The good news: I did have a name because I did have a birth certificate.
The bad news: My father’s name was Michael Smith, no middle initial. I only had the short version of the certificate, which was better than nothing, but not much. It had been issued in Los Angeles, California. Although it was supposed to have both parents’ dates of birth on it, behind Michael Smith on the form, it said only 8/12. No year. A Google search located 388 people by that name in California, another 76 in Arizona. I didn’t know how old he was. I had no idea where he lived — or even if he lived. I figured he had been at least 20 when he and my mama created me and probably no older than 40. So that left 38 Michael Smiths in Arizona and 201 in California. I figured I might be in for a couple of years of research before I got lucky. I knew he was white though, because Mama had called me güera — which was Mexican for white or light-skinned girl and called my father a “dirty rotten gringo” from time to time. And there were my blue eyes and fair complexion, pointing in the güera direction. I had my mama’s dark hair and her curves, though I was a good six inches taller than she had been — or at least that’s what I estimated from the two full-body photos I had of us from the days when I lived with her. So, I was looking for a white guy, probably with blue eyes.
One morning, a couple of weeks into this, when I’d knocked seven more of the Arizona suspects off the list due to their non-white status, an idea came to me. Maybe the social worker on my CPS case was still there, still working for the Child Protective Services. Worth a shot. I remembered her name because I had found it so beautiful as a child — Gloria Aguiluz — something about that name had sounded like music to my child’s ear. I went to the nondescript office where I’d first been processed more than a decade ago on Friday, when I didn’t have classes. My shift at Denny’s wouldn’t start until 4:30 p.m. I waited in a sizable line until it was my turn at the front desk, a plexiglass window separating the receptionist from the rest of us.
“I’m wondering if Ms. Gloria Aguiluz still works here?” I tried to sound professional, like I might have business with her.
“I’m sorry, we don’t give out information about our employees to the general public,” came the stiff reply from the grey-haired woman behind the glass. A woman standing by the copy machine behind her, started, her head jerking up in recognition of the name. Even in profile, I recognized Gloria Aguiluz, because she was such a tiny bird-like creature, then and still.
“I just wanted to thank her,” I blurted, with sudden inspiration, “for the wonderful placement she made for me back when I was five.”
Gloria approached the receptionist. “I have a moment to spare, Susan. We don’t see success stories every day of the week.” She looked up at me and smiled. “You can follow me back to my office, young lady, and remind me of who you are.”
So, I did, though as we wove our way through the warren of desks and room dividers, I almost had a panic attack. This place had been the stuff of my nightmares, back then. Mama, gone. Me, sleeping alone in a single bed in a strange room, in a strange house, with strange white people. It had taken me a long time to quit crying myself to sleep in terror. And here is where it had all been decided. But I swallowed my old fears and followed Gloria, who had an actual office with a door that she closed after ushering me in and offering me a seat facing her desk.
“I’m sorry, but could you remind me of your case … name?” she said, realizing a bit late that it was rude to call someone a “case.”
“I’m Veronica Gordon but I think I was using my mama’s last name when we first met — Sánchez. Her name was Carmen Sánchez. It was a dozen years ago so I’m not surprised you don’t remember me. I look a lot different now.”
Gloria had turned her back to me and was rooting around in her file cabinet. I looked around. Her windowless office was immaculate, her desk bare. It didn’t look like an office where much work went on. “Aha, yes, here it is.”
She pulled a slim file from the hundreds and sat back in a squeaky swivel chair covered with cracked red leather.
“Mom a schizophrenic alcoholic, child malnourished and poorly dressed,” she read from the case notes. “Mother not capable of child rearing. Child should be placed permanently, with option to adopt if mother can be made to relinquish custody.” She was talking to herself, oblivious to the fact that a real person, not a “case” was sitting right across from her. She was looking at the top sheet now. “Your mother killed herself, I see.” And the Gordons adopted you.” She was rude, no doubt about that.
“Yes, you placed me with a nice couple, and I wanted to thank you. They raised me right. But …” I hurried on, sensing a door to her good will would close soon, “… now that I’m 18, I’d like to see if I could find my father’s family. All I have is his name, Michael Smith, and it’s so common. I hoped you would have some additional information about him.”
She looked up at the corner of the room, where there was a camera mounted to the ceiling. “I’m not allowed to give that out that information.” She said loudly, for the camera. She quickly removed a stack of yellow post-it notes from the desk and her hands disappeared from my view for a moment.
“Thanks for coming in today, Veronica. It’s so nice to see you again and hear that everything worked out for you. We don’t have that many success stories and it’s even rarer to hear from one in person. So, thanks for stopping by.” She got up to usher me out the door.
But right before closing it in my face, she handed me a post-it note folded in half. She closed my fingers around it.
“Bye now, best of luck.”