For adopted children, fantasies occur that include parents and siblings that may exist and a life that was not lived 'according to plan'. But these fantasies are not real, and are banished to the Ghost Kingdom, where they confront and comfort in secret.
There was no one else like Bradley. Nowhere could you find enough faux fur and high-end bathroom fragrance to make another. She was The Brad.
I didn't expect her to land her Doc Martens in my driveway when she did; she didn't even come to my door. She summoned me by phone. She didn't seem so different; she still wore a knee-length dark coat, eyeliner, a tangle of scarves, and peeking out behind her legs, the tip of a hand-sewn fox tail. I thought she had forgotten about me. During the in-between years I imagined our reunion many times, how it would be the same as before.
Yet when Brad appeared, she sounded like a performer, one that had rehearsed extra hard. I asked her why she was back. "DJ, for the party after the cabaret. They wanted me back this year." I asked her about her father, if she had a job, about no calls, no emails; she had deleted her Facebook profile too. Instead of answering, she pulled a jar from her pocket. It contained a bird head, preserved. "They messed it up. They left the eye open." It was squinting at me, blinded by the midday sun.
"The bird lab at Skidmore was gonna throw it out. That's its liver." She pointed. "I named her Edith. I think she was a drinker." I ignored Edith and hugged her, and asked all my questions again, hoping she would answer like she used to. She said something about farmwork and I squeezed a little tighter, as if to extract more Brad, the one I knew, out of Brad.
Like plenty of children, I was a brat. The talks I got from Mom were about being a good person, about sharing, about respect. Kids have to be quiet, be studious, to live a good life, the kind they photograph for billboards. But I was not compliant. I was her son, she said, but instead of liking little suits and baseball, I wanted Star Wars stickers and light blue dresses. I don't know what worried her more at the time: her son being a nerd, or thinking he was a girl.
When I was nine I got the big talk, the one about my adoption. Then I got scared that if I messed up, she would return me.
When I was nine I got the big talk, the one about my adoption. Then I got scared that if I messed up, she would return me. I stopped wanting anything; I tried to be the perfect son. New nightmares were stuck on rerun in my head; an agency, babies lining walls and old beds, parents peering through glass. They would insist on a return policy. Sales were not final; who knew if you would get a brat.
She was in a bit of a trap, wanting to convince me I was her kid. I had no siblings. If I had friends, they wouldn't be able to come over. Family only. So I started wishing. That's how the big talk happened, when I asked when I would have brothers and sisters.
Seeing Brad again, all that longing came back. Brad was a brat too, always finding a new plan, a new scheme, avoiding her family. Her mother was an angry Jehovah's Witness and her father was a sick comedian. Her father would make a joke about his breaking back, and her mother would pray, and neither of them would go to the doctor. Brad had a bit of both; she was faithful and sarcastic.
We hopped in Brad's car and went to a diner to catch up. I was still hopeful for her to return to normal. Over our traditional meal of cheese fries and waffles Brad told me that her father's back finally broke, but remained a cynic about it. Her mother still held Bible study in the living room. "Gotta watch out for him, 24 hour-care. That's my gig now." I trusted her when she said it. "I am all Dad has, even with my mother. Other days I'm picking vegetables right out of the ground." She combed her hair with long fingers. "I'm amazed I am still so pretty."
Having thought about it since she arrived, I asked her a question. "I never wanted siblings," she replied. "I think I liked being the only kid in the house sometimes. But last year, when Dad snapped, it would have been easier to deal with." I didn't answer her, instead making a face on my waffle with ketchup. Brad hated ketchup and gagged. Then she pulled out a stuffed animal, a pink piglet, which she handed to me.
After the big talk with Mom when I was little, I imagined stuffed animals as sisters and brothers, and they would listen to me, and I would to them, because that is how I thought it worked; siblings found each other. I told this to Brad once, and it seemed that she, at least, remembered. "You never turn your back on a stuffed animal," she said to me. I agreed; we shared stuffing, we shared blood.
Brad stood in the kitchen wearing a beige vest, mixing cocktails in coffee mugs. I posed before the dining room window and snapped a picture for my collection of silhouettes. My dress slimmed me, held me sweetly, but I didn't take pictures in a real mirror. I didn't want Mom to see it; I had never told her I was a girl, as Brad never told her mother that she wasn't a boy.
Brad passed me a mojito in a white mug stained by tea. "I hope you don't mind, I muddled the mint with chopsticks." I shrugged and took a sip, adjusting my hem over my ass. "That's the best one yet," she said, pointing at my dress. "Used to have one just like it." I smiled. Ever since we graduated, she and I and others like us scattered and crawled back into closets. Employers were the new parents; they couldn't be allowed to see us. Yet on a rare evening, I emerged.
Tied-tight, junk-tucked, towering in heels, I sat across from Brad, who was on her laptop, fiddling with music for the night. "Could you help me with my mascara?" I said. The help isn't what I needed; she seemed gone again.
"In a moment," she said. She put on headphones decorated with tiny chains so I could only hear her breathing. I took another sip of the mojito; I didn't like to drink, but I couldn't resist celebrating having her back. I adjusted my dress again. "If that isn't comfy enough, you should wear these pajamas I brought. Two of them. One's a bat, the other's a fox." I liked foxes as much as she did.
I did my mascara in the bathroom mirror; I looked like my mother, I thought, from old pictures. I had her cheeks, which almost convinced me once. In the background I could hear Brad listening to the music out loud now that she was alone. She didn't have my cheeks, or my hair, or my eyes. "Music is our bond," she had told me once. "The two of us." Then she would hold me and tell me I was not alone, which is all I really wanted, and I would thank her. I wondered what she would say if I decided not to go to the cabaret.
"Music is our bond," she had told me once. "The two of us." Then she would hold me and tell me I was not alone, which is all I really wanted, and I would thank her.
Hopefully something. I chugged my mojito and held my waist, cinched and slender, feeling delicious.
When I was a kid, Grandma and I would pretend I was visiting a jewelry store. I would buy and sell with Monopoly money, and end up wearing everything she had. I loved feeling glamorous, and that scared Mom. Grandma said I could be a beautiful woman someday. I believed her. Brad had told me that too before, and she said it again as we drove to campus. She was prone to compliment me, but this time it came out sticky and strange, like it held onto her throat on the way out. The Brad I wanted would make things feel better, everything all at once. That was her magic. I still thanked her, and we went silent.
Mom once saw me dressed in clothes I stole from sleepovers; the leggings and the hairpins felt like frosting, but Mom told me if I ever did it again I might get hurt. She said there were bad people out there, and I didn't know what I did to wrong them. If she saw it online, she would text and wonder what was happening, if Brad was there. Mothers knew best; she didn't want me to stand out like Brad did, what she called a phase. Standing out was a product defect. I didn't want to be sent back, but Mom didn't try when she caught me posing in the closet mirror. My warranty must have expired by then.
"Charlie saved seats," Brad said. I asked who that was, and she said, "Another for the pack. I asked them because the cabaret is always so full." I had been to the Gender Blender Cabaret every year since I was a freshman, even after I graduated and moved into the town next door. I performed twice, once on my own, and once with Brad. I usually stood in the back after that, admiring the students who had found each other, and the dozens of acts that were performed with pride. The feeling of the crowd loving who you are; it was like gasping for air after being held underwater.
The best performance was a drag queen and her king, with boots, frills, and cowboy hats. She sang and he played the guitar. We watched from two dozen filled seats. There were a hundred more, all empty. The couple still sang because their friends were there in the front row, bobbing left and right. Brad was not watching.
"Should I play 'Bohemian Rhapsody'? I'm gonna play it," she whispered. She couldn't stop flitting through songs on her Android, perfecting and tweaking her set. The cabaret was usually crowded year after year, but the party on the same evening was a ghost town. Brad thought this was her fault last time. I told her people like drinking alone too much to dance. I guessed that was where Charlie was, as they weren't at the cabaret. "Look through," she asked, putting her phone in my hands. The acts switched, and a woman in a cello costume began doing ballet to classical music.
"Bad Romance." "Closing Time." "Energy." "The Story of the Grandson of Jesus." I only recognized half the titles. Songs came to her like dreams. For a few weeks we were roommates, and I would bolt upright to her playing a song with her headphones unplugged.
I told her it looked fine. "Yeah, but the order." We were interrupted; the cello began to cough up glitter, but did not stop dancing. The program billed the cello-woman as performance art, which is a lot of what people called shenanigans these days. Brad and I were performance art, once upon a time. It was to hide all our serious stuff, to use our friends to escape, to be at school and not perform like we did for family. I hadn't felt fun in a long time, just like I hadn't felt beautiful.
Her phone buzzed. "My mother," said Brad. She inched out and went to the hall as the act changed and the cello, dead in a puddle of gold flecks, was dragged off the stage. I resolved to call a doctor if I ever vomited confetti.
The next act was the last one of four; the show was two hours shorter than usual. The place had run out of stars, or perhaps it wasn't as safe as it used to be, or it just needed us back somehow. The last singer did a striptease as they sang. They were popular, everyone cheered. I imagined being asked to improvise, to throw myself up there to make the cabaret a little more special, pulling Brad with me.
I saw Brad outside the window of the auditorium, phone pressed against her ear as she wandered around a tree. I couldn't guess what would make me have it all again. The longing, the joy, the sadness from start to finish, even the wishes that I whispered in my head of her and me talking in the rain. She paced like she had to carve the mud under her feet. I didn't know if her mother knew where she was, or if it was even her mother at all. I didn't think she could see how different she was, how distant, how she had abandoned me. As the cabaret dispersed, I stood at the window and looked through my silhouette at her.
I was angry. I was angry like I was trapped in a glass jar. Angry like I was drowning.
Dreams about my birth family started with the unreasonable, shapes and histories that never existed, like ghosts. Movies about ghosts weren't scary until they showed up later in pictures, in the edges of mirrors. It was hard to convince myself I wasn't surrounded by them; the fear and curiosity drilled down in my throat and heart. When I told Brad about my dreams, I called them nightmares. She told me they were born from a terror that I had no family whatsoever.
The first realistic dream was of a courtroom. I had won a trial, and was given papers. Addresses, dozens of them, and I would have never found my family unless I knew all this, all these places they moved around. It felt like they were running, running from me. The mother has no face, and the father is always far away, but they are still happy. I tell them my grades, and how many times I had snuck into an R-rated movie, and the last time I had a sleepover. I wanted to impress them.
Brad was still on the phone, so I sat alone on a bench outside, watching people watch me. I kept wondering what they thought of me.
Details haunted me. In letters I wrote, or people I met, people like Brad. The ghosts surrounded me when I shared cheekbones with a stranger, or thought of what I could say to a birth parent to convince them to meet me. I tried to think of what would make them like me. Friends. A job. Clean socks. A mastery of mascara. I wondered if I would run into a long-lost cousin, and figured the chances got higher the harder I looked. I asked Brad where she was from, her family. Not a match, but I wondered. We both loved music by P.T. Walkley and Cloud Cult. We paced when we got upset, out in the rain. We both needed a new family. We had stuffing in common, more than I thought she could have with anyone else.
The ghosts surrounded me when I shared cheekbones with a stranger, or thought of what I could say to a birth parent to convince them to meet me.
Brad came back with the pajamas. "I have to set up." She handed me one set, just in case. I looked down at my dress; it brought out the rose I colored my cheeks with. I was synchronized, comfortable, a picture. I asked her to take a photo with my phone, and I hid the bat pajamas behind my back.
"What about Charlie?" I asked. I realized I sounded jealous. Brad shrugged at the question, which pleased me in a sickening way. "And how are the folks?"
"Not great. Mom wants me home. Dad wants me to be happy, but that's the meds talking."
"What do you mean?"
"I told them." Brad folded her hands behind her back and kicked lightly at something that wasn't there. "After we graduated."
I stared at her in silence.
"Wasn't any good, was it, right? I thought they couldn't see me before, but now, now it's like I'm not there. Were going to cut me off if I didn't stop talking to certain people and all that. Get right with myself."
I mouthed something, and something else, but she looked at her phone before I could make sound. It was time to set up.
Brad insisted on two sound checks. When I asked her what she wanted, she shrugged. Mom told me the right friends were the ones that helped their friends out, that I only deserved to know people who would be there for me when I needed them. When she said that, right before I left for college, I wondered if she could tell that I was lonely. I was crying behind my dorm when Brad and I met. I was crying in the rain. She left and brought me ice cream and we talked it out. Every time we talked it out, every time she made it all better. Every time she called me beautiful, and I wondered why I never called her the same. She was always a step ahead.
I sat on a chair by the stage. The disco ball flickered on and off, and a short guy with a cord ran out from a side room, plugging it into a speaker. It didn't make any sound. Brad was silent, staring down her computer screen. I did the right thing. I was patient, for a time, but I wanted to connect with her, for us to be who we once were. I wanted us to be weird, and I wanted her to be happy. I just wasn't good at it, like she was. So I put on the bat pajamas, pulling them up over my fabricated breasts and trying not to tear the insides with my bracelets. Lifting each arm, I realized I had wings.
I ran about in circles, leaping, dancing, rolling on the empty dance floor. I screamed at her from the end of the room, "Play something, you gorgeous devil!" She put on a song for me. I kicked and threw myself this way and that. I was on my own, happy, until people began to arrive. After the first dozen, I hid the pajamas, righted my wig and checked myself in the soft darkness of the window. I felt like my eyes could sear the air, even though I didn't know where I got them from. I was beautiful, and Brad pumped up the growing crowd with a twist of music.
The crowds came in heavy, heavier than ever. I lip-synced and posed for pictures. One walked slow, their clothes not matching and face low, up to the stage, waving to Brad. She came down to hug them, and the moved to the side, sitting and watching. They were Charlie. They watched Brad, and the crowd, and me, and was far from it all. She looked like she needed ice cream.
After the big talk, when I was nine, Mom stuffed everything she knew into an envelope. Medical records, notes, anything she had. She wrote a letter to tell me that I was old enough to really learn about this. When I was twenty-one, she gave it to me and I didn't open it with her, like she hoped, and took it back with me to college. I had found Brad instead, and she opened the seal for me. "It's addressed to eighteen-year-old you. Whoops." She read me the description of my birth mother. "We have to go find her." I had reminded her that it had been over twenty years, and I had no other information. "But she has your dreamy-ass eyes." Brad had soft blue eyes, nothing like mine, a stark reminder that she wasn't, somehow, my sister. I never told her I thought that about her. Just nonsense, or whispers, but not the facts. I had a folder of facts though, and I read the rest out loud.
I was born in Bellingham, Washington, a town most people didn't know about. Mom said I was from Seattle, which was close enough. My family took a road-trip through Seattle once; we ended up adopting a dog in Bellingham. I stared at every person I saw, guessing their age, guessing if they liked the same foods as me. My mother referred to the dog as my sister ever since. My sister the dog from Bellingham.
November 20th, 1990. I repeated it over in my head sometimes because I was bad with birthdays; I liked to pretend I didn't have a birthday sometimes, that I just sprouted out of the ground and got picked like a flower. Mother named Nancy, Father named Maynom. He was a lighting guy from Hawaii, and she was hiding her pregnancy from her family. She was 5'5", and didn't drink since the first trimester. They had stopped dating by the time I was born. There were no photos of them, no one holding me, no woman with a rounded belly. The next sheet had some notes about me. Time and date. Weight. Length. Vaginal delivery. Male.
In the back of the packet was a transcribed questionnaire for Nancy. 'Every day of my life since I was two' was what she said to a question about smoking. 'No, of course not' followed. I read that again and again. I never smoked. I had a hard time being serious on medical forms. Brad was inspired to roll a cigarette, and I asked her if humor, if personality, was genetic. "Then I'm adopted too," she said.
"And, if it is," she continued, licking the paper closed, "I'd have a hard time telling friends apart from family."
The party was an unprecedented success. Brad had never been the DJ at something like this, and she had never looked happier. I didn't see myself as part of that, watching from the door. It was what she came for. She didn't even talk to Charlie again, who pushed their thumb around against their phone. I figured I had taken care of myself for two years. I could do it again, I could do it like always.
I worked my way backwards, towards the stage. I tore off my fake jewelry and coat and slid into the bat pajamas. I tested out the wings and took off. It seemed strange to give it up so easily, what I worked so hard to look like. But as a bat, so little of me was visible no one would recognize me in the dim light. I was invisible yet free. I was me, bones and skin and all, and no one else could judge if I passed, could see my defects. I was so happy and nauseous I could've vomited glitter.
I saw Charlie watching me and I slid on the floor to them, like I was on my parent's hardwood floor in only socks, Mom pushing against my back to make me go. "You okay over here?" I asked. I flapped and hopped, and Charlie smiled.
"You're Charlie, right?" I sat by them. They were young, maybe a freshman or sophomore.
"Yeah," they said. "Those are really nice." They laughed. "If you ever want to not wear them, I'll take them off your hands."
I pointed. "Do you want to be a fox with me?"
"Dude. Of course. Of course I want to be a fox. Where is it? Is it here?"
I pointed at the orange and white pile by the stage and they bolted for it, tugging it on. It took moments, palpable and real like beads of sweat, for the realization to come over them. The tremors began in the feet, then the torso, then their arms started to windmill. They joined me and we scratched and flew our way about the crowd. A bat and a fox. Brad got on the mic and invited us on stage, and we brought people from the audience. It didn't matter that we didn't know how to dance. We killed loneliness that night, and nothing could control us. I heard Brad call me a wild animal. She was right. Each of us was, in our own way.
We killed loneliness that night, and nothing could control us. I heard Brad call me a wild animal. She was right. Each of us was, in our own way.
It took three margaritas before my mother told me about her miscarriage. It was a few months before Brad came back, when she visited me in that little town. I felt extra brave for wearing earrings, but she must have become so resigned to it, to who I might be. After enough liquor, she wanted to say what was on her mind, which I thought mothers didn't do.
"You know we couldn't do it. I couldn't. Conceive, really."
I was quiet. I didn't know. I didn't know much about her. I didn't ask why I got picked out, really why.
"Well, that isn't quite true. I got pregnant. Once."
The details were sparse, but I got the picture. A glass half full drained out fast, and was replaced with fear. No complications, no illness, no Edith-in-a-jar. It was like nothing happened. She used to have these huge glasses, in older pictures, and I imagined her in those glasses, shaking and pushing them up her nose, in my ghostly agency, pointing out babies. That one, she would say to Dad, I was going to have that one. However it happened, I looked more like my parents than the standard buy. Preordained, the move of God or some other force. Or the adoption agency, which thought it was good for the kids to look like their parents, to make things easier, to fit them into the puzzle.
I told her I guess I didn't know much about her. "You don't ask, and to be fair, neither do I. We wait for people to bother us about how we feel." She ordered another drink. "How about you? Anything you ever felt like telling me?" I lied and said no, and she smiled and left her hand on mine. "Sounds fine to me." I didn't know what to say. I drank my mojito, slowly.
"You know, after all that," she continued, removing her hand. "After all that, I think it turned out okay." I wanted to ask her if she was hoping for a boy when it happened, but I already knew she would say that, at the time, it didn't matter.
When I had first met Brad I would think of how we had met before, the fate of it. If, somehow, she had family back West, that personality was genetic, that I had, right under my nose, someone with my stuffing. It wasn't raining during the party the night Brad came back, but it was cold. I dragged a chair outside when I got tired of dancing around like a bat, so I sat and considered the stars. Charlie was on my mind. Charlie had a bit of me, of Brad and I both, in them. Part of me wished that Charlie would appear out of nowhere, realizing I had retreated.
"What's up out here?" they could have said, coming outside to find me.
"Looking at the stars and getting some air," I may have replied.
"Yeah, dude," they would have said, plopping on a chair beside me.
"So where is your family from?" I should have asked, a mild probe.
"New York City, but my grandparents and aunt are in Seattle."
"Oh yeah?" I would feel my nerves strain. "So have you ever heard of Bellingham?"
"My aunt lives there. We visited her like, two years ago?"
"I was there once. What is your aunt's name?"
The question doesn't come across as weird, so they would answer it. "Nancy."
My heart would then beat faster, a throbbing in my ear echoing my panic.
"Maybe I ran into one of your cousins in Bellingham," I would ask, struggling to keep my face from twitching.
"Nancy has two kids, younger than me." I would gulp and wish, wish so hard for the universe to place the answers in my hand when Charlie says, "Although Nancy has another kid. She has been looking for him for years, put him up for adoption I think."
I would then realize that I have crossed into another world, a reality where there is no coincidence. "This is an odd thing to ask, but do you know anything else about that?"
"No, but the family that adopted him live on the East Coast, or something. Why are you so curious? I'm curious."
I would feel my eyes crinkle, holding in the emotion. "You know, Charlie, I have been scared to look for my birth mother. I am from Bellingham." I can hear them shatter, like I have. "Do you–" I stumble for the first time, "Do you have her number?"
Charlie would nod silently and pull out their phone, scanning through the contact list.
“Ask about November 20th. 1990," I would say, almost forgetting. Charlie nods with the phone to their ear, and someone must have picked up.
"Hey, Aunt Nancy! Yes. Nice to hear your voice too. I have an odd question. Does the date November 20th, 1990 mean anything to you?" Charlie's eyes would widen, and start to water, looking at me, through me, through all the myself I had struggled with. I would begin to cry, cry harder and harder and feel the chapter turn.
None of this was the case, though. None of this happened, no matter each time I imagined it. I sat outside the party, taking in the stars, and eventually got up, summoned by the final song "Closing Time." I continued to play the scenario over and over in my head, tweaking details and phrases, rehearsing to get it right. It would never happen, but I dreamed of it. I expected the thought would pop up every time I saw Charlie, if I ever saw them again. I never asked anyone when this happened; every person I met that shared a nose, an eye, a place, a feeling I began the dreaming over again, and I never, ever asked.
Instead, I return to "Closing Time," to an emptying party, and waited like a coward for the universe to fix things for me, and knew that I would be waiting for the rest of my life.
Instead, I return to "Closing Time," to an emptying party, and waited like a coward for the universe to fix things for me, and knew that I would be waiting for the rest of my life.
The night ended, as it had to. Charlie and Brad stayed over, my dearest friend falling to sleep without another comment, not even a joke. I was left alone with Charlie, who talked about the wonder of their night, how hard it was to meet people since they came to school. They didn't ask me about me, didn't wonder how I was feeling, but that was okay. I was their Brad, for the night. In the morning I found Charlie making coffee, and silently gesturing to a note on the counter. Brad was gone; she left me a phone number, held in place by Edith. I wasn't surprised; no matter how I remembered us, she owed me nothing.
"Pity," I said, getting myself a mug.
"How so?" asked Charlie. They stirred their coffee.
"I haven't seen that kid in years and we barely spoke. More interested in music, in escaping home. I can't blame her."
"I helped choose her for the cabaret, but we talked a few times before she got here," said Charlie. "She can really help a lot. Had a great night, like a really great night, last night, thanks to her. And you too. Thank you."
I got myself some coffee. "Thank you too. I had a lot on my mind."
Charlie shrugged. "You seemed happy." I said nothing, and they continued. "You know, when you wandered off at the end, she didn't seem so glad. She asked for you."
"No, really." Charlie stepped forward, hand around my shoulder. It reminded me of Brad, so I listened. "She missed you." They gestured at Edith. "Why else would she have left her behind?"
I looked at Edith, still watching me, seeing me shake. She did not blink.
"Sonuvabitch," I muttered, picking up Edith. Brad had left behind a spy.
Charlie set down their cup and hopped around a bit. I laughed at their little performance.
"I was a fox. I was a damned good fox, too," Charlie said. We didn't have as much in common as I imagined, but Charlie was kind, kind and funny and a bit fake like Brad, a bit like me. We were lost children; we were generations. They went to the couch and lifted up the two sets of pajamas. "Brad left them behind, too." I smiled and we stuffed ourselves in them. I considered calling Brad up for us both to talk to; I missed her again, already, more intensely. I didn't, but I resolved to call Mom later that day. I missed her too. I plugged in my iPhone and played some music.
"I love Cloud Cult!" Charlie said, leaping into my biggest armchair.
"Hard to find someone who likes these guys, they can be such a drag," I said.
"Yeah, dude." said Charlie. "But so is living and being and all that. Nice not to drag solo."
"Sounds like something Brad would say," I said as I turned up the music so we could sing together. "By the way, where is your family from?"
"California," said Charlie.
Jono Naito lives, writes, and designs games in Central New York. Find her in StoryQuarterly, Longform, and at jononaito.com.