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February 14, 2001. Beatrice 2 and a half: Apphia, 13 months; Justina, 4 months.

My best friend, Lauren, and I wore black every Valentine’s Day. Hell, yes, we were bitter. Where were our true loves, our roses delivered to the receptionist so that we had to strut down the aisle between cubicles to claim them, our men elbowing their way, last minute, into the card aisle at CVS to pick us out some ridiculous sentimental crap that would have embarrassed us if we were thinking clearly? Valentine’s Day was right up there with New Year’s Dreaded Eve for days we would have stricken from the calendar had someone made us Emperor.

The good news is that, after many years dressed as Ninja warriors on that ominous date, we did score a couple Valentines. Lauren’s husband, John, is a great guy who, I’m sure, understands the blatant commercialism of the holiday but tows the line anyway. My Valentine, Dennis, is an especially thoughtful gift giver. Also, he always writes me a long note in his cards and he NEVER chooses sentimentality over sarcasm (See? Soul mates.).

But even this stroke of luck is not why I have come to love Valentine’s Day.

May, 2000. We had a well then, capped with a cement cover and a rusted pump that hadn’t worked in decades and I sat on it beside Dennis who had just arrived home from work. He set his bookbag down. Where were the girls? Napping, maybe. Maybe with us, Apphia, 5 months old, in the stroller watching Beatrice, almost 2, toddling around the yard pointing out things to us in her fierce voice, her brow furrowed. The adoption agency called, I told Dennis. Beatrice’s birth mother was expecting another child. Would we like to adopt this baby, too?

Absolutely, he said, as if I’d just suggested pizza for dinner. I don’t know why I thought he might hesitate. I hadn’t.

Maybe I thought we’d at least mull it over because we had become a cliche: the family who adopts one child and then instantly gets pregnant with a second. Where there had been a silent house with so many bedrooms it felt like an abandoned bed and breakfast, a little over a year later there was Plastic World, a planet filled with toys, carriers, juice cups, places to stash diaper changing supplies. Beatrice and Apphia slept side by side in their cribs. The new baby, due in September, would be only eight months younger than Apphia.

Well, we reasoned, Beatrice had come home on her eight month birthday. By the time we brought our third child home, it would probably be May again. Beatrice would be two and half and at least Apphia would be walking (I’m sure at this point, we both glanced over at her substantial thighs and commended ourselves for our optimism). And one day, we’d have a 5, 6 and a 7 year old. Perfectly manageable!

What no one told us (even though it wouldn’t have changed our minds) was that an adoption that has been agreed upon before the birth mother’s due date moves much more quickly. Apphia had taken a step or two not long after her first birthday, but she also loved being carried everywhere (and one of my arms was noticeably more muscular than the other as proof) and anytime someone offered to help with Beatrice she glared at them and said, “No. Mommy. Do. It.” If they persuaded her any further, she started screaming and that usually did the trick. So when the agency called us in February and said, “Make your reservations. Justina is ready to come home,” we glanced at each other over a mountain of laundry and did the only thing we knew to do: We put Beatrice in a twin bed and then, like the responsible adults we were, we called our parents.

My father-in-law’s job while we were away: feed the horse and the goat. Let the dogs out. My father-in-law’s interpretation of his job: take care of the animals, clean out the barn, organize the laundry room, fix anything loose, rusted, dirty, etc. so long as it meant staying outside. My mother-in-law’s job: hold Apphia (but sit down). My mother-in-law’s interpretation of her job: hold Apphia, wash every piece of clothing in the house whether it needs it or not. My mother’s job: take care of Beatrice who, in my absence, would temporarily switch her directive to: Nana. Do. It. My mother’s interpretation of her job: make sure everyone eats well.

Meanwhile, Dennis and I kissed our babies good-bye, inhaling their scents, feeling how soft their  cheeks were, loving how willing they were to hug us tight, to plant their sloppy kisses, to wave us off while set off, once more, for Guatemala City and the miracle of meeting their baby sister.

“We’ll be home in three days,” we promised.

The story of meeting Justina is a longer one for another day. We had a wonderful visit our second time back to that beautiful country, parents now who, instead of being overwhelmed with the responsibility of caring for a child as we had been with Beatrice, were now relieved to have only one little person to care for between us. As our plane taxied down the runway, the volcanoes at its edges blurring as we gathered speed, I fed Justina her bottle so her ears wouldn’t pop on the ascent. She sucked happily and played with her toes. I began to memorize her face, the shape of her ears, the expressions that crossed her tiny face.

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My Valentines. February 2001.

We arrived home to an airport terminal crowded with our siblings and their children holding signs, friends toting balloons, strangers who wanted to be part of our family’s joy as Dennis and I introduced everyone to Justina. Of course, Lauren was there, too, just as she had been for Beatrice’s homecoming and for Apphia’s and for all those other Valentine’s Days that had seemed so incurably lonely. Those days that were inconceivable, really, in the face of all this love.

Maybe I Learned Something After All in Trigonometry

If you Google yourself, this is what happens: you stumble upon a nameless blogger whose goal it is to read 50 something books a year and review each one and she chooses yours. Initially, this is exciting. Someone bought the book! (Someone who is not related to you; someone who wouldn’t recognize you even if you were the only two in an elevator and you were wearing a Hello My Name Is badge!) Your euphoria is short-lived, however, when you skim paragraph 1 and find the word “suffer” and that your stories have been accused of not having enough “meat on their bones.” “Banal” is another adjective the blogger employs. “Well worn.”

Now, you don’t know if this person is an Ivy League professor-slash-literary-critic or some shut-in fueled by the power of the Internet’s powers of anonymity. But it doesn’t matter. She says, for example, that you fail to understand the intricacies of plot, and you know that’s as true as if some beauty critic had reviewed your face and said, “She boasts an oversized and rather ethnic nose.” State the obvious, people. Put it all into print: everything I hope I’ve been doing my best to hide. Oops. I mean you. That you hope you can hide.

Anyway, this reminds me of Algebra II and Trigonometry and sophomore year in a high school that insisted on tracking kids, which meant that if you chose to take honors English (where I found success despite not being able to master the intricacies of plot), you also had to take honors math. You being me, the person slouching in the seat farthest away from the instructor and praying, three decades before Harry Potter, for an invisibility cloak.

We called Mr. Chaffee Effach. His name (kind of) spelled backwards. His acne scarred skin, his overbite, his thinning hair and pot belly, these were not his fault (Well, the pot belly perhaps, but no one had ever heard of a core in 1978.). A homely kid myself, I would have forgiven him his own physical failings. However, he paired his unattractiveness, with more cruelty than comic book villains. During tests, he stood over my shoulder tsking as I scribbled my answers, terrified of his looming presence, of the ticking clock, and of earning my first and only failing grade of high school. Okay, so I got a D, but in Mr. Chaffee’s class, that meant that I received a deficiency. He could have placed it on my desk and walked away to leave me to my own shame, but, instead, he began class by announcing, “And now I would like to see the following people so that they may sign for their deficiencies.” The seat in the back row, farthest from the front of the room, didn’t seem like such a bargain anymore.

When my locker partner broke her leg and needed to leave class two minutes early, I accompanied her one blissful afternoon. The next day when she stood up near the door and I rose in my corner, Mr. Chaffee asked to see her pass. I had already moved too far away from my seat to gracefully sit back down. Instead, I stood as he said: “Read this part for me, will you?” He narrowed his eyes (I forgot those — reptilian. Their lids closed sideways across his eyeballs). Mary was a sweet person, totally devoid of malice. She got an A in math, but never gloated. When she glanced my way apologetically, I cringed. “The student may leave early with assistance at the teacher’s discretion.” Mr. Chaffee sucked his teeth and grinned. He tapped the toe of his shoe, a toe that curled up, elfin like over his hooves. “At the teacher’s discretion?” (I also forgot to mention his hiss, I mean, his lisp) Mary grimaced, began to assert that actually, despite her cast, crutches, and a pile of books, she could manage by herself. But Eefach had what he needed. “Well, if it is at my discretion, I think there are plenty more people in here you could take with you. Carla, of all people, cannot afford to lose even two minutes of class time.”

I would like to note too, here, that the sweet boy who sat beside me, also an A student, perhaps a doctor now he was so smart and so compassionate then, pretended he didn’t notice when I slid back into the seat beside him (Maybe kids like him and Mary are the reason I love teenagers so much that I’ve spent my professional life with them).

And so the year dragged by. Even now, some Sunday nights, I wake in a cold sweat and worry that tomorrow I will have to walk back into that classroom, powerless and stripped of pride.

On the final day of class, Eefach explained his inhumanity (he called it his philosophy): if we were angry with him, then we would be inspired to prove him wrong. Instead of failing miserably, we would fight back, learn a subject that, despite the most persuasive arguments of math teachers I respect, has no use in most of our lives. If I used the f-word then, I would have explained a bit about my own philosophy. In 1979 I had no intention of being a teacher, but even so I had an idea this was not an acceptable tool for motivating students.

I have no idea what happened to Eefach. I wish I could say I have forgiven him and wish him well, but an ache in each of the 32 teeth in his head, a pain unrelenting and untreatable by even the strongest and most debilitating painkillers, would not be enough to satisfy me.

I don’t know how to craft a plot that satisfies some critics and I don’t — and never will — know how to solve any algebraic functions. Both of these things are affirmations of a sort. They are, at the very least, not surprises. The blogger gave me a B and never attacked me personally. So there’s that.

And then there’s this: say all those rotten teeth I wish for Eefach fell out. Well then, there’s such a thing as phantom pain.