Orphans, by Ginny Levy
Nora wanted to make this vacation special, more memorable than just another week spent loafing around with Howard at an oceanfront resort. After three days, they’d already played golf, renewed their vows on the beach, attempted kayaking, and dined with a couple they met in the casino. They’d received four tandem massages. Nora felt like goop. So when their tour guide Rodrigo suggested the bus stop at a local marine orphanage on the way back from the spice bazaar, Nora was desperately intrigued.
In broken English, Rodrigo told the tour group how his sister’s neighbor’s sister was the orphanage director, how last season’s hurricane had devastated the Pacific coast, and there was great need for help.
“Mothers abandoned their babies on the beaches,” he cried. “It is true!”
Nora only understood half of what Rodrigo said – something about donations and surviving on raw fish – but it didn’t matter. To fathom that there were people capable of abandoning their own children strummed a dissonant chord within Nora. She shook her head and stared out the bus window. They passed by a dirt field where local teenagers dribbled a soccer ball, while family members watched from plastic chairs on the sides. Latin music blasted from speakers in a pickup truck, the children dancing to its chaotic beat. Nora felt like a passenger in a safari, stuck on the safe side of the glass.
Rodrigo was still chatting about the hurricane as Nora turned the knob to close her personal air conditioning vent. She decided that instead of getting a massage that afternoon, she would go to the orphanage and see how the rest of the world lived.
Howard rolled his eyes at the idea. “It’s a tourist trap, Nora,” he scoffed.
But Nora played the card she’d been saving for this type of dispute. “What else would you do this afternoon, Howard?” she said. “Smoke a cigar in one of the hot tubs, hoping some spring break sorority bimbos will get zonked and take their bikinis off again?”
Howard sighed and withdrew a wad of foreign bills from his pocket to count. Nora crossed her arms and stared toward the front of the bus, where Rodrigo was pointing the driver toward a green stucco building with black bars on the windows.
The tour group filed off the bus as Rodrigo ran ahead to knock on the building’s front door. A mustached man greeted him in Spanish. Rodrigo translated back to the group, “Welcome! Right this way!”
Nora, Howard, and the three other couples were led to a small lobby-like room with pink painted walls and turquoise tiled floors.
“Un momento. One minute, he says. Make yourselves comfortable.” Rodrigo told them.
Nora perched on the edge of a blanketed couch while Howard sank into the cushion’s depths. Hot air filtered through the open window with hints of a briny Pacific stench. The other couples seemed nervous. One man’s leg jittered impatiently as he leaned against the wall.
“In a country like this, I’m surprised they have orphanages at all,” Howard said. “From what we’ve seen on the bus, it seems like every kid is on the streets trying to shine your shoes for pesos.”
Nora nudged him, making sure she got him good with her ring. “What does that sign mean?” she asked. Hanging from a closed door, a poster showed a hand with a red X through it.
“I don’t know,” Howard said. “No beating the orphans?”
A woman entered the lobby. Nora decided she was the orphanage director – Rodrigo’s sister’s neighbor’s sister. She wore black pants and a black turtleneck, with her hair pulled in a tight ponytail.
“How does she stand wearing all that in this heat?” Nora whispered to Howard.
The director cleared her throat. She clutched a clipboard, glancing down to read from it frequently.
“OK. We are happy to have you here,” she said with a thick accent. “There are three important things you must know before you have a visit with the babies.”
At the word “baby” Nora’s insides twanged. She hadn’t really considered where they were. An orphanage. A whole facility of motherless children. She reminded herself this was just a visit, a good deed. Giving attention to innocent children abandoned by women who didn’t know any better. She wondered if she could ever love a child that wasn’t her own. Probably a skinny little dark child with black bugged-out eyes.
The woman director held up a straight finger. “One,” she said, and waited for the effect. “These babies are scared. You must make them feel comfortable. They are not in their natural environments.” She looked intently at each of her audience members like the lecturer at an academic conference. “All day we work to educate and socialize them. You will talk to them in their language only.”
Howard huffed. “And what if we don’t habla español?” he whispered loud enough for everyone to hear. One of the other men snickered and covered his eyes with his hand.
Nora frowned. She watched Howard hoist his body forward on the couch, interlock his fingers and pull them apart. His face was redder than usual. It was wrong of her to put him in a situation like this, she thought. They could be doing childless adult things like getting seaweed wraps and drinking margaritas.
A leathery woman from their resort had a question. She stretched her arm upright and didn’t wait to be called on. “Excuse me,” she said. “Are we to see their sleeping quarters and overall living conditions before making any donations?”
“Si,” the director said. “They sleep in bunk beds. You will see.” She glanced down at the clipboard. “Two.” She shot up a second finger. “You must be on your hands and knees. They are small. You do not want to scare them.”
Nora became excited by the idea of little fingers, tiny wrists.
The director continued. “They come up to you. They are craving contact. Interact with them,” she said. “Let them touch you and crawl on you. They will try to.”
Nora grabbed Howard’s hand and squeezed it. She understood yearning – it was that unoccupied space that gnawed at her insides, growing bigger and taking up more room as she aged. She and Howard had tried so hard over the years, but in the end decided it wasn’t meant to be. Nora imagined what it would be like to give a child security, if only for a moment. She craved to touch them, too.
The mustached man ushered all the visitors toward the door with the hand poster. “En parejas,” he said.
“Go in pairs,” Rodrigo translated.
Nora was first in line. “Come on, Howard,” she said. “You and me.”
The mustached man shouted something to the director very fast and in Spanish. Nora’s eyes bounced back and forth between them.
“Three,” the director said. “Very important. You must only use flippers. Like this.” She held up her hand, fingers tight together in the shape of a mitten. Then she swung the door open. Four tiny whiskered creatures waddled forward, crying out guttural shrieks that sounded like a fleet of semi-trucks braking. Nora and Howard shied back, but the mustached man urged them into the small room and shut the door before the creatures could escape. The animals flapped towards them, bleating, sleek heads bobbing sideways, black flippers slapping against the tiles. In the corner of the room, a set of bunk beds was littered with baby bottles, chewed up toys, and animal feces.
“What the hell is this?” Howard yelled. “That smell!” He banged on the door, but Nora stopped him.
“Howard!” she yelled. “On your hands and knees now!” Nora was already on all fours. She had been ignorant and selfish, she realized. “Errrhhhhhh,” she cried. She crawled over to the babies. “We have to speak their language. Remember? They need contact.”
Howard opened a window and sucked in outside air.
The babies tripped over their flippers, clumsily crawling over to Nora’s bony knees. One propped its oily head on her thigh and let out a piercing bleat. Its angled face turned toward her, black round eyes begging something of her. Nora recognized at once its simple yearning.
“I know, darling,” she whispered. “Me, too.”
“Nora. Excuse me?” Howard said.
“You don’t want to scare the babies,” she said, a tear sliding down her cheek. “This isn’t their natural environment. Errrhhhhhh.”
“Nora,” Howard said. “This is ridiculous. And dangerous! We’re leaving, before you get bit!”
The smallest of the babies began suckling on Nora’s forearm, and she let out a blissful sigh.
She watched the babies nuzzling under folds of her skin, crawling over her shorts. They were warm, and breathing. She could feel them breathing. A sweet saline breeze blew in the window and through Nora’s hair. “You go, Howard,” she said. She let out a bleat. “Errrhhhhhh. I’m staying.” Nora looked up at her husband, her teary eyes hopeful, black and bugged-out.
Ginny Levy is exploring the world.
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Tags: dysfunctional, family, Ginny Levy, mothers, relationships