Junglescape, Meagan Dwyer
I was 5 years old when I learned how to pronounce my mother’s name. I’d started to learn enough letter sounds in kindergarten to string a few together, though my ‘r’s didn’t stop sounding like ‘w’s for a few years after. The first time I said it I thought it was the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard, and, clutching her photo in my chubby fingers, I knew I was right. ‘Alondra’, I’d mumble, just for myself.
I’d never met her, she was just some far-off wonderous thing in my life. An icon rather than a person. I had other parents, ones who raised me and loved me and cared for me my entire life, but I never whispered their names to myself at night and smiled at the flow of the sounds.
I learned to read by watching my adopted father’s fingers move over Alondra’s written words, and soaking in every syllable, though the words weren’t as pretty on his tongue as I expected they were on her’s. I’d come running when the mail slot would rattle in the afternoon, waiting for his voice to call out ‘Delivery for Sofia!’, so we could crawl into the living room recliner and listen to whatever she had to say. There was always a constant stream of letters, and on the few days a week the mailman delivered only white envelopes with official looking names instead of Alondra’s bubbly script, I felt as if the day was wasted.
There was a backlog of letters stacked in shoeboxes in my bedroom, and as I got older I slowly worked through them. My father never objected when I began reading them for myself, never tried to take away the words meant only for me. For a while he tried to coax me back into the recliner to read this or that, always a new book he had handpicked just for me, but there was only one story I was interested in.
The letters started from just a few days after I was adopted, filled with stories and love in yearning words and photographs. Alondra explained how I was born when she was fifteen, and how my grandparents didn’t want her to keep me. A child had no place raising a child. She told me how giving me up was the hardest thing she’d ever done, how we cried together when our time in the hospital was up, but that she trusted my parents to take good care of me. I didn’t understand it at the time, but just accepted the fact that I had two families, separated by miles that I couldn’t comprehend. To me it was just two different places where I could belong. As I got older and my parent’s rules became too much for my preteen attitude to accept I dreamed of packing my things into single bag and running through the great plains and cityscapes that divided us and straight into Alondra’s open arms. I would fall asleep assuring myself how much she would love having me with her, but the best thing for her was to stay exactly where I was.
When Alondra graduated from college she got a job in a bakery. There were just no jobs in art history at a bachelor level, she wrote, and I nodded along with her words as if I had any idea what she meant, and she’d be damned if she was going to go back for a masters. I always felt a rush of adrenaline when Alondra used words like ‘damn’ and ‘crap’, such terrible words in my childlike brain, feeling as if my mom would hear them in my thoughts and burst into the room to catch me in the act. She never did, but I got a mouth full of Tapatio when I let a ‘damn’ slip through during math homework in 3rd grade.
The bakery was a small, locally owned business, and in my mind, I imagined it with pink walls and checkered tiles like my dollhouse kitchen. Little perfect plastic people making pretty cakes and living picture perfect fantasies. At first, she loved it; she learned cake decorating and made enough cupcakes and breads to no longer need recipes or measuring cups, but after a few months she started to complain that the smell of vanilla made her sick to her stomach. That is, until Theo showed up. He began working at the bakery a few months after Alondra, and suddenly I knew so many random facts about him I felt as if I’d met him myself.
Theo was a second-year grad student in a mathematics program, aiming to be a teacher because he had never had a math teacher that seemed to enjoy the work. He took classes at night and drove the delivery truck for the bakery during the day, and he always told Alondra how stepping into the bakery and hitting that wall of vanilla scent was like stepping into the gates of heaven. His favorite color was green, he’d never been on an airplane, he once broke his arm from slipping in the shower while aggressively singing to No Doubt, and he was allergic to shellfish. He was all I heard about for so long that it began to feel as if I was writing to him instead. Alondra’s handwriting was bubblier when she wrote about him, her words like a smile on the page, as if just the act of writing his name was enough to make her giddy.
After a few weeks of gushing nonstop about him in her letters Alondra came up with a plan, one only a young lovestruck girl could devise. She knew Theo had a habit of sneaking cookies and cupcakes from her trays when he was in the shop, so she’d started making an extra in every batch just for him. One day, when she handed him a stack of pink cardboard boxes for delivery, she winked and told him she packed a snack for him to have on his drive. In one of the boxes, a batch of his favorite vanilla bean cupcakes with strawberry cream cheese frosting, she’d stuck a note that read ‘Here’s a little something, cuz I’m sweet on you’.
I waited with bated breath for three days until the next letter arrived, and when I felt the heft of it in my hands I knew something great had happened. Alondra always wrote a lot when she was happy, bright and babbling in comparison to the short trite sentences when she was not. Theo returned that evening with a handful of yellow daisies he’d picked from someone’s garden, telling Alondra they reminded him of the little frosting flowers she’d pipe onto the cakes. He said the woman who owned the garden let him have them when he explained they were for a pretty girl on the condition that he ask her to dinner and a movie, a proper date, and that he return and tell her how it went. She went straight home that night to tell me everything, the pages peppered with ballpoint hearts along the margins.
They went that weekend and saw ‘Jerry Maguire’, a romantic comedy Alondra expected to bore her, but she ended up really enjoying. She sent a picture of her in the outfit she wore, a soft, periwinkle blue sweater and maroon high-waisted jeans. She looked like something out of a fashion magazine, and I tried to use the picture as leverage to get my parents to let me rent ‘Jerry Maguire’ from Blockbuster, but my measly eight years wasn’t enough for a PG-13 rating, let alone an R. I wanted so badly to be part of the fairytale she was living, but I was too young, they told me, too little for grown-up movies and dates with grown-up boys.
I locked myself in my room that night, staring at the ceiling and wondering if Alondra ever stared at her own and thought of me. My mom came in a while later, her weight on the edge of the bed pulling me toward her but I refused to turn my head. I remember her telling me that Alondra was my mother, but she wasn’t raising me. She explained that she and my father had promised to do what was best for me, and even if I couldn’t see it they were trying. I pretended to sleep until she gave up and left the room, not having the heart to say ‘I hate you’.
When Theo got a job as a teacher at the local high school, the one Alondra was still going to when I was born, she still worked at the bakery. She quit shortly after, saying the place wasn’t the same without Theo working alongside her, and got hired instead as a secretary at an art exhibition hall where universities often held shows for their students. The couple moved in together, and I had to wait grueling weeks between letters and updates with the new house and new job taking up most of Alondra’s time. She sent photos of their house, a little pale-yellow thing with a stone path and a brick patio. There was a huge maple tree in the backyard with the remnants of the last family’s treehouse still clinging to the branches. In one of the photos, Theo was hanging from the lower branches, his sweater rising to show the dark skin of his stomach and orange leaves cascading around him. I wrote to her about how much I liked the house and how pretty I though the leaves were, and the next letter she sent had one perfectly pressed orange maple leaf.
A few years later, when I was in sixth grade, Alondra got married. I’d watched the whole courtship ritual and the couple building their life together through lovesick words and bent photographs, so when the day finally came I almost felt like the bride myself. I’d fallen in love with Theo right alongside her, or at least with the concept of their love. All of the other girls my age were obsessed with love, with boys and dating and frilly white dresses with trains and veils, but none of them had a front row seat to it like I did. When Alondra sent me a photo of her and Theo kissing on a sand covered towel on the Jersey Shore, I smuggled it in my notebook to show the other girls at school. I told them she was my older sister, not sure how to explain my situation. They oohed and aahed at how lucky I was to have such a cool, pretty sister, and I agreed. On the nights leading up to her wedding I sat beneath my covers, staring at the picture and wondering how she’d look in her wedding dress. I got to see it for myself when I received a stack of wedding photos, of her and Theo and who she told me were my grandparents all dressed like royalty and smiling wider than I’d ever seen anyone smile.
Behind the photos was a save the date card and an invitation with my name printed in flowing script dated two weeks prior. I told my mom I wished Alondra had sent the invitation sooner, then maybe we’d have been able to go, but she changed the subject every time I brought it up.
I received the announcement of Alondra and Theo’s first child the same day I had my first period. I opened the envelope to find a short note about how excited and absolutely exhausted she was, along with a card with a black and white photo of a shape I couldn’t quite make out or equate to human life. The top of the card read ‘Our first baby’ in a font that looked like toy blocks. In my room I took a black felt tip marker to it, adding the word ‘together’ to the end before hanging it on the wall beside the others. I stared at it for a while, sitting next to old polaroids of a tiny framed Alondra with bright young eyes and me growing inside her, and shortly after found a puddle of red inside my underwear.
Natania was born in the summer before I started high school, with a full head of dark hair and a smile that could melt any heart. I hated her, though I wouldn’t admit it to myself. I hated the pictures of her in cute little pink outfits, of her asleep on Alondra’s chest or swallowed up in Theo’s arms. I hated her name; Natania our princess, Natania our angel, Natania our gift from God. Alondra only wrote every few months after that, and every letter started with a progress report about Natania and how much she’d grown or what new thing she had learned. ‘She loves that show about dragons you used to talk about,’ Alondra wrote, including a photo of the baby gripping a stuffed Cassie from Dragon Tales. ‘Just like her big sister!’ I wrote back only four words: ‘I’m not her sister.’ The next day, when the only lingering feeling was numbness and the photo sat on my desk, tape holding it together, I wrote two more: ‘I’m sorry.’
Having two mothers gained me no bonus points with dating advice, and when the girls in my class moved from being obsessed with love to thinking they were falling in it, I fell behind. When I asked my mom for advice about a boy in my class she told me to wait until I was older, because any boy I’d meet wouldn’t be the same man ten years later, but I was living in the present and ten years might as well have been the rest of my life. I wrote a letter to Alondra, asking her if she thought it was a good idea to ask him to the Sadie Hawkins dance, and if she had any advice on how to do it. I didn’t expect a reply to come in time, so I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t. My friends convinced me to ask anyway, so I made a banner and bought some balloons and hung them on the fence near the bus yard after school one day. He accepted, but afterwards I wished he hadn’t.
The dance was nowhere near the fairytale night of romance I was looking forward to, that I had come to expect from Alondra and Theo’s example, and ended with an awkward hug and mumbled goodbyes as his father dropped me off back at home. My mom was waiting in the kitchen with a pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream, in preparation to either celebrate a good night or mourn a bad one, and together we polished off the whole thing. When I’d finally put the encounter out of my mind I got my reply from Alondra, apologizing for the delayed response about the dance and telling me I should definitely go to it. In the envelope was a birth announcement for a little boy who they named Mateo, and a photo of him wrapped in blankets and carefully cradled in Natania’s arms.
High school was filled with similar failed attempts at romance and unanswered pleas for help, and by the time I entered college Alondra was just a thought I wished I could escape. I left the pictures on my bedroom wall at home, but it was no longer my bedroom, and my new one held nothing but a calendar and a poster of The All-American Rejects. I didn’t even bother to send her the address to my dorm, and yet, I couldn’t get rid of her completely. I tried to embrace the college life, meeting new friends in class and going to parties on Friday nights, but I could never let myself fully relax. What would she think if she could see me? A drink in my hand and boys who’s names I didn’t even know at my side. Would she be disappointed? Worried about my future? Wondering if I would make the same mistake she did in making me? Sometimes when I decided to answer a call from my mom I’d pretend it was Alondra on the other end of the line, asking about my grades and whether I was taking care of myself or not. When I went home for holidays I was almost too guilty to look her in the eyes.
My parents made a much bigger deal out of my graduation than I thought necessary, and insisted I invite Alondra. I had just enough tickets for her, Theo and the kids along with the handful for my parents and small extended family. I didn’t bother writing a note, just sent the standard invitation card with the date and time. She didn’t call, didn’t show, and I didn’t bother to be disappointed. If I was being honest with myself, I was relieved. I had no idea what I would do with her right in front of me, how I would react to her suddenly changing from someone only existing to me on paper and still photographs into a real-life person. The thought kept me up for days before the ceremony, even though part of me knew it was unfounded. When her apology for not coming arrived I barely scanned it before putting it in the box of other letters. I wasn’t mad, wasn’t even hurt. She had her life, she was happy, and it was unfair of me to try to tag onto that happiness for so long. I wasn’t a big believer in karma or anything, but the thought that everything happened for a reason was a comforting one when I considered the type of life the two of us would have had if we’d stayed together. We were better off apart, and it was time I grew up and stopped trying to live in two separate worlds.
I was hired as a business consultant in an accounting firm out of college, a title I didn’t understand in a field I didn’t care for, but after a few years of doing freelance graphic design on the side my mom sent me an ad for a startup mobile game company in need of a designer for their apps. I took a chance and applied, and, to my surprise, was hired. Things seemed to be falling in place, old heartaches left in the past and opportunity on the horizon, but that spring I received a letter from an older couple, Olivia and Javi, claiming to be Alondra’s parents; my grandparents.
They explained briefly that they wanted to meet me and had included a round trip plane ticket to Connecticut. It seemed absurd, to go meet people I didn’t know on a whim, but no matter how hard I tried to put the idea out of my head I couldn’t shake the gnawing feeling of curiosity and longing for world’s unknown. Without giving myself a chance to back out I requested time off of work and found myself boarding the plane, only wondering if it was the right decision after I was already airborne. No one was at the airport to pick me up, which gave me plenty of time to turn back if I’d wanted, but I ended up in their driveway just as well. I sat in the taxi for a few minutes, gathering my courage and apologizing to the driver for taking so long before stepping out.
When I rang the doorbell, I could hear movement and muffled voices inside, and a pair of eyes peeked through green curtains before opening the door.
“Sofia!” A woman, Olivia, pulled me into a hug. “Javi come here, Sofia came!”
I was stiff against her chest, my hand still lingering on the handle of my luggage and not lifting to wrap around her. Javi appeared at her side, and Olivia stepped back to let him engulf me with his arms. He smelled of allspice, strong and sharp in my nostrils.
“We’re so glad you came. Come on in, sweetheart,” Olivia told me, taking my hand in her softer one and leading me forward.
“Let me get this for you.” Javi took the handle of my bag, pulling it into the entryway and down the hall into what I assumed was a guest room.
Olivia took me into the kitchen and pointed me toward a seat at the worn wooden table. I could feel anxiety tightening in my chest and I struggled with what to say, realizing I’d been silent the entire time, but she gave me a soft smile that melted away my apprehension. “Would you like some tea? We have peppermint and pomegranate.”
“Peppermint would be great, thank you,” I answered, my voice foreign to my ears.
Olivia busied herself with a kettle as Javi reappeared. He grabbed a plate of muffins from the counter and offered me one which I gladly took, my stomach letting out a loud growl as I realized I hadn’t eaten since the flight.
“I baked these yesterday. Hope you like apple cinnamon,” he told me, taking a seat across from me. His eyes were the same shape as Alondra’s, and the same shade of warm brown that I’d seen in photographs. Up close it was much more beautiful.
“Yes, thank you.”
The silence was awkward, sitting heavily between us like a wall of plexiglass, distorting my view. I wanted to run, cursing at myself and wondering why I ever thought this was a good idea.
“I bet you don’t like us very much,” Javi said, breaking the silence with eyes downcast as if he were ashamed. “Wonderin’ why we just reached out to you now.”
“Javi, let her get settled first,” Olivia chided, looking nervous.
“No, it’s fine. I am a little curious.” I tried to look up and into Javi’s eyes, but we both looked away.
“Well, truth is, we just found out about you. Not that you were born, we knew that of course, but that Alondra kept contact with you.”
“She never told you?” I felt myself tense, immediately feeling as if I’d done something wrong. That I had been intruding on this family my entire life.
Olivia finished the tea and joined the table, taking the seat between us. “She made arrangements with your parents off the record to keep an open adoption so that we wouldn’t find out.”
“I’m sorry,” I paused, unsure of exactly what they were trying to tell me. “I had no idea.”
“No, sweetheart, you were just a baby,” Olivia smiled, taking my hand, though this time it felt cold and foreign. “And it’s not that we didn’t want you two to be in contact, it’s just that Alondra was so young that we wanted her to focus on her life and moving forward. And we knew you were in better hands with your parents.”
I couldn’t help but equate moving forward with forgetting; with leaving me behind.
“We were cleaning out the things in her room and found some of your letters,” Javi explained, smiling softly. “We know it’s too little too late, and you’re grown now and have your own life, but we thought it would be nice to meet you.”
“Yeah,” I nodded, taken aback by the sincerity on their faces, as if they were truly trying to make amends and wanted me to be part of their lives. “It is nice.”
I let them lull me into a sense of acceptance, answering the questions they threw at me about my life and genuinely enjoying the conversations they created. They asked me about my life growing up, what I went to school for, my favorite foods, hobbies, books. My grandparents back home were distant, sending cards with money on Christmas and birthdays and giving a single chaste hug on thanksgiving, but Olivia and Javi were so warm. Being with them was like a sauna of smiles and laughter and feelings of belonging. It almost felt as if I’d known them my whole life, and I was just popping in to say hello.
After three muffins and too much tea to keep track of we moved into the living room, a cozy space with two recliners, a loveseat, and a tv sitting on life-stained cream carpet. The walls were lined with photos in frames, ones I’d seen before and ones I hadn’t, of Alondra and her sisters she rarely mentioned, and rows upon rows of grandchildren. There were some I didn’t recognize, cute little curly haired boys and girls all with hints of the same smiles, but some I recognized as Natania and Mateo. My heart sank, that old jealousy I thought I’d put away for good returning suddenly and the bubble of warmth I’d let myself fall into here bursting around me. These were not my grandparents by anything more than blood, and I was just a visitor there.
“You know,” Olivia said, appearing behind me and making me jump. Her hand landed on my shoulder before I could shy away. “When Natania was born your mother cried for days. She could barely hold the baby, and I ended up staying with them for a week or so to help Theo out. She kept telling us that she was a bad mother, that she didn’t deserve to have another baby when she’d already sent one away. She thought she was playing favorites, keeping one and not the other.”
I stayed silent, staring at a photo I had a copy of sitting in a box back home of Alondra, Theo, and Natania on her first Christmas. There was a look in Alondra’s eyes I’d always equated to affection, but now I saw guilt mixed into that soft gaze I’d always loved. “That’s stupid,” I said, surprising myself, “it wasn’t her fault.”
“We told her that, and eventually she listened. But I don’t think she ever truly shook off the thought.”
“Can I see her room?”
“Of course, sweetheart.” Olivia pointed me in the right direction and I made my way into Alondra’s room before I could convince myself not to. It was tidy, with a simple purple comforter on the bed and posters of 90’s bands and fashion magazine cutouts on the walls. Everything was plain, and none of it screamed Alondra like I thought it would have.
On the bed was a box full of letters, just like the ones I had in my room back home, and sitting at the bottom was a notebook with butterflies across the cover. Inside were pictures of me; every picture my parents had sent and the ones I’d asked them to take so I could show her different things I thought were important. They were taped to the pages of the notebook, and each had a note beside it. Things like ‘Growing up so fast!’ or ‘Already knows how to count by 2’s, what a little genius’. I sat on the floor, back resting against the purple comforter, and flipped through the pages, watching myself grow up and reading Alondra’s commentary. Some days it was pride, some days guilt, and some days even regret. The last entry was before she moved in with Theo, leaving the box and everything else behind. Instead of a photo of me there was a pressed maple leaf, reading ‘I’ve found my perfect life, baby girl, I hope you find yours’.
I left the notebook in the box where I found it, tucked away in a forgotten place I was never meant to see, and returned to the living room. I spent the evening with Olivia and Javi, telling more about myself and listening to stories about Alondra and her sisters growing up. I spent the night in their guest room, pretending I was five and letting it feel like a sleepover at grandma and grandpa’s house. In the morning I had eggs and coffee and packed the few things I had taken out back into my suitcase. When Javi asked if I wanted him to call Alondra and let her know I was there, I politely declined and asked instead for him to drop me off at the airport.
When I returned home I stopped by my parent’s house, hugging them both and telling them how much I loved them. There was so much more I wanted to say to them, but I knew they understood without me having to.
Before leaving, I stepped outside and plucked a leaf from the spruce we had in the backyard. I pressed it, just like Alondra had taught me to do in a letter so long before, and mailed it to her with a note that simple read: ‘I’ve found it.’
About the Artist
Meagan Dwyer · Rice University
Meagan Dwyer recently graduated from Rice University. Her artwork focuses on abstracting landscapes, and environmental issues. This piece first appeared in R2:The Rice Review.