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Daphne Beal

The Terms


Three weeks to the day we’d been there, and as usual, we were trapped in the hotel room waiting for news. The doors to the little balcony were open, and a breeze blew in that smelled of sulfur and rotten fruit. I was reading a babycare book, which I knew was a bad idea, but did anyway. Jim, on the other hand, was stretched out on the bed, naked except for a towel and poring over a beat-up thriller—definitely a minor addiction of his. He looked at ease in his tanned skin with his reading glasses on, and I envied him.

He glanced up. "You want to see the Schwarzenegger movie?"

"Not really," I said setting down the book.

"Come on," he said and rolled to the edge of the bed to massage my shoulder. "There’s got to be something. The market? A church? The ballet folklorico—you’ve been talking about that."

"I don’t know. No." I flopped down on the expanse of rumpled sheets beside him, and he watched me over the tops of his glasses. "I feel like we’re hostages. Like I should be reading the Bible or learning French."

He tucked a piece of hair back from my face. "I promise you this will pass and somehow it will all work out."

I turned away. Damn your optimism, I thought. All I wanted was a little solidarity. Fat clouds scudded across a sooty blue sky. The rooftop sprawl was crowned in a tangle of TV antennae and laundry lines.

"Have faith, Laney," he said. "Just a little while longer." He kissed the back of my neck, and I willed myself to be still and not shake him off like he was a fly landing there.

"Maybe we should get a new lawyer," I said, not for the first time. He liked Aurelia, but I found her a little opaque and gratingly young in her candy-colored suits and streaked hair. There was an almost manic intensity to her daily explanations about what new obstacle had arisen, so that I always wondered what she wasn’t telling us. Were we supposed to bribe someone? Jim thought it was just her style.

"Whatever you want to do, but I think it will slow us down even further."

"You really think she’s fine?"

"I really do," he said.

I hated that he was so unfazed, but I counted on the fact that his instinct was not to make things more complicated than they were. He was nearly twenty years older than me, and from the beginning he seemed to know more about the way things worked than I did. That he thought I would be a good mother meant a lot. If he hadn’t, I might have taken it as a sign when I couldn’t have kids that I shouldn’t have kids. I never would have brought us this far from home if it hadn’t been for his indomitable faith. His faith regularly kicked my faith’s ass.

"Okay, then, I’m going out."

"You want company?"

"No, it’s okay," I said and it was. I wanted to think about something besides our supposed son-to-be Victor, but I wouldn’t if Jim was striding beside me. I wiped a palmful of sunscreen across my face and neck and opened the door.

"You’ll be back for dinner?"

"Three hours max," I said.

Steamy air hovered over the hot pavement, and post-siesta traffic jammed the street, but I took off at a fast pace, weaving myself between vehicles and people, dodging bikes and buses, always looking for the space between them. If we stayed much longer I would end up wearing one of those little jockcup-looking air filters over my mouth. For now, I lit a cigarette and held it high above the throng like a wand. The moment Victor was ours I promised whoever was up there that I would quit. Until then, no deals.

Jim and I had been to the big filthy river to stroll along what was optimistically called the Promenade, but it was seedy and vaguely threatening with its trash and machinery and kids high on glue. We had toured the art museum with its dusty, cracking canvases, and the Museum of Natural Curiosities where we saw a two-headed piglet in formaldehyde among other deformed creatures. I walked past open storefronts selling shoes, tin pots, and plastic everything. It wasn’t Jim’s fault we were here. He had Emma with the big green eyes and newly shaved head who lived in the Hudson River Valley with her mother. I loved the girl, even as she started to turn sulky, but she wasn’t mine. We tried for more than three years to have a kid of our own before I decided we could try something else.

At a boulevard crosswalk with a knot of whitewashed palms at the center, I realized I was just a short distance from Aurelia’s office and I could stop in for an update, but I didn’t want to wear out her good will (or mine), and she had already assured us just that morning—me in particular after I asked her to stop speaking in high-speed Spanish to Jim alone—that she was doing everything she could.

"It’s absurd you have wait so long," she apologized. "My friend says the legal system here is like a Groucho Marx movie, and I, for one, am waiting to get a pie in the face!" She laughed a little too strenuously, and Jim chuckled because he’s nice, while I pictured dollops of whipped cream dropping from her face onto her fitted tangerine suit. "But," and she paused to clasp each of our hands, "it will work if you, if we, can remain patient."

I turned down another street, enveloped by the bloody smell of warm meat as I passed an indoor market, and I held my breath until I was clear of it and checked the map I had ripped out of the guidebook. I was pretty sure I was headed in the right direction.

When I got to the Plaza San Francisco, I stopped to sit on a bench in front of the church. Hot diesel fumes warped the air, and the building’s high facade wavered at me. I considered what I would say to Sister Concepción who ran the orphanage, or more precisely to Sister Consuelo who translated for her and whose English was impeccable as I’d learned from her daily reports of Victor. We’d only been allowed to visit once.

I am sorry to disturb you, I rehearsed, and a little girl appeared selling woven bracelets—"¿To remember?" she chirped tilting her head. I bought two.


In front of the heavy wooden door set in a stucco wall on a side street, I wiped my face with a tissue before I rang the bell. A young nun opened the door and took me to Sister Consuelo, who was sitting at a desk with an account book and calculator. In addition to the pencil in her hand, she had one tucked behind each ear, and her wimple was laid beside her looking like a deflated vacuum cleaner bag.

"Sometimes they’re just impractical," she said smiling. "Please sit down. What can I do for you?"

I took a breath. "I wanted to see Victor. Just see him, not disrupt the children. For only a little while."

Consuelo removed her glasses—her eyes were smaller without them—and pinched the bridge of her nose. "It’s so difficult, so difficult for the other children when one of them leaves, even a little one like Victor. Not that we don’t want them to have homes. We do," she said.

"These are important days. I’m missing them. A child grows a lot in three weeks, and he’ll be fifteen months soon."

She contemplated her clasped hands, and then looked up. "I agree with you." She scraped her chair back and stood. "Come." My heart banged around like a trapped bird inside my chest as she directed me to the garden where the children were playing.

I sat down on a bench at a distance and lit a cigarette that I tried to keep out of sight as I watched a young, round-faced nun read a picture book to a group of children on the patchy, dry lawn. Another led a game like duck, duck, goose.

Apart from them, a girl around the age of nine with two long, black braids and wearing a dingy yellow, ruffly dress that made of think of cake frosting walked beside Victor holding his hand as he wobbled forward in his drunken baby way, laughing as he went. He looked more substantial than before, at least from this distance, more like a little person.

Consuelo had told me about a girl named Teresa, who spent most of her free time with Victor. It was common, she said, for older and younger children to latch onto one another, even if they weren’t related. One of Consuelo’s concerns these days was trying to involve Teresa in other activities, giving her special privileges in the kitchen, tutoring her in English.

"Señora," Consuelo tapped my shoulder and handed me a glass of water and sat down.

"Oh. Thanks." I stubbed out the cigarette on the bottom of my shoe and tucked it beside me as I rummaged for a piece of paper in my bag to wrap it in.

"It’s a beautiful day," Consuelo said, looking up through the glossy leaves.

"Si. Yes," I said. She was maybe a few years older than me, but she impressed me as older, wiser really.

"Do you want to go see him?"

"I do. It’s okay?"

"Sure. Just sit down near him. Teresa knows a little English."

Victor crawled on all fours now toward Teresa, who scooted backwards, crablike. She faltered and fell back when he reached her, and they laughed as he climbed between her legs onto her yellow dress. She rolled over with him, cradling his head.

"Thank you." I patted my damp hair and smoothed my wrinkled skirt as I walked toward them. The other children looked up at me as I passed, greeting me, and I smiled. Everyone watched me, but Teresa kept her eyes on Victor. She knew who I was, even though she wasn’t supposed to.

"It’s hot out," I said in my remedial Spanish, offering her a Lifesaver. She took it and put it in her pocket.

"Not for me. I love the sun," the girl said mildly. Victor nestled in her lap while she tickled his face with the feathery tip of her braid.

"It’s much colder where I live."

"I would hate it."

I took off my sunglasses. "Some people do."

"I am like a flower. I need the sun," she said.

"Si," I said, plucking the grass beside me, listening to the burble of the Virgin Mary fountain behind us. Teresa set Victor on the grass. He looked up at her and then at me before he crawled over and grasped my hand. I turned up my palm up empty, and he stared at it seriously.

"What do you see?" I asked, and he looked at me quizzically before pressing both his hands onto mine, leaning his full weight into them and beaming with his trick. I wanted to scoop him up and run.

"Victor?" Teresa said, and he turned. She cooed something in dialect, all pips and guttural tickings, as she leaned over and pulled him back to her. I imagined what she saw: a pale, flushed woman with ropy, brown hair and a sheen of sweat, the lines on my neck—someone almost certainly too old to be such a young boy’s mother. She had a narrow and intelligent face, older than the girlish braids or dress.

I squatted and said good-bye, wiping the dust off my hands, breathing against the dizziness I felt coming on. Little lights darted in front of me as I walked past the other children making my way into the cool stone corridor, and I stopped to sit and pull my head between my knees. Below me, there was the clean-swept concrete under my long, dust-covered feet and red toenails. I leaned to the side, and my head clunked heavily as I lay it on the bench.

When I woke up, my cheek was stuck to the varnished wood, and I raised my head rubbing at the indented marks.

"Slowly," Consuelo said and moved from a nearby chair next to me. "How do you feel?"

"Better, I think."

She handed me a glass of water, watching me drink, and then some crackers, which tasted better than anything I’d eaten in days.

"I think the waiting once you are here is more difficult than the waiting in the U.S.," she said. "You are so close to him. And you can see him and smell him, and yet nobody can guarantee you anything."

I used a shiny square of napkin to blow my nose.

"Sister Concepción has some influence with one of the ministers in the justice office, who is her cousin. Let me speak with her," she said, passing me a cold bottle of soda.

"You’re very kind. I’m sorry to come here and bother you."

"Should I call a taxi, or your husband?"

"No, no, I’ll be fine."


I stepped out through the orphanage door and felt immediately better. Birds twittered, and a high wall along the residential street cast a wide stripe of shade to walk in. A pick-up truck jounced out of a driveway, and I flattened myself against the wall. In back, three men stood among the long two-by-fours. "Hey lady, hey lady," one called. "Will you marry me?"

Sure, I thought and lit a cigarette. I was pleased with myself for getting out, for going there and for leaving. And if Aurelia gave me some longwinded discourse on how I had hindered the adoption further, I vowed to give her what-for—hadn’t we been promised he would be with us in under a week? Isn’t that why we’d hired her? Having done it, I felt some of the defeat of the last ten days lift, and I moved surefooted out onto the avenue, riding the heat like a current. Open windows spoke of whole lives inside, showing tables set for dinner, desks full of papers, computers patiently waiting, and sofas covered in clear plastic. In stores, in the melded half-light of the bright outside and dark inside, people fixed all sorts of things—clothes, typewriters, sewing machines—and from a passing car window came fast-plinking marimba music and a radio voice booming "SABADOSABADOSABADO!"

I bought a straw hat from a man who must have had a pile of fifty or so stacked on one fist so that it swayed as he walked. I put it on, not caring what kind of tourist I looked like. At an air-cooled, modern drugstore, I wandered through the familiar landscape of white linoleum and metal shelves. I bought some lotion and a girl’s pink headband and matching bracelet, zipping them into the side pocket of my bag, wondering if I would have the guts to give them to her—trinkets for her boy.

Not far from the hotel, a man crooned, "Dulce, dulce," holding a tray that sent off a sweet, caramelized smell, so that I had to buy one of the globs of warm molasses and fresh shredded coconut. I popped it in my mouth and pointed at two more unable to speak from the deliciousness, and the man hummed as he wrapped them in brown paper.

Jim looked up from the yellow pad he was taking notes on, the phone cradled between his ear and shoulder, as I set down the candy and kissed the top of his head. I hoped it was Aurelia, but I could tell it was business and went to wash my face and take two aspirin. Jim was a painter doing well enough to invest, and it kept him from having to teach fulltime. I curated art shows at the university.

"Look, just call me if anything happens. We’re not going anywhere fast," he said.

I opened my eyes. "Hi," I said reaching my hand across the bed.

He kissed it. "Emma called. She got into a fistfight with a girl at some club in the city and got her nose broken. Christina grounded her and made her call me since she won’t talk to her about it."

"A fight?"

"I know. She said it wasn’t her fault, but then she told me that the other girl was worse off than her, as if that was supposed to make me feel better."

"What was it about?" I said.

"Something about the girl hitting on Em’s boyfriend. She’s fourteen! I didn’t even know she knew how to fight. Oh, and then Aurelia stopped by, in a state."

"Why? Did she have news?" I had been bracing myself for this.

"It wasn’t about Victor. It was about her, and you’re going to be mad, but please try not to freak out."

"Okay." I propped myself up on my elbow.

"About twenty minutes after you left, she called to say she was in the lobby and upset. She said she needed to talk to me privately—"


He put his hand on my arm. "I told her I’d be right down, and when I got there she looked sick. I asked the manager for an office, and when we got inside she told me she couldn’t help it, but she was in love with me."

A squawk of disbelief escaped my mouth.

"She said that was why the adoption was taking so long, because she was trying to figure out a way to be with me."

I hit the mattress. "Does she have any idea what this waiting is like? How could she do that to us?"

Jim pressed his temples. "I don’t know."

"What did you tell her?"

"That I couldn’t be with her. That I was married to you, that I love you, and that I was here to adopt my son. And that we’d have to get a new lawyer. She didn’t take it very well."

"Good. Let her suffer." I got up to turn off the air conditioner and opened the balcony doors onto a dying pink sky. I turned to him. "You know I have to ask."

He looked into his creased palms and up at me. "Nothing. Not a thing."

"Okay." I felt in my pockets for cigarettes, but I had tossed them on the walk home. The year before, I’d met Jim on the subway platform at Times Square with a former student of his, younger than me, appealing in a way if she hadn’t been sleeping with my husband, which she obviously was. We all got onto the same car, standing side by side, not saying a word, and when I got off at our stop I didn’t turn around. He followed me, and I was surprised, though I tried not to show it. He said it was a mistake, a crisis about getting old. He swore it hadn’t happened before and it wouldn’t happen again—all those things you’re supposed to say. I told him I could forgive him once, but twice would be too much. The terms were clear, and because of who we are together, that was the end of the discussion. I knew this adoption was more for me than for him—maybe even a kind of extended penance on his part. But I hoped that having a kid together, that tangible future to pour ourselves into, would bring us closer, if not right away, then eventually.

He walked up behind me and rested his chin on my shoulder. Windows lit up around us, looking solid in the rosy ether. "I promise it was all in her head," he said.


Over steaks at a noisy, candlelit place down the street, I told him about visiting the orphanage. He thought it was a bad idea, but he couldn’t say much when Aurelia’s behavior trumped mine so completely. In the room, we had sex with the TV on, an American comedy dubbed into Spanish drowning out our thoughts as our limbs moved, mine anyway. The idea that Victor might not be ours in the end was something I couldn’t conceive of, and my wanting him washed through me, flushing everything else away. At eleven, we turned off the light and lay in the dark, naked and waiting for sleep to come when the phone rang.

Jim answered, "Emma? Oh, si?" I tried to listen but he but seemed not to notice as he rubbed his brow. "Speak more clearly, Aurelia. I can’t understand what you’re saying. Tell me again." He looked up and lifted his hand to his mouth as if it were a bottle. Then he wrote something on a scrap of paper and reached for his pants on the floor. I heard him say, "I’m coming over right now. Don’t go to sleep!"

"What is it?" I asked.

"She’s swallowed a bottle of pills. I’m taking her to the hospital."

"Doesn’t she have friends or relatives who can help her?"

"I didn’t ask. But someone’s got to do something right now." He pushed his head through the neck hole of a faded pink t-shirt that said "Bermuda is for lovers."

"Can’t we just call an ambulance?"

"I know you think I’m doing the right thing, even if you’re pissed off."

"Okay, so I’m coming with you," I said pulling on jeans and jamming my feet into sneakers.

Jim raised an eyebrow. "You’re sure?"

"I’ll never sleep here anyway."


The taxi sped across the empty city, past neon signs and flowering bushes and the blue flickering of TV’s through lace curtains, until we pulled up to a wrought-iron gate in front of a small apartment building. Jim leaned on the buzzer until a man about his age appeared on a balcony a flight up and started yelling, but Jim cut him off and he let us in. Jim took the stairs two at a time.

Four flights up, inside the apartment, everything was immaculate—brass-framed photographs, silk flowers in vases, a varnished wood-carved crucifix on the wall with the delicate bare feet pointing down—everything except for Aurelia who was slumped over the kitchen table, her blond-streaked hair messy around her face and a small pool of vomit wetting the placemat. She wore a thin white t-shirt and a pair of lime-green sweatpants with the elastic cuffs bunched up at her knees.

Jim pulled back the chair and tried to get his arms around her back and under her knees, before he asked, "Will you get her other side?"

I tried to wedge her up, and Aurelia gave a little moan before Jim kicked back the chair and hoisted her over his shoulder.

"I’ll get the lights," I said, stopping in the bathroom where I picked up the empty pill container and dropped it in my purse.

Bowing a little under Aurelia’s weight, Jim argued with the taxi driver, who hadn’t known exactly what he was getting into. Others stood on their balconies watching now.

"It will be much worse if she dies here in the street rather than in the car," Jim hissed. I handed the driver a fifty as Jim loaded Aurelia into the back. "Will you sit with her, keep her awake, while I try to get us there?" he asked.

I squeezed in and began pinching her all over, telling her to wake up. When she didn’t, I yanked her up by her hair and slapped her. "Wake up!"

She opened her eyes for a moment before they rolled back into her head.

"Ave Maria," the driver said.

"Jesus," Jim said.

"‘Jesus’ is right," I said as we turned in between two bedraggled palms, arriving at the hospital. "I’ll deal." I hopped out at the door and managed to communicate that we needed a gurney.

Jim went with her as they wheeled her away. I didn’t care anymore. I just gave him the empty vial. In the waiting room I watched a raucous late-night talk show beamed in from Mexico and then went outside where the air was chilly and the sky was turning lavender with the approaching dawn. Finally I fell asleep across some hard chairs inside, dreaming that Victor was in a boat headed down a fast river full of rapids and rocks. I could keep up with him on the shore, but I couldn’t get to him, which made me feel sick, and I was grateful when Jim woke me up.

"Is she okay," I asked.

"She’s stable," he said giving me a hand, and we folded ourselves into a cab outside.


Later, after we’d slept a little, over room service, I said to him, "Maybe she felt sorry for you."

"What do you mean?"

"Being with me."

"Uh-huh," he said nodding.

"I just want to be in the equation somewhere."

He shook me lightly. "You are the equation. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you." I waited. "I’m excited we’ll have a son."


"I’m worried about Em. I feel like I should be there, that she’s in more trouble than we know. It’s like those stories you hear about other people’s children and think, if they’d only done something when it all started. Talked to her, listened to her."

"Yeah." My stomach sank. I knew what was coming.

"What are you thinking?"

"I understand why you want to go. I don’t want you to, but I could probably manage."

"What if I waited till we got a new lawyer and things were rolling along again? Or I could come back," he said. I felt the hot tears brimming, and above all I didn’t want to cry. "What about—I’ll fly back no matter what, so that you won’t have to come home alone. I just want to spend a weekend with Em before school starts. She needs me right now."

I need you right now I wanted to scream. "Sure, okay," I said instead. A few cars went by on the street. Someone was hosing down the sidewalk in front of the hotel. You’re already gone, I thought. "Maybe it’s better anyway, if Aurelia really is obsessed with you," I said.


We didn’t know what Aurelia’s boss knew, but he assigned us a new lawyer saying she was out sick for a while, and after a few days, Jim left. For a little over a week, I spent my mornings at the lawyer’s waiting, reading—or trying to read—and re-filling out forms.

In the afternoons, I wandered the city. I went down to the water and watched the cargo being unloaded onto the docks and then onto trucks painted with religious scenes and prayers. Men fished off piers in the polluted river and trolled from putt-putt boats. Sometimes I saw Indian couples in canoes navigating the currents, their children tucked between them.

Jim called from the beach with Emma. Her bruises were fading, he said, but she was too thin and would only swim in shorts and a t-shirt, as if she had more to hide on her body than what they already knew about. She was angry at Christina, but wouldn’t talk about it. I wondered if she was mad at me too, for adding another person she had to share her father with.

"I’m glad I came back, even if I don’t know how much I’m reaching her," he said.

"Good," I said. "Things are fine here." In terms of the adoption, they were. All I could see was this baby in front of me. Beyond that, I didn’t know what else I wanted anymore.

A few days before everything was to be finalized I asked Consuelo to meet me for coffee at a place near the Plaza San Francisco. (I had been told that I would jeopardize everything if I visited the orphanage again.) She told me that Victor was beginning to talk. He knew his name, Teresa’s, and agua, pronounced ah-wah. I had missed his first words. "Their separation will be very hard on her," Consuelo said.

"What will happen to her?" I asked.

"She may still be adopted. We always pray for that. After she turns thirteen, she can apply to go to boarding school on scholarship, or work in someone’s home taking care of their children, or stay with us and help with the younger children. I think she will stay. She is smart but shy around children her own age. I believe she will take her vows eventually."

I nodded. Or she could come to New York with me and get into all sorts of trouble staying out all night, just a few short years from now, getting into brawls with other girls. But no, it was too much already that she would always exist in the soft creases of his brain before me.

"I don’t think it’s ideal for every orphan to go to America," Consuelo said touching my hand.

It was as close to absolution as I would get. "Do you think I can do this, even with just Victor?"

"I do, and many women have done it before you." Not exactly a rousing endorsement, but I liked that she wasn’t just a hollow cheerleader. She pushed back her chair. "Come. Let’s go back right now." Once in the compound, she left me in her office where I sat in the dusty gold light watching leaves’ shadows move on the patterned carpet. She returned with Victor squirming in her arms and set him down on the floor. "This is so close to be being real. Be certain," she said.

He was newly clean, with his wet black hair combed back and wearing cartoon pajamas. She turned on a lamp, and I squatted down near where he waited, watchful on his hands and knees. He gave a short, dry wail and stopped, looking at me and at Consuelo. I scooted forward. He was dusted with talcum powder that tickled my nose, and his eyes were keen. I placed him on his feet, and he raised his hands up over his ears teetering briefly before he pushed my hands away.

I left one behind him, just in case, and moved almost imperceptibly toward him. He rested his hands on my now prickly knees and lifted his palms just above the hair, moving it back and forth. He laughed. I looked up at Consuelo whose face I couldn’t see, the way the light framed her in the window.

"What do you think?" she asked.

"I’m ready," I said and thought, If for nothing else, at least for this.

Daphne Beal’s work has appeared in Open City, Vogue, London Review of Books, Metropolis, and McSweeney’s.

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