Searching for Warmth
By: Leyuan Zhou
Matthew was handsome, and he knew it.
A sophomore in high school, he was beginning to lose the traces of boyhood, but was still not quite at the stage of a young man. He had developed some noticeable muscles on his arms, a squarish jaw, and a little bit of coarse stubble on the bottom of his chin. He liked to comb his mop of caramel brown hair to the side, revealing the thick eyebrows that seemed to make him look much older than fifteen.
But it was his eyes. A perfect shade of blue, his eyes were like the ocean – with an unfathomable brightness to them, they saw through everything. They seemed to be full of the playfulness of an average fifteen year-old boy, but upon deeper inspection, they looked tentative. Matthew’s eyes carried a certain look of fatigue, as if being weighed down by decades of memories that were too complex for someone of his age.
At school, girls swooned over the sight of the muscle on his biceps bulging out from under the sleeves of his Dri-FIT Nike shirt. In fact, he couldn’t recall a moment where he wasn’t surrounded by the chatter of friends (and admirers), or a time where he didn’t receive dozens of high-fives by just walking through the hallway. Despite his mediocre grades, his teachers loved him too. They never hesitated to explain an assignment for him after he zoned out in class or to offer private tutoring sessions with him after he failed his tests.
He didn’t care about popularity, though. He didn’t care about anyone at his high school. The only person he really cared about was his mother, Brie. Well, that’s not true. She wasn’t really his mother – she was the woman who adopted him when he was an infant.
An average-looking middle-aged woman, Brie was full of surprises. She masterfully juggled two jobs to keep her small family afloat, while at the same time, loving her son with the type of affection strong enough to move heaven and earth. There was something special about her – a perpetual spark that seemed to light up the lives of everyone around her. Matthew loved his mother. Their bond, a kind that was sturdier than titanium, was a magical one.
Matthew never questioned where he came from. He knew that Brie adopted him when he was a baby, but never dared to bring up the topic of who his biological parents were. Brie was too busy to make ends meet, he thought, I shouldn’t have to make her life more difficult than it is already. In the end, he comforted himself by assuring himself that nothing exciting lay in his past. Perhaps his real mother was a drug addict who regretted bringing him into existence, or a drunk prostitute who couldn’t provide for her children. He told this to himself for eighteen years.
It had been a few years since the last time Matthew cried real tears. There he stood, at the front row of the funeral service. Head down. Eyes shut. Silent tears streaming down his cheeks. He couldn’t bear looking at his mother’s lacquered hair and waxen lips, her body lying peacefully in the oak casket. It had only been two days since the police told him that she had died in a horrific car crash.
He tried to listen to the priest speak about his mother, but just hearing her name, Brie, made him want to crouch in a corner and disappear forever. The sounds of quiet comforting, something along the lines of how his mother was the light in a dark tunnel and how she was taken far too abruptly swept past his ears. She wasn’t really gone, at least not in spirit — they would carry her memory forever. No, what a bunch of garbage. Matthew knew his mother was dead. He would never get to hear her jovial voice, feel her caring touch, or see her perfect smiles ever again. All gone.
For the rest of the day, random adults approached Matthew to apologize, as if his mother’s death was their fault. Sometimes, they would say something along the lines of “I’m really really sorry, like really.” Matthew only pretended to listen, but he knew that no matter how many people said sorry, the pain would still remain.
Without his mother, Matthew felt lost. He had graduated high school, but didn’t feel the obligation to do anything else, now that he was eighteen. He had never had the interest or potential to go to college, so he assumed that he was supposed to start working in order to subsist. Other than their cramped one bedroom apartment downtown and a meager two thousand dollars in savings, his mother hadn’t left him much.
With a sense of loneliness creeping upon him, Matthew wanted to be fulfilled. He wanted to feel whole again. Once again, he thought of his biological parents. Without Brie’s presence, he was finally able to search for them. His heart leapted with elation as he thought about reconnecting with the woman who brought him into the world. What a moment to look forward to! He began rummaging through Brie’s old cabinets, hoping to find a clue as to where his long-lost parents might be.
After a few days, Matthew’s apartment was littered with random items pulled out of the jumbled drawers. Old photographs, little trinkets from his childhood, and some of Brie’s old clothes lay disarrayed on the floor. The only thing he had found was a small rectangular wooden box, with a crinkled paper note attached to the side. Matthew remembered how his mother used to tell him about the epic tale of his adoption. “Can you believe that I found you in a wooden box?!” His mother’s cheery voice echoed in his ears. He missed her even more now.
Matthew pulled the wooden box out of his mother’s closet with excitement, knowing that it would provide him with the key to his hazy past. He turned it upside down and shook it, only to see a small piece of yellowed paper drift lazily through the air and land on the floor. He picked it up and scanned the note, realizing that it was the exact same one his mother had mentioned to him in her stories — the note from his real mother. It was written in a sloppy sort of handwriting, letters crooked and awfully smudged, but he managed to decipher it.
“To whomever it may concern:
This is my baby boy; his name is Matthew. Though it is a painful decision, I have decided that I am unable to take care of him and give him the childhood he deserves. I hope you will have the empathy to accept him into your home and raise him with as much love as you can.”
Matthew’s arms shook and he tried to steady his breathing as he finished the letter. It told him that his biological mother couldn’t take care of him, so what did that mean? He searched for more answers as he examined the wooden box carefully, looking over every crack and stain as if they could disclose the mysteries behind his family.
Just as Matthew was about to put the box back into the closet, he noticed the faint sharpie stains of a few words on the bottom of the box. “To Priscilla Johnson, 218 Charleston Street, Apt. 1A” it said. Heart skipping a beat, Matthew quickly realized the significance of these words.
The address was in his city, so he rushed to his local bus stop and hopped on the next bus. Sitting in his own corner and staring out the window, Matthew couldn’t help but think about all the joyful moments waiting to happen when he finally met his biological mother. The hugs, the happy sobbing, and maybe even a father and some siblings. No, he thought, I’m getting ahead of myself. Even then, his mind raced as he replayed the scenes over and over again. What did she look like? What does she do for a living? Will she love me?
Matthew arrived at 218 Charleston Street in the late afternoon. It was a pre-war walkup with dirty patches of paint peeling off in the walls of the lobby. Well, it wasn’t really a lobby. It didn’t have any of the cozy sofas or the warm feel he was used to, and quite frankly, it stank of cigarette smoke and alcohol. He thought he saw a large cockroach dash past him as he walked through the hallway.
He stood in front of the door of apartment 1A for a few minutes, catching his breath, pulse quickening, bones quaking. He finally mustered the courage to bring his knuckles to the door and knocked. Rap. Rap. Rap. A skinny woman opened the door and stared at him with eyes of contempt.
“Whataya want from me?” She drawled as she took a gulp from the bottle of beer she hugged like a teddy bear. Her greasy hair was a mess, with a few white strands sticking out of the lopsided bun. She was drunk, and it looked as if she hadn’t showered in days.
“Excuse me, but are you Ms. Priscilla Johnson?” Matthew’s voice trembled as he tried to look at who he thought was his mother.
“Heck yeah I am! Who are you?”
“I- I’m your son, I’m Matthew.”
For a moment, Matthew thought he saw his biological mother’s eyes soften, her body inching towards him for what he hoped was a hug. It disappeared as fast as it had come.
“No, you’re not my son. I don’t have any sons. Now get out of here!”
Matthew stood in front of her, frozen, as she violently shook her head while her left hand, the hand limply holding a lit cigarette, flailed around to try to shoo him away.
“You don’t understand, ma’am. Remember how you left me in the middle of the blizzard eighteen years ago at Whole Foods? I was adopted by a very kind lady who raised me, but she recently passed away so-” Though the words gushed out of his mouth like a rapidly flowing river, Matthew suddenly became aware of the eerie silence that seemed to pervade the rest of the corridor. Confused, he stopped to look up at the weary woman, who dropped her cigarette butt and bent down to lay her bottle of beer on the floorboard. As she rose, Matthew saw her tremble as a solemn tear rolled down her hollowed cheek and stained her shirt. The meeting seemed to sober her up. In the silence, she studied Matthew carefully, her fierce gaze inspecting his every feature. He suddenly realized how much they were alike; Matthew could tell that his mother’s hair, though graying, once had the same rich brown hue as his own. Her eyes, too, seemingly turned gray by the alcohol, possessed a hint of the cerulean, water-like shade of blue he was so familiar with.
To Matthew, the silence felt like ages. But with each calm breath he heard his mother take in the midst of uncertainty, the anticipation in the doorway only seemed to grow bigger, as if deep down, Matthew was imploring her to accept him. Please. He had never wanted anything more than this in his life.
It was when he heard a quiet “ahem” in front of him that Matthew dared to look up again. His mother’s face was tear-stained and sorrowful, and although she tried to suppress it, he could hear her quietly sniffling. For a moment, as they stared into each other’s eyes, there seemed to be some sort of understanding, a type that was only known to them.
Matthew wasn’t sure when or how this happened, but he suddenly felt the fragile frame of his mother lean onto his chest. Though surprised at first, Matthew wrapped his arms around her shoulders and pulled her close, warming embracing her. He squeezed his arms a fraction tighter as his mother’s breathing slowed, the tears on her face imprinting on his shirt and her body melting into the muscles of his arms.
“I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “For everything.”
Matthew fought against the tears welling up in his own eyes, hoping to appear more protective for his vulnerable mother. The world seemed to melt away as he let go of all his thoughts, not wanting the moment to end.