The Right One

By Jessica Levine

nju, whose name had been Mary Sue before her guru in India changed it, had been assigned a two-year-old orphan named Mei-mei only to discover, on her third day in China, that the little girl was no longer available.

She had flown with a dozen other prospective parents from the U.S. to Guangzhou where they met Robert, their adoption facilitator. After a couple of days for rest and initial paperwork, he took the group on another plane south to the industrial city of Zhanjiang near the Vietnamese border. This would be their base for a trip to two orphanages, or “social service centers,” in the area. Riding from the airport to the hotel, Anju took in the city, laid out over a grid of quiet, tree-lined boulevards that ran through empty lots filled with refuse. The combination of enormous scale with an absence of human activity created a surreal effect, as though Zhanjiang had recently been vacated after a nuclear disaster. The city was a corpse, sour-smelling, with its limbs at right angles.

As they rode to the Silver Swan Hotel, Robert stood at the front of the bus and explained the surrounding wasteland. The city had fallen on hard times because the last group of corrupt officials had been recently taken out, presumably for smuggling, and the new leaders hadn’t jump-started the city yet. The bleak scene was punctuated by reminders of why Anju and the others were there—large billboards picturing smiling couples with a single child promoting the one-child family policy. It was because of this policy and the general preference for sons that the orphanages were filled with girls.

At the hotel Robert handed out the room keys, then gave the group the drill. They had one hour to unpack and rest, then they needed to be back on the bus at noon. Fruit and bottled water would be handed out on board—no time for lunch today. Listening to the schedule for the day, Anju understood why he wore a T-shirt that said: “My name is Robert. Get on the bus.” First they would visit the Zhanjiang orphanage to pick up three babies. One couple, Bill and Rhonda, would be receiving twin baby girls as they’d requested, and Anju’s friend Lisa would get her baby there too. Then they’d take the highway to another orphanage located in a city called Maoming, where they would get the remaining five children.

Anju was settling into her room when Robert called and requested a meeting in the hotel lobby. She went downstairs, her stomach fluttering. As an American-born Chinese, Robert represented both countries in the adoption process, and Anju knew his word was law. When she saw him, she knew he had bad news. With his wire-rimmed glasses and dark suit, he always looked a bit formal. Now he looked stiff and stern.

“Anju,” he said. “Please sit down.” He gestured to the velvet couch in the lobby.

“Is something wrong?”

“Mei-mei is not available now.” He sat down next to her, a neutral expression on his face.

“Not available? What does that mean?”

“She is having some medical problem and cannot leave China at this time. But we will find another child for you.”

Anju had received the referral three weeks before and her heart was set on the little girl whose photograph she carried with her at all times.

“What’s wrong with her? I can wait till she’s better. I don’t mind staying on—I can take the time off from work.” Anju was self-employed as an architect. She could make a few phone calls and be free for a while.

“It doesn’t work that way, I’m afraid. You have a visa to be here for two weeks only.”

“But what will happen to Mei-mei?”

“She will be taken care of and when the time is right, we will find other parents for her.”

Anju knew it was useless to protest but she continued to object, tears in her eyes, while Robert kept reiterating what he called the “facts”: the Chinese authorities had their system of matching parents and healthy orphans, and it was a highly successful one. Thousands of international adoptions were completed every year.

“There are a couple of older children at Maoming,” he said. “By this afternoon one of them will be assigned to you.”

“Older?”

“Around four years old.”

“Four years old!” Anju exclaimed. She had hoped for a younger child. She had read the literature and knew that an older child meant a higher probability of psychiatric issues like attachment disorder or sensory integration disorder; an older child might not be so lovable. Most babies are irresistible, but by the age of four, some kids are downright unlikeable. She had heard stories of adoptions of older children that had to be “disrupted,” adoptions that didn’t “take” because the child was too deeply disturbed, or the parents’ love failed them.

“How will I communicate with her? I don’t know any Cantonese or Mandarin.”

“She’ll be speaking English by the time you leave China,” Robert said. “Don’t worry, you’ll be happy. I promise you. In the end everyone gets the right child.”

In order to adopt in a Communist state, one needs to take a leap of faith and believe, as though one were in an Indiana Jones movie, that such a leap will be rewarded. Besides, Anju knew that if she declined the switch, she might forgo forever the possibility of adopting in China. She felt too old to start all over again.

“Yes,” she said. “I understand.”

She went upstairs to her room. The calluses on her feet burned from the tropical heat and she absentmindedly kicked off her loafers in the bathroom while washing her face. Barefoot, she went out into the hallway and knocked on the door of the room next to her. Lisa opened the door.

“What’s wrong?” Lisa opened her arms to hug Anju.

Anju and Lisa had been friends for five years. They’d met in a business networking group and, being single women close in age, had bonded quickly. They’d decided to adopt at the same time so they could support one another through the process.

Anju told Lisa the bad news.

“I’m sorry,” Lisa said. “But Robert’s right. You’ll love her, no matter who she is.”

“Easy for you to say,” Anju said, glancing at the referral photograph that Lisa had placed on the bedside table. It showed an eight-month-old girl with sparkling eyes and a shock of fine, black hair. Her name was Li-ying, which meant “beautiful flower.” At 48, Lisa had come in two years under the cut-off age for adopting an infant.

“Oh, Anju,” Lisa said.

“I didn’t mean it,” Anju said. She wept, disappointed in herself. As a seeker who had gone to India in search of wisdom, she should have had the compassion to meet the situation. Instead, she only felt sorry for herself because once again life was not satisfying her desires. The disappointment was like a well with no water at the bottom; it parched her to contemplate it.

Anju looked up, noticing a crib in Lisa’s room. Lisa had already put a blankie in it and a pink and blue rattle to welcome the baby she would receive later that day.

“I see you’re ready for Li-ying,” Anju said.

Lisa nodded.

The phone rang. Lisa answered it. “Okay, we’ll be right down,” she said and hung up. Then, addressing Anju, “That was Robert. It’s time to get on the bus.” Lisa picked up the diaper bag she had prepared for the day-trip.

Anju stood up. “I guess I don’t need a diaper bag if I’m going to get a four-year-old.”

“But you need your shoes,” Lisa said, smiling.

Back in her room Anju couldn’t find her loafers under the bed or in the closet. She was cursing when she remembered they were in the bathroom.

They went downstairs and headed out for the bus. As Anju climbed on, Robert, who was standing by the driver, handed her a folder of documents and said, “Anju, your child’s name is Xi-feng.” He pronounced it Shi-feng. “Her name means ‘splendid phoenix.’ She is four years old and very healthy.” Once settled into her seat, Anju began going through the documents, which were all in Chinese, until she found a smudged photo of a child who looked grim and distressed.

“Xi-feng,” Anju whispered to herself. Tears of joy mixed with tears of disappointment at the child being so much older than she’d hoped. She had missed four whole years of her life! Would she be able to connect with her and love her? What was love for a child, anyway? Whatever it was, it would probably be very different from the pastel fantasy she’d sequestered in her heart for so many years.

At the front of the bus, Roger sat with two new faces: young Asian women of college age, too young to be adopting. As the bus pulled away from the hotel, Roger stood and explained.

“This is your China team, Sarah and Christine. They are university students. For the next two weeks they will help you with the adoption officials, the medical exams, and the paperwork. They will translate your questions and carry your babies when you get tired. Now look out the window. We are heading into the old quarter of Zhanjiang. You can see it has some charm. You can detect the Vietnamese influence.” Robert, who had been a tour guide before he became moved by the plight of abandoned baby girls in China, delivered information in a continuous, confident stream.

They traveled down narrow winding streets lined with stores that had no storefront wall or window, but stood like open garages with metal pull-down gates to secure them at night. Everything for sale spilled out onto the street from the tiny enclosures: fruit, canned food, Hello Kitty backpacks, sweatshirts with American logos, cats in cages—for dinner, Robert explained. Services spilled out as well, like a barber giving haircuts in the middle of the sidewalk. While gray and impoverished, the quarter had the charm of green trees, of metal balconies and graceful concrete work that pointed to the French-Vietnamese influence. For a moment, Anju was fascinated enough to forget her misery.

They reached the Zhanjiang orphanage to find a structure built, like a Florida condo, around a courtyard with fountains and lush planting. Gigantic moist leaves brushed Anju’s face as she passed into the building. The reception area was furnished with an enormous, heavy wooden table and chairs. On the walls hung photographs of Chinese officials and group portraits of babies and young children.

The orphanage director, dressed in a white doctor’s coat, entered and motioned for everyone to sit down. She called Bill and Rhonda to the front. Bill was Caucasian, Rhonda Chinese-American. Anju judged the couple to be in their thirties—young to be adopting—and imagined that a failed routine of infertility treatments had brought them here. Whatever their medical issues, they looked well-matched and probably still in love, whatever that meant. Anju sighed, thinking that a decade had passed since she had been in love.

The young couple stood, expectant.

Then two more women in white cotton coats came in, each carrying one of the twins. The babies were seven months old, tiny and adorable. One was placed in Bill’s arms, the other in Rhonda’s. The whole group moaned with joy and pleasure as tears filled Rhonda’s eyes and ran down her cheeks. The babies looked unphased by the transfer. Somewhere a woman had labored—in a hospital or a secret dwelling or perhaps even a field—and delivered these lives, which she had then, unbelievably, abandoned. Because they were girls.

The couple sat down, and Lisa’s name was called.

“Go for it,” Anju said to her friend and squeezed her arm encouragingly.

Lisa went up to the front of the room, and then another woman came in carrying another beautiful baby, which she placed in Lisa’s arms.

At nine months old, Li-ying was, like most of the Chinese babies, small for genetic as well as nutritional reasons. Her face filled with joy, Lisa bent her head over Li-ying. As Anju watched, a spasm of envy clenched her throat.

Lisa carried the baby back to the chair next to Anju.

“Meet your niece,” Lisa said. The two women had already agreed to be “aunties” to each other’s children.

Li-ying looked up at Anju, batting her dark eyelashes. Her little mouth pursed at the center, sweet as a pink raspberry. Her life, which had begun with the tragedy of abandonment, had just reclaimed its right to know and give joy.

The orphanage director spoke and Roger translated. “She says it’s time for their nap. If you give them a bottle now, they will fall asleep for an hour or two—which is the duration of our ride to Maoming. So get going.”

Carrying jugs of boiled water and bags of dry baby formula, Sarah and Christine circulated among the new parents while Roger continued his instructions. “You will start with the Chinese formula we are giving you, then gradually decrease this and change over to the American formula you brought.”

As Lisa rummaged in her diaper bag for a baby bottle, Anju took Li-ying in her arms.  The baby’s beauty cut her in two. Her reverie was interrupted by Sarah’s approach.

“Let me,” the young woman said, reaching for Lisa’s bottle.

As Anju reluctantly returned Li-ying to Lisa, Sarah measured out the Chinese powder and mixed it with steaming, sterilized water. “They are used to drinking the milk hot,” she said, seeing the surprise on Lisa’s face as Li-ying took in the boiling hot formula.

The three babies had just settled into a rhythm of quiet sucking when Roger’s voice boomed, “Time to get back on the bus.”

There wasn’t a single cry as the new parents carried their drinking babies out of the only home they’d every known. Moments later they were headed out of Zhanjiang and onto a highway that Roger bragged was brand-new. “Last year this trip would have taken six hours. Today with the new toll road, it will only take two.”

For two hours they sped forward over a highway that was eerily empty. They passed a few small vehicles as they moved through rice paddies spotted by an occasional water buffalo. Over the land hung a wistful, gritty mist blocking out the sky. Every few minutes the quiet in the bus was interrupted by a baby fussing or some comment from Roger.

Anju tried to keep her eyes on the flat landscape because every time she looked at Li-ying, she wanted to cry with jealousy and vexation.

It was late afternoon when they arrived in Maoming, a city that was the polar oppposite of Zhanjiang. Bright and bustling, the main artery was lined with shops with shiny glass storefronts and extravagant, colorful paper decorations clustered over their canopies and spilling onto sidewalks crowded with shoppers. The whole city seemed to be having a festival.

“Maoming,” Roger continued in his endless patter, “is rich because of the natural gas and fertilizer industries.”

The contrast between Zhanjiang and Maoming struck Anju as Kafkaesque. The whole adventure seemed more surreal with every passing moment.

The Maoming orphanage turned out to be as bright and modern as the city around it. The layout was identical to the one at Zhanjiang but the building was larger and cleaner, about five floors in height. A gigantic statue of Madame Sun Yat-sen surrounded by smaller statues of young children stood in the central courtyard. Roger explained that the complex served not only as an orphanage but as a daycare center and home for some elderly citizens without family.

The group was ushered into a reception room similar to the one they’d visited a few hours before.

And then the show started again for the remaining four couples, as four babies were brought out, one at a time, by the middle-aged nannies in white nurse’s coats; each baby more adorable than the next.

Anju would be last. Her body went rigid with anxious expectancy. A nurse led a little girl into the room and walked her over to Anju.

The nurse bent over and spoke to Xi-feng in a clip-clop of Cantonese punctuated with only one word Anju understood, “Mama.”

Xi-feng looked at Anju and shook her head vigorously in the negative.

The nurse continued speaking gently to her, again a clip-clop of inflected sound punctuated by “Mama.”

Anju opened her arms to Xi-feng who stood frozen.

The nurse picked her up and placed her on Anju’s lap.

The child was thin and light, as though her bones were filled with air, and her dark black bangs were long and feathered. I’ll have to trim them, Anju thought. And then something exquisite happened: Xi-feng reached up with one hand and placed it on Anju’s cheek and looked into her eyes. As Anju looked back into Xi-feng’s soft brown eyes, a wave of love washed over her.

Then Xi-feng screamed bloody murder and, jumping off of Anju’s lap, ran back to her nurse.

There followed a half hour of the nurse and Robert and the China team girls trying to persuade Xi-feng to go with her new mother. Finally Robert looked at his watch and, drawing himself up to his full height, addressed the group forcefully: “Time to get on the bus.” A silence rolled over the room, as all eyes turned to Anju and Xi-feng.

Anju knew what to do. She bent over and lifted the four-year-old up and held her firmly against her chest. Xi-feng seemed heavy now, and for a moment Anju, who had had her life’s share of back pain, wondered whether a crippling spasm would flatten her and send the child sailing out of her arms. But something kicked in—some strength she didn’t know she had.

“Xi-feng, we’re going now,” Anju said to her daughter.

The little girl looked at her and nodded, tears in her eyes.

The group, now with seven babies and one four-year-old, made its way out of the orphanage and back onto the bus. As they walked out, Anju caught the expression of total devastation on her daughter’s face as she looked back at the only home she’d ever known.

Xi-feng sat on Anju’s lap in the bus. They got back to the Silver Swan after dark and had dinner in the hotel restaurant. The babies sat on their new mothers’ laps, either enjoying bottles of formula or picking at bits of soft food. Xi-feng, slumped on Anju’s knees, picked at her plate until a mysterious, glutinous soup with dark, squiggly things in it was served. That she devoured. When she finished it, her body went limp again.

Anju couldn’t help noticing how cheerful Li-ying seemed. She had a couple of chopsticks in her hands and banged on the white tablecloth gleefully, every now and then looking up at Lisa proudly, as though Lisa had always been her mother. The dark, jealous feeling came over Anju again.

After dinner Lisa and Anju carried their daughters upstairs.

“Are you all right?” Lisa asked her friend when they reached their rooms.

“Yes.” Anju’s back was breaking but she was alright. “Are you?”

“Yes,” Lisa said.

“Good night, Li-ying,” Anju said. She leaned over and kissed her friend’s baby on the forehead. Li-ying fussed for a moment.

“Whenever I kiss her she gets upset too,” Lisa said. “Maybe she’s never been kissed before.”

“Maybe.”

The two women parted, and Anju found herself alone with Xi-feng for the first time. Anju had expected the child might reject her again, but Xi-feng did not want to be put down. And so, that first evening together, Xi-feng sat on Anju’s lap to be changed out of her day clothes and into pajamas; she cried when Anju stood up to change herself and brush her own teeth. When she took Xi-feng back onto her lap and silence fell, Anju could hear babies crying down the hotel corridor. The infants had been happy as long as they were being nursed, held, and fed. Now that they were being put to bed in strange cribs in strange rooms, bedlam was breaking out.

Anju watched Xi-feng’s reaction to the crying. Xi-feng pointed toward the hallway and said something in Cantonese. It was a language that kept slipping by you, a kaleidoscope of muddy colors. Anju simply nodded and Xi-feng kept talking seriously, as though explaining something.

There were two twin beds in the room, but Xi-feng refused to sleep alone. She kept getting in Anju’s bed and then moving on top of her. Anju kept sliding Xi-feng down into the crook of her arm, but Xi-feng would just climb right back up.

Finally the child fell asleep with her ear pressed to Anju’s heart, and Anju lay still, afraid to move. Exhausted but exhilarated, Anju thought of her guru in India and how he used to say, “Remember, more love is always better than less.” How could she have reached the age of 52 and experienced so little of it? She had groped toward it in her relationships with men and failed repeatedly. But now she had finally reached the place of feeling. Crushed by the weight of her new daughter, aware of her fragrance and softness, she fell asleep and dreamt that she had a third, giant nipple growing out of a new chamber in her heart.

In the early hours of the morning, Anju was awakened by the sounds of Li-ying bawling next door. Xi-feng was sleeping next to her, her face buried in her side. Her moist breath had made a damp spot on Anju’s pajama. It was a sweet moment, but Anju wanted to grab a minute alone to pack for their departure after breakfast. She slipped out of bed and quickly brushed her teeth and dressed. Xi-feng opened her eyes and met Anju’s gaze.

“What about breakfast?” Anju said, opening her mouth and pointing to it.

Xi-feng nodded and extended her arms to be picked up. Anju went over to the bed and Xi-feng sat on her lap to be changed back into the clothes she’d worn the day before.

“We’ll go shopping for you as soon as we get back to Guangzhou,” Anju said. All the clothes she’d brought with her were sized for a two-year-old.

Anju was carrying Xi-feng out when she realized she didn’t have her shoes on.

“Where are my shoes?” she said. She walked around the room, but they were nowhere to be seen. “Darn, where are those shoes…”

Xi-feng wriggled out of her arms, ran to the bathroom, and a moment later reappeared carrying Anju’s shoes.

“Shoodz,” Xi-feng said, placing them by Anju’s feet.

“Fast learner,” Anju said.

She slipped her feet into the loafers Xi-feng held out for her one at a time, then picked the little girl up again and took her down to the breakfast buffet where they joined Lisa and Li-ying at a table.

“How did you do last night?” Lisa asked her.

“Long night. And you?”

“Long night. But happy.”

“Yes,” Anju said. “Happy.”

Happy was such a new feeling she wasn’t sure it belonged to her. It was as strange as the Chinese breakfast the waitress brought over—a rice gruel called congee and pickles. Anju watched with satisfaction as Xi-feng polished off her bowl of rice porridge.

“Good job, Xi-feng,” she said, stroking the little girl’s hair.

Robert appeared in the dining room. “Everybody on the bus in half an hour,” he said. “We leave for the airport at nine sharp.”

There was a collective groan and the parents began eating faster.

At 9:00 a.m. they filed back onto the bus, a very different group from the one that had arrived less than 24 hours before. Before they had been free but with empty spaces in their hearts. Now their lives were full to bursting. Anju took a window seat, and Xi-feng immediately climbed on top of her and placed her soft little arms around her mother’s neck. The little girl whimpered as the bus pulled away from the Silver Swan.

“Everything’s going to be fine, Xi-feng,” Anju said and, gathering her up high and close, pressed the child’s soft cheek against her own.

Xi-feng fell silent and Robert for once had nothing to say. A wondrous quiet reigned in the bus as they all rode to the airport, passing the same billboards—facing the other direction now—that brightly and brashly proclaimed the one-child family policy.

___

Jessica Levine’s stories, nonfiction, poetry, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Amarillo Bay, assemblage, California Quarterly, The Cape Rock,  decomP magazinE, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Old Red Kimono, Poetry Northwest, representations, North American Review, RiverSedge, The Southern Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Willow Review, and elsewhere.  She earned her Ph.D. in English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Delicate Pursuit: Literary Discretion in Henry James and Edith Wharton (Routledge, 2002) and has translated three books from French and Italian into English. She recently acquired an agent for her novel, The Geometry of Love, and is hopeful about having it published soon. Originally from New York, she lives with her husband and two daughters in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she works as a hypnotherapist. You can find links to some of her other work at www.jessicalevine.com. You are also invited to visit and like her “Jessica Levine Writer” page on Facebook.


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