White Space

by Crystal Bevers



I gave my son away when he was nine years old.

I still don’t know what this means. On rare days, I inhabit the letters of that sentence, black and precise. Most often, I flutter in the white space around the words, where guilt, grief, logic, hope, and self-justification soften into chilly drifts of white on white.

He came into our lives—mine and my husband’s—at five years old, a dark hummingbird of a boy, all darting movements, machine-gun questions, and feverish eyes. The day I met him at the social worker’s office, he flitted across the room to hover at my knee, looking me straight in the eyes: “Mom. Mom, are you going to adopt me?” Those are his first words that I remember.

I adopted him and his younger brother, too. I took him home, where he ate tuna sandwiches cut into squares and lined up his Hot Wheels cars by color and caught footballs in the back yard and struggled over homework and bossed his brother around and cried the first time he left our house on an errand because he was afraid he’d never come back. I smoothed his glossy, black hair at night and rested my hand against his cheek that was smooth and brown as lacquered rosewood. “Mom,” he would say, drifting off. “Tell me the story about how I came here.”

I would recite a sanitized version of his life, an abridged tale that snipped out the crisp details of early neglect, abuse, and betrayal, and waxed poetic on happy endings and forever homes. Looking back, I see his story lying beneath its mounds of white space: amputated, twisted, and brittle.

I was eleven years childless when all I wanted were little ones to fill my life. I thought these boys would finally make me whole. Help me belong. Give me roots and purpose. Bring me home. That’s a lot of pressure to put on two foster kids.

Even after the adoption, the boys would ask, “Is it tomorrow that I have to go to a new home?”

“No,” I’d say. “Remember the judge in the big black robe? He said you get to live here until you’re all grown up. This is your forever home.” They didn’t understand what that meant. I don’t anymore, either.

And soon, not long after the adoption, this oldest boy of mine was yelling and hitting and the years ground ahead as he forced toothbrushes down his brother’s throat and licked the younger boy’s penis at night and flailed with kitchen knives, screaming “I’LL-SLICE-YOU-TO-PIECES” while the veins leapt from a body built for athletics, tightly coiled like a spring. The youngest boy faded to a wraith who slept wedged on the floor between his bed and the wall and sobbed from the strain of exhaustion and hyper-vigilance when I woke him each morning, in spite of the alarms and motion detectors  that would surely keep him safe. I locked doors and slept only a few hours a week. I turned down play-dates and tried to tell myself that love could fix anything.

Some days I forgot I loved him.

Four years after his adoption, in August of 2008, his counselor sat my husband and me down in her office. “This child may never be able to handle the dynamics of a traditional home,” she said. “Think of his brother. Think of your marriage, your friendships. Some adoptions just never work out, no matter how much you put into them.” She talked to us about group homes, about sending him to an only-child foster home. About reversing the adoption and giving him back to the state.

Three months later, we made the decision. I picked up the phone and begged the social worker at Child Protective Services to take my son. “Please,” I said. “Please take him. Take him before something happens that can never be fixed.”

I haven’t seen him since that winter, almost five years ago, but I hear rumors. A friend spots him in a park or a grocery store and asks if he is happy. He says yes, but what else would he say? A caseworker says he might be adopted. Then there’s an incident with a little girl on a school bus and he’s moving to a new family. No one sees him for a long time. I stumble across a picture of him online. No, that’s not true. I’m searching for his picture, hunting it down like a dog on a trail, hungry for any information about him, and there he is, finally, after all this time, standing next to a man and woman I don’t know with a medal around his neck and a 5K Fun Run banner hanging over him. He’s virtually unchanged, just a little taller.

I show it to my husband, Chris. “He looks happy,” I say.

“He was always a good runner,” Chris says. He puts his arm around my shoulders, and I lean into him.

For a long while, we sit in a cloud of white noise that is teeming with conflicted emotion, but the static stutter that emerges most sharply is memory. Memory of my boy’s chin, warm in the cup of my hand. The smell of damp skin after a bath. A hike through the woods. His small body slipping under the surface of silver water with the grace of a dolphin, then bursting upward, sending diamond shards into a sky drenched in light: Mom, come in. You will love it in here. Come swim!

I break the silence in our living room. “It used to be hard to remember anything good about him. Now all I remember is how much I loved him. How much I miss him. All the hopes I had for him.”

Chris disagrees. All he remembers is the violence. We balance each other in this way, and that’s okay.

A couple of nights later, we show his picture to his brother. The one left behind. Our only child. He’s just turned eleven, this one, but in the years since his brother left, he’s almost mastered a poker face. He looks and looks and looks at the picture. Behind his blank face, I know he is feeding on it, gulping and sucking like a starving infant at the breast, committing every color, every shadow, every expression to memory, digesting and sending this new sustenance to each cell of his body. Revising the portrait in his brain of a brother who is now five years older. Recalibrating, I suppose, his fantasies, the stories he tells himself about who he is in relation to this boy who has become a stranger. Adjusting the white spaces.

When I tuck my only boy into bed at night now, we no longer talk about forever homes. They are part of an older, more naïve narrative, one in which our feet felt, for a moment, firmly planted in the ground. Here, we used to tell ourselves, here is our place. These are our people. This is who we are and always will be. You never account for the unthinkable. How can you? So here we hang, like the diamond droplets exploding from the surface of the water all those years ago, caught between earth and sky. Between belonging to each other and not. Between once upon a time and forever. The three of us: me, my husband, and my only son. And the ghost of a boy long gone but not gone at all.

Noah. His name is Noah.

Crystal Bevers is a professor of English and Humanities at Heritage University, which sits in the heart of the Yakama Indian reservation and primarily serves the indigenous and migrant farm worker populations that live there. Her work there focuses on helping first-year, first-generation college students adjust to the culture of higher education. Her writing, published in numerous literary journals, often centers around themes of social and environmental justice. In her spare time, she plays the violin poorly, reads too much, and kisses her dog in unsanitary ways. She holds an MFA in Writing from Pacific University.

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