Social Services told me I didn’t have to keep Craig. They said they could find a place for him if three kids were too many, but I never considered returning him. I could not imagine seeing him watch us through the window of a white county van, his plump cheeks trembling with fear, hauled away into another nightmare. He was one of us, and that’s how it would be.
Over time, he grew to trust me. He learned that if he was thirsty, I’d get him water, and if he was hurt, I’d be there to hold him.
In my arms, he’d stare at me. What was he thinking? — What’s with the white guy? And then he’d lunge at me, wrapping his arms around my neck, giving me a hug or a kiss, or trying to lick my face like a puppy.
And then, a breakthrough. At the grocery store — all three kids in the cart so I wouldn’t lose one — Craig made a noise and pointed to something he wanted.
I said, “Not now.”
Good news! He said his very first two words!
Bad news! They were curse words. I felt like someone punched me in the jaw. I said, “You’re welcome,” as if he had said, “Thank you,” and kept pushing the cart. It worked. That was the last of the cursing. A few weeks later, at Disneyland, overlooking a pond, Craig pointed to the water and said, “Two ducks.”
He’d be OK.
He hadn’t spoken before because he’d been beaten into silence or trained by his siblings to be quiet and not draw attention. He actually knew a lot of words. Within weeks, he was talking more, and once, too much. Denied a snack before dinner, he ran away crying, found Adriana and Javier, and said, “Daddy hit me.” A social worker had told me that foster children were clever that way, but she didn’t say toddlers would try it. I followed him, and the four of us discussed what he said. I knew that “he/she/they are hitting me” was likely the best way for foster kids to get an audience, and that’s why they did it. I told Craig and his siblings it was wrong to lie, especially like that, and it never happened again.
I knew that Craig emerging from his shell had something to do with me, a safe house, and his siblings not hiding him in cabinets. But the figure who inspired the left-behind to become a boy was a green swamp-dwelling ogre turned movie star named Shrek. He became Craig’s hero. Shrek’s loneliness, his leave-me-alone attitude, and his inclination to defend himself were powerful images. Craig’s favorite part was Shrek taking great leaps, belly flopping onto the knights, the police, the robbers, wrestling them into submission. Craig asked us to call him Shrek — and why not? When I ordered aquarium membership cards, the young man on the phone found his name puzzling.
“Well, we call him that.”
“What the heck, you’re right, who cares?”
Shrek Marin remains on Craig’s card today.