I heard the rumor on the way to the lunchroom. Mary Ellen, my best friend since second grade, whispered in my ear, “Melissa is adopted. Shhhhhh, don’t tell—” Her secretive tone cloaked the news in shame.
Melissa was the new girl at our small Catholic grammar school, and today, she was sitting two down and across the table from me. At first, I couldn’t bring myself to look at her face, for if I did she would certainly see the pity in my eyes. I watched her twiglike hands slowly and methodically unpack her red-trimmed Holly Hobbie lunch box. First, she opened and squared her paper napkin parallel to the table’s edge. Next, she arranged the contents in order of nutritional importance: turkey sandwich, front and center; carrots at 2 o’clock; thermos opened, and apple juice poured into cap and placed at 10 o’clock. Her gestures were robotic, her moss-colored eyes without feeling. If my mother had given me away, I’d be dead inside too, I thought.
Melissa’s heartache was not completely foreign to me, however; we did share a sorrow in common: we were both motherless daughters. My mother had died when I was in kindergarten, and although I felt the extremity of that loss, I was glad my mother hadn’t willingly abandoned me. Cancer had taken her from me— and somehow, that made my situation more palatable.
I became increasingly curious about Melissa’s circumstances and began to study her from afar. I’d watch her twist wisps of her long auburn hair as she read from chapter books, bite the end of her pencil when she was stuck on a math problem, and cross her arms impatiently when the kid in front of her at the water fountain took too long. After a few weeks, I decided she needed a friend. At first I just let her cut in front of me in line, but within a week, we were trading cupcakes at lunch and passing notes when the teacher’s back was turned. It wasn’t long before Melissa and I became friends. Now that I was on the inside, I was convinced I’d see the true despair of being adopted, but all I saw was someone like me: sometimes happy, sometimes not, but mostly okay. How could she be okay knowing she’s adopted? Poor Melissa, I thought to myself, she’s pretending.
One morning before standing and reciting the Daily Offering, Melissa leaned across the aisle, cupped her hand around her mouth and whispered, “Wanna come to my birthday sleepover Friday?”
“Got to ask my grandmother,” I replied. Finally, this was my chance to see Melissa in her inner lair. Surely, when the family was assembled shoulder-to-shoulder, a hint of her unhappiness would surface.
Friday came, and with my grandmother’s blessing and a Skipper doll wrapped in happy-birthday paper tucked in my overnight bag, off to Melissa’s I went. Dad drove me the six blocks to her home and on the way struck up a quick conversation with me.
“I know Melissa’s father,” he started. “He works with me.” He paused for a minute and then asked, “Is she tall?”
“Is who tall?” I countered.
“Melissa. Her father is 6’4”. I bet she’s tall, too.”
With that one comment, I started to think how weird it would feel to not look like anyone in your family. Every time she looks in the mirror, she’s reminded that she doesn’t belong, I thought. I glanced at my reflection in the passenger’s side window looking for my own family resemblances.
“Whose eyes do I have?” I asked.
My father tilted his head and shot me a sideways look as if he was surprised by the shift in our conversation.
“Well,” he hesitated, “you have your own eyes.”
“No, who has the same eyes as me?” I persisted.
“Same eyes?” he asked, hedging for more time.
“Yes, who has the same eyes as me?”
“Well—“ he paused again.
A wave of fear suddenly washed over me: Am I adopted, too? I twisted forward in my seat.
“Dad, please just tell me,” I begged. “Whose eyes do I have?”
“Well,” he hesitated, “some people say your eyes resemble your grandmother’s.”
I slid back in my seat, relieved and mostly satisfied, as Dad pulled into Melissa’s circular driveway. I kissed him goodbye and gave him an extra- long hug, feeling silly for thinking that I, too, could be adopted.
Over the course of the next 24 hours, I saw what life was really like for an adopted child. Melissa had thoughtful parents who adored her, despite her don’t-embarrass-me-in-front-of-my-friends attitude. Her home smelled of Lemon Pledge, the refrigerator was covered with her A+ papers, and the gold shag carpet in the living room begged to be replaced. She kept her Lite-Brite on the floor of her closet and her shoes underneath her bed. Her life smacked of ordinary. I had assumed she led a lonely and miserable life, bluffing a well-adjusted front to avoid detection; instead, I was left with the realization that Melissa’s life was just like mine: sometimes happy, sometimes not, but mostly okay.
Three years later, I was told that I, too, was adopted;
somehow, I believe my instincts already knew.
There is no instinct like the heart.