Cycles of Rejection: An Elegy for My Four ParentsAlex M. Frankel
After the night of broken glass, I heard some strange news. It happened during one of the few visits I was allowed to make to another boy’s house. Jeffrey Smith had a new sister; she’d been adopted and this was known to everybody. I looked down at the baby in the crib and made a remark about her adoption (it’s too long ago now for me to remember the exact remark: did I show curiosity? pity? maybe contempt?). Jeffrey pointed at me: “You were adopted, too!” At home I asked my parents. They seemed unprepared for this; how many years had they been planning to keep the secret from me? “Yes,” they said, “it is true. Your mother couldn’t keep you. She wanted the best for you.” I asked them if she was Jewish. My father said yes and, at the same time, my mother said no.
Strange as it may seem to non-adoptees, for the next twenty years I had little curiosity about my origins. Even though I knew that I was not my parents’ biological son, I had such a strong belief in the power of “nurture” that it seemed irrelevant who the egg and sperm donors were. I was the work of Henry and Vera Frankel: my femininity, introversion, German accent, and uncoolness had been programmed by them. At the same time, I had an idealized picture of what I might have turned out to be if my birth mother had kept me: hip, strong, popular, straight, and very American. I had an image of myself sitting on the stoop of some tenement building (it’s common for adoptees to believe in the poverty of their blood kin) without shirt or shoes or socks, hanging out with the boys, accepted by the boys. I was convinced that whoever my creators were, they would have raised me in a wholesome way.
I did—once in a while—have daydreams about how the biological son or daughter of Henry and Vera Frankel would have looked and acted. The picture I used to form in my mind was not unlike the black-and-white ID photo of my father at eighteen: dark, bespectacled, quiet, reserved. The outside didn’t look like me, but on the inside I tried every day to be the son—or maybe daughter—they might have made with their bodies.
I also had daydreams about the hundreds, the thousands, that Henry and Vera might have adopted instead of me: regardless of these children’s genetic makeup, whether born in Siberia or Patagonia, they would all—if raised by Henry and Vera—have turned into me.
When I looked around me at the other boys and girls, I made the assumption that everyone had two sets of parents: there were the reckless young people whose bodies produced you, and there were the older, more serious people who took responsibility for you when you emerged from the womb.
As I grew into adolescence, the fights at home became less frequent and violent; by my late teens my father had other women on the side. My mother knew about these affairs, which he didn’t try hard to hide, and was bitter and despondent. Once we drove to Santa Cruz on a day trip and the atmosphere in the car was tense and toxic. When we got to the boardwalk, she said to him, “Here you can find them cheap!”
She was diagnosed with lung cancer a few months later, and by the middle of the next year, after much useless surgery and radiation, there was no longer any hope. She sat in an armchair in the bedroom and an Irish nurse took care of her. People came to visit, mostly German Jews. I was twenty and had begun to have my first encounters (not relationships) with young men. I was childish enough to believe that my mother’s illness was somehow God’s punishment: I had dared to assert my sexuality. The moment her last breath came, I broke down and held her hand and smelled her smell, and the Irish nurse said, “No, be a man!” Then she made the sign of the cross over my mother’s body.
A few days after this, my father introduced me to his German stewardess girlfriend. I watched them hold hands by a swimming pool in a lovely suburb. On our way back from that visit to his woman, I asked about my birth parents for maybe the first time in ten years. “Your biological father,” he said, “was a professor with a high IQ. Your biological mother was very young. When we went into the hospital room to visit her, she was reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.”
In my twenties, not long after I graduated from Columbia, I decided to move to Spain. My hair was somewhat long in the back. My father said, “You mean to say you intend to look for work as a teacher with such hair?” And he took out a pair of scissors and forced me down on the bathtub to cut my hair. I was twenty-three.
My parents had taken me on overseas trips and I’d always fantasized about living in Europe. Spain held a particular fascination for me. I arrived in Barcelona eager to start a new foreign life and work as a teacher. My philosophy degree from Columbia was absurd (I loved philosophizing, but I didn’t love formal logic or turgid prose—why hadn’t I majored in English?) and for a year I’d worked as a proofreader in an accounting firm for minimum wage. Now I inhaled the beautiful, polluted air of Barcelona, and maybe I could teach and maybe I could find love. By this time I’d had a huge number of quick partners—who knows the exact count—mostly in New York City. I loved the anonymity and brutality of the St. Mark’s Baths and the Club Baths and the Anvil and the Mineshaft and Alex in Wonderland. Those were the days just before the AIDS epidemic was thrust into public consciousness as never before by the death of Rock Hudson. I imagined there was no AIDS in Spain.
One night at the best bathhouse in the world, Barcelona’s Thermas, I collided with a youth named José Luis. We were together for a month. I loved him because he was younger than me and could ride a motorcycle and ski. I loved him because he was dark, tough, and immature. I loved him, most of all, because he didn’t love me back. He was on the down low and said this explained why he couldn’t make too much time for me. One night he said, “I warn you, I just get bored,” and later that night in bed as I was running my lips down his leg I recalled those words and they turned me on in a way that a declaration like “I love you and need you” never could have.
José Luis left me after a few weeks; I couldn’t (wouldn’t) let him go and blamed myself: I had driven him away! I went back to Thermas every night and found youths who might help heal the loss (some charged for this), but they were impostors: they couldn’t replace the beautiful one who’d been lost. I started drinking, even in the morning (and I’m not a drinker). I listened to Rachmaninoff day and night; in his lush music I found comfort, but no answers. Instead of eating or sleeping I walked the streets of Barcelona and ruminated. One day on the sidewalk, as stress was building up inside me, I saw a dead animal. I’m still not sure what it was, a rat? cat? The body was half-demolished, but the eyes looked into mine and I recoiled; I was so startled I may even have shrieked. Of course I couldn’t see my own reaction, but I noticed a man watching me as he sat in his parked car. His face showed surprise and concern, and a kind of naked, child-like curiosity and expressiveness that you rarely see beyond the Mediterranean countries. I have never forgotten the animal cadaver or the way my anguish—my breakdown—was reflected in a stranger’s face.
I began sessions with a psychoanalyst. For the first time I could talk to someone about the fights at home, about being bullied, about losing my mother, about my father’s abusiveness, about my insatiable need for bad boys, about rejection when I submitted my short stories to literary magazines. I barely mentioned being adopted, but during the first few months of this therapy my psychoanalyst said to me, “Your parents’ words were ‘Your birth mother couldn’t keep you,’ but the message you heard was, ‘She didn’t want me.’ That was the original rejection."
I had never given much thought to my birth parents, and the incident with Jeffrey Smith (“You were adopted, too!”) was, in fact, a memory retrieved only during sessions of psychoanalysis. It had never occurred to me that I might one day want to track down the two youngsters responsible for my birth. I had always assumed—as adoptees tend to, I believe—that my real parents would rebuff any attempt to contact them and that the door would be permanently shut in my face. But several years later, on a visit back to San Francisco, I thought I might try to discover who I really was. I figured I just wanted to know the genealogy. Was I Dutch? When I looked in the mirror I somehow thought I might be Dutch.
I was almost thirty. My father, at seventy, was vigorous and curmudgeonly. One morning at breakfast I brought up the topic—for only the third or fourth time in my life—of my mysterious origins. My father did not view himself as an ogre; he thought he was “sweet” and “soft” and was “mellowing” with age. In a broadminded and compassionate moment he revealed the name of my birth mother: Marcia Cranston. He told me the name of the adoption lawyer. He opened the white pages and wrote down the number for me. He wanted to appear cooperative and understanding in this matter; it was to be so different later on. I assumed the search would take months of rummaging through vaults and dusting off piles of yellowed files. But in just a few days a large envelope came in the mail.
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