I sit at my desk in my 4th grade classroom. The loudspeaker next to the clock above the door crackles to life and a woman’s voice chimes in: “Mrs. Heck, can you please send Tony Monterosso to the main office?” I freeze in my chair, horrified, blood rushing to my cheeks, heart pounding against my ribcage. A moment of confused silence passes, followed by the soft murmuring, craning necks, and searching eyes of the other children. “Um…I don’t have a student by that name.” More silence, murmuring. “Are you sure?” Without a word, I stand up, feeling the heat of everyone’s attention suddenly riveted on me, as if the whole room went dark except for a familiar spotlight blazing down above my head. I walk to the front of the room and out the door, not daring to make eye contact with anyone, consumed with shame. I continue down the hallway of my elementary school alone, a ghost, not real, just wishing I could disappear.
I know that name. I try to forget but I know that name. Tony Monterosso—my name for the first nine years of my life, until the unspeakable happened: the woman who adopted me, who I knew as mom, decided she didn’t want me anymore. Now I have new adopters—a new mom and dad, a new name, and no past, just a gaping hole where my childhood should be. I hide the truth of my past, my name, as best I can, act the part assigned to me. But sometimes the world breaks in and exposes me as the impostor that I am, just acting, just playing a role, no one’s child, rejected and rejected again. That’s when the spotlight burns me to the quick.
Adoption to me now means adaptation: adapting to other people’s assumptions, expectations, needs, and stories, being displaced, misplaced, and playing a role. I was likely unconscious of this adaptive role-playing in my first adoptive family, since I didn’t consciously remember my first relinquishment and adoption. After my second adoption, however, I remembered. I remembered who I was, my name, my home in a basement apartment in Lindenhurst, New York, my mother and father, aunt and uncle and cousins. I remembered even though I was supposed to forget. I remembered even though my birth records were falsified a second time and previous family members, biological and adoptive, were prohibited by law from having contact with me. What I carried unconsciously from my first adoption remained horrifically, terrifyingly, unbearably, unforgettably conscious after the second. I was torn from my roots, and torn again, and made to pretend none of it ever happened.
Aside from facts and general impressions, I tend to retain few concrete memories of my childhood. And the ones I do retain are like thumbtacks on a map that I try to connect into a meaningful coherence, to find my trajectory, my route through life, as if this trajectory would lead me to myself. But I can’t find myself in this way because there is no coherence, no consistent identity or relationships, no one to remember me as a whole person from one family to the next. Rather, the blank spaces in between these memories feel more authentic to me. These blank spaces are more than mere absence of memory but a real visceral sense of who I was—blank, erased, falsified, nowhere. My true self had no room to live, to breathe, to grow in the open. I had no one who saw me, who cared about my needs, my story, my history. My role was to meet other people’s needs. I adapted. I survived. But I did not live.
In the blank spaces in between, I have respite from the spotlight of all the eyes gazing at me, shaping me to be who they need me to be.
But I have no respite as I continue to walk the lonely hallways of my school to the main office. I feel the spotlight follow me, looming above me, keeping me in line. Who am I? I am invisible under a thousand prying eyes. I don’t exist, yet I am made to exist for others. I don’t have a story, a face, yet I am imprisoned in other people’s stories, compelled to show the face they need me to show.
In my imagination,
I smash the spotlight into a million pieces, kill the light others shine on me, the light that emblazons their image onto my tender, impressionable flesh. Let me be hidden in darkness from their annihilating cruelty and indifference.
In my imagination,
I burn like a torch. I run through this maze of hallways all flame, burn the whole fucking school to the ground, reduce this stupid, terrible, terrible world to a pile of ash I hold in my small, cupped hands and blow into oblivion.
Ahead of me I see the familiar profiles of a man and a woman through the office window, these strangers to whom I belong. A wave of nausea washes over me. The sense of imminent danger snaps me out of my imaginings, into the real world. But there is nothing real about this world. This world has no room for me. This world is a lie I have to remove myself from in order to enter.
And so I do. I have no choice. I was never given a choice. I enter the main office a mere fiction, the inexpressible rage of a child betrayed metastasizing in my body, hollowing me out from the inside.
Luminous Darkness, Light beyond Light, in you I take refuge from the annihilating gaze of a thousand prying eyes that cannot see me. Illuminate the truth of who I am, make me real, transfigure the darkness that obscures your face.