Margot Hughes’ work has previously been published in Gandy Dancer, Spelk Fiction, The Magnolia Review, and Adelaide Literary Magazine. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from Stony Brook University, as well as a BA in English with a concentration in Creative Writing from SUNY Geneseo. Margot currently lives with her fiancé and two cats in Virginia, where she teaches writing.
November 5th, 1962
I was four years old when I had the dream. I was in my bedroom, which felt unusually drafty and thick, with my older brother Eddie, who was six at the time. We were each lying in our twin-sized beds, which were just inches apart since our room was so tiny. We were supposed to be asleep, as midnight was such a precarious hour for two young boys. But I heard screaming coming from downstairs that woke me. It sounded like my two teenage sisters, Susie and Martha, and our parents in a panic. I heard a primitive cry and lots of confused squeals as I placed my pale feet on the creaky wooden floor. Eddie was still half asleep, moaning and moving his head around. His eyelids were just barely open like little slits. I approached the door, grabbed its clammy golden knob, and inched my way down the stairwell. Susie was breathing heavily, red-faced and panting, and my parents and Martha were grabbing their coats to go somewhere. My father’s icy eyes caught my blank questioning stare and immediately turned wild. “Go back to sleep, Robert,” he ordered with a sturdy finger point. My mouth opened but didn’t have words as I tried to make sense of it all. Our eyes were locked together for what felt like forever, and I got that horrible feeling you get in a dream, where you scream for help but nobody can hear you. His eyes grew angrier—veins reddened, eyebrows tensed—and his voice grew louder, “Robert, get upstairs right now and go back to sleep!” I awoke the next morning feeling changed by it all. But when I went downstairs my father was sitting in his usual spot in our tiny kitchen with its teal green cupboards and its speckled linoleum floors. He was sipping his coffee and reading the paper. Martha was packing her book bag, Janie and Davey were entranced by the black and white screen of our tiny television set, and Eddie was sitting next to my father, poking his soggy toast. Susie wasn’t there. Nobody looked up. My mother was standing over the stove, cigarette in mouth, spatula in hand, cooking eggs and bacon silently. I couldn’t help but look at them like a spectator in a museum, still baffled by the dream I’d just emerged from. My father noticed me in the doorway and our stares locked all too familiarly. “Come sit down for breakfast, Robbie,” he said, pokerfaced as always. He went back to his paper, as he always did.
I was the last one of us to live in the family house. All of my siblings moved out and moved on, but since I was the youngest, I stayed with my mom after Dad passed away from a heart attack—all the cigarettes and alcohol finally caught up to him. I just graduated high school, but I figured I should stay and help out a while anyway since my mom would otherwise be all alone. We found out she had lung cancer when I was about 16 and thought she’d die soon after, but then Dad’s heart attack came out of nowhere and left her breathing heavily, alone, under the asphyxiation of all the secrets I’d soon find out. Most of my siblings would come by every once in a while to help take care of Mom—everyone except Susie, that is. I always remember them fighting when I was a kid. I guess Susie fought with everyone a lot—she was always so moody and hot-blooded—but she and my mom were something else. So Susie doesn’t really come around the house or call much since she got married and moved to Long Island. My family didn’t make much of a fuss when I graduated from high school. Everyone cared, but they all had their own stuff going on after they’d moved out of the house and started building their own lives. Eddie’s the only other one who stayed on The Island. He worked for the fire department and had a little apartment to himself not far from the house. Martha also lived out on Long Island with her husband and three kids, where she worked as a nurse—Susie lived far out. Janie and Davey also married and both had two kids. Janie was a kindergarten teacher and Davey was a police officer. They moved a bit upstate, not too far away. Eddie and I always remained the closest—us being only two years apart—so he took me out to his favorite bar on the night of my graduation. We met outside, walked in, and sat on a couple wobbly stools at the bar. Eddie knew the bartender; a greasy guy called Al who talked about leaving the island but had been working that same job for nearly fifteen years. That night, Eddie bought me a few beers and we laughed and talked. I had tried beer before, but never got drunk—not like this, at least. About five and a half beers in, I started thinking about the dream. That wasn’t unusual. That dream had been on my mind mostly every day since that strange night. I never told anyone about it, because it’d probably sound silly, but I got a strange feeling all of a sudden. It was like my mind and my mouth couldn’t separate, like I couldn’t think something and not say it. I looked down at my sweaty beer and thought of that night. As my thumbs caught the drops of condensation, I saw Susie’s face red and drenched in sweat. And for some reason I felt compelled to tell Eddie about the dream in this moment. So I told him. I told him what I heard and what I saw, and Eddie looked at me and laughed. “Well, yeah,” he said casually, sipping his beer, “that sounds like pretty much what I remember from the night Susie popped that baby out, too.” My whole body pulsated. I felt dizzy, confused. My hands weakened and my jaw loosened. I darted my eyes into my brother, desperate for answers. “What’d you just say?” Eddie’s eyebrows crinkled, “You mean you don’t know?” I shook my head. “Well, shit, Robbie. I figured everyone knew by now.” I guess it wasn’t just a dream I had that night.
The next morning I woke up with a new kind of headache and a new feeling of disconnect from my family. I slowly wobbled down the creaky staircase, the steps quivering beneath my bare feet. Mom was in the kitchen—that same kitchen with its now faded pastel cupboards and scuffed up linoleum floor. I sat down at the sticky table we’d had for as long as I could remember. “Morning, honey,” she said over the sound of the running water and silverware clanging. “Susie had a baby?” I spat out; I needed to know but was unable to figure out the best way to approach it. I saw my mom’s body stiffen. She took a moment, turned off the sink, wiped her hands on her apron, and turned to face me. She took a deep breath. “Yes,” she whispered, a tear creeping from her shameful eyes that couldn’t look into mine. My mother then sat me down and told me the story of November 5th, 1962. She told me my sister Martha awoke her in the middle of the night in a panic, saying that Susie was having a baby. Susie was 17 in 1962. We had never been close, especially as kids, being that our age gap was so large, but I knew she was always getting into trouble. I remember her bringing boys home, sometimes more than one in a day, and my father yelling at her and my mother crying nearby. I remember nights when she wouldn’t come home, and Martha would set out to look for her, sometimes not returning for days. Nobody knew that Susie was pregnant. Even Martha, who rode the bus with her to school twice a day every day, didn’t have a clue. I guess she’d taken to the loose-fitting peasant blouses and umpire waistline styles of the time, which were both fashionable and functional in keeping her secret. My parents didn’t notice either, though maybe that doesn’t say much. As loving as they were, they were always caught up in keeping track of six children in our four-bedroom house. My mother told me that when Susie gave birth, my father immediately made her give the baby up for adoption. She said she cried and pleaded and begged him not to, but he just wouldn’t budge. He was a man with lots of pride. In fact, he didn’t have much else. A child out of wedlock would have ruined his reputation—and Susie’s and all of ours, too. It simply wasn’t done at the time. He was a religious man, so he made her give the baby up to a nice Catholic couple who would raise it away from this mortal sin. I guess this sort of thing wasn’t exactly uncommon back then. There was no birth control, abortion wasn’t legal, and sex wasn’t really a topic of conversation in everyday life—especially not in our Catholic household. So girls would trust boys in parked cars who told them they wouldn’t get pregnant because they weren’t married, and were then left scared and alone to deal with the fallacy of this assurance. They’d usually either marry before anyone could know the truth, or give the baby up in secret and never speak of it again. “I tried to convince him otherwise,” my mother explained, “but it was hopeless.” “But, I don’t understand,” I puzzled through this, “didn’t Susie want to keep the baby? Didn’t she try to fight Dad on this?” “Susie didn’t know what she was doing, she was in such shock. She just nodded her head and signed the papers with a blank expression. She didn’t say a word.” “How could you not have told me?” “Your father made us swear to never speak of it again. He couldn’t bare the thought of word getting out. He was so mad at Susie he could barely look at her after that. Their relationship was never the same.” Thoughts flooded through my head along with countless emotions. I couldn’t believe I never knew this. I couldn’t believe that nobody told me. I looked at my mother’s pale wrinkled face, feeling the overwhelming guilt and regret radiate from her eyes. “I would’ve loved that baby as if it were my own,” she said, staring into nothingness, “I’ve never forgiven myself for not fighting harder to keep her. I pray for her every single day.”
The next morning, I decided I needed to go to Susie’s house. I took the bus to the ferry to the train to her house. I didn’t tell her I was coming. Susie always ran from her problems—stuffed them away into a dark place until they exploded. She hated confrontation. I walked up to her enormous house and took it in for a moment. It was white with black shutters and a red door—impeccably symmetrical. The grass was so green and smooth it looked painted on. I couldn’t help but notice the irony of the mess of secrets and lies living inside this picture perfect house. I finally worked up the courage to knock on the door, so I lifted the golden knocker and pounded three times. I saw Susie through the window approaching. Her blonde hair was messy, and she was still wearing pajamas and yesterday’s makeup. “Robbie,” she croaked as she opened the door, “what are you doing here?” She let me inside with much hesitation, and we walked into the high-ceilinged living room. “How could you not tell me?” I began. I knew I started off too aggressive, but I needed answers. She rubbed her eyes, “What are you talking about?” “You had a baby? Apparently I’m the only one in our whole family who didn’t know about this. How could you not tell me, Susie?” My voice grew louder beyond my control. “Whoa, hold on—” “No, you hold on. What the hell were you thinking?” “Jesus, I need a drink for this,” she walked into the kitchen and I followed. “How could you do that,” I watched her pour whiskey into a glass, “I mean, how could you just give away your own child?” “Hey, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” she raised her voice to match mine, “I didn’t want to give her up, okay, but Dad made me. What am I supposed to do, feel shitty about it every goddamn day?” “Maybe! And yeah, Dad made you. Come on, Susie, it was your kid. You made your own damn choice.” “I was 17, Robbie! For God’s sake, I was just a kid myself.” I looked into Susie’s tense, reddened face and paused, allowing the room to settle. For a moment, I saw the face of the naïve teenager she once was—the one who once thought she was invincible until this rude awakening, making her scared and helpless. Susie took a sip of her whiskey and tried to hide a wince. She looked down and I could see her sunken eyes sorting through the mess she’d tried so hard to ignore. “I tried to find her,” she whispered, not looking up, “I sent the adoption agency a letter for her a few years ago, but I never heard back.” I wrapped my arms around my sister for the first time since we were kids, letting her body tremble off the pain she had buried so deep.
Over the next few years, I did everything I could to find that girl. I asked my mom everything she knew about her, though it wasn’t much. She told me the name of the adoption agency they had used, the hospital she was born in, and the date it all happened: November 5th, 1962. I called the hospital asking about the name of the baby and any record they had. They said it was confidential information that they couldn’t disclose to me. I called the adoption agency and asked about the people who adopted the baby and where they were now. They said they couldn’t tell me anything unless the adopted child also requested information about her birth mother. I did all this several times a year every year for a very long time. My hope dwindled a bit each time, but I couldn’t seem to quiet my need to meet my niece until August of 1982. My mother passed away when I was 24-years-old. The cancer finally caught up to her, and after battling for years and years, she simply couldn’t breathe under it all anymore. She never got the chance to meet the granddaughter she’d always wondered about. The funeral was the first time in years all my siblings got together at once—it’s sad that such terrible circumstances were the only thing that could accomplish this. Things became too much for everyone after that, especially Susie. Susie knew how much my mother had been torn up about the baby, and I think she felt guilty for never being able to bring them together. I lived alone in that house, until my siblings could all agree on what to do with it. They’d each stop by every few days to help me go through all of mom’s things—everyone except Susie, that is. She’d always been bad at keeping in touch, but I think the grief of it all took over and caused a number of unanswered phone calls. But one day was different. I heard the doorbell ring, went downstairs, and, much to my surprise and delight, there was Susie. This was the first time I saw her since Mom’s funeral. “Need a hand around here?” she said with a hopeful half-smile. I embraced her immediately, relieved that we could finally sort through our grief together. She came inside for lunch, after which we decided to work on the remains of our mother’s bedroom—the hardest part of all. We walked together up our creaky, narrow staircase, down the hall and into her room. We stood in the doorway for a moment, taking in the floral wallpaper and dark oak furniture we’d known all our lives, as if it was somehow new or different. The room was cold and smelled of perfume and mildew. Susie began going through Mom’s closet, and I went to the dresser. As I pieced through her tangled jewelry drawer, admiring the gold and pearls I could still picture on my mother, I found a black-and-white photograph I’d never seen before folded in half. It was my sister Susie as a teenager. She was in a hospital bed with a tiny little baby in her arms, not looking at the camera, not smiling. I turned the wrinkled picture over and saw the words November 5th, 1962 and Susie & baby girl in my mother’s messy cursive. “Susie,” I turned to my sister and handed her the photograph. She looked at the picture and became flushed. Her lips opened and her eyes widened as she traced her polished finger lightly around the baby in disbelief. She suddenly placed her hand over her eyes and began to cry. I wrapped my arms tightly around my sister, shuddering in pain, and rocked her back and forth, and back and forth. Not long after that, all of mom’s things were out of the house. We all agreed that I would keep the house. I liked living there. It helped me feel close to my family that was now so spread out.
Three years later, I still lived in that house alone. I dated a few girls over the years, but never felt a love strong enough to take things to the next step. So, alas, I was still a bachelor at age 27. I was working for the fire department with my brother Eddie, who I still saw frequently, though less since he’d gotten married and had his first baby. One Sunday morning, I awoke, hung-over from a rare night at the bar with Eddie. I went to the kitchen, put the water on for coffee, and walked outside to get the paper. But when I did, I saw a black Mercedes parked in the driveway. There was a pretty woman in it, a young brunette who kept looking back and forth from the papers in her hand to the house. I approached the car and knocked. The woman looked nervous as she rolled down the window. “Excuse me,” I began, “can I help you with something?” “Does a,” she looked down at the papers in her hand, “does a Susan Fitzgerald live here?” “No, sorry, Susie doesn’t live here anymore. I’m her brother, Robbie,” I stuck my hand out to shake hers, “and you are?” The woman tentatively shook my hand. She stared at me a moment, took a deep breath, and said, “Does November 5th, 1962 ring a bell to you?” After I gathered my shock and could once again speak, I invited the woman inside for coffee. We sat at the kitchen table and talked for hours. Her name was Elizabeth. She’d been adopted by an upper-middle class couple that raised her in a nice town in Westchester—under two hours from me. She was 23-years-old now. She said she had always wondered about her birth parents and finally worked up the courage to contact the adoption agency. They gave her Susie’s name and the address she put down at the time. “I need to know,” she said, “what’s my mom like?” “Susie,” I smiled, “well she’s a fine arts professor, and she lives on Long Island.” I told her all about Susie and gave her the phone number, urging her to call as soon as she could. The time slipped away, we talked on and on. I stared into her pale blue eyes and felt for a moment like I was looking at my mother. She told me she was a law student at NYU and I told her about working for the New York Fire Department. It seemed she’d been given a good life. “So,” she attempted tentatively, “do I have any grandparents?” I paused for a moment, unsure how to break the news to her, unsure if she would care. “My father died a long time ago. And my mother died just last year.” She looked down, seeming disappointed but resigned. I wasn’t sure whether to tell her or not, but thought she should know she has a guardian angel watching over her. “My mother said she prayed for you every single day since you were born. I know she would’ve loved to meet you.” Elizabeth looked down, mourning the grandmother she never got to meet. “You’ve got to meet everyone,” I changed the subject, “I know they’d all be thrilled to meet you.” Elizabeth smiled and nodded. As we said goodbye and exchanged phone numbers, I told her I’d do my best to get everyone together as soon as possible to meet their new family member. The next day, I was on a mission to accomplish this. It took hours of phone calls and arranging, but we finally all agreed to gather that Thanksgiving at Susie’s house that autumn.
We all arrived at Susie’s house around one-o’clock in the afternoon. She and her husband, Bobby, hosted us at their beautiful Long Island home. Elizabeth arrived around 2:30. We all quieted our loud Staten Island voices as we heard her car door slam and the pattering of expensive shoes approach the door. She walked in timidly, and we stared at her like she was a bride walking down the aisle. Susie’s smile turned melancholy. She approached her lookalike and slowly embraced her, then pulled her back to examine. “I’ve been waiting 23 years for this moment,” I heard her whisper to Elizabeth. After everyone said their hellos and met Elizabeth, the gathering went pretty much as they usually do, with the exception of this new addition. I walked around with Elizabeth, trying to help her get to know each of my siblings. She remained pretty quiet and withdrawn, arms crossed and a smile stuck to her doll-like face. Dinner was ready around 4:30. We all sat down around the long dining room table, which was covered in every food one could crave. I sat across from Elizabeth. “Alright, everybody,” Bobby began, “we’re going to say grace now.” As everyone joined hands and Bobby said grace, I couldn’t help but keep my eyes open and examine this remarkable moment. Everyone’s eyes were closed peacefully. I thought of my mother and father looking down at us, smiling at our unifying. It was almost perfect. Almost. As dinner went on, everyone talked loudly over each other as usual, reminiscing on stories from our childhood. But Elizabeth was silent. “And then,” Eddie laughed, “Dad turned to me and said, ‘what do you mean you failed?’ with that vein popping out on his forehead, and I was so scared I just pissed myself right there in front of him!” Everyone at the table broke out into uncontrollable laughter, their faces bright red, rocking back and forth in the chairs. This was a story we’d all heard about a million times—among many others like it. Eddie loved telling it and we all loved listening. It reminded us of our childhood and our father, who was always so stern and intimidating, but who we all loved and missed so dearly. I couldn’t help but notice that Elizabeth was the one person not laughing or smiling. She was just sitting there, staring down at her fidgeting hands. It became clear over the course of the evening that Elizabeth just didn’t click with everyone. I guess it was obvious from the moment she came in, from her beautiful car and her designer heels and formal attire. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed after all these years of searching. Elizabeth left not long after dinner, and that was that. I never saw her again. None of us did, not even Susie. We all hugged and said we’d keep in touch, but we knew all it would mean was a yearly Christmas card. Even those stopped coming. Life pretty much just went on after that. I guess I’d gotten what I wanted, finally saw what I’d always wondered about. This big secret that drove my life for so long just turned out to be an average woman I could’ve passed on the street and not even noticed.