Wake Up and Smell the Fingers

Wake Up and Smell the Fingers


Illustration by Gracia Lam


I’m in my five-year-old daughter Eliza’s bathroom rinsing her toothbrush when I hear her chirp from behind me on the toilet.

Even now, I’m oddly caught off guard sometimes by the title “Daddy,” as though I’m suddenly looking down at a new suit I don’t ever remember putting on. But I like it. It fits me. Makes me look thinsy.

“Yes, monkey?” I reply, distractedly.

She holds her fingers up to my face. Then come three tiny words. Oh, how those words repeat in my head, over and over again, echoing in slow motion: “Smell… my… fingers…” Nothing good ever comes after those words.

I flash to where her fingers may have been. A field of lavender would be my first choice. But that’s not likely at this late hour. Any chance it’s the perfume counter at Bloomingdale’s? No. She doesn’t have her driver’s license yet. She’s five, remember? My brain is losing its desperate battle to steer away from the more likely candidates.

On the one hand, I don’t want her to feel any embarrassment or guilt. Her body is her temple. It’s all beautiful. And my love for it, and her, is unconditional. On the other hand? Smell your own damn fingers, kid. What about me looks like I’d like to smell your fingers? Tell me now so I can change it immediately and no one ever makes this mistake again.

But there’s no time to get into all that. I find myself obliging. I hold her adorable, glitter-nail-polished fingers to my face and I smell. There’s definitely something there. Some smell. What is that? Is it ass? Could be.

“What is that, darling?” I ask, trying to hide my anxiety, although my voice is starting to climb north.

Eliza giggles. “It’s my tushy, Daddy.” OK. Not great news. In fact, I feel light-headed. But it’s not her fault. Maybe she hasn’t mastered the finer points of the bum wipe. We’re in the early days of this particular skill set, even though she is five.

“Darling, we don’t touch our bum-bums, OK? Did the toilet paper slip? That happens, sweetie, but with practice--”

“No, Daddy,” she says with a conspiratorial grin. “It’s my front tushy.”

I don’t know what happens next because I’ve blacked out. The room is spinning. All I can think is How? How the hell did I end up here, in this particular conversation, with this little girl, holding these particular fingers up to this face? I can’t seem to remember the series of events that led to this moment. Any of them. It is the same sensation I have after plowing through four bowls of cereal while watching The Biggest Loser.

Even though it feels like I was somehow propelled through time and space and then plopped unceremoniously in this moment, in this bathroom, with this funky-fingered cherub smiling up at me, I know it happened in real time. Evolving into the man I’ve become: the son, the husband, the “Daddy.” It was life, happening one terrifying moment at a time, the result of big decisions and small ones, some easy and some daunting as hell.

I guess the Big Bang would have to have been around the filming of Under the Tuscan Sun. I had two and a half minutes of screen time with Diane Lane, which thankfully took six weeks to shoot in a beautiful countryside in Tuscany. I had become quite close with the director, Audrey Wells, who was there with her two-year-old daughter. She spied me playing with little Tatiana and asked if I’d ever thought about having kids. The answer, of course, was yes. I had. But my boyfriend had mixed feelings. Don and I always managed to come up with perfectly good reasons why we shouldn’t have kids. Audrey, though, proceeded to give me an impassioned speech about “discovering the father in one another,” which really got to me. I remember calling Don from a pay phone and yelling, “I want to discover the father in--” Click. The line went dead as I ran out of minutes on my calling card.

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It took about a year for Don and me to get on the same page. After all, our options were limited. We couldn’t just “forget” to take a pill. Don kept waiting for someone to leave a newborn in a basket on our doorstep. Our close friends Michael and Mary urged him to be a tiny bit more proactive. “That’s bullshit!” I remember them saying. “Nobody is going to leave a kid at your feet. If that’s how you really feel, go out there and get your baby!” It was all Don needed to hear, apparently, his “aha” moment. Because, after that, we started making the necessary calls.

I don’t like to admit it, but I was petrified about my own ability to bond with an adopted baby, a child with no genetic ties to me. It was lack of experience, really. Maybe ignorance. Fear? What will it smell like? I’d think. How will the baby know I’m its daddy? Let’s face it: I was an idiot. That was until the day of the birth. The second Eliza was lifted into the air, like Kunta Kinte in Roots, I fell in love. And I mean that second. Which made the road to get there worth every gut-wrenching, nerve-wracking, tear-squirting moment.

The process of making an adoption plan isn’t easy. For anyone. But for same-sex couples, it’s even more of a challenge. Foreign adoptions for the “gays” are impossible these days. Homophobia is more the rule than the exception. In most parts of the world, like China and Guatemala, the words “I’m a man looking to adopt a baby” must be the same as “Sociopath seeks naked hugs and finger fun!”

No. Our best bet was something called open adoption, where we’d be chosen by a birth mother and then keep in some contact so that our child would have a healthy understanding of who she is and where she came from. At least, that was our hope. We needed information. And courage. So we talked to other couples who had adopted and read every book we could find. We derived not a small amount of inspiration from Dan Savage’s book The Kid -- a wonderfully funny and honest account of his and his partner’s journey through the adoption process.

After a meeting with an adoption lawyer, background checks, fingerprinting, and registering with a family services agency, the very next step was creating a “birth mother letter.” It was more of a brochure where we described ourselves, our relationship, and our life together as a way of enticing birth moms to call us. Smile till it hurts. Don and I struggled with this process for several weeks. I mean, how could we paint an accurate picture of ourselves in a way that communicates what perfect parents we thought we could be without sounding immodest or entitled or, you know, not gay-gay?

The key was to understand what kind of person our birth mom might be. Our lawyer told us that the majority come from Vegas and usually fall into one of two categories: the college coed or the stripper. Believe it or not, he said we’d be better off with a stripper. The coeds, he said, often had multiple partners, were binge drinkers, and were in denial about being pregnant at least until after finals. Strippers, he said, were more responsible and used fewer substances. I guess it’s not so easy to swing naked from a pole on crystal meth. Naturally, Don and I were all about tailoring our brochure for our particular exotic-dancing birth mom. But where would we start? How much should we let her know?
We had no strategy, which highlighted the fact we had no real idea who our birth mom was.

Don thought he knew: She was a 38-year-old mother of two who did volunteer work during the day and only stripped at night to put food on the table. Yeah, OK. Uh-huh. I was convinced I knew strippers better than Don. After all, I was the one who went to a Vegas bachelor party for my friend John a few years back and saw, much to my horror, a girl named Phenomenon pour ginger ale through her vajayjay and into John’s mouth. I was pretty sure she wasn’t wrapping up her gig at Nude Awakening to race home and put the kids to bed so she could finish her thesis on Chaucer.

“We should write that we like the outdoors,” I said, as we opened a blank page on the computer to write our BML (birth mother letter).

“No. We’re not writing that,” Don argued. “We may as well say we’re Navy SEALs or circus clowns.” Don hates the outdoors. He likes big, dark hotel rooms, room service, and 24-hour HGTV.

“Put down water-skiing!” I said.

He rolled his eyes. “You haven’t water-skied in 20 years.” He wasn’t wrong. But what version of “me” did I want the stripper to know? I mean, I do love water-skiing. That was the truth. So what if I hadn’t done it in a long… long time? Better than what Don wanted to put in the letter:

“Hello. My name is Donald. I’ve always been a movie buff and an avid reader. I love Jane Austen. And I don’t know how to throw overhand.”

“No way!” I argued. “May as well write, ‘Your baby will be a class-A nerd, destined to be stuffed in lockers and toilets.’ No. Even I wouldn’t give my baby to that.”

“At least it’s honest,” he defended his position.

“So? Are you trying to have a family or give a deposition?” I said, self-righteously.

If we went with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, we’d have to say we preferred malls to museums, we worshipped at the altar of TiVo, and while we loved movies and documentaries, who were we kidding? More often than not we could be found watching The Amazing Race, Project Runway, and Intervention, a show with gut-wrenching stories of young people shooting up in a Taco Bell bathroom before being forced to get clean! Now that’s entertainment.

Next came the grueling task of picking photos to include in this brochure. Dan in front of Harrods in London. Don on a quaint street in Rome. “See, birth mom? With Don and Dan, your baby will get to see the world!”

Here’s an actual quote from our BML:

“Dear Birth Mom: First of all, we want to thank you. We know there are many couples asking you to consider them and so we want to say how much we appreciate you taking the time to read our letter.”

I read it back, horrified by how we sounded: We know you have a choice when it comes to air travel. Thanks for choosing Dan and Don Air!

Whatever we did, it worked. Twice. First, with a young woman from Las Vegas who was three-months pregnant and picked us to adopt her baby. It didn’t ultimately work out. But on my birthday in September of 2004, we got a call from a plucky-yet-sweet 19-year-old, already a mother of twins, from Wisconsin, who did want to fly Dan and Don Air. Her name, let’s say, was Monica. And she wasn’t a stripper. And she didn’t care about our brochure. She picked us because she and her mom were fans of the television show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and thought we’d make “ahh-some dads.”

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I’ll never forget the day we first laid eyes on Monica, coming down the escalator at LAX. We’d talked on the phone a bunch of times, and we’d noticed how she had a loud, slow, gruff voice. Her mother told us she got nervous around new people and did not like to be photographed. We immediately pictured a clinically obese girl with thick glasses and a stained Hello Kitty sweatshirt, teetering on the edge of “mentally challenged.” She turned out to be a beautiful, wide-eyed, tough-talking, pack-a-day teen in stretch jeans and her boyfriend’s football jacket, as if she had literally been conjured from the pages of a Don Roos screenplay. The sacrifice she was able to endure? I am forever changed by her and inspired by her strength and courage. OK, she could’ve learned a thing or two about birth control. But she always insisted “birth control just doesn’t work” on her! I kept wondering if it wouldn’t have worked better had she remembered to take it out of the box and put it in. Or on. But then, imagine if she had? Unfathomable. It was Monica’s lack of impulse control that made the creation of our family possible.

The whole experience bonded us. And then, in that delivery room, Don, Monica, and I held hands as first Eliza and then, two years later, Jonah were cut from their umbilical cords -- and from their nine-month lifelines to Cinnabons, Mountain Dew, and Marlboro menthols. Tears streamed down all our cheeks. It was clear, as sentimental as it may sound, that our kids were born out of the hearts of three people. Not just two of us. And not just the one.

It’s funny, though, becoming a “Daddy.” I fully expected to discover what that director had spoken to me about, the “father within.” But what I never imagined -- what I could never have ever predicted -- was finding the mother within. If I could have stuck a boob in Eliza, I would have. And I always became defensive when people assumed I didn’t know what I was doing. Like when we would be traveling and every woman on the plane would offer us important advice, like “Don’t forget to feed her” or “Air pressure makes baby’s ears go ouchy.” I’d be, like, “Really? And here I was about to stuff her in the overhead compartment!”

It’s like that Elizabeth Stone quote: being a parent is like deciding to “have your heart go walking around outside your body.” I wanted the world to know that something had changed in me. Shifted. On a cellular level. Something that made certain things like her gestures, smells, and particular smiles make me want to burst into tears. What is that? Sadness? Joy? Pride? Being a parent.

Back in the bathroom, Eliza looks up at me with a little shrug. It’s cute. But clearly I’m meant to do something, say something. I wasn’t prepared for this. Why wasn’t this in any of the books we read prior to having kids?

“Hey, listen, polka dot. It’s your body and you’re the boss of it. Yeah? But not so much with the fingers in your, you know, front tushy, OK? You just want to keep all of your areas, um, clean.”

Not bad, given I had no lead time to prepare my response. Anyway, it’ll have to do. But let’s face it. “Front tushy” instead of just saying “vagina”? I got work to do.

This is an excerpt from Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight, out now