‘It will be worth the heartburn in the end.’
‘You’re right, it will. And you’re . . . from England?’
‘Yes. I live here now, though.’
‘I really love your accent. That’s just so beautiful. People must ask you to say things for them all the time.’
‘It’s nothing special where I come from, believe me. But that’s nice of you to say.’
Robbie squeezed her hand, and they exchanged a look. Part of this interview was about impressing the social worker favourably.
‘And Mr Brandon? You’re not English.’
‘No, ma’am. I come from Ohio originally, but I’ve lived all over. I did some travelling when I was younger, which is how I met Emily.’
Her fingers twitched on his, but he smiled at her. Mrs Hernandez had started to use her biro to write down information on a yellow legal pad.
‘And what do you do for a job?’
‘I’m a boat builder. I’ve worked at Dinner Key marina for the past seven years.’
‘And before that? I’m sorry – I need to ask these things, so we can have a full record.’
Robbie hesitated. ‘I was in the Navy, in Vietnam.’
Emily held her breath and hoped that the social worker hadn’t been a protester.
‘Well,’ said Mrs Hernandez, ‘thank you for your service. I certainly do appreciate it.’
‘Not many people thank me, to be honest. It’s kind of you.’
‘My brother is in the Navy. So why do you want to adopt a baby?’
‘I’m infertile,’ said Emily, and although it should be an easy thing to say, after all these years, it still scraped and scratched inside to speak it aloud. There was no shame to it, but there was a shame to it.
‘Premature ovarian failure,’ she continued, forcing her voice to be stronger and clinical. ‘I was diagnosed some years ago. Robbie and I can never have children naturally.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Mrs Hernandez. ‘That must be difficult for you, if you work with babies all day.’
‘I chose my field because it appealed to me. Most of the time I don’t even think about it.’
Except when she had to retreat to the restroom to cry. Which was happening more and more often, lately.
‘Well, you can take comfort in offering a home to a child who needs one. The adoptive parents’ bond with their child can be as strong as between natural parents and their own children.’
‘Just as strong,’ said Robbie firmly. ‘We want a child very badly. Both Emily and I.’
The social worker nodded and went through more questions: their home (rented, respectable, in a nice neighbourhood), their income (comfortable). ‘And your family?’ she asked. ‘Parents, siblings, other children?’
Robbie and Emily exchanged a glance.
‘My family are all in England,’ said Emily slowly. ‘My mother and father, and a sister. I have uncles and aunts and cousins there, too. I . . . don’t see them often. As I’m living here.’
‘That’s understandable. Mr Brandon?’
‘My parents are both dead; my dad died when I was in Vietnam, and my mother passed away soon after. I don’t have any siblings. I . . . have a son.’
Mrs Hernandez perked up. ‘Oh?’
‘He’ll be seven years old in September. But I haven’t seen him in years. His mother . . . it didn’t end well between us.’
‘You say that as if it’s a problem,’ said Emily.
‘Well . . . not necessarily. Have you been refused access by the court?’
He shook his head. ‘No. We never had a custody hearing. She . . . just took him. I’ve tried to get in touch, but they move quite a lot, and her parents refuse to speak with me or pass on any information.’ He frowned. ‘As I said . . . it didn’t end well. And I miss him.’
‘The father doesn’t have a lot of rights in this situation,’ said Mrs Hernandez, ‘but we will need documentation about him, if possible, along with your other documents.’
‘Which documents are those?’ asked Emily, again trying to keep her voice calm and clinical. To her ears, at least, she failed: there was a shakiness.
‘Oh, just the normal ones for proof of identity and status. Your birth certificates, marriage certificate. Your Green Card, Dr Brandon. Rental agreement on your house, proof of employment, and, of course, the letters of recommendation which we’ll talk about in a minute.’
Emily and Robert exchanged another look.
‘We . . . don’t have a marriage certificate,’ said Emily.
‘Well, you can obtain a copy easily. If you were married in Florida there will be a small charge and they can make a copy for you right there and then.’
‘No. I mean we don’t have a marriage certificate because we’re not married.’
Mrs Hernandez had been holding the Bic in her right hand. Now she passed to her left, and tapped it on the desk.
‘You’re not married? But I thought—’
Emily’s heart was pounding so hard that she was faint. It took all of her self-control and will to remain sitting in the chair, her legs crossed, her hand in Robbie’s. She did not know what expression was on her face, but it felt chiselled there in stone.
‘In addition to not letting me see my son,’ said Robbie, ‘my ex-wife also won’t give me a divorce. Her family belongs to an evangelical church that doesn’t believe in divorce, so maybe she’s gone back to that, but I don’t know for sure. She won’t talk to me at all. And I don’t know where she is. I’ve tried to serve her with papers – for her own sake as much as mine; you’d think maybe she’d want to get married again and try with someone better, if that’s not a sin. But the papers come back, or disappear. Like all my requests to see William.’
It sounded rehearsed to Emily’s ears. But she knew Robbie’s tones so well, his normal way of speaking. The social worker would not. She might not hear anything in his words but the truth. And it was the truth. Just . . . not all of it.
Mrs Hernandez was looking stern. ‘I don’t think I— It’s highly unusual to recommend an unmarried couple for adoption. I . . . I’ll have to talk with my manager once you’ve put in your application.’
‘But you’d still need all that documentation?’ Emily asked. ‘To research whether we’d be allowed to even apply?’
‘Yes, I’d want all the facts possible before I presented your case to anyone.’
‘I see,’ said Emily. ‘I . . . that makes sense.’
She couldn’t look at Robbie now. It would make her truly realise what was happening.
‘Yes,’ said Robbie. ‘Well . . . should we take these forms home? And then come back to you with all the paperwork you need?’
‘All right,’ said Mrs Hernandez, and handed Robbie a sheaf of paper. He thanked her and shook her hand again, but the social worker was looking at Emily. Clearly her feelings were plain on her face. Too plain. She looked down at her shoes as she stood and walked with Robbie to the door, when she forced herself to meet Mrs Hernandez’s gaze.
‘It was very nice to meet you,’ she said. ‘If this doesn’t work out, maybe I’ll see you anyway, when you’re ready to deliver. I’ll try to pop in and say hello if I’m in the hospital.’