Jackpot

It’s a workday, Monday, and Catherine is dressed up for being in the office. She wears a silk blouse and slim-fitting pants in a pretty color of green. When she sees me in the lobby, she rushes over.

“There you are,” she says, taking hold of my arm in a strong mother’s grip. Her hand is soft but strong. Purposeful. “I was worried. What took you so long? Are you okay?”

She can already tell what’s going on inside of me—like a mother—and it’s unnerving. “I’m just nervous,” I say. “Is he here?”

“Yes, he’s already sitting down. I’m sorry,” Catherine says, “I know I sprung this on you at the last minute but I just want to get this over with. Just meet him and then that will be done.”

She leads the way through the packed restaurant, a place called Chili’s, which is a favorite of Daniel’s.

She holds my hand and walks with great, long, confident strides. I shake so hard, I feel like I will throw up.

She turns a corner and leads us down a long row of tables. Pretty soon, we are in front of a huge, red, plastic booth and there he is, the man I’ve seen in all the photos. Daniel.

When he looks up from his menu, his expression is not that of a stranger. He is so familiar—his face is my own. Daniel has gray white hair and one of those rough whiskered faces, as if he forgot to shave only it’s fashion. His jaw is chiseled like a Marboro man, he has a wide generous mouth and bright, alive eyes—blue with glints of white light. The man is electric.

“You’re Jennifer?” he asks.

I nod like yes, since words are lost. This man is my brother. My brother!

He takes me in from head to toe and back up again and laughs like I am the best joke in the world. A punchline. He sounds so happy and surprised and even delighted. In the sound of his laugher, so much like my own, I’d swear I’ve known him my entire life even though we look at each other for the first time.

Catherine stands back and laughs too, hand over her mouth. “I told you,” she says, tears in her eyes. “I told you.”

Daniel tries to stand up but his thighs hit the table and it’s a little awkward to reach each other. After a scoot and push, finally he comes around the edge and we hug. Daniel feels just great and what a skyscraper of a man.

It hits me again, like a wave from sea. A brother! I’ve had a brother all this time.

Just what is the mystery contained in DNA? What is the energetic wavelength that moves within family units? What don’t we know, despite all our scientific strides and advances? As I hug my brother and see my own mysterious knowing fall into place, I can only say that I knew of his existence—I did.

Daniel ushers his wife out of the booth and says she is Rona. I offer my hand but then that seems weird and instead we hug too.

Why not? We’re one big happy family now, right?

Rona is a small woman with deep-set eyes and a pretty face. She says, “You sweet thing, you’re shaking like a leaf.” She holds my hands and seems very sincere.

We all settle into the booth again, the three of them on one side with Daniel in the middle and me on the other side. Water arrives in giant, red, plastic tumblers as if they are standard issue here in the Biggest Little City in the World.

I stare over my mega-sized cup and study this brother.

Daniel, doing the same, puts his elbows on the table and holds his hands together, just like Jessie did yesterday at breakfast. I sit back and hold my own hands in my lap.

Somehow, like a miracle, food gets ordered and Catherine claps her hands like calling this meeting to order.

“Well, here we are,” Catherine says and she laughs as if she has told a joke.

Daniel laughs with her but then rolls his eyes like he she’s on his last nerve. Rona laughs in the same way and coughs into her fist.

“When Catherine said we were all meeting for lunch . . . ” Rona begins, from the far side of Daniel.

“ . . . Well, I told her forget it. No way. I have a million things to do today,” Daniel says. He makes big gestures, like I do, like Catherine does, using his hands while he talks.

“Which isn’t to say he didn’t want to meet you . . . ” Rona explains.

“ . . . No,” Daniel says, “of course not.”

“Daniel just has so much going on and Catherine caught us by surprise . . . ” Rona says.

The two women smile at each other and Catherine does a quick shrug like everyone just needs to get over it. “ . . . I just wanted you to meet my daughter. After all, she’s here,” Catherine says, finishing the sentence.

“She has a way of catching us all by surprise,” Daniel says, with another eye roll.

More laughter all around.

I nod like I understand and it all makes sense but really, I don’t know what to say. I think Daniel says, without words, that he’s pissed that his mother never told him about me. Like everyone in this family, I’ve been my mother’s secret for all of my life and most of hers. I guess he’s pissed about it as if he has right to his mother’s whole story just by the fact of being her son, the one she kept and raised and loved.

I bite my lip and keep how I feel about things inside. This is not the time to set Daniel straight.

When the laughter dies down, Daniel becomes serious. “Mom says you’re a Buddhist, is that right?”

“Well, um,” I begin. I glance at Catherine and she grins and nods like I should go ahead and confess. “Something like that.”

Daniel is like a laser beam of focus, all-business now, and I’d hate to negotiate with him. I bet he’s tough!

“So what’s the bottom line here? Do Buddhists believe in God?”

I steal a quick look at Rona, who seems equally interested and then I can only look at my own hands. I shift my fingers around as if they can tell me what to say but there are no words there.

“Well, um,” I hear myself say again. “I suppose.”

“Oh, Daniel,” Catherine says, slapping at his arm, “leave her alone.”

After that, we downshift to politics and since it happens to be an election year (McCain versus Obama), they collectively talk about the possibility of “that man” making it into office. “That man” being Obama. Catherine talks about her admiration of Sarah Palin and how she hopes this country has the good sense to put such a bright lady in office.

I can only shrug and say I’m not really political.

Finally, we make an even deeper downshift and find the mutual ground of children. Daniel and Rona tell me about their daughter. I talk about Spencer and Josephine.

“I’m just dying to meet them,” Daniel says.

“Daniel just loves kids,” Rona adds.

“He’s wonderful with them too,” Catherine adds.


Pretty soon, salads are eaten and the water is gone and Daniel, Rona, and Catherine are like a team of stockbrokers before the exchange opens. They check their watches, read their text messages and tap at their phones. Time to get back to work.

As we leave the restaurant, Rona and Catherine pull together a loose plan for all of us to meet for pizza tonight. Rona wants me to meet her daughter, Brittney, and Catherine wants Jessie to bring her kids over too.

I sway a little, imagining another layer of family and my stomach rolls with nausea. All I want to do is sleep again but I nod like yes, pizza would great.

Daniel is quiet and when he hugs me, emotion rises in him—some old sadness that I don’t know but that I certainly recognize. I want to ask what’s going on but he lifts a hand between us like I need to give him room. Tears spark in the edges of his bright blue eyes.

Later, Rona will tell me that this was happiness. Daniel was just so happy to meet me.


After they leave, it’s just Catherine and me again. We stand close to each other, in the parking lot, next to her car. Our bodies—so much the same—do not touch.

“That went great, didn’t it?” she says. “I think that went really great.” Her blue-gray eyes look tired, as if this meeting took a huge effort.

“It did,” I say. “You did a good job.”

“Me?” she says. “You did a great job. I’m so glad you’re here. I’m so glad you’re my daughter.” She touches my cheek, the lightest glance of a touch and in that moment, I am so thankful I had the guts to come to Reno and to endure meeting all these people.

In a Reno parking lot, I am someone’s daughter and I get to feel how it is to have my mother be happy to have me around. It’s the best gift. Better than gold, and no, I have not made a bad gamble with my heart.

I’ve been thinking about blood a lot lately.

Blood I’ve spilt, and blood I’ve seen spilt. The red fluid gushing out of a beheaded rattlesnake’s body, sizzling as it splattered onto the hot Mexican soil. The crimson seeping out of the crushed chest of a fourteen year-old boy, opened up like a book as the doctors tried to massage his heart back into life. We cut the snake into strips and fried the meat over an open fire. And as for the boy, there was simply too much of him smeared across the front grill of a wrecked car, and his poor heart had nothing left to pump.

I think about my own, the biological magma that during the summers of my childhood would spontaneously erupt in a series of unpredictable nosebleeds, leaving permanent stains on my shirts and pillowcases. Once, as a teenager, I awoke from a particularly vivid dream about murder and mayhem to find my face and hands coated with blood, momentarily horrified to think I had become some murderous somnambulist.

Some of those bleeds were so strong they seeped through my fingers, even though I pinched my nostrils closed hard enough to make my fingers ache. My pediatrician could never find anything medically wrong. It was as though my body was just too small a container for my life.

These days I give it away, one pint of Matt-brand O+ offered up every nine weeks or so. The ladies in the blood mobile love my large, generous veins, so easy to hit with the needle.

It’s a strange thing, blood. You can never predict how a person will respond to the sight of it. Some people faint, some vomit, some are ambivalent, some are fascinated, some stimulated into a state of extreme sexual arousal. Once a month its appearance is a sign of healthy fertility, yet in many cultures menstruating women have been forced to spend this time in exile, somehow marked as “unclean” by their ability to create life. For Indo-European pagans, the act of sprinkling blood on a person during a ritual sacrifice was called bleodosian, a term later co-opted and transmuted by the Christian church into the word blessing.

It never really comes out. Eight years ago my sister’s ex-boyfriend shot two people on our front porch. We sold the house and moved on, but the stains on the concrete remain, enduring sun and rain and the passage of time.

Among its other contents, my blood contains the proper genetic alchemy for brown hair and eyes, astigmatism, male-pattern baldness, a predilection towards cancer, and a susceptibility to chemical dependency. If certain parties are to be believed, it may also contain the right codes for a greater abundance of melanin in my skin, a longer stride, congenital heart disease, and…a susceptibility to chemical dependency. But while being an O+ means I can give to anyone else with a positive blood type, I can only receive from other Os. My blood marks me as a giver, not a taker.

But is that me, these components? If you were to unspool the chain of my DNA and climb it, what would be waiting at the far end? A set of model kit instructions for assembling my physical self, certainly, but while all those pieces make me, do they define me?

They say blood—and thus, DNA—is thicker than water. That it is the inseparable bond which holds families together, the ultimate yardstick for measuring loyalty and allegiance. To feel particularly close to someone is to love them like family. And to go against the family is to commit the worst trespass.

They say an oath written in blood is one that cannot be broken.

I say, fuck that.

For my 1000 Words entry, I detailed the revelation that I might in fact be the bastard child of my abusive stepfather, an event that was pivotal in the formation of my identity as an adult. One of the larger bits of fallout from the detonation of that particular emotional atom bomb was the development of my belief that people don’t get a free pass simply because we happen to share genetic material. This belief, and my willingness to act on it by writing that essay, has cemented my position as the family pariah. Most of them no longer speak to me, and I am not invited to holiday gatherings. I’ve gone against the blood.

Maybe this should upset me, but it doesn’t. Part of this status is self-imposed. The truth is, I’ve long felt closer to those I call “friend.” The people I’ve chosen to have in my life have often felt more like the traditional definition of “family” than the one I was born into.

I suspect that I am expected to cover up or avoid the question of my conception and birth, out of deference to someone else’s embarrassment or shame, but I won’t. I’ll discuss it with anyone who’s curious, and have done so for years. During the recent TNB gathering in Los Angeles, it came up in separate discussions with Lenore, Duke, Simon and Zara, each conversation inevitably coiling around to the question everybody asks: “Don’t you want to know? Aren’t you curious?”

No, I don’t. I reject the notion that my blood—my genetics, my DNA—define my identity. These things may be what I am, but they are not who I am. I’m a being of will and choice. The qualities—and flaws—of my character belong to me, and no one else. The quantitative concept of my Self cannot be measured under a microscope. I would gain nothing from this knowledge.

And yet….

….and yet….

These conversations started the little hamster in my head busily spinning on his wheel. The denial of my stepfather’s claim to parentage has been ongoing for so long that it has, like my blood, simply become another part of me. But things have changed. I became the first person in my family to earn a master’s degree, survived a natural disaster, turned thirty and (hopefully) shed the last of my post-adolescent angst. I’m comfortable enough now with my identity to understand that it doesn’t need to shaped around a question mark. I must admit that I am curious after all.

Regardless of the outcome, I’ll still be my own bastard, not anyone else’s.

My blood, it seems, is relevant again.

I spoke with a coworker, a geneticist by trade, about getting a DNA test done, envisioning some sterile, CSI-like scene: a scientist spinning vials of the red stuff through a centrifuge in some chromed, blue-lit lab while a Massive Attack tune plays in the background. I was crushed to learn that for about $30 I could purchase a kit from any pharmacy in the U.S. All that was required was a cheek swab from myself and another willing donor and a processing fee of about $125, all of which I could mail in. No blood required.

For less than $200 out-of-pocket I could know, conclusively. “Willing donor,” however, is a stickler. The few members of my family who maintain contact with me are either from my mother’s side of the fence, are too distantly related to be a viable candidate, or live too far upstate.

Except one.

I have stepsister, my stepfather’s daughter from a previous marriage, and the knowledge that she may actually be my half-sister weighs on my mind. It’s like a patina of dust, barely there yet persistently reappearing every time you think you’ve wiped it away. Though we are only six months apart, I did not include mention of her in my 1000-word piece because by that point she had written herself out of the story of my life. She went to live full-time with her mother when I was fourteen, and aside from a few letters and one phone call during our freshman year of college, we have not communicated with each other since.

More than anything else now I want to know if the substance that runs in her veins is anything like mine.

She lives here in town. I obtained her phone number a few years ago. It’s written down in my address book, and even programmed into my cell phone. But I’ve never called it. After so much time we’d be strangers to each other. Were it not for the question of a few red cells suspended in plasma we would not be entering each other’s orbit at all. It’s unlikely there would be any sort of joyous reunion in learning we’re really siblings, or that she would even care enough to donate a sample. Her battle into adulthood wasn’t bloodless either, and as someone who has had his own wounds forcibly reopened for another’s benefit, I find that I cannot bring myself to risk potentially doing so to her.

For over ten years I’ve been content, and even proud, to live without knowing. I think I’ve got it in me to keep going a while yet. She is who she is, and I am who I am.

A little blood isn’t going to change that.

*****

A note from the Dept. of Credit Where Credit’s Due: This essay was inspired in part by my recent re-reading of Zara Potts’s excellent “Bloodless.” You do yourself a disservice by not reading it.