The waiter set the plate down in front of me. They called it cake, but there was no frosting. It looked like a wedge of cheese, but nevertheless, there were oohs and ahhs filling empty spaces around the table.
Not wanting to repeat the embarrassment of eating my salad with the wrong fork, I waited to see what everyone else would do. I looked over at Danny, the only other one at the table that didn’t quite fit. He had used the wrong fork, too. His hands lay on either side of his plate and he used his thumb to touch the tips of each of his fingers—pinky, index, middle, pointer, pinky, index, middle, pointer—over and over again like they were stuck in a loop. His eyes darted around to each plate, surely awaiting guidance like me. A tinkling sound stopped Danny’s fingers mid-loop, gluing his thumbs to his index fingers.
Mr. Dunleavy stood, placed the fork he’d used to tap his glass back on the table, and waited for the conversations to peter out.
“Well, I just wanted to say that this is a big day for the Dunleavy clan. One we’ve been waiting for, for a long time,” He touched a single finger to his lips and closed his eyes for a moment before clearing his throat and continuing. “Our beautiful daughter and her husband have blessed this family with not one, but two new additions. Boys, come on up here.”
Danny eyed me nervously. I knew he was waiting to follow my lead. I remained in my seat and he did the same.
Obstinate was the word they used describe me at the home and after looking up the definition, I bragged about it to the other kids. One of the case workers had overheard me. She tried to convince me that it wasn’t something I should be proud of and I laughed, I couldn’t help it. Maybe she should’ve looked up the definition before trying to convince me of anything.
Danny was a different story. A nervous Nelly—the case workers words, not mine—he was small for his size and everyone always referred to him as adorable. Being obstinate was way cooler than being a nervous Nelly, but I was still a little jealous. No one had ever referred to me as adorable.
The Dunleavy’s were rich enough to afford the best of everything. Including kids. So why me? Either of us, really. Did they think that dressing us up in suits and ties would carve our edges and shape us into the pieces they needed us to be in order to complete their puzzle?
Glancing over at the man and woman who insisted that we didn’t have to call them mom and dad until we were ready, I fully expected the masks to be off. I was prepared for looks of burning anger in response to our bad behavior. Anger, along with embarrassment, exasperation and irritation…these were the reactions I had grown accustomed to receiving from adults.
Their encouraging gazes threw me off guard and awoke a yearning that scared me. An overwhelming need to do whatever it took to keep them smiling at me. The vulnerability sent my mind racing as I tried to cling to all that had kept me safe for nearly all of my fourteen years. My fear of rejection, my fear of abandonment, loneliness…my fear.
Shifting my gaze to Mr. “Call Me Grandpa” Dunleavy, it was easy to see where his daughter had gotten her smile. His eyes radiated with empathy and I stood before it had even become a thought.
Danny jumped up and smiled at me, his toothy grin filling his entire little face. They were right, he was adorable.