Amanda Quinn was cooling her jealousy on the rooftop of Time—Manila’s (not very) secret hotspot—when she got the call. She scoped out the gathering storm while avoiding a despedida for a friend: pregnancy whisking another smart, funny, foreign woman back to her home country.
Black clouds marched from the east, blowing the venue’s red paper lanterns like baubles. The air beaded against her skin in acid sweat. Her tank pinched her ribs. Danny had a thing for structure in women’s fashion.
She checked her watch. He said he’d be here any minute, but she knew he wouldn’t be. Of course, if she’d had a child from her earlier pregnancies, she couldn’t be up here, feigning intimacy with people she barely knew.
She caught the eye of a French guy she’d met at other soirées like this. Or maybe he was Swiss: she couldn’t remember. A good conversationalist whose wife was always away on business. He flicked his cigarette, gestured for her to join him. She did.
“Where is your husband tonight?” He kissed the air beside her cheek.
“Work,” she said, letting herself be fake-kissed. “Your wife?”
They clinked the necks of their beer bottles, neither wanting to talk about it.
“Can you believe this?” he said, gesturing to the strange sky.
“No.” She leaned in, felt the heat rise through his shirt. “It’s not real.” Denial was how she coped with Manila. No, that family of four is not sleeping in that dumpster, etc.
He rocked back on his heels, smiled at his shoes. “I think you will never go back to the States now,” he said, getting her attention. “The Dow lost 20% this month.”
The economy was all these bankers had to talk about. She gestured to him. “We’re waiting to see whether Europe will implode.” Volley.
A gust of wind picked up Amanda’s hair, cooled the sweat on her shoulders. Bamboo reeds—in planters along the deck’s north wall—leaned toward them, and rustled like in an Ang Lee film. She imagined herself not in this sweaty megacity, but in some iconic Asia where Buddha and Gandhi and Pearl Buck sat and walked and wrote.
This, the reeds hissed. This. This. This.
Had French guy felt it too? He was smiling. His eyes softened, pupils dilated. Was he leaning toward her? Would he really dare? And if he did dare, would she—
A crash of terracotta shocked them both. A bamboo planter had blown off its perch on the outer wall of the bar. Some men helped her pregnant friend off the floor.
How embarrassing, Amanda thought. And concerning. Mostly concerning. Her cell phone vibrated in her pocket. Probably Danny. She made to excuse herself from the Frenchman, but he’d already jumped over a bench to help the guest of honor. Chivalrous.
The voice on the other end was her lawyer. Was there a problem with their application? “Hold on, please.” Amanda moved through the party, past the bar, past the incident, past the couches, past men in linen pants and women in silver earrings, and ran down the stairs, through a throng of young Manileños tripping on trance music, on to busy Makati Avenue, just as a taxi cab roared past, its muffler sparking against the road.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t quite hear.” She pressed her fingers into her ear. “Could you say that again?”
Traffic eased. The bar’s air conditioners stopped whirring. The lawyer’s voice was clear. “Are you ready to meet your son?”
Amanda’s heels slammed against the broken sidewalks of Burgos Street, Makati’s famed red-light district, as she hurried toward the hotel the lawyer had given her. She sidestepped cats and masseuses and boys selling Viagra. Why are we meeting here?
To avoid eye contact with hawkers, she checked her phone. She hadn’t heard back from Danny. He’s got to be here for this.
A white guy—muscular, with a single crutch—hopped toward her on one leg, his other leg gone above the knee. He smiled, his eyes trained on something in his imagination. “Mama-you-look-good-in-those-shoes-why-don’t-you-come-over-here—”
The sky interrupted him, groaning like God in a fever dream. It shuddered and cracked and the rain started.
Amanda covered her head and rushed toward the hotel. In the lobby, she wagged her empty coffee cup at the boy at reception, who put it in the wastepaper basket behind the counter. On the elevator, she thought of the one legged veteran: lecherous son of a—
She found room 17E, knocked. The attorney wore the traditional barong shirt over his pork belly. He called his mousy paralegal, who emerged with the child on her hip.
The boy was beautiful. Sloped shoulders and a soft curve to his elbows, skin like teak. His eyes were wide and black and close to his brow. Could this be real? Amanda reached for him. He leaned into her, nestled against her, rested his head on her shoulder. Time slowed. She smelled his hair.
This, she thought.
“How old is he?”
“Nine months.” The lawyer said. “His mom just passed away.”
“Oh no,” Amanda whispered. But it was relieving in a way. No birth mother, no complications.
“They pulled her from Manila Bay this morning.” Amanda hushed the lawyer, trying to protect the boy from grisly details, but the lawyer continued. “She danced for one of the bars down the street.” As if the former could be explained by the latter, Amanda thought. Though it did cast some light on the meeting place.
Amanda ventured to kiss the child’s brow. She considered wearing prairie skirts and nodding sanctimoniously, like missionaries in those films from the forties.
“His name is Crispin Santiago DeVilla Lacsamana,” said the lawyer, “but if you’d like to change it, you may do so here.” He pointed to some paperwork, handed her his pen.
She sat on the corner of the bed, the child in her lap. Crispin was too Shakespearean for Indiana. Christian? A homage to the Catholicism of the Philippines. And her mother’s confounding Unitarianism-ish-ness. And Christian sounded cool, which Danny would like. On the form, she wrote “Christian Santiago DeVilla Lacsamana Vermeeren Quinn.” All his surnames. All his heritages.
“And your husband?” the lawyer said. “He’s on his way?”
Danny had had a meeting that night with investors from Europe who expected to be wined and dined. So there would have been an after-meeting dinner, an after-dinner drink, or two, or five. It was important business for Danny. For them both.
If this were about anything else, she wouldn’t call. But this is life itself, isn’t it? The phone rang twice, went to voice mail. He ignored her.
Urgent, she texted.
Can’t talk, Danny texted back.
She stared at the carpet’s red and yellow tiles, trying to bury her anger. How could he abandon her like this?
“All okay?” the attorney said.
She gathered her anger and focused it. She would handle the adoption, and Danny would be chagrined when he found out the import of her message. She’d have the power again, at least for a little while.
“Danny can’t be here,” she said. “I’m sure we can work something out.” She would play nice and see how far it got her.
The lawyer leaned back on the hotel room’s desk and folded his hands across his belly pedagogically. “Starting a family is a very important decision. One you need to make together.”
Oh God, a lecture. “We did make the decision together,” Amanda said. “Danny has already signed all our application forms.”
The lawyer laughed, recognizing her game. “It’s just that we need his signature on this form too.” His fountain pen was still on the desk. Amanda reached for it, put it to her mouth, pretended to look over the form with renewed interest.
She felt the weight of the boy on her lap. Her cells vibrated at a new frequency, a low hum that calmed her instantly. She thought about diving into the reservoir outside of Cicero, Indiana: the way her toes curled against rock, legs tingling with fear before her will could compel them to jump.
A jagged crack of lightening broke the sky, drew the lawyer’s attention, for a second, to the window. She flicked the pen across the page. Capital D, squiggle, capital Q, squiggle. “Oh look,” she said. She was transgressing, but she kept her voice hopeful, feminine. “His signature.” She put down the pen.
The attorney sputtered. “He needs to sign it, Miss.”
She clicked opened her purse and fingered a folded pair of thousand peso bills, slid them under the form, and pushed it back to him. “I don’t know,” she said shrugging, playing dumb. “It looks to me like he already did.” She held his gaze, filled her eyes with false friendliness.
Shocked at her brazenness, the lawyer erupted into a laugh that died just as quickly. Then he stared at her in disbelief. Then he inhaled, shrugged. He picked up the application and the cash, patted the child on the head with a fat hand. “God bless,” he said, as though they were both doomed.
In her apartment in Rockwell Village’s newest high rise, Amanda wrestled with a screaming baby. No soft coos nor smiling eyes made headway against his hunger—and probably, Amanda thought, his growing sense of loss: Mama’s gone and left me with these broken-down old titties.
She tipped the warmed bottle toward Christian’s mouth. He jerked away, clamped shut. Please, she prayed. Then chastised herself: if God answered prayers, no children would die of cancer. Unbidden, she thought: please don’t let him get cancer.
She pressed the nipple against his lips again. A suck. Two sucks. She looked at her son. Her son! Eating her food! Perhaps this is what her own mother felt when she forced an anorexic Amanda to eat a whole box of Cheez-Its in high school.
The rain hit the picture window in torrents. Let it come, Amanda thought, amazed and exhausted. We can stay like this all night. Sweet boy. The curve of his cheek. The long lashes. Tiny fingernails. Soft feet rubbing against each other. She kissed him again.
His eyes grew wide, and he pulled off the bottle. Had he had enough? She wiggled the bottle in the air, squinted to read the ounces, when his first eruption of puke hit her blouse. “Okay,” she said. “Okay.”
His face reddened. He went off again, like a science project volcano. “Okay,” she repeated, like a mantra. She rushed them to the kitchen, leaned him over the sink. Could he breathe? Real moms were prepared for stuff like this, she thought. She pulled a dishtowel from the stove and wiped vomit from the boy’s mouth, mucus from his nose. Was he breathing?
Her sternum felt like a corset, her stomach was all acid, her left shoulder screamed from her spine—a pinched nerve.
He pulled at his shirt. Why was he scratching? His skin reddened, gathering into white bumps across his belly. Was it his clothing? The detergent? The bedding?
She picked him up and held him close to her. Whispered, shushed, jiggled for a minute, maybe two, when she looked down and saw that the rash had spread to his hands, his feet. His chin and cheeks and ears.
Anxiety bloomed. She was out of her league. She wasn’t good enough. She didn’t know what the boy needed. No husband to help. Ang Lee fantasies were useless, indulgent, messianic even. There was no grace anywhere.
She gathered the boy in her arms, reached for the landline, dialed zero for reception. “Call me a taxi, please. To Makati Medical Center. It is urgent.”
It was almost three in the morning when she returned home with her new son’s cheek heavy on her shoulder. A milk allergy. The boy had succumbed to powerful antihistamines.
She turned a corner and saw Danny, soaking, his head against the apartment door. “It’s you,” he mumbled. He carried a plastic bag with a Styrofoam takeout container in it. “I lost my keys.”
With her free hand she zipped opened her purse. “This is Christian,” she said, whispering. She pulled out her keys, gave them to her husband.
“Where’d you find him?” Danny struggled once, twice, to get the key into the lock.
“We adopted him.” The keys slipped from Danny’s hand and hit the tile with heavy clink. Christian shifted sleepily on her shoulder.
Danny looked at her with red-rimmed eyes, mouth open, as if she were from a collection agency, calling about a long-forgotten loan. He burped. It wasn’t time for an argument. She unlocked the door and opened it to the mess she’d left behind.
“Whoa,” Danny said.
“It was a hard night.” Harder than she’d expected. She hadn’t had time to shop for Christian, didn’t have a crib. The boy would have to sleep in bed with them. She pulled back the covers and was about to lay him down, when Danny dropped his wet clothes with a loud slap.
She shushed him.
He gave her a look of exaggerated apology, and then slammed onto the sofa in his boxers, opened his squeaky food container. A burger and fries. The smell filled the room. Could smells wake babies? Amanda tucked the sheet up under Christian’s armpits.
She turned to her husband, who put his food aside and reached for her. Would he ask how she managed the adoption without him? Would he be mad if she confessed the forgery?
He pulled her onto his lap. “You got your wish,” was all he said. He rubbed his nose into her neck.
“Our wish,” she whispered. She sat for a moment and then extricated herself. “Will you keep an eye on him? I just want to take a quick shower.”
Danny’s eyes were swimming but he cocked a confident thumb into the air.
Amanda took off the clothes that she put on before she was a mother. Ran the hot water. Christian’s vomit had crusted her tank into something like papier-mâché. She thought of the Frenchman. Had that really happened? She thought of Christian. Has this?
She rubbed the soap, covered her body with lather. She thought of the guest of honor, her pregnant friend. She had seen—even in her haste—the look of worry sneak under the woman’s composure and she knew it would linger for weeks. She remembered her own dreaded cramps, early spotting, the wishful thinkers who told her it’d be fine, her mother-in-law admonishing worry is not good for the baby.
Now she had a real live child and she’d almost killed him the first night. Having a kid would not be a life raft for her marriage. How—with a son to raise—could she compete with a million enterprising Filipinas?
The bar girls Danny liked were young and exotic. And most importantly, Danny didn’t know them yet. There is something hot, isn’t there, about screwing someone you don’t know? She reconsidered the Frenchman. Perhaps at this moment, his wife was showering in Laos, thinking these very same thoughts.
Her mind meandered back to her boldness with the lawyer. He could report her for bribery, surely a crime. If Danny learned she’d forged his signature, he could leave her. She’d be a single mom, unemployed. She imagined her life smoldering behind her while she rose, cinematically (dirt-smudged cheeks à la Scarlett O’Hara), fists clenched, teeth gritted. She’d make a good life for Christian, all else be damned.
She poured a dime-sized glob of shampoo into her palm, massaged it through her roots, rinsed the suds. She’d have to email her friend, make sure all was okay. An errant worry coursed through her. Was Christian breathing? Danny was not in any condition if, God forbid—
Amanda dried quickly, hurried downstairs, her nightdress sticking to her. Danny’s half-eaten burger was on the sofa. Her eyes moved to the bed. Her husband had curled up next to her new son, a protective hand on the boy’s belly. Both were asleep, faces slack, lips parted sweetly.
Amanda covered her mouth. If she could just hold it together, if she could move just so, say the right words, back off at the right times, if she could let Danny grow in love for Christian, if she could give a stellar performance in self-negation for the next few—twenty?—years, it might all work out. They might be a happy family.
Dear God, she prayed. Please, please, please.