Tai Dong Huai

"Natalie Bilotto," my adoptive dad warned at the dinner table, "is on the road to disaster."

Natalie, an adoptee like myself, had come from Vietnam. She was twelve years old – a year younger than I – and lived less than a half mile away. She never referred to me by my first name; she always called me "China."  Her adoptive mom was divorced, worked full-time at NAPA Auto Parts in the mall, and was an avid bird watcher. Sometimes I'd see the woman our small town referred to as "Bird Bilotto," binoculars strung around her neck, bird identification book in one hand, leading the uncooperative Natalie into the woods behind their house.    

Janine, a seventeen-year-old drop-out who lived next-door, was responsible for Natalie while Mrs. B was at work. Janine's boyfriend, who swore his given name was "Pickles," was twice Janine's age and mowed lawns for a living. People seldom spoke of either of them without using terms like "waste of clothes," or "professional dead-end. "   

"Maybe you should play with Natalie more," my adoptive mom suggested. "Be her role model."

"Kids my age don't play," I said. "We 'hang'."

"Hang with her, then."

In truth, I was a little scared of Natalie. Stories of her misadventures were legendary at school. She'd caused a flood in the girls' bathroom by trying to flush down half-a-dozen hot dog rolls she'd collected at lunch. She'd wedged thumb tacks between the felt strips on the eraser, so that any effort at clearing the blackboard resulted in a nerve-shattering squeal throughout the classroom. More shocking still, she'd used a scissor to cut off Julie LaMonica's ponytail on the bus.

When I rode my bike by her house a week-or-so after my adoptive mom's suggestion, Natalie was in her yard throwing stones at one of the bird feeders.

It was June, just before the end of the term, my last few days in middle school.   

"Hi, Natalie," I said. "Where's Janine?"

"I ate her," Natalie said without looking in my direction.

"Want to do something?" I asked.

Natalie finally threw her last rock, turned and said, "Come on. I'll show you my hideout."

Natalie's "hideout" was a set of cement steps between her basement and the metal access door above it. She'd covered two of the middle steps with a musty-smelling blanket, and hung a battery-powered lantern on a nail in the basement's wooden doorframe.

"I'm going to swipe a roll of duct tape," she told me. "Seal off the entrance so even police dogs can't find me."

We sat in the lantern light for a minute or two and I kept an eye out for spiders.

"Hey, China. You know any jokes?"

Actually, I'd heard one in the girls' locker room earlier that week. I thought it was a bit nasty and immature, so I figured Natalie would probably like it.

"Why do Boy Scouts wear short pants when they sit around the camp fire?" I asked.  After no response, I said, "So they can roast their weenies."

"Ha ha," Natalie pronounced. "Here's a real one. Knock, knock."

"Who's there?"


I played along. "Boo who?"

"Hey, you don't have to cry just because your real mother deserted you." she said.

"Well so did yours," I answered back.

"Difference between your country and mine," Natalie said. "I was stolen. My mother was tricked, I was taken away and sold off the back of a pickup truck. You were just dumped."

"That's not true," I said.

"My mother's in Vietnam searching for me this very minute. Yours is in China cranking out more babies she doesn't want."

I stood up to leave just as I heard Janine's voice from somewhere outside. "Hey, gookie!" she shouted. "Where you at?!"

"Get out of my hideout," Natalie said.

I told my adoptive mom this story and she agreed that maybe hanging with Natalie wasn't her best idea. She also told me how my birth mother was forced to do what she did because of conditions that were no fault of her own. It was a standard excuse and I always thought to myself, You were 6,000 miles away. How do you know?   

I didn't see much of Natalie that summer. But during my freshman year in high school, something happened which was later referred to as "the incident." Accounts varied, but apparently Natalie had attacked Mrs. Bilotto and caused injuries sufficient enough to merit an emergency room visit and a 911 call. Natalie wound up in a place called Trade Winds, a facility that advertised itself as "treating the full spectrum of adolescent behavioral disorders." 

My adoptive dad got the whole story from his friend Ken who owned Liquorama. Apparently Mrs. Bilotto had met a man who worked at the Kohl's department store in the same mall as NAPA Auto Parts. They announced their engagement days before Natalie came home, but, in Ken's words, "the dye was cast."  Natalie and Mrs. Bilotto's husband-to-be despised one another on sight, and he reportedly gave Mrs. B the "pick me or her" option. Her choice was never made public, but it seemed apparent. Especially after some guy Natalie had met at Trade Winds told the police that he'd been offered three-hundred dollars to wait outside Kohl's and "fuck the dude up."  Eventually, Natalie was placed with the State of Connecticut's Bureau of Juvenile Services and, before the year was over, wound up in foster care.

No one – not even Janine – spoke of her again.

Unfortunately, Mrs. B's engagement was as doomed as the rest of her life. The man from Kohl's eventually left town and, as the tale I don't believe goes, was later seen as the lead story on America's Most Wanted.

I still rode by the house from time-to-time. Once in awhile I'd see Mrs. Bilotto. I'd call to her and she'd wave, but she never had time to talk or to stop whatever she was doing.

More than once she was headed into the woods, her binoculars swinging from the cord around her neck, probably looking for something she'd never seen.

Tai Dong Huai was born in Taizhou, China. "Natalie" is from a collection in progress, I Come from Where I've Never Been. Other stories from the collection have appeared in recent issues/postings of elimae, Hobart, Word Riot, 971 Menu, and jmww.

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