“I can’t believe you are thinking about going through with this.”
Randy pulled to a stop at the intersection, turning to look at the man next to him in the car. “Why? It was a good idea two years ago, when we decided to do it, and it’s still a good idea, Bentley.”
The blond next to him shifted on the leather seat of the luxury sedan, wishing he had taken off his suit coat before getting in the car. Running his fingers through his classically styled hair, he sighed. “Two years ago things were different. You had Jason. The two of you made this decision together.”
Silence answered his comment. Randy accelerated, taking the on ramp to the GA 400 heading north from Atlanta. “It’s a big decision, Randy. Possibly the biggest decision a person can make. I can’t help but think you are doing this as a way to hold onto Jason,” Bentley continued.
“We’ve already had this conversation, Bentley. I wanted it then. I want the same things now. Nothing has changed,” Randy stated.
“Everything has changed!” Bentley waved a hand around. Randy was scheduled to get on a plane at ten the following morning. It was his last chance to get him to change his mind. “Then you were in a committed, long-term relationship. Now you’re alone. Then you were talking about bringing a child into a two-parent home. If you do this, you’ll be a single parent. That’s tough in the best of circumstances, and you’re bringing an adopted child from a foreign country into a family with a single gay parent.”
Bentley raised his hand to ward off Randy’s reaction to his statement. “And don’t tell me it doesn’t make a difference. You know it does. Especially to kids. You don’t even speak the same language, for fuck’s sake. Couldn’t you have picked a kid from a country that speaks one of the ten languages you know?”
Randy took a deep breath. His voice sounded soft but steady as he answered, “This was the only adoption agency willing to consider an application from a single man. Even countries that will consider single parents usually restrict them to women. Ironic, isn’t it? I was so frustrated over the fact that Jason and I couldn’t adopt as a couple, but having to be approved as a single parent is what is allowing me to go pick up our son.”
“Did you hear what you just said?” Bentley asked, watching Randy’s face. The farther north they drove, the less light illuminated the interior of the car. “Our. Our son. Jason is gone, Randy!”
Randy’s hand slammed into the steering wheel of the car, making Bentley jump. His friend was a pacifist and rarely got angry. “I know that, damn it! I was there, remember?”
Bentley could see the tears running down Randy’s face and felt sorry he’d pushed. More than fifteen months ago, Jason had been in a fatal collision with a drunk driver on this very road, coming home late from work. A group of kids out partying all day on Lake Lanier had crossed over the median and hit him head on. Jason had made it to the hospital but had never regained consciousness. He’d died the next day.
Bentley reached out to put his hand on Randy’s shoulder, half-expecting his friend to shrug it off. Taking a deep breath, he gentled his voice. “I know and I know how hard losing him has been. I just want what is best for you.”
“I know that, Bentley, but I’m not jumping into this on a whim. Jason and I thought long and hard about adopting and everything it meant, but it wasn’t just a joint decision. It was a personal one. I want to be a father. I want to have a family. I’m forty-two years old. If I don’t do this now, if I wait until I find someone new and we are together long enough to decide we want to have a family, no adoption agency will approve me. I barely squeaked in under the age limit as it is. This is my chance, Bentley. My one chance. And I’m taking it.”
Randy settled into the first-class seat, shaking his head at the offer of a drink or snack. Pulling his laptop out of its case, he stuck it in the seat’s back pocket to use after takeoff. Twenty-two hours and a single stop in Brussels was the best flight he could find, so he’d have plenty of time to write, read and at least try and sleep. He wasn’t sure if his long run of sleepless nights would work to his advantage by making him so exhausted that he’d finally sleep, or if his brain would continue to spin out doubts and recriminations and prevent him from resting.
His biggest worry was that Bentley was right. Am I ruining a young boy’s life by uprooting him and bringing him into a situation worse than the one he’s leaving? Will I be a good father? He knew he wasn’t through grieving for Jason, but life wasn’t giving him the option to wait. He felt almost like fate was telling him to get off his ass and move on.
Signaling for the flight attendant, he asked for a glass of water, digging a bottle of pills out of his carry-on. His doctor had prescribed sleeping pills after Jason’s accident, but Randy hadn’t taken any of them. He cradled the small blue tablets in his hand before tossing them into his mouth and downing them with a swallow of water.
He needed to sleep.
He needed to stop his brain.
For better or worse, he was doing this, and it would be best to face it after a few hours of sleep. Turning his face toward the window, he looked at his reflection. Sun and laughter had made their mark, but he still looked younger than his years. Letting sleep pull his eyes closed, he wondered if he’d ever smile again.
“Mr. Mallory! Mr. Mallory! This way… this way please.” The small Indian man, dressed in white, cotton slacks and a loose, pale blue shirt, motioned for him to follow.
The press of people and noise felt intimidating. Randy kept falling behind because he’d pause to let someone cross in front of him and end up blocked by a solid stream of foot traffic. He had traveled extensively all around the world, but he’d never been so bowled over by the colors and smells. He felt an almost overwhelming urge to unpack his camera, but his flight had been late arriving and Raman, the liaison who had met him at the airport, was hurrying to try and get them on the last train of the day. Doubling back and taking Randy’s arm, the representative from the adoption agency moved them forward through the crowd much like a mother dragging a small child.
Randy had dressed in light slacks and his broken-in Teva sandals but regretted his choice of a T-shirt as the heat and humidity soon had it soaked and clinging to his skin.
Raman noticed him pulling at the jersey and smiled, plucking at his own shirt so sheer it looked almost translucent. It hung loose and away from his skin. “This is better. You should get one.”
Randy nodded. He’d been given a recommended packing list for the trip but had wanted the comfort of his favorite UnderDog T-shirt on the plane. He’d also worn Jason’s old NYU sweatshirt, but he safely tucked it away around his camera in his backpack. “I’ve got a couple. I’ll definitely wear one tomorrow.”
“Good. Ah! Here we go. We should make it,” Raman announced as he pulled Randy into the train station. “Sorry for the rush. Usually you stay a day or two. Start the paperwork and get your clock regulated, but our director at the orphanage is leaving for a long over-due vacation. We would have tried to reschedule your trip, but Marguerite Alsom, your contact at the U.S. agency, informed us that you had already purchased your tickets. So we will travel overnight and tomorrow, you will meet your son. This is good, yes? Exciting!”
The knot in Randy’s stomach clenched. Is this how parenthood feels? Like sitting down in a rollercoaster and having the safety bar lock in place over your lap? He’d chosen to get on and now the only way off was at the other end—twenty years and hopefully a college education later. Do I really want to do this? He wondered what Raman would think if he just bolted off into the crowd. He jerked, surprised, as a warm hand touched his shoulder.
“It is okay. You will be a wonderful father, and Bhadri is going to love you. He is a bright and happy baby. He walked at ten months and can say many words. Have you thought about what you want him to call you? We’ve been working on Daddy, but sometimes people have their own preferences.”
Randy realized that Raman had probably made this speech hundreds of times, but that knowledge made it no less comforting. Focusing on Bhadri and a specific detail like what he wanted to be called was just what he needed. He and Jason had actually discussed that since there would have been two Daddies in their family. They had agreed that Randy would be Papa, and he saw no reason to change that. “I called my father Papa. I think that would be my choice if Bhadri doesn’t come up with something on his own.”
Raman smiled. “Wise man to know that we don’t always get a choice in what our children do. He is young enough, only nineteen months. He’ll probably pick up on whatever you call yourself.”
Efficiently handling the paperwork and luggage, Raman got them seated on the train. “We have several hours. It would be best if you tried to get some sleep.”
Randy nodded his agreement, but he had slept on the plane and now remembered all his questions. “Can you tell me more about Bhadri? I got the file and the updates, but how does he spend his day? What makes him smile?”
The trip sped by surprisingly quickly talking about the boy who would soon be Randy’s son. Knowing that they would be on a tight schedule, Raman had packed food for them. Disembarking at a small, dusty station, the desire to chronicle the journey with his camera struck Randy again.
Jason’s scolding voice sounded in his head. “Randy, put that thing away! You miss half the fun looking at the world through that camera. You don’t need to have a picture to keep the memory.”
His lover’s indulgent smile had softened his words, but Randy had received the message. In honor of Jason’s memory, Randy had been working on experiencing life instead of taking pictures of it. The thousands of pictures he had of Jason couldn’t be exchanged for even one more hour with his partner.
“So where to now?” he asked, shouldering his backpack.
“Not far. There is a man here in town that will take us in his car.”
Not far by Raman’s standards lasted a considerable amount of time bouncing over rutted and muddy roads in an unairconditioned car. By the time they pulled to a stop outside of a nondescript two-story building in the middle of nowhere, Randy was feeling more than a little carsick.
“Whoa, man, you look a little green.”
Randy looked up, startled by the unexpected British accent. Everyone he had spoken to since landing spoke impeccable English, but there was a crispness to British English that could not be duplicated outside of the UK. A tall, slender man somewhere in his twenties had come out to meet the car. Riots of soft, blond curls were secured back with a bright bandana. He wore an outfit almost identical to Raman, only his shirt was bright yellow. Are those rubber ducks on his socks?
Swallowing to try and moisten his suddenly dry mouth, Randy reached for the water bottle tucked into the outer pocket of his backpack. “It’s been quite a trip.” He extended his hand. “I take it we have arrived.”
“If you are Randy Mallory, then you are in the right place. If you’re not, you have a strange agenda for sightseeing.” The younger man grinned, revealing straight, white teeth and the tip of a very pink tongue. “I’m Ben, Ben Ballard. I work here at the orphanage.”
The touch of Ben’s hand sent sparks shooting up Randy’s arm and the unexpected reaction had him struggling to keep up with the simple conversation. If he wasn’t careful, Ben was going to think he was mentally deficient and send him packing. “I am Randy and very grateful to be here. Now what?” he asked, adjusting the heavy backpack on his shoulder.
“Eh! I’m doing a terrible job welcoming you. You must be exhausted, and that pack is probably dislocating your shoulder, yeah? Let me show you to your room. Tonight you’ll sleep alone, but tomorrow night we’ll move Bhadri’s crib in so the two of you can get used to each other.” Ben grinned and winked. “In other words, enjoy your sleep tonight.”
Randy felt a strange sense of loss at Ben’s reminder that he’d be sleeping alone. Chalking it up to jetlag and scolding himself for his inappropriate response to someone he knew nothing about, he nodded, falling dutifully into step behind the Brit as they made their way into the large building. Ben climbed the stairs first, giving Randy a perfect view of his ass. He felt an unexpected tingling low in his abdomen. Fuck! Of all the times for my body to decide to wake up.
The building looked far cheerier on the inside than the exterior would suggest. Brightly painted walls, lots of plants, and the sound of children added to the atmosphere. Climbing another set of stairs, Ben led him down a narrow hallway. He pushed open a door and motioned for Randy to enter first. “This is it. Not the Taj Mahal, but it’ll do for the few days you are here, before you take Bhadri home.”
Walking into the sparse room, Randy looked around. A double bed, small bedside table, and a circular rug were the only objects in the room. He found it easy to see where the crib would be when they chose to bring Bhadri in. Luxurious it wasn’t, but Randy hadn’t expected it to be. It was clean and someone had obviously worked to make it inviting. A small vase of fresh flowers had been placed on the table and the bed was turned down. “It is more than I expected,” he admitted, dropping his backpack on the bed. “So when do I get to meet Bhadri?”
“Not tonight, I’m afraid. The toddlers go to bed early, and since we didn’t know exactly when you were arriving, we felt it best to keep him on schedule,” Ben explained. “Are you hungry? Want a shower?”
Randy’s stomach growled, answering the first question. Self-conscious, he laughed. “Yes to both, I guess.”
“The bathroom is shared. It is up the hall, second door on the right. We have a pretty decent hot water supply—especially at this time of day. Why don’t you catch a shower, and I’ll rustle us up some food. The kids eat early so the kitchen is shut down. How do you feel about peanut butter and jelly?” Ben asked.
“At the moment, I could eat roadkill.”
“Don’t say that too loud,” Ben snorted. “Some of the things they serve here aren’t far off. I’ve become a vegetarian since I’ve been here.”
“You weren’t born here, then?”
“Oh no, didn’t my accent give me away? I joined the Peace Corps right out of college and here is where they placed me.”
Randy sat on the side of the bed. “What do you do?”
“I’m a child psychologist. Specifically I help the kids that need help, train the staff on the kind of interaction the kids need from them, and work on getting the adoptive parents off on the right foot,” Ben explained.
“Wow. I’m impressed. You don’t look old enough to have a degree in psychology.”
Ben made a mock bow. “Dr. Ballard at your service. I think it’s the curls. I keep meaning to have them cut, but I’m either too busy or too lazy. I’ll be twenty-eight on my next birthday.”
Randy searched for another question to get Ben to stay, but his mind became curiously blank. Silence hung in the room, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. To Randy it felt like their energies were getting used to one another. He wondered if it was some form of evaluation that Ben conducted to determine his worthiness as a parent.
“I’m going to go make those sandwiches. I have bottled water and bottled juice.”
“Juice would be good.”
“The shower is old and can be a bit temperamental. There are towels in the cabinet by the tub. Bring it back to the room with you. There is a bar next to the window where you can hang it to dry.”
Randy realized that Ben seemed as reluctant to part as he was and his heart skipped a beat. He wasn’t sure he felt ready to feel this way. Why does the first man to spark my interest in all the months since Jason’s death have to live on the opposite side of the earth? Literally! “God really does have a sense of humor,” he muttered under his breath.
“Oh yeah,” Ben chuckled, surprising Randy by responding. “Every religion in the world has a god or goddess who is a trickster, with the exception of Christianity.”
Randy’s stomach rumbled again, and he blushed.
“Shower.” “Sandwiches,” they said simultaneously.