Little sister ~
To handle two children, five and six years old respectively, means to deal with a post-apocalyptic chaos of toy-robot, toy-cars, soccer ball, soccer matches, bedrooms so messy that in comparison hurricane Katrina was a light spring breeze. It means to deal with absurd requests like “a cookie big as the house” or “the giant squid for pet.”
On a daily basis.
It means spending hours explaining why certain wishes couldn’t be granted, unless you were lucky enough to swim in a zillion of dollars like Uncle Scrooge, and finding yourself with new requests even stranger than the previous ones.
Luckily Arthur and Francis had by now mastered the art of turning little Alfred and Matthew’s attention back on wishes that could be granted more easily.
Alfred last request was seeing a real alien. They promised him a small telescope
Matthew declared he wanted to adopt a polar bear cub. The local zoo allowed visitors to sponsor the animals. It was enough. So, once a week, the family visited Kumal – hem Kumoj – hem Kemat- … something like that.
“I hope they’ll ask the newest videogame advertised on the TV next time. At least it would be something that exists. Bloody expensive, but existent,” Arthur uttered, mouth full of toothpaste. He spat in the sink. “At least they don’t throw a tantrum.”
“Polar bears exist,” Francis pointed out. He was holding a tie in each hand and was examining with a critic eye the match with the shirt chosen for the day.
“Listen, we’ve already discussed this. We can have diametrically opposite opinions on everything else, but not with the children. With them we need a single front. Especially when they team up.”
They have adopted Alfred and Matthew a couple of years before, albeit the documents were fully legalized only in the last months. They didn’t remember the reason behind a choice this important. Maybe it was a sudden fatherhood desire. Maybe it was a more weighted will of making less hard someone else’s life.
Francis was the one to give the input, a morning during breakfast – according to Arthur his husband would have adopted all the children in the world if given the chance. Arthur slowly passed considering the idea from absurd to feasible.
They had contacted a specialized agency and, since both of them were uncomfortable having to choose a kid like goods on a shelf, preferred to give carte blanche to those concerned.
A few weeks later they met two smiling blonde brats, Alfred – one hundred and eleven centimeters of concentrated energy – and Matthew – a cinnamon roll as long as he stayed away from the hockey field.
July was approaching, bringing with it the children’s birthdays, on the first and the fourth respectively. It was a period Francis and Arthur looked forward with a mixture of excitement and terror. They both adored setting up the birthday party. For the former it was the perfect occasion to vent his cooking abilities, while the latter was at his best with decorations.
“Magic,” he answered the mothers asking how he could make streamers where paper butterflies seemed to fly away.
Still they dreaded the moment the kids would’ve announced what they wanted as a present.
“So, did you think about what you’d like for your birthdays?” Francis finally asked one day, while preparing the orange juice for breakfast.
Matthew and Alfred looked at each other, spoons full of cornflakes still suspended few centimeters above their twin bowls.
“We,” they began in perfect unison – maybe this time they would’ve asked a single thing to share – “would like” – Arthur crossed his fingers under the table – “a little sister!” they concluded, smiling. An embarrassing silence fell in the kitchen. Arthur put down his mug half full of tea, pushed his chair back, and stood up, disappearing upstairs. Francis gestured the children to finish their breakfast.
“Can we go playing in the garden?” Matthew chirped with hands sticky with sugar and lips covered in juice. There were cornflakes on Alfred cheeks.
“After you washed your faces,” Francis agreed. The kids nodded, running away.
Francis found Arthur in their bedroom. He was throwing clothes in a small suitcase.
“Did I miss something?”
Arthur answered without even bothered to turn.
“I’m going to Iceland for fishing the giant squid. It was a very reasonable request.”
He reached his arm behind his back, waving the hand a little. “Pass me that sweater,” he asked. Francis however ducked his head, starting to empty the suitcase and to put the clothes back in the wardrobe, picking them up from the floor and from wherever his husband fury could send them. “And you say I’m melodramatic.”
Arthur lowered his head, suddenly ashamed for the absurdity of his tantrum. He looked outside the window. Down below, in the garden, Alfred was using poor Matthew as a target for his baseball launches.
“Sometimes I wonder where certain ideas come from. Maybe they watch too much TV.”
“They have just a fervid imagination,” Francis replied. He’d always been the more indulgent.
It was way too early for explaining to the kids where children came from – Arthur was adamant – and they couldn’t find a satisfying substitution for their request. Finally Arthur and Francis decided to ask the kids why they wanted a little sister.
The idea came from Alfred. Matthew, having discovered that a little sister would’ve freed him from having to do the damsel in distress every time he played with his brother, was way too happy to sustain the project.
“Do you know what having a little sister would mean?”
Matthew and Alfred looked at each other. “We would’ve another person with us. A girl,” they answered with no hesitation. Alfred anticipated the following objection. “Our bedroom is big enough for another bed.”
It wasn’t. They could use a bunk bed, but even in that case a girl couldn’t divide the bedroom with two boys forever. It could’ve worked for some years, but in the end she would’ve needed a bedroom just for her. Arthur suddenly realized that he would’ve to say goodbye to his studio.
“We’ll have a female hand in our home,” Matthew added, parroting back what he heard from a movie.
“Arthur’s enough for that,” Francis commented. Arthur kicked him in the calves.
A little sister for Alfred and Matthew. Having another person in their home. A girl. Would they be able to raise her? They’ve never really thought about it with Alfred and Matthew. Still Arthur doubted his abilities to raise a girl, no matter the stereotypes linked to his sexual preferences. He imagined himself buying skirt, talking about make-up and dolls, explaining what a period was.
Ballet lessons. There would surely be ballet lessons, what girl doesn’t want to be a ballerina?
Hair ribbons everywhere.
Pink, a ton of pink.
Imagining all this he decided he would’ve charged Francis with half of those responsibilities.
He imagined Alfred and Matthew playing with a little sister, like small and brave toy-sized knights. He imagined what would’ve been having three rowdy kids playing in the garden or running in the house. He imagined things like receiving a brush at the sound of “daddy, can you comb my hair in a ponytail?” or shivering hearing the first “daddy, I have a boyfriend.”
He imagined this and a lot of other things.
Finally he thought that, after all, the kids’ idea wasn’t this absurd.
“I can’t believe they had me fooled like this,” he muttered while queuing for some documents. Francis had taken the kids to the swimming pool. Any occasion was worth escaping the nightmare of bureaucracy. When he was in front of the clerk in charge, Arthur trying to explain the situation without sounding stupid.
“I mean, I’m aware the motivations may not be very orthodox, but it’s the end that means. I mean … the last inspection went well.”
The voice of reason suggested him to shut up. Yes, it would be way better than keeping ranting like a teenager with the vocabulary of a first grader. Surely the clerk was thinking about calling her superiors for telling them that Arthur Kirkland wasn’t a calm and posed person, like they thought at the first.
“Well, we have to check your financial and familiar situation to be sure it is suitable for adoption. Three children can be difficult to handle. Especially in early childhood with both parents working.”
“Matthew already attends school. Alfred will be in first grade in September. And both my husband and I can work from home for a period of time.”
The clerk noted something in the office computer. She told him someone would’ve called them to fix an inspection and an interview.
“Assuming everything will go smooth, do you have any preference?”
Arthur thought about it. “Maybe it would be better if she was as old as the other two.”
“Why don’t you let the kids choose?”
“I beg your pardon.”
“Why don’t you let the kids choose who they’d like as their future little sister?”
“It would be highly inappropriate,” Arthur answered, slipping in his native British accent. Ten years in the US should’ve canceled it, but it always emerged when he was irritated.
On a daily basis.
Nevertheless the clerk gave him a note where she’d written the website address.
A week later, while Francis was cutting birthday cards, Arthur decided that taking a look to the website couldn’t hurt anyone. It was a clear website. Every adoptable child had their profile, completed with allergies, handicaps and illness.
It was all very transparent.
He was studying the profile of a certain Will – twelve years old with a passion for swimming – when a ball passed at full speed above his head through the closed window to bounce against the wall, missing the painting hung there by a few centimeters.
Matthew and Alfred were soon before Arthur, heads down and shuffling their little feet.
“What is the rule for playing baseball in the garden?”
“To stand away from the window,” Matthew piped.
“Not to throw the ball too hard,” Alfred added. It seemed that the kid had deleted the word “slow” from his vocabulary.
“I like her!”
Arthur jumped on his chair. Matthew was a child so quiet that he could stay in a room without being noticed by anyone. He would’ve become a great spy. Or a psychopathic serial killer due to a childhood trauma like “my brother used me as a target to throw darts”.
For the moment the kid was just pointing at the third photo of the first line on the computer screen. “Alfie, come here!”
“She’s like Storm!”
The girl was the only one to have dark skin. It wasn’t a surprise the children had noticed her so quickly. Arthur clicked on the picture. She was called Michelle. Mother of African origins (Seychelles), unknown father. She was taken away from her original family for suspected abuse. She was four years old. She was probably born on the 29th of June. She had a dairy allergy.
If there were a thing Arthur and Francis had learned about Alfred and Matthew was that the kids could be very persistent when they wanted a thing. They didn’t throw a tantrum, but they continued to present arguments in favor of their wishes.
The inspection went well.
In the end Arthur found himself trying to drive without hitting anyone while two rowdy children jumped up and down on the backseats. They insisted so much for accompanying him taking their new little sister that Arthur in the end had given up.
“Matthew, Alfred, if I hear again a safe belt unbuckled I bring you back home,” he warned them, turning a little too fast. In the rearview mirror he saw Matthew rolling against his brother and back at his seat when the car was again on a straight road. Arthur slowed down. Alfred and Matthew buckled their safe belts. And then they unbuckled them. And buckled them.
Arthur was starting to get used to the noise of the continuous buckling and unbuckling when he finally parked the car in front of the social center. He turned the engine off, but he didn’t unlock the car doors to prevent the children from running away. He helped Alfred out of the car seat. The kids waddled enthusiastically to the front door, too short to reach the panic bars. In the meanwhile Arthur bended like a contortionist to set up a car seat for Michelle.
Of that day Arthur remembered only a strong headache and the fact he fell asleep with his head on the verge of falling in the mashed potatoes. The girl that had welcomed them – Miss D. – proposed to the kids to wait in the game room, where they could’ve said hello to their old friends, but the children preferred to run down the aisle – at least, Alfred run, Matthew tried to stop him – while Arthur signed a tons of papers.
“We can’t contact the mother at the moment. You know, she can always appear and ask for her daughter. Until the juvenile judge would legalize the adoption Michelle is just a foster child, according to the law. Do you understand, right?”
Yes, he understood. He hoped the court hearing would’ve been handled quickly. He knew how stressful it could be for children. Of course, if the girl's mother would ever obtained again custody over the kid, he would immediately let her go. A child had to stay with their parents, right?
Little Michelle was waiting in one of the dormitory, all polished, with her little feet posed on her soft suitcase.
She didn’t try to hide, but she raised her dark eyes with curiosity. Alfred and Matthew run to her, full of questions. Alfred even tried to “taste” her, biting on of her cheek. Michelle slapped him. What a lively girl! The child started to cry while he run to hide behind his father legs. Arthur apologized, taking Alfred outside the room so that he could calm down. He kneeled to be at the child eyes level. “This is not a proper behavior with a young lady.”
Alfred wiped his nose with the sleeve of his hoodie. “I thought she tasted like chocolate!”
Arthur couldn’t help but smiling. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and gave it to the kid to clean his face and blow his nose.
Coming back in the room, still apologizing, they found Matthew and Michelle chatting quietly on the floor. The little girl stood up, shaking her puffed skirt, she looked around and finally she turned to Miss D. The woman bended over to tell her something. When she was done, the child walked hesitantly toward Arthur. Matthew took her by the hand.
Before leaving the place, Arthur approached Miss D., lowering his voice to keep the conversation only for the adults.
“Does Michelle know … I mean, did you explain her that … that her new family will be … a little different from the other children’s?”
“When we found Michelle she hasn’t eaten in two days. She was dirty. Her mother hardly remembered she had a daughter. To have gay parents will be the last of her problem.”
“I hope you’re right. Come, children.”
“So, how did it go?” Francis welcomed them, drying his hands with a towel. Arthur looked at him, then Michelle, crossing fingers. Francis kneeled before the girl.
“Your name’s Michelle?”
Michelle nodded, smiling a little.
“It’s a splendid name. My name is Francis. I hope you don’t mind having two dads.”
“I guess no,” Michelle muttered, serious like only children can be. Then: “I’m hungry.”
A few days later Michelle had settle down completely. She was pouting because her new brother insisted to give her a precise role in their playing.
“I want to be a wizard!” she protested, stomping her feet.
“But we need a princess!” Alfred cried. He’d already reclaimed for himself the role of the hero and he wouldn’t renounce to it, even if that meant playing alone. On the grass there were cardboard swords and crowns, coats from old sheets, some paper boxes that would’ve become a castle with some imagination. There was even the head of a dragon in papier-mache, from the latest carnival.
It seemed Matthew would’ve continued to be the “princess”
When she was eight years old, Michelle fell in love with water after a trip to the seaside. She asked her parents to sign her for a swim class.
It normally took forty minutes, two hands and about thirty hairclips to force Michelle curly hair under the rubber cap. The girl would soon learned to do the operation by herself, but for now it was still Arthur who had to stand outside a changing room full of mothers, with his mouth occupied by a couple of elastic band, trying to remember how to braid hair.
“Ouch,” Michelle protested when Arthur untangled her hair pulling a little too hard.
Sometimes one of the other moms approached, full of consideration and solidarity, offering a help Arthur never refused. Still seeing how the other women did in few seconds what it took him three times more to do, sometimes he felt to be intruding. To be out of place.
Nobody stared at him with curiosity when he took Alfred to basketball practice or Matthew to hockey. Nobody asked him things like “was the mother busy?”
Nobody asked him if he was widower or divorced.
However at the swimming pool, holding Michelle by the hand, with her Little Mermaid-themed schoolbag hung on a shoulder and her sport bag with the gym logo on the other, they were things Arthur had to deal with.
Michelle pulled at his suit sleeve. “Daddy, the lesson’s about to start,” she pointed out, jumping on place with one of the braids still outside the cap. Arthur fixed it quickly before Michelle could run away.
“The lesson ends at half past six,” the girl reminded him, before disappearing behind the door leading to the gym pool.
All this happened every Wednesday.
On Fridays it was Francis turn to take Michelle to her dance lesson, for years till the girl declared she was fed up.
“Do they act like that also with you?” wondered Arthur slipping into bed after having kissed the children goodnight.
“Act like what?”
“The moms. Do they bury you too in questions?”
Francis choked a chuckle behind a closed fist. “Questions on where my wife is?”
“They used to do it, once.”
“Before I showed them a pictured of you. My wife. Their faces were priceless.”
“And what about Michelle?”
“Michelle has other things to worry about.”
Things like winning the regional final in the 100-meter freestyle of her category, carried in glory by her teammates from the sport hall to her house.
Alfred and Matthew sat outside the headmaster office. The former was holding a bag of ice on his right eye and on his broken lip. A leak was dripping on his throat and in his T-shirt. His knuckles were bruised. Matthew was the one in worse conditions. His left arm was attached to his neck. A red spot was widening near his hairline, under the bandage. His nose was broken.
“What happened?” Francis asked calmly. Alfred and Matthew were used to hear him yelling with Arthur, but they knew they had to worry when his voice became cold.
“It isn’t their fault,” Michelle tried to interfere, standing up. She probably had joined the fight at a certain point because she had scratches on her elbows and bruises on her knees.
“I’ll talk with you later,” Francis stopped her, before turning back to the other two, arms crossed on his chest. Matthew and Alfred looked at each other.
“So? I wanted to know why the headmaster called me saying that you punched a boy so hard he lost a couple of teeth.”
“He had it coming.” Matthew muttered, with a paper handkerchief pressed on his nostrils.
“Yeah, he called Michelle with the n-word,” Alfred pressed, gesturing his father to bend down to whisper in his ear why he was so angry.
“He called Michelle a n-“ and here his voice lowered in a whisper while pronouncing the insult.
They received a week of suspension. Michelle got away with three days. Francis didn’t punish them. He didn't condone violence, but their reasons were noble.
Michelle was thirteen.
They grow up so quickly Francis commented looking at the picture he had taken of Alfred, Matthew and Michelle, all polished for the school ball. He picked up one to insert in their family album.
“Yes, too quickly.”
Especially Michelle, a little voice in Arthur’s head added.
Michelle was fourteen and three months when she dated a boy for the first time, in a hot September evening, hand in hand, laughing for a comedy whose title Michelle would’ve soon forgotten. She would’ve forgotten also the name of the boy or his face, one day. At fourteen and three months, however, she still believed he was the love of her life.
She was fourteen and five months when she came back home crying for the end of her first love story.
She was fourteen and five months and she believed she couldn’t smile again.
She got better soon. Still that evening she run sobbing in Francis arms, the expert in love things.
She was fourteen and ten months when another boy won her heart. At fifteen and a month Michelle broke with him. She cried less that time.
When she had just turned sixteen she found herself pressed on the backseats of a car, wrists held by the hands of a boy who had seemed kind. He touched her under her bra and panties. Michelle bit him, kicking him in the groin like her brothers taught her. She ran away, stumbling, hardly watching where she was going, under the traffic light in a summer night.
“What happened?” Matthew asked, seeing her at the door, barefoot, with messy hair, her dress ruined and her chin shining with mucus. “I thought you had a date.”
Michelle nodded, biting her lips, praying for her brother to understand.
“Don’t tell dad,” she begged. In another occasion Matthew would’ve joked saying “Which one?”
Not this time. That night Matthew only thought about avenging his little sister.
A couple of days later local newspapers talked about a seventeen-years old boy found in a slum, with a pestered face and a couple of broken ribs
Matthew had understood.
“Nobody’s supposed to know,” Alfred decided, balling his T-shirt dirty with blood in a plastic bag. “And should the police ask something, it was my idea,” he continued, keeping a hear out in case their parents would come back from work earlier than usual.
He was condemned to six months of community service, with a mandatory weekly therapy session. He lost the year.
“I would do it again.”
When she was eighteen Michelle met Marion. Marion had a thick blonde braid and a special talent for gambling. They attended the same course of advanced biology,
Marion had soft lips and pink-laced bras in a bedroom where cream-colored walls were covered in posters of movies from the Fifties.
She had smooth and pale legs, contrasting Michelle dark complexion.
“You’re invited to eat at my place tomorrow,” Michelle referred, brushing her hair after a love session. Marion rose on her left elbow.
“Do your parents know you date a girl?”
“What did they say?”
Michelle smiled. “My dad is bisex and my other dad is pansex. My brother Matthew had just left an Ukrainian girl with a XXL bra size for dating “ – Michelle mimed quotation marks with her fingers – “a boy named Gilbert.”
“Alfred’s playing fast and loose with Ivan.”
“Braginsky, the captain of the hockey team before Matthew?”
The year Michelle met Marion was also the year of the diploma. The year of the letters sent to all the colleges with a good marine biology program. The year with the books for the SAT test cumulating on the desk. Matthew had already left two years before for Montreal. Alfred – who was a year older than Michelle but had lost a year – would soon have flown to Yale with an athletic scholarship. Marion was planning to return to Europe when she spent her childhood.
It was the year of farewells. The year of the school ball where Michelle wasn’t crowned queen, but danced with whoever asked her. A lot of people asked her to dance.
It was the year of silly pictures still wearing the graduation gown. The year when Arthur cried so much his cashmere cardigan became mattered.
In June Michelle helped Alfred to frame his luggage in his car trunk.
It was the year of bets. It was the year of shenanigans.
That year Michelle went out for a dinner with Marion for her birthday.
"I entered ... " and here her girlfriend named a famous European college. "What about you?"
Michelle played with the shrimps in her plate. It would've been nice living as a shrimp, not having to worry about finding a job or being admitted to a prestigious college. Her only problem would've been not ending up on a fancy restaurant menu.
“So, what have you decided?”
This was the question Michelle was asked on almost a daily basis. It was an habit. Matthew and Alfred asked her, during their Skype calling. Her high school professors asked her when she met them strolling down the streets while shopping. Marion asked her, packing clothes for a year.
Of course, her parents asked her, with almost the same voice from when she was little and Christmas approached.
“The UCLA? The UCB? Please, don't tell me Harvard.”
Michelle shook her head. She had never managed to keep a secret. She never learned to hide her emotions. Her lips curved upwards in a smile.
She told them the name of a famous institute of oceanography.
They asked her where it was.
There were different seats, but the girl had no doubt about the one she would’ve chosen.
“South Africa? South Africa!”
Even if Arthur would’ve destroyed his last cardigan or Francis would’ve run checking how much was renting a flat in Pretoria.
That year, before Michelle left for South Africa, they went to the seaside. Only the three of them. A last trip together. Arthur hardly floated, Francis preferred not to go near the water because the salt would have “dry his hair”, but Michelle swam like a mermaid. She belonged to the sea and the sea belonged to her. The sea brought back long forgotten memories of the songs her mother used to mutter when she was sober to sing her to sleep. She dove, swimming down until her lugs burned. Then she resurfaced. She could’ve swum to the African coasts, to the islands where her mother was born. Some little fish came to play near her legs, tickling her. Michelle laughed with her mouth half immersed in the water. Little bubbles broke its surface.
Everything would’ve been fine.