Hank Aaron’s Daughter: Acknowledgements, Preface, & Chapter 1
Cover by Christopher Harrison
So many people and communities have supported the evolution and development of this project, and I am deeply indebted to each and every one of them.
Thank you to all my readers, whose candor and encouragement kept me going even when I was sure all the narrative threads would not come together: Karen Hausdoerffer, Christopher Cross, Kenna Cottman, Tayari Jones, Dana Johnson, Tony Ardizzone, Sarah Park Dahlen, Elaine Kim, Kathy Solomon, Evelyn Fazio, the first commercial editor who really “got” the story, believed in its potential, and gave me key suggestions for revision; the students and faculty of the Indiana University MFA fiction program who read and critiqued very early and very rough drafts; teens Lucie Barton, Srija Sen Chatterjea, and Abdishe Dorose, whose feedback and support were essential to me during a time when I was sure that this story had no real audience; and the Bush Foundation, who gave me the time, space, and funding to dig deeper and get the book done.
Thanks to Kevin Haebeom Vollmers and Adam Chau of CQT Publishing and Land of a Gazillion Adoptees, for taking a chance on this manuscript, insisting that it has a readership, and being bold enough to embark on the grand experiment of launching it as a serial in digital format.
Thanks to my husband, Ballah Corvah, and my son, Boisey Corvah, for giving me the space and inspiration to write.
Thank you, Jim and Sue Gibney, for always believing I would get it done.
And last, but hardly least, thank you, global transracial adoptee community, for the revelation that this story is not mine, but ours.
There was a time when I thought that everything would converge – that the story I had been told from birth really was mine, that the body we had groomed so meticulously would actually achieve the kind of greatness in the world reserved for only a few. There was a time when I was going to break every boundary, become the first female world-class baseball player in the game, and in doing so, redeem every choice my father had made for me.
This story is about that time.
But it is not just a story loss. Please don’t get confused. So many years later, I can see now that the only thing of substance that I really lost was a lie that could never have carried me through to womanhood. To mixed black womanhood, specifically. To a me who doesn’t want to be anyone else except that frizzy-haired, desperate, beautiful mixed girl adoptee who thought she lost herself, but really stumbled onto the path of becoming this better me, now. This Alexandra Kirtridge, 28, living in Brussels on a research fellowship, who understands white people better than they understand themselves, who embraces the contradictions of how I got here, and most importantly, sees but finally feels that I am no longer alone. Afterall, you are here now, hearing this story, and in doing so, you make it real.
We have all lost something. The only real question is: What did this loss change into?
Alexandra Lynn Kirtridge
Brussels, Belgium, 2013
Chapter One“That was the miscast summer of my barren youth which (for that short time, that short brief unreturning springtime of the female heart) I lived out not as a woman, a girl, but rather as the man which I perhaps should have been,” William Faulkner, Absalom! Absalom!
“Go tell Dad we got to get going,” said Jason. He might only have been a year younger than me, but these days, he wasn’t trying to act like it. “I would do it, but he’s still annoyed at me for Tuesday. I’ll do anything to avoid the look.”
He was referring to the stern and disapproving glance Dad gave us whenever we had done wrong in the game. When you don’t play your best you don’t just hurt yourself – you hurt me. His eyebrows would knit together, his lips even tighter than usual, and he would emit this kind of energy from his eyes that could scald.
I shrugged and stared into my algebra textbook. “We still got two hours before first pitch.” Our team from West High, which Dad had been coaching for seven years, had made it to the Midwest Championship semifinals.
Jason glared at me, pressing his right arm into the kitchen wall. “Alex, you know how he gets when he doesn’t have enough time to do the whole warm-up.”
I remembered the year before, when I couldn’t find a tampon or pad in the entire house, and we had to stop at Walgreen’s to get a pack. We still got to the game very early, but Dad’s face was pinched for the next day. He was so irritated with me. My game was just off for nine, long innings. No, Jason was right on this one – I definitely didn’t want to go through that again, especially before such an important game. If I had to do my homework later tonight and skip hanging out with my friends, then so be it. I stood up, reluctantly, and then pushed in my chair. “Where is he?”
Jason turned around and began stretching his other arm. “He’s down in the den, messing around with some of his files or something.”
I rolled my eyes and started walking down the hallway. Dad could easily spend hours in that den, doing God knows what. Pouring over various files, reading all his special magazines, watching, cutting and reordering video clips of our games. Walking in there was like walking inside his brain; it was too intense and almost creepy.
I rounded the corner and started down the steps to the den. The cool linoleum against my bare feet sent shivers up my spine, and my hands grabbed my elbows. When I got close to the den, I spotted Dad, leaning over his big grey filing cabinet, rifling through its folders. His brow was furrowed in concentration as he lifted one of them up and paged through its contents slowly and methodically. I leaned against the wall that led to the den, still not in plain sight, but not really hidden either. I was relieved that he hadn’t noticed me.
He pulled out an envelope that looked very worn. He ran his fingers over it gently, like he was reading brail. I don’t think I had ever seen my father handle something so carefully. He bit his lip and then sighed. After a moment, he pulled out the letter and opened it slowly, smoothing out the folds. He was holding it at such an angle that I couldn’t read it, but could see the handwriting. I craned my neck out, curiosity trumping fear.
Dad and Mom had written love letters to each other while they were in college but the handwriting on the paper did not belong to Mom; I was sure of it. Her penmanship was thin and precise, while this person’s was lazy and a bit sloppy.
“Time to go?” His head had snapped around so quickly that I was hearing the words before seeing his eyes.
I jumped. “Yes!” I said. It’s 12:30.” I shoved my hands into my pockets.
He smiled, crammed the letter and envelope back into the folder, and slammed the cabinet closed. I jumped again at the sound.
“Sorry, honey,” Dad said, walking briskly to his chair to get his coat. “Just got caught up.” His shoulders looked a little tight, but the rest of his body looked loose, so I hoped I was off the hook. He didn’t seem angry.
He strode over to me and put his arm around my shoulder as we began to walk back towards the kitchen.
“Your mother sure can write,” he said, squeezing my left shoulder. “Twenty years may have passed, but I never get sick of reading her letters.”
I felt something tighten in my stomach. Why would he lie about something like that? I was angry because I knew my father was keeping something important from me. I shoved this emotion down and let him lead me out of the den, back to the hallway.
And then we were in the kitchen, facing Jason, who was sprawled out on the floor in the runner’s stretch. “Ready to go out and get a win?” Dad asked him, and then looked at me.
“For sure,” I said, closing my algebra book.
When we got to the field a few family and friends of the players dotted the bleachers surrounding the field, arranging their coolers and jackets and seat-rests. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, trying to take it all in, and prepare myself for the first step towards the National Championship.
After the other players arrived and the bleachers were packed in, Dad walked out to meet the other coach on the pitcher’s mound to start the game against East High – our crosstown rivals. The rest of us gathered on the edge of the dugout to listen.
“John,” Dad said, thrusting his hand towards the wide, lumbering man who approached him, wearing a cockeyed East High cap and sweatpants that were a little too big, “So good to see you. How are Katie and the kids?”
He and Dad had gone to Clemson together.
The man smiled warmly, and grasped Dad’s hand. “They’re great, Terry. Great. And Rachel and the kids?”
“Good, good. Everyone’s good.” Dad paused, looking down into the other team’s dugout. They were a little bit scrawnier than we were, with rail-thin profiles and extra-long legs. “Looks like you got a promising bunch this year. We’re ready for a first-rate outing today,” said Dad.
The man beamed, then slapped Dad on the back. Both of them laughed and then stared up at the sky. I got the feeling that they really didn’t have that much more to say to each other, but they had to wait for the umpire to meet them before beginning.
“Been hearing about this center fielder you got. A girl, I hear – a black girl. Heard she’s got some legs on her, that she can hit, too.”
Jason turned to me and raised his eyebrows. I was conscious that my ears were burning.
“That’s Alex,” Dad said, crossing his arms over his chest. “My daughter.”
The man had tiny, beady eyes, but they fluttered open right away. He brought his left hand to his neck and began to rub it. You could almost hear the thoughts running through his head: black daughter, white father, white mother, white brother…
“That’s right…you adopted,” the man said, finally getting it. “You and Rachel.” He squinted into the sunlight. “I’m sure you told me before, and I just forgot.”
The umpire was finally making his way towards them. I thanked Godbecause our dugout had grown hushed; I could feel the tension collecting under my shoulder blades, the hiccups forming in my windpipe.
“She is a great player,” Dad said. “Phenomenal for a girl, really.”
“That so?” asked the man.
Dad shifted his weight and nodded. “She’s mixed, not black. She’s half white.”
We were up, seven to two in the bottom of the fifth. They had this black pitcher who was supposed to really be something. Apparently, he had just moved to Madison a few months before. He had perfect location in the strike zone, and could throw some change-ups that would leave you cross-eyed as the ump called you out. I had also heard that he even had a deadly curve ball, though they wouldn’t let him use it in the league.
“Look for the fastball and try to adjust to anything off-speed,” Dad told me before the game. “And try to hit it up the middle.”
The light spring breeze felt a little cold on my cheeks, and the sun was already too bright for the sunglasses I had chosen to wear. I lifted my bat up over my shoulder and planted my feet solidly into the ground. I knew that the pitcher had looked at the scouting report on me. You didn’t get that good without knowing exactly what you were up against. He brought his left hand out of the glove and went into the wind-up. I knew it would be a high fastball – the pitch that always looks good to hitters, but rarely is. He was counting on me to swing, to give into temptation, like Jason had at the end of the last inning when he struck out. It was coming at me, fast and hard, but I knew it was high. I looked behind me, and the umpire called a ball.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the pitcher flinch. I could hear Dad’s voice in my ear: There’s no preparation like over-preparation. Remember, every second, how lucky you are to be playing the game. Appreciate it – really feel it. Because you never know when it could all be taken away from you. I stepped back into the box. This would probably be the time to throw something off-speed. He was shaking his head at the catcher. They must not be on the same page.
Here it came. The pitch would have a perfect location, right up the middle. He wanted that strike, no matter what. But I gambled where the ball would be if he was smart, so I brought the bat around fast and it connected. There was a whack, and it flew over the pitcher’s head. I pumped my arms, dragged my legs towards first. Come on, Kirtridge, come on. Why was first always so incredibly far away? It blurred ahead of me, while dust flew up and curled under my cleats. Come on, come on. I knew the ball had dropped in left field. I brought my foot down on the bag and ran through. My lungs tightened, constricted even though they wanted more air. The umpire stretched his arms out to either side. Safe. I exhaled. It was then that I saw the left fielder still holding the ball. I laughed. He hadn’t even tried to make the play. The pitcher lifted up his glove, motioning for the left fielder to throw him the ball. You could see he was angry from the way he moved: exaggerated and agitated. I had done my job.
After we beat East, we went out to dinner with them. In his post-game glee, Dad insisted on paying for everyone. “To my old friend, John,” he said, raising a mug full of Heineken. “A great coach and a great friend.”
You could see that John really didn’t want to raise his mug to meet Dad’s, that what he really wanted to do was get out of that pizzeria and commiserate with his team. He managed to stick a fake smile on his face though, and clink his glass with Dad’s.
Dad put his arm around John’s shoulders and squeezed hard. “This team of yours is really something, John. Really something.” Dad rarely, if ever, got drunk in public, but he often got happy. He raised his glass again. “A toast. To the team.”
John’s face became clouded, but he made the toast. The rest of his team followed, with their Cokes and Sprites.
Jason and I exchanged glances across the table; I covered my mouth with my hand and hoped no one could hear me laugh. “He’s so crazy,” I said in a low voice. You couldn’t blame him for being excited though – we were one step closer to the National Championship.
Jason shook his head. “Man,” he said, stirring the ice in his glass with his straw. “I played so bad today.”
I leaned toward him. “Look, all you have to do is change your batting stance a bit. Keep your shoulder in longer. You’re bailing out.”
He drummed his fingers on the table, eyes drooping. His closely-cropped blond hair barely covered up the welt on the back of his head that he had gotten from a badly-played grounder a few games ago. “Don’t you ever wonder if this is what you’re supposed to be doing?”
I stared at him: his perfectly ironed jersey, his big ears. “What do you mean?”
“I mean the game. At this level, all the time.” He threw up his hands. “Alex, you’re sixteen, I’m fifteen, and we practice three or four hours a day. Crazy.”
I couldn’t believe what he was saying. “That’s what it takes to be the best, Jason.” I put my hand over his, stopping his drumming. I leaned towards him and whispered, “And we are the best. Maybe not right now. Everyone has slumps. You’ll get out of it.”
He drew his hand away and shook his head.
“I don’t love it like you do.” His blue eyes trembled.
We ran six miles a day at five thirty every morning, and lifted weights in the basement when we got home from school. Since I was a girl, Dad said I had to work twice as hard to develop strength, so I lifted 10 pounds more than Jason and at more intervals. Practice was an hour and a half after weight lifting, and usually lasted for two hours, four days a week. I knew what Jason meant about the intensity; I could see he was tired of thinking about it every day. But I didn’t believe he didn’t love it. That was impossible.
“He would kill me if I told him I wasn’t sure about it,” he said.
“Shut up. You’re sure.”
“It’s my whole life.”
“That’s why you’ll work harder, get better,” I said, sipping my Coke.
He sat up, took a deep breath. Dad was still at the center of the table, talking about the umpires, and the tiny size of the strike zone in the game. “Sometimes I hate him for that,” Jason said quietly. Then he stood up, and walked to the bathroom.
I watched his tall skinny back recede into the dim lighting of the pizzeria. I knew the way he clenched and then unclenched his left hand before making a catch, and the frustration that clouded his sight when he fumbled.
“How you doing?”
I turned around to see the black pitcher. He has a good face – high cheekbones and deeply set eyes. My stomach flipped. He stuck out his hand. “Reggie Taylor.”
I grabbed his hand and shook it vigorously. “Alex,” I said.
He gestured towards the chair beside me. “Mind if I sit down?”
I shook my head. “No, please do.” I wondered how long Jason would be in the bathroom.
The pitcher looked me over slowly, and my stomach flipped again. “Girl, you know how to play some ball. How long you been playing?”
“Ten years,” I said, trying to keep my voice even.
A black guy wants to talk to me.
He raised his eyebrows. “Ten years?”
I laughed nervously. “Yeah. I know that’s crazy, but, you know, my dad started me early.”
But I’m not really black.
I gestured towards Dad, who had finally sat down at a table overflowing with beer and pizza. “My dad.”
Reggie looked from Dad to me and back again a few times. “Your…oh. Your dad! Oh yeah, I think I can see it.” He brought his face closer to mine, examining it carefully. “Yeah, ya’ll got the same pretty eyes, and the same killer arm.” When he smiled, a dimple appeared to the right of his mouth. I shut my eyes as my face started to heat up. I could see the black kids at West, clustering towards all entryways, cackling and laughing at me. There was no way through.
“So your mom then,” he was saying, “she’s black?”
I laughed. “No. She’s…I mean…” He was giving me his full attention. I glanced towards the bathroom; no sign of Jason. “That’s right,” I told him.
“Wow,” he said, looking at Dad again, “that’s cool.”
I laughed nervously. I had been enjoying his proximity, but now I wished he would just leave. My pulse felt like it was speeding up every second.
“You know, I think it’s cool they let you play with the boys and all,” he said. “Because I’m sure you would whip some ass in the girls’ league.” He grinned. “Bet them girls don’t like you too much, do they?”
I cringed. “What do you mean?” It must have been so obvious that I didn’t exactly fit in.
“Well, you know,” he said. “Folks don’t usually like people who show them up.”
“I guess so,” I said. “I don’t really have too many girlfriends.” Jason rounded the corner, out of the bathroom, fiddling with his fly. In a few strides, he would be beside us. I stood up, rattling the table and almost knocking over my Coke. Reggie caught it before it spilled.
“I’ve got to use the bathroom,” I said. I started walking away from him. “I’ll be right back.”
He will never talk to you again.
“Sure,” he said. I felt his eyes on my back as I almost ran away.
I stayed in there for fifteen minutes, standing on the toilet seat with the door locked. When I finally came out, Reggie and Jason were engaged in a lively conversation – something about Ken Griffey, Jr.’s time with the Mariners. I snuck over to the other side of the room and absently pushed the buttons of the pinball machine. Its lights flashed as the metal ball sped and careened off the walls. I wished I could get inside the machine, underneath the glass and hide. I looked down at the burnt brown skin on my hands, arms, and legs, and wondered how it had come to cover me, how it was me.
When I turned around, Reggie was staring at me in confusion. He knew I was a liar. I wanted to walk up to him and say that I hadn’t wanted to lie to him, tell him why I had done it, but I had no idea what I would say.