First Time Ever I Saw His Face


Here is the most recent version of the opening of Walk Good, as we celebrate eight years since Daniel and I met in Montego Bay.

My friend calls to say that she and her cousin are leaving for a wedding in Jamaica, and that the room at the resort on the Seven Mile Beach has two queen beds. Even since she moved to Canada two years ago for opportunities America had refused her for over a decade, we have remained in close touch. Tiki says two queen beds are enough to fit eight people, and since she and I are from Ethiopia and Armenia respectively, this isn’t entirely a joke. She has called because Jamaica has always been on my mind, and she’s heard me say that it would perhaps be best for me to never visit the island since it would be unlikely that I would return. So, five minutes after I hang up, there is a message in my inbox, confirming a four-day trip to the island of my dreams.

For the moment, it doesn’t matter that I am terrified of my principal, and expect him to make my life at work even more unbearable, once I inform him that I will be extending the already long weekend by a day. He will tell me – in that way that makes anything he says sound like a threat – that a first-year teacher cannot afford absences. He will probably confront me about the quote I put up on my classroom door, against the counsel of my colleagues, veteran teachers who have been surviving his abuse for years. They want to know what I think I’m doing, what I expect will come of waging this war by plastering my door with Gandhi’s words: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall, always.” He will remind me that ordering substitute teachers puts a strain on the school’s budget, even though I have recently discovered that he has claimed $46,000 in the line item for suspensions in a school that doesn’t suspend students. He will refuse to approve my next field trip, and my order of a class set of The Alchemist. But Jamaica has always been on my mind in that sweet way that a dream tends to linger, distant but always present, and this monster cannot be what stands between us.

The island is good to me. We spend two days eating fish, jerk chicken, and mangoes, swimming, lounging in beach chairs, dancing in the sand under the moon, drinking cocktails made of rum and fresh island fruits, and sleeping only enough to survive. We are endlessly in awe of the tastes, the air, and especially the sea. On the third day of this spontaneous visit to Jamaica, my friend and her cousin prepare for the beach wedding. I won’t be joining them, since I don’t know the bride and groom, and crashing a wedding isn’t something I am inclined to do. I decide to spend my last day on the island engaged in something that doesn’t involve staying within the confines of the resort, or visiting any place that might appear in a tourist guidebook.

I lounge in the reception area until newly arrived guests are seen to their rooms, then approach a woman whose name tag tells me that she is a manager. After a brief exchange in which I try to explain that I am looking for a meaningful way to pay my respects to the island and would especially like to volunteer at an orphanage, she is kind enough to refer me to one in Montego Bay that is likely to welcome a visitor on such short notice.

I walk for thirty-five minutes along a road with rare patches of sidewalks. The fiercest drivers I’ve seen since I left Armenia as a teenager zoom past me, leaving me breathless, grateful to still be alive. At the bus park, friendly strangers and hustlers direct me to the next van leaving for Montego Bay. The driver informs me that there will be some stops along the way, and asks for a fair so small that I need to clarify whether he means US or Jamaican currency. I have chosen to travel like a Jamaican, instead of in one of the air conditioned vans that pick up the rare tourists willing to venture out of the resort for some shopping, or a visit to Rick’s Café to take photos of the sunrise and the boys jumping off cliffs. The decision has saved me a little more than thirty times the money I have paid for half a seat on a van that boards twice as many people as there are seatbelts. It has also saved me from having to listen to a driver shout over “One Love” on repeat, in an effort to advertise as many landmarks and souvenir shops as can fit into a monologue the length of the ride. I am uncomfortably close to the window, my face pushing out into the wind, away from the stranger who is sitting close enough that I can feel the warmth of his body against my own.

The van leaps and swerves along the coast of the Caribbean Sea. We make stops in small towns, and more people board than disembark at each stop, so there is less air and more of the stranger against my body. But the ride between towns takes away my breath. Although we’ve seen bits of the landscape on our few outings, the island reveals itself to me, for the first time, on this hour-long ride from Negril to Montego Bay. The sea changes colors as we follow its curves, a lone fisherman here, a few boats at dock there, children swimming in a cove farther down the road. We stop in small towns bustling with school children in uniforms, vendors, beggars, people rushing to and fro. We drive through tunnels made of trees reaching across the road for a permanent embrace, pass a field of banana trees, then drive through a quilt made of patches of dilapidated shacks fenced by clothing lines, thick trees with leaves matted together like dreadlocks, and tall ones that throw down their hair like botanical Rapunzels. I breathe in the sea, the trees, the mangoes, pineapples, and fish, the distinct aromas of trees my nose doesn’t recognize, once inhaling smoke from what must be a ganja field on fire, the scent so overwhelming that it lingers in my hair for hours.

Although I hadn’t expected to see the island on a long weekend, I am now acutely aware that I have seen nothing at all but the resort and a few restaurants and clubs in Negril. This isn’t how I travel; it isn’t who I am. For a moment, I wish for someone to whom to justify having spent my time on the island within the walls of foreign establishments, instead of walking streets and trails that would have taught me lessons about the world and myself, as it is when one truly travels.

At the bus park in Montego Bay, I get off the van, thank the driver, and adjust my hips, which feel somewhat dislocated. Before I know it, I am in a taxi with four other people, once again pressed against the door, which the driver tells me to pull by the handle, as it doesn’t lock. Soon, I am the only passenger, and we are driving through a crowded Montego Bay. The taxi pulls up to a gated property atop a hill, which we have found after driving up and down two wrong ones. The driver offers to pick me up, as there are no taxis in this part of town. He is also kind enough to wait while I ring the bell, and drives away only when I am safely on the other side of the fence, ushered in by a caregiver in uniform, who locks the gate and escorts me to the supervisor’s office without saying a word.

The yard, dry and bare but for a few lifeless palm trees, is empty. Children’s sounds, mostly crying and whimpering of the kind that signals unmet needs, pour out of the bungalow. The old man mopping the dim vestibule returns my good morning. A woman in a white robe scurries in the kitchen. There are no children in sight, and even inside, there is no trace of them, but the faint whimpering. The supervisor, Mrs. Jones, welcomes me and inquires where I am from, what I do, and how I like Jamaica. She is pleasant, but brusque, as if she is happy to get to know me, but wishes I had never come. She asks if I might lend a hand in the infant room, where help is needed most, and leads me to a room that is brighter and less battered than the office and hallway. She introduces me to the two caregivers who seem to be doing the work of eight, and wishes me a pleasant stay.

I spend most of the day with the infants and some time in the toddler room, helping bathe and dress the children, feeding them, playing with them, singing and talking to them as they sit or stand in their cribs, stretching out their arms to be embraced. Most of the caregivers are welcoming and kind. A few tug at the children’s arms too harshly, their hands, words and voices saying to them, you are not important enough not to know pain. The kindest of them take the time to cradle a child, tell a story, hold a child’s hand. But these moments are rare—there are too few caregivers and too many children. And so, needs go unmet, words unspoken, lives unnourished, souls and minds unable to grow.

One of the caregivers likes to talk, so I learn most of the children’s names, as well as bits of some of their stories. I sit on the tile floor of the veranda, cradling Nicole in my arms. She is the youngest of the infants, four weeks old, brought into state care because of neglect. Matthew lets go of the bars on the gate, falls, this time too hard onto the tile floor, and cries. Omari is drooling so much his shirt is wet. Samantha wants a bottle. Angela throws a rattle at Bobby’s face, and makes him wail. One of the two women assigned to the room that houses twenty-one infants is changing three of them in the adjacent room.

A caregiver tells me that it was a loyal volunteer, an American woman married to a Jamaican man, who refurbished the infant room with new cribs, painted the walls, and decorated them with pastel decals and paintings of rainbows and bunnies. The toddler room, just across the hall, is dreary. There are no windows and no lights. The cribs are ancient, some of the rails broken, probably by children raging to come out into the light. In one of the cribs, is a girl named Monique. She is at least five years too old to be in a crib, but she has cerebral palsy, and is left alone all day and all night, like the other children in this room, except when they are taken out to bathe, eat, and occasionally, play outside.

In the years she has lived in the home no one has taught Monique to walk, so her limbs and muscles have weakened. If there had been enough hands to hold her up, she would have probably walked. No one even speaks to her, assuming she will never speak, and so she never has. The supervisor has decided not to move Monique into the schoolers’ dorm with children closer to her age. No one sees possibility that she might learn—to walk or talk, let alone to read and write, and it isn’t safe for her to be out of the crib with the other children, the caregiver tells me. I take Monique out of the crib, carry her out onto the veranda, hold her in my arms, stroke her hair, and sing, “You are so beautiful.” She buries herself in my embrace, giggles, and looks up at me. Her eyes say everything she hasn’t learned to speak.

The time approaches to meet the driver back at the gate where he had dropped me off a few hours before, so I walk from the veranda where the infants are spending their last moments before bedtime, and lift Monique into her crib. She wraps her fingers around my wrist, and I linger, stroking her hair as we both cry. I make rounds to say goodbye to the other children, hurrying, because I can’t bear the sight of children reaching out of cribs, and the sound of Monique’s broken heart.

I stop by Mrs. Jones’s office to thank her for the visit. She wishes me well, and asks me to find a caregiver to lock the gate behind me. As I walk out of her office and through the vestibule that leads to the gated exit, three children run out from one of the two dorm rooms designated for the schoolers, the oldest residents of the home, aged five to eight, whom I haven’t had the time to meet. The three children chase each other, filling the air with loud laughter. I stop and turn to look at them. One is a girl with long, thin legs, about seven years old. The other is a boy with deep dimples and long dreadlocks collected together with a rubber band. The third is a boy with short hair, and a smile that could change a life.

“Hi,” I say. “May I take a picture of you?” They giggle in unison, run back past me, and sit close to each other in the middle of the long wooden bench lining the wall between the dining area and the girls’ dorm room. I take a photograph, say a few words, and walk out of the gate.

The driver, who is leaning against the hood of the car and smoking a cigarette, asks, “How did you enjoy your visit with the children?” I tell him it was lovely, open the back door, put my backpack on the seat, and light a cigarette, as he lowers himself into the driver’s seat.

“You can smoke in the car,” he says.

I am about to close the door, but my body is suddenly limp, almost numb. The little boy with the bright smile comes to mind and fills me with panic, and an urgency I can’t explain because I don’t understand it myself. I tell the driver that there is a child who needs me, that he is in trouble, and that I have to return for a few moments to help him.

My words make no sense even to myself — the little boy had been laughing when I saw him only a few minutes before. My heart and mind are now racing, and it doesn’t matter that the driver is telling me that he can’t wait, that I should take my bag and call another taxi. The boy needs me. I leave my backpack on the seat, turn to the driver with my finger on the bell, and say, “Please, sir, just give me a few moments with this child.” I won’t be long, I know, because even if the caregivers let me in, they had already been hinting since dinner that I should leave, as the children would be getting ready for bed soon.

A caregiver opens the gate and lets me in, unimpressed by my excuses and gratitude. She doesn’t ask why I have returned, so I walk toward the bungalow, but then see that the schoolers are sitting at one of the three tables out in the yard. They are waiting for snacks, which two caregivers carry out of the bungalow on trays. When I walk up to the table, I see the little boy sitting on the ground, alone, hands and chin on knees bent close to his chest. I rush to him, put my hand on his head, and ask, “What is your name?” He looks down and says nothing.

“Him nem Daniel,” I hear a child say, and turn to the table to see the boy with the dreadlocks, who had been running around with Daniel moments before. “Him nah know how to speak,” the boy says, and smiles. One of the caregivers handing out bun and cheese sandwiches explains that Daniel is in trouble for running around, and that he will not be having a snack.

“Hi Daniel. My name is Maryam,” I tell him, as I kneel down and lift his head with my finger on his chin. Even now, he doesn’t look into my eyes. “Can I hold you?” I ask. He says nothing, doesn’t move. I take him in my arms and press him close to my chest. His body trembles in my embrace. His breathing is labored.

“Daniel, baby, listen to me,” I whisper in his ear. “Everything is going to be all right. Right now, it’s October. Then, will come November. And then, in December, I will come back to Jamaica to see you. Okay?” His arms are pressed against his body on either side, but I hold him close and say, “I promise, Daniel, I will come back for you in December. Everything will be all right. You hear me, baby?” He looks around to see if anyone is watching, if anyone has heard me, and when he knows that this moment is just for the two of us, he nods, and moves an inch tighter into my arms. Every minute or two his body strains, like he is having pangs of stomachaches. Then, he settles onto my chest, for a little while, until time comes to fight the next pang.

I take a photograph before I leave, one of two I will carry with me everywhere for the next ten weeks. In this one, he isn’t smiling like he is in the one with his friends. He is small, remarkably sad, looking at the houses on the other side of the road, separated from the yard by a wire fence. The collar and sleeves of his polo shirt are green, the back and chest light blue, the sorrow in his eyes deep, as if all has ended.

The promise to return springs from every part of my being. I have found my son in a place no child should be calling home, and I am filled with panic. For, what is my child doing behind this wire fence that separates children from the world in which they should be living? The earth shakes beneath my feet when I begin to walk away. I turn back to look at Daniel. He is looking at me, chin on knees. I wave goodbye and turn the corner, struck by a grief the like of which I have never suffered. How can I up and leave this boy? He is my son.

When the caregiver locks the gate behind me, I sit down on the curb, take my face between my hands, and weep. The driver offers his hand to help me up, asking, “Are you all right? What happened to the boy?” My body is trembling; not a thing makes sense. I only say, “I just found my son. His name is Daniel.”

We are silent as the car bumps slowly down the cobbled hill, then along the shore of the greenest sea, songs from the radio filling the space between us. When we arrive at the bus park, we share a last cigarette, leaning against the car.

“I will be back in Montego Bay for Christmas,” I tell the driver. “Could I call you when I need a ride to the home?”

“Of course, you can,” he says. “My name is Daniel Frank, but people call me Frank. Here is my number.” We shake hands and say goodbye.

“I believe in miracles,” Frank says, as I begin to walk away. “Do you?” He doesn’t wait for my answer, perhaps because when I turn to look at him, he knows that someone who has only just experienced a miracle can’t say much at all. “You walk good now,” he says. “God be with you.”

In the crowded van on the way to Negril, I notice neither the people nor the scenery. All I can do is weep for Daniel, still feeling his body pressed against my chest, knowing already that the ten weeks ahead will be the greatest suffering I have ever endured. It feels as though someone has ripped my child from my bosom and taken him away from me. I have never felt so helpless and broken, never known this kind of heartache. How do I leave my boy in that place? How do I go on with my life? I know no one on the island, nothing about adoption. I have just begun a career in teaching under the supervision of a man who makes weekly threats on my longevity as a public school teacher. It dawns on me just how mammoth the task before me is, and I am breathless.

On the dresser, there is a note from Tiki that tells me where I can meet them. But I can’t muster the strength to put on my dancing shoes, so I change into a bathing suit instead, and head out to the beach. The sun is giving way to the moon, and as soon as it has sunk behind the horizon and there isn’t enough light to capture the magic that ensues its descent, people begin to leave the beach. A man sits in a boat with chipping red, yellow, green paint, and smokes. A couple stands on the shore and stares ahead. I put down my tote bag, slip out of my dress, and walk past them into the water, as it wraps its warmth around me, toes and ankles first, then calves and thighs, until it reaches my heart. I stand with outstretched arms resting on the surface, palms taking in her own pulse, each ripple a beat. My breathing slows. My feet are now firmly burrowed in the sand.

“Thank you for mothering my son all these years,” I say aloud to the sea and the moon, the stars and the sand, to the women who have been kind to my son. “Forgive me for taking so long to find him. I wish I had come for him sooner. But I am here now. Please, help me take my boy home.”

Stars flicker like fireflies on the now black surface of the sea. But up above, they are still and steady, unrelenting in the way they beckon, Trust time. Walk good. Come back for him. This child is your son.

At night, I call my mother in New York. “Maryam jan,” she implores. “What are you talking about? Have you completely lost your mind?” I only repeat that Daniel is my son, and I must bring him home.

“Since when are you adopting children?” she wants to know, as I continue to insist that I’ve become a mother on a weekend trip to Jamaica. “Akher, why did you go to an orphanage when you were supposed to be enjoying the sun? I know it’s been a difficult time. We’ll talk about it all when you get home tomorrow. Please, Maryam jan, don’t cry.” I ask her not to say anything to my grandmother because I wish to share the news with her myself. “Tell Alma what, Maryam?” my mother says. “That a little boy in Jamaica broke your heart?”

I fall asleep before Tiki and her cousin are back from their forays into Negril’s nightlife. As we rush to pack and head to the airport in the morning, I tell her about my visit to Blue Mountain Children’s Home, and about my son Daniel, whom I am going to bring home to New York. She laughs and says, “Well, if you say you’re going to do it, then you’re going to do it. You’ve always been a fighter.” In addition to five of her own, Tiki’s mother had raised a dozen children, whom she had taken in from the streets of Addis Ababa, and so my friend sees no reason to question my sudden motherhood.

On the airplane back to New York the next day, I sink into the seat and weep. When I haven’t stopped crying two hours into the flight, an elderly man leans over the aisle and asks, “Are you all right, my girl? Could I help you with something?”

“I found my son in Montego Bay,” I stammer.

“Well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?” he says, and asks the flight attendant for two glasses of white wine.

Walter tells me that he is coming back from his thirty-fourth annual visit to Negril. Two glasses of wine later, I’ve learned that this was his sixth trip to the island without his wife, who was killed by an MTA bus outside their home in Park Slope, that he is a retired architect, that he prefers a good scotch to almost anything in life, and that he has four daughters, one of whom is in the process of adopting a child from Ukraine who is now three years older than she was when she had first been matched with her prospective parents. I cringe at the thought of having to wait this long to bring my son home to New York. What are the odds that the first stranger with whom I speak about Daniel should have a daughter on an adoption journey? Meeting Walter is either an omen guiding me in the direction of motherhood, or a warning that to embark on this journey is to learn the meaning of suffering.

Each time we fall silent, tears fall from my eyes, as I make promise after promise to my son. Daniel, I will always be honest with you. I will teach you to speak. You will go to outstanding schools. I’ll make you laugh. I will learn your language. I will bake peach pie, all from scratch, and serve it warm, with vanilla bean ice cream, before we sit down to watch a movie. I will read to you. Daniel, I will listen to you read. We will tell stories, real and made up. We will travel back to your country, to many others, maybe even someday back to mine. I will love you, Daniel, till the end of time.

Walter insists on taking me home in a taxi before going to his daughter’s home, even though the Upper West Side is nowhere near the route from the airport to Long Island.

“You are not going home alone this late at night, not in your state of mind,” he says.

I am tipsy from the wine and tears, so I don’t object too fiercely. Walter helps me out of the car, and scowls when I offer to pay my share of the fare.

“Remember, Maryam,” he tells me. “If you believe this boy is your son, so it will be.”

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