“Welcome home, brother love!” My twin sister’s hoop earring snags my ear as she pulls back from our hug. “Who’s that?” she asks, gazing over my shoulder.
On the other side of the baggage carousel is the woman who sat beside me on the flight. She is standing awkwardly, holding her bags as mobs swarm about, watching me reunite with my parents and sister after my first semester away at grad school.
“Oh, her? She was almost our biological mother.”
“What?” my mother half asks, half shrieks.
I say I’ll explain in the car.
What I would not explain in the car was why I had planned this trip: to come out. A big deal now but even bigger in 1993.
I was confident my parents—liberal New Yorkers—wouldn’t disown me. But having adopted us later in their lives and now old enough to be our grandparents, at times they did seem a bit folksy. So I had spent my months in San Francisco planning this moment.
The first part of the plan was to keep my cool on the flight home, which involved a Ziploc bag filled with fruit—nectarines, peaches, plums, apricots. Maybe California produce would be an icebreaker for the poor sucker destined to sit beside me. This was before iPhones and iPads, and a book wouldn’t be enough to distract me from the task at hand. I intended to chat my jitters away during the six-hour flight.
I sat there, tapping the armrests, while passengers fed luggage into the overhead.
Maybe I’d have the two-seat aisle to myself? That wasn’t part of the plan.
But then someone appeared: a woman. Forty-ish. Brown hair. Casual sweater and jeans. An apologetic grimace. “Sorry,” she said. “I think I’m in there.”
I stood, let her slide past, and waited until she buckled in.
“Hi, I’m Michael.” I held up my Ziploc and grinned. “Piece of fruit?”
She laughed. “Sure! Why not? I’ll take a nectarine.”
She introduced herself. And then we were off. The ground. And talking.
Actually, she was doing most of the talking—even better.
By the time she’d finished her second nectarine, I’d heard about her husband, her two kids in college, her job in insurance and why she was headed to Brooklyn—her dying mother. I said I was sorry. She nodded and sighed, then asked if I enjoyed traveling. I told her I was organizing my first trip abroad. “Next year, I hope. Europe.”
“Oh, wonderful! Do it! Do it! And now. Before you get married and start having kids.”
I considered coming out to her then. To practice. But hesitated. What if she was homophobic? That would make for a tense flight. And conversation killer. No—I needed the distraction. Besides, she was off again. Her time in France, Italy . . .
“Ya know, girls didn’t just get up and go back then. In the sixties? Nah. But I waited tables all through high school. Saved every dime. And after graduation, I was off. Amazing! The food, the art, the architecture—and oh, I fell in love too! An Italian. . . .”
I was taking notes furiously on my cocktail napkin—the museums and palazzios she suggested, the beaches . . . and I was even scribbling fall in love with an Italian —when the flight attendant leaned into our row.
“Chicken parmesan or beef stroganoff?”
We both said “chicken.” At the same time. And laughed.
“How could we not,” my row mate said, “with all this talk of Italy?” She sneered at her tray when the flight attendant moved on. “Guess I’m spoiled—my mother’s Italian. I grew up with the real deal.” She chewed and shrugged. “What about you? You look Italian.”
“I don’t know actually.” I was wiping away the sauce I’d managed to spill on my lap.
“You don’t know?”
“No,” I said. “I was adopted.”
She said nothing. Stopped eating. And started breathing deeply. Staring. At the seat in front of her.
“Why do you ask?”
Her hands gripped the armrests as if preparing for a crash landing. I suddenly felt grateful I hadn’t unloaded the gay thing on her.
She was taking deeper breaths. The kind my roommate would take doing yoga in our living room. I stopped eating too. And waited. What was happening?
Then her head turned, and her eyes locked on mine. “What’s your birthday?”
It was more of a demand than question. I told her. April 17.
Her head spun back. Her lungs seeming to function again. Her hands releasing the armrests but shaking. Shaking? What was going on?
“Why?” I asked. “Why’d you ask that?”
There was another pause. Her eyes locked on me again.
“I’ve never told anyone this,” she whispered. “Not my husband. Not my children. My parents, brother . . . not even my friends.”
“I gave up a son.” Her eyes were welling up. “He was named Michael. Michael!”
“But I have a twin sister,” I said. “We were adopted together—”
“Yes,” she said, “it’s not the same birthday. But my heart, my god . . . I almost fainted. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“No, I’m sorry.” What else could I say?
“It was Italy,” she said. “That romance I was telling you about—I found out I was pregnant. And I didn’t know what to do. It was the sixties. I was eighteen. I called home. Told my parents I was staying in Rome. That I’d found a job in a café. But I flew back to Brooklyn. And the sisters took me in. Only ten minutes from my house. They told me I’d have the baby there. Name it. And we’d stay in the convent for two weeks.”
“Yes,” she said. “Until I decided.”
The flight attendant asked for our trays but that hardly interrupted the story.
“What was I gonna do? Nobody would want a girl with a baby. Not back then. My parents would’ve freaked. Especially my mother. She was so rigid. It’s not like today.”
“I understand,” I said. And I did. Her fear. Of being rejected. Being considered shameful. I had friends who had been iced out by their families for being gay. Coming out at the height of AIDS only added to the stigma. Now she had just come out to me. “I understand,” I repeated.
“Do you? Do you really understand? What your mother—your birth mother . . . do you know she thinks about you every day of her life? Every day.”
I said yes. But no, I hadn’t ever really thought about her. I’d always been so glad not to be like the adoptees in the afterschool specials, saying they didn’t know who they were because they were adopted. My sister and I would roll our eyes at the tv screen. We knew who we were. Who our parents were. They had done their job well: drilling into our heads how generous and noble our birth parents were for giving up children they couldn’t take care of. But I had never considered their feelings, their regrets. Their situation. There never were afterschool specials about birth parents.
“She did the right thing. She was unselfish. And I’m grateful.” I hoped that didn’t sound like platitudes. Because I was sincere.
“Did you have a nice life?” She giggled when she realized how dramatic that sounded. Like we were angels in the sky, heaven bound. “I mean, your upbringing? Your childhood.”
“Yes,” I said. I assured her my sister and I were more than lucky. Siblings, dogs, soccer games, summer camp, and parents who were so into being parents. And it was all true. The antithesis to afterschool special hysteria, where adoption meant being unwanted and abandoned or not being blood-related. Meanwhile, our parents reminded us how grateful they were because it wasn’t easy to adopt, and we, in turn, were grateful. We probably had fat heads about it too. Joking how biological kids were often mistakes.
The woman blew her nose. Wiped her eyes. Excused herself for the bathroom.
I sat there looking at the cocktail napkin where I had scrawled her suggestions. Tried to imagine her at eighteen. A girl. With her own list. I was twenty-three and still hadn’t been in love. I had never been brave like her either. Giving up a child? It made coming out seem like cake. And while I worried how my parents would worry, scared that their only son might get sick—AIDS overshadowing everything then—I knew I owed them the truth. I would not live with barricades. I would not shut them out.
“I’m back!” She slid past me, into her seat. “And I’m almost myself again. Please let me apologize. That was too intense—”
“No,” I said. “I’m honored you told me. Thank you.”
The flight attendant came over with drinks. “Two vodka tonics?”
“Yes, those are for us.” She handed me one. “I ordered them on the way to the bathroom. Figured we both could use it.”
She raised her glass. We clinked. “To homecomings!”
And coming outs, I almost added, wanting to share my secret with her now. As if I owed her something. She had expanded me by revealing her truth. I could reveal mine. But it felt like it would steal her moment. And I sensed she wasn’t done.
And she wasn’t.
“You know, I’m going to see my mother. She’s dying.”
“You mentioned that. I’m sorry.”
She raised her glass again. “Don’t be. Never did like the woman. I’m just gonna say goodbye and make sure Mommie Dearest hasn’t written me out of the will.”
I took a swig of vodka and tried not to laugh. She had a drag queen’s delivery. Sort of Bette Davis. Maybe I had been too cautious with her. She seemed looser now. But the vodka wasn’t that strong. And she hadn’t finished even half her glass. It was the shedding of her secret. My roommate had described the joy he felt after coming out: “No matter how it goes down at home—you’ll feel an utter weightlessness. Giddy. Childlike.” Was this what I was witnessing? What I had to look forward to?
She ordered a second round. “What the hell, right?”
And in the last hour before landing, she shared even more.
Like what she was going to do with the loot after selling her mother’s house: Leave her husband of twenty years. For her lover of ten years.
“I mean, I’ve stayed for my kids. But they’re grown so my job’s done now, right?”
I was getting nervous. Not about seeing my parents. Or coming out.
About what was this woman might confess next.
That she was on the run? Smuggling drugs in her handbag?
She offered a stick of Trident for the descent. “Helps with the pressure.”
My mother did that too whenever we flew to see our grandparents as kids.
We landed, walked the ramp together—quietly—then hugged outside the gate.
I offered to help get her bags.
“No, go ahead, Michael. I’m okay,” she said. “But hug your parents for me.”
Rumpus Original Art by Leesa Travis