While there, I become obsessed with the idea of adopting a little boy. He has a round face and enormous brown eyes and the chubbiest little hands I have ever seen. I gave him more candy than he could possibly stomach and a small bag of Cheetos that he finished in nearly one gulp. I kept handing him food, which he took out of politeness. Clearly, he is stuffed.
The children are obsessed with my daughter’s hair. The girls run their fingers through it and place braids and rubber bands in it. The tips of her white blonde hair are green from a summer spent in swim lessons. The little girls are amazed. I hear them say verde over and over again.
My kids fit right in amongst the others and are soon laughing and playing basketball with a group of ten children. My nine-year-old son Jake has shared his Silly Bandz with a tall, lanky boy in exchange for candy. The two spend the rest of the day attached at the hip. Language doesn’t get in the way.
After being chased around by a group of giggling preteen girls intent on putting his curly hair in pigtails, Andrew, my 11-year-old, asks if I can get him some water. We head inside and down a flight of stairs to the kitchen. A young woman with shiny black hair is washing dishes.
“¿Podemos tener agua, por favor?” I say, hoping that I have just asked for water.
“Over there,” she says pointing to a large pitcher.
“Oh, you speak English. My Spanish is horrendous. Did I ask for water correctly?”
She rolls her eyes, unimpressed, and continues scrubbing the dishes. I consider offering to help, but it is clear she wants nothing to do with me.
In the courtyard of the orphanage, Conrad and I toss a ball around with Sophia, a young girl around the same age as my oldest son, who is in the sixth grade. She is a tough kid and has spent a large portion of the day tackling other girls and giving menacing looks. She smiles a toothy grin at Conrad as he passes the ball in her direction. It is in that moment, with Sophia sitting between me and my father-in-law, that I realize that he is an extraordinary man. I’d never noticed before. He is something of an eccentric Uncle Sam. He has come to Mexico looking for acceptance, love, and a fresh start.
He’s loud and beer bellied. He’s crude and makes inappropriate Mexican-American jokes. But he is filled with a deep love of Mexico. He has no plans of ever living in the U.S. again. He’s a quasi-patriot run amok in Baja, and the outcome, oddly, isn’t terrifying.
Back home he is dismissed. Conrad is the ex-con with the studio apartment over someone else’s garage. No one will hire him, and as a result he has started up his own successful telemarketing company specializing in pesky political robocalls. Back in the States, the plump lady who works the midnight shift at the gas station wouldn’t even consider dating him.
In Mexico it is different. People don’t view him as a tragedy. He is not trying to take advantage of anyone. He is looking for love. On weekends, the house is filled with children from the orphanage. He bought the fabric for their quinceañera dresses, and Eunice made them. They are stunning. They show me the photos. All of the girls are smiling brightly in their beautiful gowns.
They are starting a program for the orphans, the older ones, to find job placement when they are too old to live at La Roca. They are considering adopting a 16-year-old girl who has a deep affection for Eunice, only the girl is hesitant because Conrad is a gringo.
I have done a 180. Before, I believed Conrad had lost his mind. It is quirky, some would say outlandish, that my kids will have a five-year-old step-uncle and that we regularly visit one of the most dangerous areas in Mexico. But I am happy that Conrad has gathered up his life. I am learning to love Tijuana as much as he does. I relish the idea of my children seeing a part of the world outside of the U.S.
Midafternoon, Eunice asks if I want to go shopping with her. I’d rather not; the children at the orphanage are so sweet that I could spend days there. She insists, so I agree. We leave Aaron and his two brothers, along with my kids, behind at La Roca. Conrad tags along.
We shuffle in and out of dozens of stores. Eunice lingers in the racks trying on item after item. Conrad often joins her in the fitting room. At the last store I witness them shop together for lingerie.
On the drive home, Conrad casually mentions that Eunice used to work at a beauty shop doing the nails and hair of the transgendered prostitutes who work in Tijuana’s red-light district. “The women used to fall asleep while I did their nails because they are up all night pleasing men,” Eunice tells me.
Conrad takes it upon himself to drive through the transsexual red-light district, an alarmingly short distance from the orphanage. Conrad wants me to see “just how much they look like women.” Hordes of tall, masculine ladies are lined up under street lights.
On Sunday, we attend their church. We arrive late and everyone is staring at us. They set up seats for us in the front row. I feel awkward and self-conscious. People are glancing suspiciously in our direction. The children from the orphanage are three rows behind us. When I look back, they wave at me. I spot the little boy with the big brown eyes. “There’s our soon-to-be son,” I say to my husband, who in turn rolls his eyes at me. The service lasts two hours. At the end, people come to the front to be prayed for. There is a great amount of sobbing and choking back of tears. It makes me uncomfortable. Public displays of emotions are too much. A woman in a black dress sobs so loudly and so terribly that she is shaking.