(Excerpt from a novel-in-progress, Ghosts of Detroit)
For a long time I didn’t know anything about myself before I was found by my adoptive parents, Virginia (Ginny) and Gerald (Jerry) Wells. Vee and Gee.
My life with them began when I was two. Before that there was a darkness, there were no discernible shapes, no bodies, no places, nothing you could see or touch, or hear or smell. And then, when I became two– in a sunburst!—I entered their lives.
There was a sweet story about how I’d been wanted, wanted, and then there I was! Sweet as sugar, good enough to eat.
The account of my origins emerged from the enveloping fog of the past: Yes, my Birth Mother had loved me very, very much–how could she not?–and wanted me too, and would have kept me but she came to understand, with the help of the social worker, that she was a broken reed hardly able to remain upright herself, too young, too poor, too alone.
“Who was she?” I’d ask. “Someone who loved you,” Ginny would reply instantly and go on without missing a beat, “But we loved you even more, from the moment we saw you. And she knew we could give you a better life.”
“ Better than what?” I wanted to know. And Ginny would go on to itemize: “Oh!–we could give you dolls, pretty dresses, (I remember her yanking on one I liked especially with eyelet trim), your own friends like Martha and Sydney, your own room, ice cream and—,” she threw in increasingly, to my annoyance— “education.” It was a hodgepodge.
But the details about the creature who gave me away remained scant. The man in the transaction was even more of a mystery, spoken of only in whispers. Was he a drive-by? Or a visitation of some sort, like Leda ravished by the swan or some less elevated rapist? But in those days, whoever he was, or however it happened, in those days you were born out of wedlock, to an unwed mother. I was a carrier of my mother’s disgrace.
Then along came Virginia and Gerald, who plucked me from my mother’s shame, and validated me in their arms.
They named me Vivian. I think in their minds it had something to do with life. But I knew it didn’t belong to me, it was like a patch or skin graft; and one day I began to call myself Polly. At first, I kept it to myself and continued, out of my seven-year-old notion of tact, to respond to the name Vivian. Vivian washed her hands and Vivian brushed her baby teeth. Vivian took her nightly bath, and at bedtime Vivian got ready for bed. Vivian chose the dolls she would sleep with—favorites varied night to night—and remanded others to wait their turn.
It’s not clear just when Virginia and Gerald began to suspect something was up. Their first clue may have been when Polly was the name I gave my dolls–-all of them. I renamed the ones I had, and then, instance after instance, doll after doll, over a period of several months it became clear that proposals for other names for any incoming dolls would have to be checked at the door.
To break me of the habit they got me a boy doll and consulted with me at length over the name. Daniel would be nice, they said. I named him Polly too.
July 14, evening, the summer I turned ten: I waited till dark and then, when everything was quiet, I slipped out of the house cradling the current edition of my Barbie doll within the folds of my cardigan. I made my way behind the trees that towered over our house and, crouching down, I deposited Barbie in the hole I had dug, scooping the dirt with my hands. I covered her with a thin layer of soil, trying to make sure that she was close enough to the surface to breathe, should she become able to do so–and to move her arms and legs. I was trying to engineer a miracle. My plan: To discover in the early hours of the morning that plastic had become flesh. I was planting her now, like a flower. I sprinkled water over the mound and prayed.
I’d known better, of course. In the morning, Barbie was soggy and covered with mud; I carried her back into the house and in an upstairs bathroom, sponged her off.
It was thought that my birth mother’s family was from Hamtramck, Michigan, a township entirely surrounded by the city of Detroit (where I was born). Though there was a smog of facts about her family and their murky hardscrabble life, the trail for my mother goes abruptly cold. Hamtramck was where my mother was last not seen. What was last seen, actually, was her car and she was not in it. It was parked in front of a square brick building that housed medical offices which included an abortion clinic on the ground floor. When I went to see it not long ago, it was no longer a clinic, it was nothing but a shell– run-down brick, the bricks crumbling, jagged metal cutting through mortar, choked and overrun with weeds.
Polly didn’t go through with it, the abortion. If you want to know who I am, I am the evidence.