My first sighting of the girl was two Sundays ago, the poor child pushing her pram up the steep hill then stopping a few feet from my mailbox to tuck in her baby. She was well-dressed, which led me to conclude she was staying at Max Isenman’s hotel at the bottom of the hill; the one furthest from the docks of Gibraltar.
The next morning, I received a call from Max (my friend and ex-father-in-law) asking me to have lunch with him. I accepted his invitation, certain our conversation would include the young mother I had seen, “So, Christoph, what’s going on with Steffy? She says she’s sold her place in Barcelona and wants to come home and give it another try with you,” Max said trying not to laugh.
We both laughed, remembering what she had put us through over 20 years ago. His pains were financial, and I was a basket case. I’d met Steffy at a party, and when I told her I was a virgin. She took me by the hand, led me upstairs, locked us in the bathroom and had her way with me. We were married the following week, and ten days later her note explained she was off to Spain to purchase an adoption agency with some college friends.
Max was furious. What kind of daughter would cheat her father and make a mockery of her marriage? It took Max a month to pry Steffy’s phone number out of the banker who had turned Max’s money into a debt-free agency that took in and sold parentless children. He called and called; and when Steffy finally answered she cursed the weather and a pair of boots that were too small. Then she hung up and changed her phone number.
Much to our surprise five years later, Max and I both received Christmas cards from her with a return address that told us Steffy and her friend Katya were sharing a flat. I sent her a thank-you note reminding her we were no longer married, and the house was mine. When I told Max what I had done he told me I was an idiot, because the mean-hearted hurt in my words would tell Steffy I was still in love with her. And there we were again, Max laughing, me spitting coffee on his tablecloth, then both of us rising as we shook hands knowing Steffy was broke. “So, Max,” I said as he walked me to the door, “Here’s a question for you: who is the young woman with the child, and where does she fit in?”
“Christoph, believe me, If I knew I would tell you. Steffy sent her, but the young woman didn’t say why. She did, however, ask one of the staff for directions and was given a map with a red line that led to your door.”
I generally sleep late on Saturday mornings, but given Max’s final words I was up at seven, prepared at nine, and snoozing on my divan when my guest arrived and rang the bell with the child in her arms, “His name is Stefon,” she said; “Could you hold him while I bring the pram inside?”
I whispered, “Pleased to meet you, Stefon” and blushed when I found myself moved by Stefon’s smile as I passed him back to his mother.
“Christoph, Steffy sent me. My name is Tessa, and I have been assigned to the new agency office in Gibraltar,” she said, a young lady on a mission.
“Congratulations, but what does that have to do with me?” I asked.
“Here’s her note. She apologizes for not telling you sooner, then claims I’m your daughter, which I’m not, and begs you to let me run the office from your home,” Tessa said.
“If you’re not my daughter, who are you then?”
“I wish I knew. I was never told who my mother was. I was just one of the children with first names only.” Tessa’s best guess was that Katya was her mother. She was the one who fed and clothed her until she was three. When Tessa turned six she began feeding and washing the babies.
“So, what are you doing in Gibraltar?” I asked, and she explained that all girls her age work as agents, and that her job was to show pictures and when a client chose a child it would be delivered the following day by an agent from the Madrid office.
“What about Stefon? Will he be placed?” I asked.
“Not if I can help it. I have almost enough money to buy him,” she said.
“Why buy him? Why not just resign and work here as a tutor or a nanny?” I asked.
“Because Steffy would kill me. It might work if I had references and a passport, but I don’t. I’m already in danger,” she said and gave me a copy of the agency’s Spanish charter and asked me to find out if it would be honored in Gibraltar.
“I’m sure it won’t be,” I said; “Two men and five women from Hong Kong rented a shop and put the photographs in the window, and a week later they they were gone.”
“That’s what I was afraid of, Christoph. I’m stranded, aren’t I?”
“Not necessarily. Max has a friend at the embassy we need to visit. Let’s plan to have lunch together tomorrow and see where we stand.” All went well. I served the soup and Max presented two American passports. There was just one catch: Max, Tessa, and I would be called on to cater all embassy events for the next three years. Max and I feared Tessa might feel compromised by the deal, but she was well ahead of us.
“Stefon will learn two languages; Max will become an uncle and I will become a professional woman as the four of us become a family,”
“What about Christoph?” Max said.
“I’ve saved that for last. My rock of a man, my darling Christoph, will you marry me?”