It is less than a month until my twenty-fourth birthday. It's Friday, and I'm looking forward to the weekend. As on most mornings before heading to the office, I go to the gym and then return home to shower, dress, eat breakfast. At nine-fifteen, after taking a last sip of orange juice and double-checking that I have everything I need for the day--datebook, journal, notes for an article I'm writing, cash--I'm ready to go.
The telephone rings.
"Hello, is Sarah Saffian there?"
"This is Sarah." I guess that it's a magazine editor, calling about work.
"Sarah, my name is Hannah Morgan. I think I'm your birth mother."* * *
The progress of my relationship with Hannah and Adam continued in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back fashion, as once again, I retreated. Summer turned to fall, and I wasn't ready to visit, as I said I might be. I wanted my birth family to remain abstract for a while longer.
I maintained composure, but barely. The tension bubbled under my cool surface, the slightest incident causing it to erupt without warning, in either anger or despair. One morning, when a computer repairman was unable to assist me over the phone, I slammed down the receiver while he was in stammering mid-sentence, and in a single motion, stood up and hurled my chair across the room. Another day, when a woman working in a token booth was brusque with me, I walked home from the Station slowly, as if injured, sobbing the whole way. Waiting for the subway, the train's silent approach would terrify me, two piercing lights in the blackness, but I was fixated on it, tearing my eyes away and stepping back from the platform's edge at the last moment. I frequently stumbled while going down stairs, abruptly forgetting how, my mind lapsing for a few instants.
Chris, a budding photographer and amateur collector, owned several old cameras--Polaroids, thirty-five millimeters--and usually brought one of these along when we explored the city on weekends, poking around in flea markets and used bookstores, walking and talking for hours. A picture from one morning in October depicts me as so utterly alone that I might not have realized Chris was taking it. We are at Bella's, a little coffee shop near his apartment where we regularly ordered challah French toast. There is a plastic bottle of maple syrup in the foreground, and with chin in hand I am gazing searchingly out the window. Even though it is not an extreme close-up, I can discern the inflamed texture of the rash on my face, feel the itchy sting and tightness of it. I have dark circles under eyes that are shrunken, undoubtedly from crying. My look is of quiet desperation, as though I feel imprisoned in my own red bumpy skin, a moment past longing onto defeat, resignation that I won't ever be able to have what I am longing for--security, contentment, relief?
Finally, in November, I wrote back to the Leyders, breezily catching them up on my life, opening up only enough to tell frankly of my conflicting reactions to their photographs. I also selected some of myself at various ages--little pieces of me--to share with them, along with some articles I had written. My criteria for the pictures were that different stages of my life be represented, that my face be clearly visible and that I look attractive. I enclosed my headshot, taken a year earlier, the day after Chris and I first kissed, four months before Hannah's phone call. As I glanced at the picture before sliding it into the envelope, I felt a fleeting pang of jealousy for that glowing, focused person. I also included a profile shot that Chris had taken just before my rash erupted, because it reminded me of a similarly posed one of Hannah at her wedding--the jawline, the hair, the line of the nose. But while she had been smiling blithely at someone out of the frame, I was serious, focused, contemplative--the features were hers, but the expression reminded me more of Adam.
About two weeks later, I received their responses. I shook as I opened the envelope this time. Was I looking for some kind of approval from my birth parents: yes, you are one of us? Or was that exactly what I feared?
Hannah was cautiously enthusiastic:It was just wonderful to get your letter and pictures and articles.
We only wisher there were more. The consensus here is that you lo look remarkably like us. In all the older pictures you look, to me, very much like Alam, and therefore like Renee, because they look so much alike. Lucy looked at your head shot and said, "Oh my God, she looks exactly like Renee." She thought the three-year-old picture looked like she did; it does, and like I did, too, at that age.
You didn't mention coming to visit in this last letter. Perhaps the exchange of pictures is enough for you to deal with for a while. But we do want you to know that we would love you to visit us anytime--with a friend or relative or support if you like, or alone. We would love you to stay with us, but can make reservations in a nearby motel if that would be more comfortable for you. Whenever you are ready, we are ready to have you in whatever way feels best to you.
After describing their various activities--performances that the girls had participated in, Hannah's holiday pottery sale, a family trip to her parents' house in Florida, plans to cross-country ski at the first snowfall--she wrote, "Come visit us, and we'll show you our world." That one short, simple phrase made me cry a little. She was so kind, and I was so afraid, and my fear of this kind person made me sad. Also, it was true that, as inviting as she was, it was indeed their world, a world that I could only visit. I wasn't automatically a part of it, and yet I was inextricably linked to it. It felt far away from my own world, which made me lonely. Yet I was wary of visiting, scared of what I might find there, or of what I might find in myself if I went there, or that their world would somehow transform my world.
Adam agreed with Hannah's comparisons: "My first reaction was to send you more pictures of the kids similar to the ones of you, to say, 'You see? You see the resemblance?'"Sarah, seeing your baby pictures made us sad too, of course. You can see in the face of your great-aunt Ruth the joy you brought to your parents and the rest of your family. This is wonderful. We love the glee in your eyes in that photo. So this is part of what we missed, what we gave up.
It was so long ago, such a bad time for us. It's hard to explain our states of mind from fall 68-spring 69 just right in a letter, so this remains something we want very much to talk about with you sometime, by phone if you like, but hopefully in person. Please always feel free to ask us any questions that cross your mind.
I'm so very grateful that it seems to have worked out for the best--that you've come to where you are, ready to go on to wherever you want. This will sound presumptuous, but I'm very proud of you. How could I he proud of a stranger who I never helped or influenced in any way? (What right do I have?) I can't say for sure, but you don't feel like a stranger. You feel like our amazing birth daughter who lives in NYC. We love you very much.
Did I think that they were being presumptuous, in telling me why I looked the way I did, in being proud of me, in loving me? Or did I welcome the genetic link that previously I'd only imagined? I wasn't sure. I felt both.
Excerpted from Ithaka by Sarah Saffian. Copyright © 1999 by Sarah Saffian. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.