The receptionist at the adoption agency went on maternity leave. Rather than hire another temp, the director decided that Vivian could manage her work while sitting at the front desk. She instructed Vivian on how to handle the prospective parents who came to the office to be interviewed. Vivian was to be polite and helpful in terms of offering water or coffee or directing them to the restrooms in the hallway, but not overly solicitous and definitely not optimistic in any way. Vivian was confused by this last directive; she was unsure how to be helpful without giving off an air of optimism. Most couples sat in the waiting room in silence, fearing, perhaps, that anything they said in front of the receptionist might be used against them.
One afternoon a man walked into the office. He was a small, compact man with what Vivians mother would have called a coif of thick, shiny hair. He wore an elegant suit of a modern cut, the jacket purposefully small, the pants short enough to reveal his garishly printed socks. He stood in front of her desk, and a second before he opened his mouth to speak, Vivian realized who he was.
Wheres your wife? she said, imagining that the man had forbidden his wife to come this time, that he had decided that her presence was what stood in the way of their getting a child.
Usually we see couples, Vivian said, covering for her blunder. She reminded herself to be polite and not optimistic. She didnt want to lose her job.
I dont have an appointment, he said.
Shes doing an interview right now, Vivian said.
His face was anguished for a moment, as if he thought that this other couple were, at that very moment, being granted the child hed hoped would be his. Of course this was not the way it worked, but perhaps the man didnt know that.
Is it okay if I wait?
I guess, Vivian said. Do you want water? Or coffee?
His face relaxed and opened up, and Vivian saw how great the barriers were between a person and his happiness, and how little it took to make him think they were small.
I dont need anything, he said.
She tried to go back to her transcription, but she could not concentrate. She typed zzzzzz for an entire line, then ?????? for two more after that.
My wife left me, he said.
She looked up. He was staring down at the checkerboard pattern on the linoleum floor as if it were a code he was trying to break.
Oh, she said.
Does she do single-parent adoptions?
I dont know, Vivian said. Im just a temp.
He nodded. His pants were so short, she could see his legs where his socks ended. The hair there was dark and smooth, as if combed.
The man stood up and walked over to the wicker shelf that held various books about adoption. He took down a paperback, flipped through it, put it back.
Do you know what she looks for? he said. I mean, what type of people she accepts?
The stupid, obvious things, Vivian said. People who have a lot of love to give. She was immediately ashamed of her small cruelty, but he did not seem to remember his own words.
He sat down again. This is crazy. I dont even have an appointment.
Her job was temporary. The director had informed her that the receptionist, when she came back, would take on the work of transcribing the interviews along with her other duties. Vivian had proved that it could be done. Vivian had a feeling, too, that she would soon have to find a new living arrangement. Shelly had found out about the night with Toby and had said that she didnt care, but things felt different now.
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