Finding Colin Firth
The letter that would change Bea’s life arrived while she was in the kitchen at Boston’s Crazy Burger, working on four orders of Mt. Vesuvius specials—three patties stacked a foot tall and layered with caramelized onions, bacon, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, sour pickles, and hot sauce. One of her new roommates, Nina, subletting for the summer in the dumpy three-bedroom apartment that Bea now shared with two strangers, poked her head in and said she’d signed for a certified envelope for Bea, and since she was coming to Crazy Burger for lunch, she brought it over.
“Certified? Who’s it from?” Bea asked, taking a fast glance at the parcel as she scooped up the caramelized onions from the pan. Mmm. She’d been frying onions for three hours and still, the smell never got old.
Nina glanced at the upper left-hand corner of the envelope. “Return address says Baker Klein, Twelve State Street, Boston.”
Bea shrugged. “Will you open it up and read the first few lines to me? I need both hands to finish this burger.” Her manager, Barbara, would go nuts if she caught anyone but employees in the kitchen, but Bea was curious to know what the package was about, and Crazy Barbara, as the staff called her behind her back, was in her office, going over inventory.
“Sure,” Nina said. She slit open the envelope, pulled out a letter, and read, “My darling Bea.”
Bea froze, her hand paused on lettuce leaves. “What?” That was how her mother had always addressed the letters she’d written to Bea at college. “Turn it over—who’s it from?”
“It says Mama.”
Bea raised an eyebrow. “Well, since my mother died over a year ago, it’s definitely not from her.”
“It’s handwritten, script,” Nina said, “but it definitely says Mama.”
That made no sense. But Bea’s mother always signed her letters Mama. “You can just drop it on that chair, Nina. I’ll finish this last burger and read it on my break. Thanks for bringing it over.”
Bea was due for that much-needed fifteen-minute break; she’d been on shift at Crazy Burger since eleven and it was now close to two. She loved working at the popular burger joint in Boston’s Back Bay, even if it was supposed to be temporary since she’d graduated from college a year ago and still hadn’t found a teaching job, but her boss was driving her crazy. If Bea took sixteen minutes for her break, Barbara would dock her pay. The woman lived to dock pay. Last week, one of her Mt. Vesuvius burgers was randomly measured and discovered to be only eleven inches high; Bea’s paycheck was cut short five bucks.
In between each layer of burger—three of them—Bea piled on the toppings, added an extra helping of hot sauce, put on the top bun, then measured it. Just shy of a foot, which meant she had to add more lettuce. Finally, she set it on a plate next to the three other Mt. Vesuvius burgers, plunked down a basket of onion rings and a basket of cheese fries, then rang the bell to alert the waitress
to pick up. She called Manny, the other cook, in from his break, then took the manila envelope outside into the back alley. She lifted her face to the June sunshine. The breezy, warm day felt wonderful on her skin, in her hair, after she’d been cooped up in the small kitchen all afternoon.
She pulled out the contents of the envelope and her body went completely still. The letter was from her mother; there was no mistaking Cora Crane’s handwriting. It was dated just over a year ago and attached to what looked like forms.
My darling Bea,
If you’re reading this, I’m gone now. A year gone. I’ve kept something from you all your life, something I should have told you the moment you were placed in my arms when you were just a day old. I didn’t give birth to you, Bea. Your father and I adopted you.
I’m not entirely sure why, but I was ashamed that I couldn’t bear a child, something I wanted so desperately, something your father wanted so desperately. When the adoption agent placed you in my arms, you were mine. It was as though I had given birth to you, and I suppose I wanted to believe it myself. So your father—God rest his soul—and I made it so. We never breathed a word to you, never told you. And you grew up believing that you were born to us.
Now that I feel myself going, I can’t bear to take this with me. But I can’t bear to tell you with my final breaths, either, I can’t do that to you. So I’ll wait on this, for both of us. But you should know the truth because it is the truth.
How I wish I’d been brave enough to be honest from that first minute. To tell you how grateful I was, how you were mine before I even met you, from the second the adoption agent called with the news.
I hope you will forgive me, my darling girl. You are my daughter, and I love you with all my heart.
Bea pulled the letter from its heavy paper clip and looked at the forms. Adoption papers, dated twenty-two years ago, from the Helping Hands Adoption Agency in Brunswick, Maine.
Her hand shaking, Bea stuffed the letter and papers back inside the envelope, paced around the alley, then stopped, pulled out the letter, and read it again. The words, in black ink, started blending together. Should have told you. Adoption agent. Sorry. The truth is the truth. If it weren’t for her mother’s handwriting and the good stationery she’d used for all correspondence, Bea might have thought someone was playing a trick on her.
The letter and papers had been sent by a law firm Bea had never heard of; her mother had been long widowed and not well off, and when Cora Crane died last year, there was only the sparsely furnished year-round rental cottage far from the beach on Cape Cod to settle up. Bea had gone through the drawers and closets looking for every last precious memento of her mother, and if this letter had been in that house, she would have found it. Her mother had clearly arranged for Bea to hear the news well after she was gone, after the grief had subsided some.
She tried to imagine her mother, the sweetest person Bea had ever known, propped up in her hospice bed, writing that
letter, in anguish, most likely. But another image kept coming: her mother, her father, twenty-two years ago, meeting Bea as a day-old newborn. “Here’s your daughter,” the adoption agent must have said. Or something like that.
Who the hell am I? Bea wondered. She thought of the framed photograph on her bedside table. It was her favorite family picture, taken when she was four, and Bea loved looking at it every night before she fell asleep and every morning when she woke up. Bea, sitting on her father’s shoulders, her mother standing beside them, looking up at Bea and laughing, a tree ablaze with orange and red leaves behind them. Bea had been wearing the Batman cape she insisted on every day for months, and the red hat that her mother had made for her. Cora had saved those old favorites and now Bea kept them in a keepsake box in her closet. Another picture came to mind, one she kept on her desk in her room, of Bea and her mother at Bea’s college graduation last May, just over a year ago, and just a few weeks before her mother had gotten very sick and diagnosed with ovarian cancer, as though she was holding on to watch Bea graduate. Two months later, her mother was gone.
Cora Crane, piano teacher with the patience of a saint, with the dark curls, bright blue eyes, and a smile for everyone, was her mother. Keith Crane, handsome construction worker who sang her an Irish song before bed every single night of her childhood until he’d died when she was nine, was her father. The Cranes had been wonderful, doting parents who’d made Bea feel loved every day of her life. If someone else had given birth to Bea, that didn’t change anything.
But someone else had given birth to her. Who?
A hollow pressure started building in Bea’s chest.
“Bea!” Her boss, Crazy Barbara, came charging outside, glaring at Bea. “What the hell are you doing? It’s still lunch rush! Manny said you went out at least twenty minutes ago.”
“I just got some very strange news,” Bea said, her head spinning. “I need a few minutes.”
“Well, unless someone died, you need to head back to work—now.” Barbara started muttering under her breath. “Taking an extended break in the middle of lunch rush. Who does she think she is?”
“Actually,” Bea said, barely able to think straight. There was no way she’d be able to get through the craze of orders. “I need to go home, Barbara. I just learned some weird news, and—”
“You either get back to work or you’re fired. I’m sick to death of all these excuses—all day long, someone has a headache, someone’s grandmother’s sick. Do your job or I’ll find someone who actually earns their paycheck.”
Bea had been working at Crazy Burger for three years, full-time since last summer, and was the best cook in the kitchen and the fastest. But nothing ever was good enough for Crazy Barbara. “You know what? I quit.” She took off her apron, handed it to a for-once-speechless Barbara, and went back inside to collect her bag from her locker.
She shoved the letter in her bag and walked the half mile home in a daze, tripping over someone’s backpack the minute she walked through the front door of her apartment in the four-story brick building. God, she hated living here this summer with strangers. She headed down the narrow hall, stepping on a pair of boxer-briefs, then unlocked her door and locked it behind her. She dropped her bag on the floor of her room and sat down
on her bed, hugging her mother’s old cross-stitched pillow to her chest. She didn’t move for hours.
“Wow, Bea, your entire life has been a lie.”
Slice of pizza en route to her mouth, Bea stared at Tommy Wonkowksi, star running back for the Beardsley College famed football team. A half hour ago, she’d been lying on her bed, staring at the ceiling, grappling with yesterday’s bombshell, when her phone had rung: Tommy, at Poe’s Pizzeria, asking if he’d gotten the time wrong for their date. She’d forced herself up and out the two blocks to the restaurant; she hadn’t eaten since she’d gotten her mother’s letter, hadn’t left her room. But now, as she sat across from Tommy, she wished she’d canceled. With her universe tilted, she needed comforting and familiar, and Tommy Wonkowski was anything but. She wasn’t even sure why she’d said yes to this first date, but it wasn’t every day a hot jock asked Bea out. When they’d met last week at the university’s Writing Center, where she had a part-time tutoring job (Bea had been helping him write a final paper for the freshman English class he was now bothering to take as a senior in summer session), she had been charmed by his good looks, his very differentness from her, and the fact that he towered over her. Bea was five feet ten, and Tommy made her feel kind of dainty for once.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” she said, wishing she’d never told him about the letter. But they’d run out of things to say to each other by the time the waitress had set down their large pizza, and she’d blurted out what was consuming her every waking thought
as she’d shaken Parmesan cheese on a slice. Guess what I just found out yesterday? Turns out I was adopted.
But yes, it did sort of feel like her whole life had been a kind of lie. Friends, strangers—Bea herself—marveling over the years at how utterly different she was from both Cora and Keith Crane. They were dark-haired; Bea was blond. Her mother’s eyes were startling blue, and her father’s were hazel, yet Bea’s were driftwood brown. Her parents were average height; she was an Amazon. She wasn’t musical like her mother, nor mathematical like her father. They were both quiet introverts and she could talk and talk and talk. More than once, Bea could remember strangers, friends, looking at her and saying, “Where on earth did you come from?”
And her father responding, “Oh, my father is quite tall, almost six-two,” and pictures of the late grandfather she’d never met reflecting that. Or her mother casually tossing off, “My mother—God rest her soul—had Bea’s brown eyes, even though I have blue like my father’s.” And that was true too. She’d seen pictures of her maternal grandmother, who died when she was very young. Brown eyes, like Bea’s.
It was as though I had given birth to you, and I suppose I wanted to believe it myself. So your father and I made it so.
“Holy crap, you must hate your mother now,” Tommy said around a mouthful of pizza. “I mean, she lied to you your whole life about something so . . . what’s the word?”
“Fundamental,” Bea said through gritted teeth. How dare you suggest I’d ever hate my mother, you oversize blockhead, she wanted to shout. But once again, the image of Cora Crane, dying in that hospice bed, her hand holding Bea’s with the last of her strength, was all she could think of. Her sweet
mother. “I don’t hate her at all. I never could, ever.” Though if Bea let herself go there, as she couldn’t help but do in the past twenty-four hours, she’d feel a strange anger that would build in her head and start her heart pounding, then give way to confusion that made her head spin and her heart just plain hurt. A fundamental truth had been withheld. But she couldn’t be mad at her mother; she couldn’t bear that. Her mother was gone. “She explained herself in the letter. And if you knew my mother—”
She glared at him. “Actually, it’s adoptive. But no, she’s my mother. Just my mother. That she adopted me doesn’t change that, Tommy.”
He picked up a second slice and bit into it, gooey mozzarella cheese extending. “It kind of does, Bea. I mean, someone else gave birth to you.”
Bea sat back, defeated. Someone else had given birth to her. Someone she hadn’t known existed a day ago. Someone she couldn’t even conjure up. There was no face, no hair color, no name. Last night, as her eyes were finally drifting closed at three o’clock, she imagined her birth mother to look exactly like herself, just . . . older. But how old? Had her birth mother been a teenager? A very poor older woman who couldn’t feed an additional mouth?
On October 12, twenty-two years ago, someone had given birth to Bea and then had given her up for adoption. Why? What was her story? Who was she?
“Yes, Tommy, someone else gave birth to me,” she told him, her appetite gone again. “But that just makes that person my birth mother.”
“Just? There’s no just about a birth mother.” He chuckled
and dug into his third slice of pizza, looking out the window at the busy Boston street as though Bea was proving to be the one who needed tutoring. He turned back to her. “Like, what if you’re married and have a kid, and that kid is dying of some kind of horrible disease, and your blood and your husband’s blood aren’t a match. Your birth mother could save your kid’s life. Man, that’s epic. I mean, think about it.”
But Bea didn’t want to. Her parents were Cora and Keith Crane, la, la, la, hands over her ears. Still, the more she sat there, listening to Tommy Wonkowski tell her how she should feel about all this, the more she realized he was right about a lot of it.
For a week, Bea walked around Boston with the strange truth knocking around in her head. A week ago, she’d been one thing: the daughter of Cora and Keith Crane. End of story. Now she was something else. Adopted. She’d started as someone else’s story. Ended someone’s story, maybe. What was that story? She couldn’t stop thinking about her birth parents. Who they were. Where she came from. What they looked like. And yes, Tommy Wonkowski, what their medical histories were.
She sat at her desk, her favorite novels, books of essays, a memoir about a teacher’s first year, and her laptop making her feel stronger, more like herself. She stared at the manila envelope, lying right next to To Kill a Mockingbird, on which she’d written her senior thesis. She was supposed to be an English teacher by now, middle school or high school, teaching teenagers how to write strong essays, how to think critically about novels, why they should love the English language. But when
her mother died last summer, Bea found herself floundering for months. She hadn’t gotten a single interview for a teaching job at any of the private schools she’d applied to, and the publics all wanted her to be enrolled in a master’s program for teacher education, which would mean more loans. A year later, here she was, not teaching, and still living with students. The only thing different was that she wasn’t who she thought she was.
Bea stared at the photo of herself and her mother at her college graduation, willing herself to remember that she was still the same Bea Crane she was last week. Same memories, same mind, same heart, same soul, same dreams.
But she felt different in her bones, in her cells, as though they were buzzing with the electricity of the truth. She had been adopted. Another woman, another man, had brought her into this world.
Why did that have to change anything? Why did it matter so much? Why couldn’t she just accept the truth and move on from it?
Because you’re here alone, for one. Her two good girlfriends had left Boston upon graduation for first jobs. Her best friends from high school were scattered across the country and in Europe; everyone was off on their summer plans, except for Bea, who had nowhere to go, no home.
She felt caged and absolutely free at the same time. So this week she’d stalked around Boston, thinking of her parents with one breath, and this nameless, faceless birth mother with the next. Then she’d come back to her room and stare at the manila envelope until she’d open it and read the adoption papers again, which told her nothing.
Maybe if she did know something, just something to make this tenuous grasp on the words birth mother feel more . . . concrete.
“Damn it,” she said, grabbing the envelope and sliding out the papers. Before she could stop herself, she picked up her cell phone and punched in the telephone number on the first page.
“Helping Hands Adoption Agency, may I help you?”
Bea sucked in a breath and explained the situation and that she just wanted to know if there were names. Most likely there would not be. Bea had done some reading and learned that most adoptions were closed, as hers had been according to the paperwork, but that sometimes birth mothers left their names and contact information in the adoption files. There were also registries birth parents and adoptees could sign up for. Bea would not be signing up for anything.
“Ah. Let me look in your file,” the woman said. “Hold just a minute.”
Bea held her breath. Make this difficult, Bea thought. No names. She wasn’t ready for a name.
Why had she called? When the woman came back, Bea would tell her thank you for checking but she’d changed her mind, she wasn’t ready to know anything about her birth parents.
“Bingo,” the woman said. “Your birth mother called to update the file at her last address change just over a year ago. Her name is Veronica Russo and she lives in Boothbay Harbor, Maine.”
Bea couldn’t breathe.
“Do you need a minute?” the woman was saying. “I’ll give you a minute, no worries.” She did indeed wait a minute, and
Bea’s head was close to bursting when the woman said, “Honey, do you have a pen?”
Bea said she did. She picked up the silver Waterman that her mother had given her as a graduation present. She mechanically wrote down the address and telephone number the woman gave her. Home and cell.
“She even included her employment address and phone number,” the woman continued. “The Best Little Diner in Boothbay.”
Veronica Russo. Her birth mother had a name. She was a real person, living and breathing, and she’d updated the file. She’d left every possible piece of contact information.
Her birth mother wanted to be found.
Bea thanked the woman and hung up. She shivered and grabbed her favorite sweater, her father’s old off-white fisherman sweater that her mother had bought him while they were on their honeymoon in Ireland. It was the same sweater her father wore in her favorite picture, with Bea up on his shoulders. She put it on and hugged herself, wishing it smelled like her dad, like Ivory soap and Old Spice and safety, but her dad had been gone since Bea was nine. A long time. For the next eleven years, it was just Bea and her mom, both sets of grandparents long gone, both Cranes only children.
And then Bea lost her mother. She was alone.
She walked to the window seat and stared out at the rain sluicing down. I have a birth mother. Her name is Veronica Russo. She lives in a place called Boothbay Harbor, Maine.
She works in a diner called the Best Little Diner in Boothbay.
Which had a cute ring. A woman who worked in a diner like that couldn’t be so bad, right? She was probably a waitress,
one of those friendly types who called her customers “hon.” Or maybe she’d fallen on hard times and was hard-bitten, a shell of a woman who set down eggs over easy and fish and chips with a depressive thud.
Maybe she was a short-order cook. That might explain Bea’s ability to make an incredible hamburger, not that she could cook anything in her kitchenless room. This past year, between her jobs at Crazy Burger and the Writing Center, she had enough money to pay her rent. But now she would come up short for July, and the Writing Center was open only part-time for the summer sessions. Her last lousy paycheck, a half week’s pay from Crazy Burger, wouldn’t help much either.
She had nowhere to be, nowhere to go. But she had this name, and an address.
Bea could take a drive up to Maine, make herself walk into the Best Little Diner, sit at the counter and order a cup of coffee, and look at the name tags on the waitresses’ aprons. She would be able to check out her birth mother from a very close distance. She could do that.
Yes. She would drive up, check out Veronica Russo, and if it seemed right to Bea, she would introduce herself. Not that she had any idea how to go about that. Maybe she’d leave a note in her mailbox, or just call. Then they’d meet somewhere, for a walk or coffee. Bea would find out what she needed to know so she could stop wondering, speculating, driving herself crazy. Then she’d say thank you to Veronica Russo for the information and drive back home to Boston and start looking for a new place to live. And a new job. Maybe she had to let go of her dream of being a teacher. She’d come home once her past had been
settled, and she’d figure out what the hell she was supposed to be doing with her life.
Home. As if there were one. This room was nothing more than a big closet. And her mother’s rental cottage on Cape Cod, where she and her mom had moved after her father died, had long ago been sold by the owner. But that little white cottage had been the one place left on earth that had felt like home at Thanksgiving, Christmas, summer breaks, and at times when Bea was stressed or heartbroken or just needed her mama.
Now there were just memories and this old fisherman sweater. And a stranger named Veronica Russo, up in Maine. Waiting a long time to be found by Bea.