I couldn’t believe I’d ever been nervous about this. Some days, I couldn’t believe I’d ever done anything else. Maybe seeing all the things my foster parents had done wrong prepared me, but as the months wore on, I started to appreciate all the things they’d done right.
Mister Yi had taught me the value of hard work. June Snowcone had taught me how to clean up after myself. The Westlake parents had taught me to be self-sufficient. And most importantly, Sunshine and Rover had taught me the things I needed to know to get by. They taught me how to love, and that I was worthy of love. I’d just forgotten it in the years I spent waiting for them.
Michael was a reminder of how they made me feel. Worthy and full to bursting. They never came back, but he did, always. I was home.
The little guesthouse was bare down to the wood floors and the holes in the plaster. The back window that looked out on the valley was finger-smudged at knee-level, and crayon marks looped the length of the living room walls. They were the last remnants of Brady, our first foster child, who had gone to a permanent home a week before. I’d photographed his effect on the house a hundred times, but now I got on my knees and captured those smudges as if they walked a red carpet.
Michael, underdressed in bare feet and jeans full of holes, came in from the bedroom. His sandy hair was scrambled and his t-shirt was streaked with the black dust that found its way to the edges of furniture. He looked like a man in the middle of something. A perfectly built man who attracted eyes like sugar attracted children, busy doing everything but worrying about what he was doing.
“They moved everything,” he said, looking at his watch. “Are you ready?”
“Yes.” I looked him up and down. “This is what you’re wearing?”
“I don’t look dad-like enough for you?”
I didn’t know what dads looked like, but I guessed they looked like Michael Greydon in a t-shirt and jeans.
He slipped his arm around my waist. “You’re so lucky Brooke is on the property.” He kissed my neck. I arched my back and looked up at the ceiling when my body needed the extra length to contain my shudders. “Or I’d take you right here.”
“We can do it quick and quiet.” He could have had me anywhere, and I would have done exactly what he told me.
“Even if we avoided Brooke, Brad is coming and he never knocks.”
He didn’t. Brad Sinclair, of the amaretto and cokes, and perpetually exposed knees, had a way of showing up when he wanted, grabbing chips and a beer and flopping himself on the couch. He was like an insta-brother, and he loved kids even if he didn’t know what to do with them. So again, Michael was right. Brad could show up any minute with or without pants.
Michael and I had spent the last two days alone, locked in the house, our bodies twisted around each other, because after today, alone time was going to be hard to come by. Yet it didn’t seem like enough. I wanted him more and more every day. More than I thought possible.
I put my hands on his cheeks. They were two-day rough, and when I brushed my thumb on his lower lip, it felt a little chapped. Just like a normal person who needed love and care.
He kissed me, and I put my arms around him. A little peck turned into something longer, deeper, a last good-bye before a new life opened in front of us. I could have kissed him like that forever, and I might have.
“Did you leave the gate open?”
Brooke’s voice cut through the kiss. We separated, clearing our throats, smiling.
“Way to knock, Mom,” I said.
She flipped a kitchen towel toward the front gate. She’d been making cookies for the kids and brought the sweet scent in with her. “We have an audience. Or, you have an audience. No one cares about me and Gareth anymore.”
I turned white hot, my shudders of arousal turning into full-blown rage. “I’m going to kill them.”
“You can’t get mad.” Michael’s green eyes glinted in the morning sun. “It’s their job.”
I stuck my tongue out at him. He had more patience with the paparazzi than I did, because I knew their job and I knew how they were. I hadn’t been a pap in two years. I had so much fashion editorial work I dreamed in black and white, and Tom wasn’t even doing it enough anymore to keep me in touch with the trends. But
I still knew the business. It hadn’t changed that much.
“The deal was, we’d let them in the wedding if they stayed away from stuff exactly like this.”
He shrugged. He was so easygoing. “Let’s go say hello. Take the edge off.” That was always his answer, but I knew why he’d thrown my camera off a balcony two years before. The stress could get to a person, and I wasn’t trained to be on his side of the rope. He took my hand and I was immediately soothed. All the disorganization of my thoughts and emotions came to a single, manageable point. Michael. The center of my peace. The core of my conviction. I wished I could photograph how he made me feel, because it would be the most beautiful picture of harmony ever seen.
I took his hand and we went outside into the yard. Furniture piled like a mini city in the front lawn. Most of it was going to charity. A few things would give purpose to purposeless rooms in the big house. But the guesthouse was getting done into half a studio for me, half a playroom for the kids, and the whole big house was finally going to be used.
Right at the property line, a dog pack of paps waited with their hotboxes of light.
“Do you want to put shoes on?” I asked, slinging my own camera over my shoulder.
“I want to impress Kenzie.” Kenzie, all of four years old and forty pounds, had refused to wear shoes at the resource home, a cause for consternation and grief.
She was the child most tuned to my heart. I sensed her feeling of unworthiness, her fear she would be alone forever, and though I knew I’d fall for all the kids, it was Kenzie I wanted most to connect with.
“You can take them off when she gets here.”
“Nah. Let’s give these guys something else to talk about.”
He was right. He knew my business better than I did. There would be more chatter about his feet than what exactly was happening. I thought when we got married, and he started working less, they’d lose interest. But it had increased their hunger for him, for us.
“Gentlemen,” I said, addressing them. I saw a blond head scuttling between the taller guys, causing a ripple of moving bodies and frowning faces. A girl of maybe twenty burst to the front of the dog pack, on her knees, shooting me from head to toe, shoes to shampoo. “…and lady,” I continued.
“Lady Greydon!” Raoul called out.
“Laine, can you look a little this way!”
“Mike, let me see your shoes!”
Michael held out his feet, letting them make a story of it. But Blondie wasn’t fooled. She still got him head to toe.
“You guys know what’s happening today,” I said.
“It’s our job!”
“You love it.”
I held up my hand again. “I’ll tell you what I love. I love when you guys take four steps back from any vehicle turning onto the property line.”
“Public property, Laine.” That was Joe. He was new, and didn’t get that I could make his life miserable.
“If you scare the children, I’m going to physically hurt you, and no one in America is going to take your side. Your own mother won’t speak to you.”
“Listen to her,” Michael said. “She’s a real pain when she doesn’t get what she wants.”
The blond girl adjusted her rig and put it back up to her face. The rest of them did the same, clickclickclick, except the blond girl wasn’t shooting full body anymore. She was shooting our clasped hands.
Michael tried to pull me aside, but I let go of his hand.
“You,” I said to the girl.
“Let me see what you have there.” I held out my hand expectantly.
She glanced around. They were taking pictures of her now. I felt her discomfort as she handed me her white camera with one hand and flipped the paps the bird with the other.
“Nice rig,” I said. “Set you back.”
“So?” She shrugged. She wasn’t an inch over five feet. Her skin was clear, and her blond hair had blue tips. The diamond in her pierced lower lip looked real.
“There are a lot of manual functions on it.” I tried to speak softly so none of them would hear, but it was hard to be heard over the sounds of the cameras and my name being called. “Why did you buy it if you’re going to keep it on auto?”
“It was the most expensive one.” Her defiance was a mask. “No one notices a charge unless it’s in the five figures.”
“You learn how to use the manual, you can tear shit up. Really show Mom and Dad what you’re made of.”
She made a pfft sound and snapped the camera back. “Whatever.”
“I’m watching you,” I said, putting two fingers to my eyes then pointing them at her. I let Michael pull me to the side. Three cars were waiting to drive past the gate.
“Who was that?” he whispered into my ear.
“That was me,” I said, then turned my attention to the crowd. “Back!”
They stepped back, and the cars passed, photographed but unmolested. As soon as the three cars were in, Michael closed the gate, locking it firmly. Three cars were in. My chest felt as if I’d swallowed a basketball. I was so excited I was nearly non-verbal. It had been a long haul. Michael had to prove further that he wasn’t into child pornography, and they had to be comfortable that Jake and his crew weren’t coming after us. We’d shown them a world-class security system and the resources to guard the kids. In the end, a judge had put Jake and Foo away not just for distributing photos of a minor, but for drug distribution. And since they had worked over state lines, the sentence was worth a lifetime of regret.
Our caseworker, Anjelica, got out first. Her hair was pink and blonde and she had a ring in her nose. Caseworkers were hard to come by in Los Angeles County, and appearances weren’t as important as dedication. She was lovely, and when I got frustrated with the hoops we had to jump through, I found myself jumping them as much for her as for Michael and I.
“Hi,” she said, clipboard in hand and an oversized smile on her face. “You ready?”
We knew all of the children. We’d met them all week across four homes from San Pedro to Altadena. Four girls and two boys who had been in the system for years, orphaned six months earlier due to horrific circumstances. They couldn’t be reunited because no home was big enough to hold all of them, except ours. Our house, the big house, had five bedrooms, and we were parents with resources to keep the siblings together for the first time since they were put into the system.
We’d been foster parents for a year, a way station for kids between abuse and a more permanent place, waiting for something to open up. Emergency parents. No more than a roof for a week or a month. I was worried I didn’t know how to do the job, but Michael had faith in me, and then I had faith in myself.
“I don’t want to be a halfway house anymore,” Michael had said after another kid was reunited with his mother. The moonlight had been blue on his face, and the crickets sang to us through the open French doors. The sheets wrapped around him and he was so real to me that when he spoke I felt what he felt. Discomfort with detachment.
“Don’t you want to have our own?”
“Sure,” he said. “But we have plenty of time for that.”
“Let’s talk to Anjelica about something more long term.”
“Thank you, Shuttergirl,” he’d said, brushing his thumb over my throat.
It had happened quickly after that. There were always children who needed help, and Michael and I were eager, and qualified, and ready. Ninety percent of my work was in Los Angeles, and Michael was going to start a theater production in the fall. It suited him, working at the same character every night, chipping away at the story until it revealed itself over time. He compared it to marrying a character, instead of dating. He’d get to stay near Britt and Brad, and his parents, who he loved more than I thought I could ever comprehend. But when I got to know them, normal and imperfect though they were, I saw what a family should be, with the fighting, and discomfort, and unconditional love.
I took a picture of him, hands in his pockets, feet bare on the stones to make a connection with a four year-old girl, his sandy brown hair flopping in the mountain breeze, and I smiled, because he was flawless, and because he was mine.
Anjelica opened the back doors to all the cars and unbuckled the kids. They piled out of three cars, all showing various degrees of comfort. I photographed them too, but put the camera down when Anjelica handed me the car seat carrying Nelson, the six month-old, who was already kicking with excitement.
Kenzie immediately pointed to Michael’s feet and shouted, “No bare feet outside!” and he laughed.
Elated, nervous, angry, hyper, quiet, thoughtful, they each had personalities we had learned quickly. Brooke and Gareth came out to meet them, and their hearts melted. Papers were signed. Discussions were had. A stuffed pig and frog took up residence and two hours later, we were all sitting in front of the TV watching a movie about a bear.
I had six foster children in my house, and I wanted to break apart from happiness. If I was ever worried about my ability to have a family, it disappeared in the act of actually doing it. I could love them, and they could love me. And the funniest thing opened it up for me. I helped Kenzie wipe up after using the toilet. Her tights got twisted, and I helped her right them. She put her arms around me, thanked me, and kissed my cheek.
“Can we stay here?” she said. “All together?”
“Yes. Yes, I believe you can.”
She acted like I was doing her a favor, but in reality, I was the one gifted.
Kenzie insisted Michael at least put socks on then slept on the arm of the couch against him. Two of the remaining three girls were up, whispering softly near sleep. Jaimon, who was two, held a lollipop that was stuck to the carpet, and the baby, Nelson, drooled on Michael’s chest.
I crouched by the sofa and my husband opened his eyes.
“How are we going to get all of them into bed?” I whispered.
“One at a time,” he whispered back.
“Irving thinks we’re crazy.”
“We are. But we’re crazy on our own terms.”
“Have I told you how much I admire you for your terms?”
“Not as much as I admire you for doing this. You took the hardest parts of your life and decided to make them easy for someone else. And you made me fall in love with it.”
I kissed him gently and quietly. “I love you, Superstar.”
“And I love you, Shuttergirl.”