The boy in purple moon boots thumps up to the gate howling “¡Mamí!” for hello. My boyfriend—“mother” to an orphan boy who knows no men—avoids my eye.
We came to this hogar, to Ecuador, to teach English: I want; you want; the boy wants; we all want.
We were not expecting, or wanting, babies. We were not—are not—ready, not for such gaping need, for hunger at once wholly repulsive and irresistible. But for six months, by reflex or biology or the programmed magnetism of a child’s oversized eyes, we have endured the retching caused by the seep from rationed diapers and the sour smell of yucca gruel, and come each day to hold the hogar’s babies. We come although neither the stench nor the drifting ash of sadness like ceniza from Tungurahua, the nearby volcano named for a throat, will wash off in a cold rooftop shower.
“Which do you love best?” the director asks me as I sit on the parquet floor, my lap full of babies.
This is my chosen translation: The verb for “love” and “want” is one and the same in Spanish.
“I love them all,” I manage, with a magnanimous smile. “I love them all equally.”
I do not mean to want.
My university students want to know, am I lonely without a family? The hogar cook wonders with a wink, will we take home an Ecuadorian recuerdo? A souvenir? But I cannot want the babies. I cannot want them in the same way I cannot, if given a scalpel, cut out my own heart. Not Pedro with his mop hair or Soledad with her grave rage or the newborn without a name found under a parked car in Quito. Most of all, I cannot want the boy in purple moon boots who calls my lover mother.
When the ache rises in our own throats, we decide to get away. We put out a thumb, hitch a ride in a truck-bed through Amazonia, climb through the Andes, cross a sea of salt that looks like sky, watch flamingos flap over a red lake, burn our mouths with coca. But however far afield we range, the babies cling to us, polyps, barnacles, the worms that now live in our bellies too.
In the gold mines in Bolivia, I meet a woman who has adopted an infant vicuña that came in from the wild with her herd of alpaca. Fluff aside, its neckbone is as slim as thumb and finger can encircle, its eyes the size of fists. As she introduces me, her baby butts up under her bustled velvet skirt, wanting what’s not there.
I am no one’s mother.
Back in Ecuador, for the rest of our year, when I carry babies on my hip, I swat their kneading hands away from my breasts, wean their sucking mouths off my skin.
“Amiga,” I tell them when they call me mamí. “Soy su amiga.”
I set down moon boot feet on a parquet floor.