation changed considerably.
In December of 1992, Ed and Pat went on their first official date.
In January of 1994, Ed moved into Pat’s apartment in Greenwich Village.
In December 1994, on the anniversary of their first date, Pat asked Ed to marry him.
They had to go to Vermont to get a marriage license, but they held the ceremony at Pat’s parents’ farm in upstate New York. It was a raucous affair with an open bar, a bonfire, and a dance floor that didn’t even begin to cool down until daybreak. Pat and Ed snuck off around midnight and loved for hours on a hilltop, miles away from the noise and light and joy of the party. They held each other and stared at the stars, and knew with all certainty that what they had was forever.
Okay, now back to that fateful summer day in 1996, because I’m sure you’re wondering what this happy couple has to do with a nascent homophobic shithead who punches women.
You see, Ed and Pat were happy together, but after a year or so of marriage they realized they were missing something and they started doing research. They wanted a child. In the beginning, they wanted an infant. I guess that’s normal. Nobody wants a kid who’s already fucked up. You want a blank slate, that way you can twist things up in your own special way, right? Damaging a scarred up psyche is no fun at all.
They talked to a few agencies. Built up their hopes. Suffered devastation. Built up their hopes again. Suffered devastation again. A year later, a friend sat them down over drinks and talked to them about children in foster care. “There are kids out there who need a loving home,” she said. “Kids who are a little older. Some have been hurt or neglected, but they’re still children. Children who need the kind of love you guys have in spades. Think about it.”
They thought about it, and I love Ed and Pat because they didn’t have to think about it for long. The blank slate lost its appeal as they looked at the world with new eyes. They decided that, for them, parenthood would not be about the satisfaction of creating a perfect child or about churning out little carbon copies of themselves. Parenthood, they concluded, should be about one thing: love. Love for each other and love for a child who needed them.
On July 13th 1996, Pat and Ed adopted a five year old boy. He wasn’t perfect. He didn’t talk much, he struggled at school, and he was a little short and skinny for his age. He had cigarette burn pocks on his arms, a stiff pinky finger on his left hand from a broken bone that never healed right, and a jagged silvery scar on his right cheek. He was terrified of the dark, suffered violent night terrors, and there was only one person on earth who he trusted enough to look in the eye. Neither Pat nor Ed were that person.
That little boy was eighty tons of baggage in a fifty pound package, but Pat and Ed loved him immediately. They found room in their hearts for that messed up kid, because they saw in him what few others were able to. I don’t know how, but they saw straight past the bruised up surface into his soul and they knew it would only take a nudge to push him into the light. Nothing but a little love and security, and that nervous, broken little boy would blossom into the brightest, most infectious force for good their world had ever seen.
I hated them for that. I hated my case worker for breaking the news, and I hated Pat and Ed. The problem, see, is that they had all that room for a sweet little five year old with a learning disability, floppy hair, and a gap between his two front teeth. What they didn’t have room for was that five-year-old’s pissed off older brother who, at the tender age of twelve, already had a file full of disciplinary issues and had mastered ugly things like homophobic slurs and and a mean right hook.
Jake wailed. He clung to my leg and howled my name at the top of his lungs while I backed the two of us into a corner of that gaudy, colorful room and raised my fists, ready to brawl.
“Nathan, you need to calm down,” my case worker said, holding her hands out in front of her as she approached us. Her voice was professional and calm, but her face was stern and I saw fear in her eyes. Panic. Weakness. I bared my teeth.
“Get the fuck back,” I growled. “They’re not taking him!”
Ed and Pat stood by the desk. Pat had his arm around Ed’s shoulders, and they looked deeply, painfully sad. I saw it as weakness and I hated them even more for showing it.
“Nathan, you’re scaring Jake,” our case worker said. That gave me pause. I glanced down at my little brother’s tear-streaked face. His eyes were bloodshot and puffy and a thick stream of snot coated his upper lip. He breathed in jagged hiccups. “This is happening, Nathan,” she said, quieter this time. “You’re making it much harder on Jake. This is a good thing. An amazing thing. He needs to know that. He needs to hear it from you.”
I swallowed hard as bile rose in my throat and the inevitability of it sank in. She was right. Even if I fought her off, there were the two imposters to get past. And a whole building of case workers and security guards if we made it out the door. And I was twelve. I could barely keep him safe in foster care. How could I keep him safe if we went on the run?
For a moment, reason prevailed. I nodded jerkily. “Can we have a sec, Miss Meg?” I asked, and she nodded hesitantly, backing away. Ed and Pat followed her out the door, and she shut it behind them. The door to her tiny office had a giant window in the middle of it, and they were standing right outside. There wasn’t much privacy, but at least we could talk.
“It’s gonna be okay, Jakey,” I said, sinking to my knees in front of him.
“I don’t wanna go,” he moaned, stepping into me and burying his face in my shirt. His tiny arms wrapped around me and squeezed, and his shoulders shook with gasping, hysterical sobs. “Please,” he begged, his words punctuated by hiccups as he soaked my shirt with tears. “Please don’t… don’t… let… them… take… me.”
“It’s gonna be good, Jake,” I said, rubbing his back. “You’re gonna love it. You heard them. They’re super rich, huh? I bet they’ll get you a nintendo, or maybe they already have one! They’ll take you to movies in the theater. You’ll get tons of presents for Christmas and your birthday, and I bet if you ask really nice they’ll make you waffles for dinner.”
Jake stilled, peering up at me, a frown wrinkling his brow. He looked skeptical and serious, and for a second I almost forgot where we were and laughed at him. Nothing got to Jake quite like waffles.
“For dinner?” he asked. “Tonight?”
“I mean you gotta ask, but they seem really nice and they really want you to like them. I bet you could get them to cave.”
“I want blueberries in mine,” he said, pulling away and wiping his nose with the back of his hand.
“Don’t wipe your nose with your hand,” I scolded out of habit. I reached for the tissues on Miss Meg’s desk and snagged a handful. “You’re gross,” I grumbled, wiping the snot off his face. “Blow.” I held the tissues over his nose and gagged dramatically as he hawked what had to be a gallon of snot into them. He giggled at my histrionics.
“What kind of waffles do you want?” Jake asked on a bracing sniffle, rubbing his eyes with his fists.
The question brought the nausea right back, and I felt cold sweat break out on my neck. “I’m not coming with you, Jakey. You know that.”
“But I want you to.”
“I know that. I…” I want to, too. “I gotta stay and look after Deb and Ian.” It wasn’t completely false. Deb was eleven, Ian was Jake’s age, and our current foster parents were mean old drunks. They did need me.
“But you love me more than them,” Jake said with a scowl.
“Well yeah,” I shrugged. “But you got your two new dads, now. They’re gonna love you and keep you safe, so I gotta stay with the others. Otherwise who’s gonna keep them safe?”
Jake thought about it. I saw his little mind working behind his eyes and I saw the fierce courage and selflessness it took for him to nod. “You’re right,” he nodded. “Will you come visit?”
“I dunno, buddy. I’ll ask Miss Meg.”
As if by cue, the door cracked open and my three mortal enemies re-entered the room. “It’s time to go, Jake,” the case worker said, but she was looking at me. I nodded.
“Time to go with Pat and Ed,” I said, standing and taking Jake’s hand.
It almost went smoothly.
Halfway across the tiny office, Jake planted his feet.
“No,” he said, shaking his head vehemently. “I don’t wanna go.”
“You gotta, buddy,” I cajoled. “C’mon.”
“No!” he exclaimed. “I don’t want waffles!”
My vision was blurring. I tried like hell not to cry, but it was a lost cause. “Please, just go,” I said, tugging him toward his new parents.
“You don’t love me!” Jake cried, glaring up at me with a fresh crop of tears in his puffy, red-rimmed eyes. “You don’t want me!”
“Of course I do!” I snapped around my own tears.
“Then don’t let them take me!” he argued. It was handy logic, and I guess it was good that Pat and Ed got to see their new son’s latent intelligence. Learning disability aside, my brother was whip smart and, at five, was already a competent debater.
“You gotta go, Jakey,” I said, kneeling and wrapping him in a hug. “You gotta be brave.”
“No!” he screamed in my ear, deafening me. “Don’t let them take me!”
Then the case worker was there. She tried to pick Jake up and he kicked out at her, arms latched around my neck. Sobbing.
“Don’t let them take me!” he cried. “Don’t let them! Don’t let them don’t let them don’t let them--”
Something about his manic, garbled pleading got to me. It always had. Jakey in distress was like a trigger for the rage my dad handed down to me. Rage I normally kept wrapped up tight and buried deep inside where it couldn’t hurt anyone. I guess I snapped a little. Jake kicked and I pulled and there I was, back in the corner of the office with my charge in my arms and the world bearing down on us.
“No!” I cried, tightening my grip on him as I cowered in the corner. “You can’t!”
“Nathan, let go,” came Miss Meg’s patient voice. I was just a kid-- and a skinny one at that-- so it didn’t take much effort for her to pull me away from the wall. Another case worker had responded to the racket and was prying Jake out of my arms as Meg held me back.
“Stop!” Jake screamed, his fingers scrabbling at my shirt as he was pulled away. “Nate, make them stop! Please! Stop it! I don’t want waffles! I DON’T WANT WAFFLES!”
Then he was gone, and so was my control. I lashed out, clipping Miss Meg in the chin with one furious, flying fist. She grunted and staggered back, and I tore loose from her grip and chased my brother and his captors out of the room.
“Give him back!” I yelled, my voice hoarse and thick with tears and hysteria. The second case worker was walking away with Jake, who was screaming incoherently, sobbing, hands outstretched over the man’s back as he reached for me. Ed and Pat followed their new son, glancing back over their shoulders with tears in their eyes.
“Give him back, you disgusting faggots!” I screamed at their retreating backs as hands grabbed me, picking me up off the ground. I hated them, then, these men, who had opened their home and their hearts, offering what I wanted for my brother more than anything else-- love, safety, and happiness. I hated them with all of my soul. “You can’t have my brother! You don’t deserve my brother! I’ll fucking kill you in your sleep!” I yelled, kicking and scrabbling and utterly unable to follow as a miracle carried my little brother out of a life of pain, hunger, and darkness.
The hands carried me back into a room specially designed for stupid little kids having stupid mental breakdowns. The floor was a colorful patchwork rubber mat. Every toy in the room was soft and harmless. The chairs were of the beanbag variety. Inset on one wall was a smudged two-way mirror so that detachedly concerned adults could stand and watch and pity without the risk of contact.
Whoever was holding me dragged me into that room. I kicked and screamed and clawed and bit. I called my sweet and kindly case worker a bitch. I elbowed the man holding me in the balls and slammed my forehead into his nose. When a third person entered the equation, stroking my face with calming hands to accompany her soothing words, I sank my teeth into her finger and bit until I tasted blood.
Eventually, they wrestled me to the floor and held me there until I stopped fighting and the furious stream of curses and threats faded to hiccuping sobs. Gradually, the hands moved away and I curled up on my side, pressing my face to the sticky rubber mat and clutching my stomach. My mouth watered as nausea rose in my throat and I made no effort to hold it back.
Bile, chicken nuggets, and orange drink surged up from my stomach as I heaved. The case workers were pissed at me. I could feel it. Even Miss Meg was mad, and somewhere deep down that made me sad because Miss Meg always seemed to have patience and there was something comforting in that. Even if it was her job, at least she was there. That day, though, she sighed and mumbled something about the janitor. Then her hand patted my back, but it was mechanical and grudging.
“Honestly, Nathan. You needed to be strong for Jake. What were you thinking?” she asked. Too mired in guilt and loss to speak, I shifted away from the malodorous puddle by my head and curled up tighter around the pain in my stomach. I couldn’t breathe past the constricting sensation that strangled my heart and twisted my stomach into knots.
On July 13th 1996, a miracle happened. A smart, sweet little boy found a happy, loving home. Two kind, generous men found a way to spread and multiply their love and compassion in an ugly, hateful world. It was a beautiful day. That afternoon, a thunderstorm rolled through, leaving the streets crisp and clean and the the air ten degrees cooler and smelling of damp earth and wet pavement. There was a music festival in the city center, and the streets were raucous and colorful with celebration.
On July 13th 1996, fate smiled at the world. A drop of good splashed into the bucket and, for all intents and purposes, it was a wonderful day.
Except for me.
I had scarier days than July 13th 1996. I had harder days, longer days, lonelier days, and days that made the pain of losing my brother seem like little more than a papercut. But that was still the worst day of my life, because that night I met her. My angel. My savior. My highest high. My haven. My everything good in the universe. From that point on, no matter how wretched life was, at least I knew I shared the world with her.