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Chapter 6: Firsts
As the performance date loomed, so the schedule of rehearsals intensified. If there was one thing I did regret about getting involved in the school play, it was staying late after school two or three times a week. Invariably I worried about Petey when I knew he was at home, probably left to his own devices as my mom and Alan went about their usual couch-potato routines. I only hoped he was going to be okay and that he was behaving himself and not doing anything to attract mom's wrath and earn himself another beating. He would usually lie low until I got home, waiting for me to get back so we could have dinner together - he didn't like eating with mom and Alan. For one thing they always took their meals in the family room, in front of the TV with a tray on their laps, as though it would compromise their principles to miss even one minute of TV time. But I preferred it that way anyhow. I liked taking my meals with Petey, even if we were relegated to eating in the poky little kitchen of our apartment. The conversation was far more edifying and I found his company pleasant and stimulating. He may have been only seven years old, but he was already a good conversationalist. He would tell me about his day and he was always asking me how the rehearsals were going. He took a great interest in my role. He always encouraged me and said he looked forward to coming to see the performance.
Rehearsals had now moved into the assembly hall, where the actual performance was going to take place. The assembly hall was in the newer part of the school, a cavernous building that was one element of the dedicated new wing which comprised of a gym, art studios and science labs. The assembly hall was a light and airy space which had a broad, flat stage at one end, and was fully equipped with lighting gantries, curtains and PA system, just like in a real theater. It was a little intimidating rehearsing up on the stage for the first time. Seeing how the hall itself was devoid of any audience, it was quite scary to imagine a room that size filled with people. But I didn't focus too much on that. I preferred to think only of the fact that here I was at last, up on the stage with Tony, right now being watched by only a handful of people, Julian and the other boys in the cast, plus a few select hangers-on such as the boys who had volunteered to be the stage crew and a few nosey teachers who had popped in for a 'sneak preview' of what we were doing.
For his part Julian, our director, did find the whole undertaking a little trying at times. I could see the sometimes vexed expressions on his face that made it clear that there were times when he must have questioned why he ever took on this project. When there were a lot of boys on the stage - during some of the tribal scenes - he almost shouted himself hoarse trying to make himself heard above the unruly mob of boys that were invariably hyper and frisky and not always entirely obedient. When things were going badly, such as when the mob scene - the one where the boys turn against Simon - descended into total anarchy, he would simply hold his head in his hands and lament with despair. But when things were going well, you could see the obvious pride and satisfaction he got from watching us and knowing that it was all turning out as he envisaged. He would stand on the sidelines with a self-satisfied smirk, like some kind of proud ringmaster, watching his protégés perform. For my part, I assumed it was pretty much a thankless task for Julian. There was really no reward for him beyond the admiration of the other teachers, perhaps the approval of the school Principal and maybe the respect of the boys in the cast and stage crew.
When we rehearsed in costume, Tony was for the most part shirtless, so it was an added bonus for me to be able to admire his physique at such close proximity. Our actual costumes were modeled on real military academy-style uniforms, with the fabric teased and distressed in such a way as to make them look worn and ragged, which reflected the boys' descent into tribalism and savagery. I wore a thin military-style tunic that was ripped and was always hanging open, with no shirt underneath, and ragged knee length pants. I didn't mind the open tunic. My usual reticence about my nakedness didn't really apply here, simply because I was playing a part. I was no longer Benjamin Dexter. I was Jack Merridew now. I actually felt more confident on stage and began to like the idea of performing to an audience. Sure, the prospect filled me with dread, but I soon discovered that it also induced in me a strange feeling of intoxication. I was starting to discover that for quiet, retiring boys like me, the adrenalin rush brought on by being in front of an audience served to substantiate something I had always half suspected: that maybe all shy boys secretly crave the limelight.
This particular scene was the fight sequence, which occurred at the point in the story where Jack begins to challenge Ralph's leadership and asserts his supremacy. Julian had us rehearse every move in slow-motion first, one by one, and then assembled them all in a carefully choreographed sequence. Tony was supposed to reach up and grab both my wrists simultaneously, thus blocking my blow, and then push me backwards onto the sand, sitting astride me to stop me getting up again. I couldn't fall backwards in slow-motion, so for that bit I simply had to fall for real. It took a great leap of faith for me to allow myself to fall backwards, but my trust in Julian was vindicated by the soft landing onto the fine, powdery sand of the very realistic set he had prepared. I fell, and before I could catch my breath, Tony was astride my waist, falling to his knees quite hard, straddling my hips and pinning my wrists down on either side. He was crouched over me in a display of supremacy and that was supposed to represent Ralph's short-lived victory over Jack. At that moment, our impromptu little audience hushed, focused on the gravity of the scene, and I hoped mesmerized by our performance, which I knew was good. Tony looked down into my eyes, his face only a few inches above me, his lithe body straddled across me, leaning forward. My tunic had fallen open, so that my chest was exposed, and I could feel his rib cage pressing into mine, the warmth of his body melding with mine. I could also feel his moist breath on my face. We were both slightly breathless from the fight sequence, and I was looking straight up into his pretty hazel eyes. In those few brief moments, I felt him squirm slightly as he straddled my hips and he smiled ever so mischievously. I hoped he was smiling because he knew we had cracked it. It was the first time we had rehearsed the entire fight scene all the way through without stopping. We got it right the very first time. Our performance was flawless. For me, it was a moment of powerful intensity, not more so than because Tony's butt was sitting on my tummy and his shirtless body was bearing down onto mine, so that we were pressed together chest to chest. Acknowledging that, submissively pressed into the sand beneath his slim frame, I smiled back, in that one instance establishing an unwritten, unspoken pact between us which gave me a nice warm glow of satisfaction that we were now secret allies, all the more in league with each other because no one else could see our expressions. I hoped he had relished that moment as much as me. Then Julian called our cue to stop. Tony let go of my wrists and got off me. What I liked best was that he reached down as he was standing over me, and held out a hand, offering to help me up. It was a beautiful gesture. I had no hesitation in grasping his hand and he gave me a good hard tug which helped me hop back up onto my feet. Then, the most extraordinary thing happened. Tony stepped back and gave me an admiring grin, cocking his head slightly as though to emphasize his awe of me.
"Y' know Ben, you're pretty good," he said, as though he had only just started to recognize that I had real talent.
I broke into a broad smile.
"Thanks," I said, chuffed that he would even be so magnanimous as to enunciate such a sentiment, "You're pretty good yourself."
He shook his head.
"Nah, not as good as you," he replied, politely denying my assertion.
He couldn't possibly have known just how much his remark meant to me. For one thing, it was the first time he had openly acknowledged me, and it was wonderful that he had actually spoken to me directly, thus finally accepting me as his comrade and equal. But not only that, perhaps the thing that was most significant was that he had actually called me Ben. To me, that was the defining criterion that I commanded any credibility with anyone.
Later, when we were dressed and preparing to leave, rehearsals over for another day, Tony came up to me in the poky little dressing room that was secreted behind the main stage, and he gave me a buddy-like slap on the shoulder.
"See ya tomorrow Ben," he said, slinging his sports bag over his shoulder.
At that point I realized that Julian's prophecy was starting to come true and that his incentive to get me involved was actually working. Not only had I discovered something that I was good at, but Tony and I were actually becoming friends.
But it didn't end there. As I emerged from the dressing room, I saw that the assembly hall had quickly emptied and Julian was left to tidy up. He was preoccupied collecting up the last of the props and other paraphernalia, putting away chairs and clearing the debris we had left behind. He was in his shirtsleeves, no tie for a change, and was dressed quite informally in faded jeans. It seemed odd to see him dressed so casually in school.
Julian spotted me standing there.
"Wanna give me a hand?" he called over.
"Sure," I replied, and set about putting away the remaining chairs.
Julian was sweeping up. A consequence of having real sand on the set was that it inevitably got trapped in our shoes. Even those of us in bare feet had sand trapped between our toes. We couldn't avoid scattering traces of sand everywhere we walked. For a few moments it was just Julian and me in the big empty hall, and I realized that once again I was the last to leave, and once again I was alone with him.
"Well, bye Julian," I said, when I had finished putting away the chairs, and was about to head for the side door.
Julian looked up from his sweeping, the broom still in his hand.
"Thanks Ben," he said, "You did well today."
I smiled back at Julian, gratefully absorbing his gratitude. It was nice to have my efforts openly acknowledged like that. Julian was so polite, so appreciative. It was odd hearing such pleasantries, maybe because for me they were almost unheard of at home.
I made to move off, but Julian called me back.
"Oh Ben!" he called, as though he'd just remembered something.
I turned, and waited. But, rather than raise his voice across the room, Julian beckoned me over, gesturing me back towards him with a wave of his hand. I went over to where Julian was standing, over by the edge of the stage, to see what he wanted. He put the broom aside. As I approached, he stepped up to me and briefly put a hand on my shoulder affectionately. It was actually quite nice to be touched by him.
"I was just wondering," he began, taking on a slightly philosophical tone, "whether you were free this Saturday?"
I stared at him blankly for a moment, completely taken aback by his enquiry, and I stood there in silence for an awkward couple of seconds, looking up at his tinted glasses and neat brown hair and the young, carefully trimmed stubble on his jaw. His dark eyes were gazing back at me enquiringly.
"Free? Yeh, of course I'm free," I replied.
"Good. How would you like to go out for the afternoon?" he asked, very directly.
"Out? What do you mean?"
I realized almost as soon as the words left my mouth that it was kind of a stupid question.
"Just for lunch maybe?" he said, phrasing it like a suggestion, "Just you and me."
I was so surprised by this prospect that I could only manage monosyllabic replies.
"Your choice," said Julian, beaming, "just name it."
His invitation was so unanticipated that I struggled to formulate some kind of reply.
"You mean like McDonalds?"
"Sure," he said, as though it was of no consequence at all, "If that's what you want."
I hesitated idiotically, not expecting him to be quite so amenable, and trying to assimilate the idea of going out somewhere with Julian, outside school time, just the two of us, like a kind of date.
"Really?" I enquired, "You mean it?"
He seemed a little bewildered by that question, and frowned, creating a little furrow in the space between his eyebrows.
"Of course," he replied, shrugging it off as inconsequential, "It's not such a fanciful idea, is it?"
I was flattered and delighted with his proposal, thinking it an undeserved token of appreciation from him, though I couldn't understand what I had done to earn such a rare treat.
"But McDonalds?" I said, "I only get to go there on my birthday."
Julian seemed a little perplexed by that remark. I felt slightly ashamed saying it, because I knew that for other boys McDonalds wasn't a rare treat, it was part of their day to day routines. Sadly, I had never had anyone to take me there. I had no inclination to go on my own, and the burden of responsibility from looking after Petey meant that I didn't really have the time nor the money for such little indulgences.
"Oh, I think we could manage something a lot more sophisticated than McDonalds for your birthday," Julian replied, ominously.
I liked the way Julian talked. I liked the way he used words like 'sophisticated' and 'fanciful' and words which never figured in my everyday vocabulary.
"Okay," I said, happy with our arrangement, "I'd like that very much."
"Good," said Julian, with a quick nod, "Would you like me to pick you up?"
"No," I said emphatically, the vision of his first meeting with my mom still firmly entrenched in my memory, "I'll meet you there."
"Okay," he confirmed, "Midday, at the entrance to Portland Mall. Do you know the fountain by the arcade?"
I nodded, pursing my lips with relish, thus cementing our arrangement. He nodded back, clearly pleased to have secured my agreement.
And so it was that I left rehearsals with a distinct spring in my step, buoyed by Tony's delightful but unexpected compliment, and feeling blyth and happy at having secured an impending rendezvous with Julian. These magnificent little tokens of sheer luck had just landed in my lap, completely unbidden. I could hardly believe my good fortune. I didn't really know what prompted Julian to want to take me out for lunch, but I was starkly aware that it marked a new and exciting development in our relationship. It excited me beyond words because this was not something connected with the play. For the first time, we had contrived to meet outside school on our own. I liked and respected Julian, and I was thrilled that he was starting to take such an interest in me. No one had ever done that before.
From school, I went straight over to see Mr Trebusz. He was a neighbor who had a little house on its own plot of land quite close to the edge of our neighborhood. Mr Trebusz lived alone, his wife having died years earlier. He was Polish, a World War Two veteran who had fought with the British. He had parachuted into Normandy following the allied invasion. We had learned a little about that in history class. He had even shown me his campaign medals. It was quite plausible, after all he was well into his nineties. The war must have been the defining event of his generation. It was difficult to believe that he had once been a six-foot-two paratrooper. He was a bit doddery and infirm now, and could only walk with the aid of a stick. His back was slightly bowed, and he had spectacles that were so thick they looked like the bottoms of soda bottles. He was also very hard of hearing. But he was a nice man.
It was a single storey house, set well back from the road, with a yard that often needed attention. It was always overgrown. The grass needed cutting and weeds needed pulling up. There was a wooden fence around it which was falling apart because some of the nails had rusted and the cross-members had fallen off. The house itself was a little rundown. It could have done with a lick of paint. The screen door had a tear in it and the front door itself was always sticking where the doorframe had buckled from the damp. I often did odd jobs for him, like mending the fence or clearing the gutter, some painting and yard work. I mowed the lawn and pulled up the odd weed, and I had even been known to plant herbs and shrubs for him. I wasn't a gardener, but Mr Trebusz, who was too frail to get down on his hands and knees, told me what to do. He had a small plot around the back where he had planted a kitchen garden and grew his own vegetables and herbs. I had been doing this for nearly a year now and he always paid me well for my efforts. I used the money to buy things for me and Petey. I saved most of it, so that Petey could have nice things for his birthday. Of course my mom didn't give me an allowance, preferring to spend what little welfare she received on cigarettes and booze and nights out with her drinking buddies at the social club.
So, after a couple of hours doing odd jobs for Mr Trebusz, I headed back home, having sacrificed most of my evening. But at least I had another handful of dollars to add to my stash. As I came in, my mom was in the kitchen, thrusting away recklessly with the sink plunger, and creating a hell of a racket. The sink was blocked again. That was always happening. The plumbing in this apartment building was old and inefficient, although that wasn't helped by the fact that my mom was in the habit of stuffing cigarette butts down the plughole. She stopped briefly as she spotted me pass by the little hallway that all the rooms in the apartment opened onto, and turned to interrogate me. She looked particularly haggard. Her gray, dry, wiry hair was straggly and unkempt. Her face was greasy and her eyes were slightly reddened, a sure sign that she'd been drinking. The eternal cigarette, smoked almost down to the butt, was stuck in the corner of her mouth, as usual.
"Where the hell have you been?" she demanded, irritably, the dripping plunger still in her hand.
"Rehearsals," I replied.
"Waste of time," she grumbled, turning away with a huff.
She turned back to the sink, her hands submerged elbow-deep in gray dishwater.
She was always determined to put a dampener on anything I did. But then, I had long ago given up expecting a word of praise from her. If it was of no direct benefit to her, she wasn't interested.
"I take it you won't be coming to see the performance," I said.
"What, to see you make a fool of yourself?" she sniffed, with her back to me, "Why are you so late anyway?"
"I went over to see Mr Trebusz," I replied, "I was helping him with his garden."
She turned again to scowl at me, evidently not impressed by my good deeds.
"What do you want, a medal?" she quipped, sarcastically.
I thought that remark very unkind, even hurtful, but I let it go. I was used to her petulance and sarcasm. I shuffled away already feeling demoralized.
On my way to the bedroom, I crossed behind the sofa in the family room, where Petey was sat watching TV - yet another rerun of 'Teen Titans'. As usual he had the volume turned up real loud, so he didn't hear me come in. I reached over and ruffled his moptop hair as I passed by. He flinched momentarily, then turned around and, realizing it was me, gave me a playful grin. There was no sign of Alan. He never went out without my mom, ergo he must be having his weekly bath, which was about the only time Petey got to watch what he wanted.
I went straight to my bedroom. The first thing I did was retrieve the little tin I had on the bookshelf, secreted behind a particularly thick and dull-looking tome, and stuffed the crumpled greenbacks in with the rest of my dough. I was starting to acquire quite a nice little stash. Maybe one day I would have enough to escape this place, to break away from this oppressive, soul-destroying regime - get as far away as possible - and take Petey with me.
* * * * * *
I was pleased that Ben had agreed to play the role of Jack. I didn't think he would, but I was delighted to have him involved in the play. I was now starting to see a different side to him, a side that was more confident, more outgoing, and he seemed happier in himself. Ben had been quite down and had always appeared to me somewhat glum and despondent. I really felt sorry for him, all the more because I had a vague idea of what life was like at home for him. Of course he hadn't spoken to me about it directly, but I hoped in time he would. I knew from experience that sometimes it took a while for a boy to trust you enough to share anything meaningful. I had learned that with Joey. Ben had already succeeded in getting me to open up to him, quite unexpectedly, when he asked me to tell him about Joey. Sooner or later, it was going to be his turn to confide in me.
I considered what I might do to cheer Ben up. The truth is, I wanted to spend time with him. He was likeable, interesting and intelligent, and I found his company very pleasant and agreeable. I thought perhaps I would ask him if he'd like to spend an afternoon with me. Maybe I could take him out, give him something to smile about, or at least distract him for a short time from the cares and responsibilities that seemed to be weighing him down. I didn't know how he would react to that. Most probably he would think me an interfering interloper. Maybe even resent the intrusion, or at the very least wonder what was behind my motivation. He was a very private boy, not given to exposing too much about himself. He might even be suspicious of me. But I wanted to do that for him. I figured that if he turned me down, there would be no harm done. If he said yes, that would be great. If he didn't want to, well, that was fine too.
Of course, Ben had said yes. I was thrilled. I hadn't been so excited in such a long time. For some strange reason, I was suddenly on a high, inordinately happy that Ben had accepted my invitation. He had finally agreed to let me take him out. It wasn't even anything particularly spectacular. I had only offered to take him to lunch. I was shocked and delighted when his eyes widened in surprise. "McDonalds?" he had exclaimed, "I only get to go there on my birthday." Was this kid serious? Could this boy really be that deprived? Well, then it was the least I could do for him.
Strangely, when Saturday came, I was bouncing with anticipation. I wasn't really sure why. It was only McDonalds for goodness sake! What was I getting so excited about? But then, I knew that the venue was not really the point. It was the fact that Ben had agreed to come out with me. We were going to spend some quality time together, informally, away from the confines of the school regime. It was a first for both of us, a departure from our usual routines, marking a change in our relationship, and I was walking on air for days in anticipation.
Ben was already there waiting for me when I arrived. He was standing at the exact spot, by the ornate fountain in front of the arcade at the entrance to the mall. His little jacket, which was probably too thin for the impending winter, was fully fastened against the slight chill in the air, and his hands were dug deep into his pockets. He didn't see me at first, so there were a few moments that I was able to just watch him from the opposite side of the piazza, looking about nervously, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, clearly anxious to spot me in the crowd of passing shoppers. He was such a cute, good looking boy. I don't think he realized how pretty he was. His prepubescent innocence only vindicated my selecting him for the role of Jack in the play. Jack was quite a hefty role, probably the most challenging in the entire production. Villains and antiheroes were certainly the roles that required the most input, and Ben's wholesome schoolboy looks only served to make Jack all the more sinister. And he played it so well. He had really got his teeth into the role. I had no doubt, he was going to be fantastic on opening night.
Ben spotted me. His face lit up with a smile and he stepped towards me as I approached, genuinely pleased to see me but also, I could tell, relieved that I had actually turned up. I gave him an affectionate slap on the shoulder in greeting and he immediately fell in beside me as we headed for the entrance to the mall. We instantly launched into conversation, at once comfortable in each other's presence, and there was no hint of awkwardness or hesitation.
So there we were at Portland Mall, at McDonalds, sitting in a booth overlooking the parking lot. Ben had scooted along the seat right up against the window, and waited patiently for me to bring back our order. He wasn't greedy or apt to take advantage either. He was such a polite and thoughtful boy. He had simply asked for a cheeseburger and fries. It was lunchtime and the server lines were busy, so I kept an eye on Ben as he waited. He was looking about him, watching the people coming in, overawed by the surroundings as though we had just reserved the best table at some swanky downtown eatery. I will never forget Ben's expression when I set the tray of food down on the table, and the way he looked up at me, wide-eyed with appreciation at the spoils in front of him. There was true gratitude and thankfulness in his expression, and those pretty almond eyes of his sparkled a very translucent gray-green, illuminated by the sunlight flooding through the full length windows.
Ben ate his cheeseburger within what seemed like only a few seconds. He had finished the last mouthful even before I had barely made a start on my chicken salad. It didn't surprise me exactly. It only confirmed what I already knew to be true of boys his age - that they are all little eating machines and will consume vast quantities when allowed unfettered access to food. But then I realized that maybe there was more to it than that. It wasn't sheer youthful greed or boyish overindulgence on his part. This boy was really hungry. He wasn't starved or anything, but like all growing boys, he certainly had the capacity to consume a lot more than he was given. I ordered him another cheeseburger, which he accepted humbly and gratefully, and which he chewed his way through with almost as much relish as the first. He also finished off a double helping of fries.
I enjoyed watching Ben eat. For the brief time that we were eating, he was quiet, but still smiling away manically as he masticated. For me it was a throwback to the days when Joey and I would share long, golden afternoons together over a burger and fries, sat across from each other, just like this, a dad and his boy, lost in intimate conversation, talking about anything and everything - back in the days when I reveled in my duties as a father, when I was at the height of my fatherly exploits - me the nurturing, benevolent father, him the cute and vulnerable little boy. It had been such a long time since I had enjoyed that exclusive privilege, the kind of privilege that was the domain of those men with the inherent instinct and inclination to father a capricious, energetic and mischievous young boy, with all their guile and precocity and charm. And Ben had all of those things. All of those things and more.
I let Ben guide the conversation. We were talking mostly about the play at first, how well he thought it was progressing, how nervous he was about opening night, and about some of the other cast members. He talked about Tony Slater a lot, and I was pleased that he seemed to be getting on so well with him. Tony Slater was very popular and gregarious, one of the school's most capable all-rounders, as well as being a hell of an actor. Yes, I was so pleased I had cast two excellent actors in the leading roles. Together they were going to be sensational.
As we were talking, I noticed that Ben seemed a little distracted and was looking past me at something over my shoulder. There was obviously something behind me that fascinated him intently. After a while of trying to talk to him and not succeeding in making eye contact, I turned and looked behind me. A big section at the back of the restaurant was given over to the children's play area, at that moment overrun by a large group of little preschoolers, swarming all over everything. The most popular attraction was the big tube maze, with a network of snaking tunnels and a labyrinth of ladders and walkways with a big transparent bubble in the center where several of the little tykes were diving into a big pit filled with multicolored plastic balls. The kids were raising hell, psychotically screaming and excitedly clambering over everything. Meanwhile, their anxious looking parents stood on the sidelines calling out to them to slow down and be careful. Ben was sucking at the straw in his Coke, watching them wistfully whilst I was absent-mindedly helping myself to his fries.
"Hey!" he protested, "You said you didn't want any!"
I gave him a guilty smile and pushed the rest of the fries towards him, intent on not pilfering any more.
"What are you looking at?" I asked him.
"Those little kids," he said, nodding towards the play area.
I turned and looked at the hive of activity going on behind me.
"Looks like fun," I said, "Did you want to have a go?"
Ben shook his head, puckering his lips in a regretful grin.
"No, I'm probably too old for that," he said, a little downbeat, "I just wanted to go over there with you."
"What for?" I asked.
"It's okay," he said, dismissing it, and I could see he felt awkward about explaining it.
"No, go on," I said, "Tell me, please."
He shook his head, and looked away.
"No, you'll think it's silly."
I was disappointed. I reached across and clasped his wrist as he was grabbing for another handful of fries. He looked at me.
"Have you ever known me to belittle anything you've said?"
He stared at me, pursing his lips sheepishly.
"Well, I just wanted those kids to see me with you."
"Why's that?" I asked, puzzled.
"I wanted them to think you were my dad," he said, sadly, "So they could see I had a father."
I looked at Ben with a surprised, slightly bemused expression, momentarily struck dumb by the poignancy of what he had just said. The sheer depth and profundity of his remark stunned me. And no sooner had he said it, he looked down, averting his gaze in shame.
"I told you you'd think it was silly," he said, in a low, downbeat tone.
I instantly regretted my reaction. I regretted it because he might have interpreted my expression as a look of revulsion. But that wasn't what I intended at all. In fact I was humbled by his remark. It was a nice thing to say. But what took me by surprise was the sheer candidness of his statement, with its really quite deep and touching connotations. In fact, it overwhelmed me a little, so much that I could actually feel myself welling up.
"No Ben," I replied, "That's not silly. It's very flattering."
He looked up, momentarily confused, doubting my reaction, as if unable to gauge my true feelings, perhaps not entirely convinced.
"Really?" he asked, seeking confirmation that I was not repulsed by the idea.
"It was a lovely thing to say," I went on, "Thank you. That means a lot."
I gave Ben a friendly, encouraging smile and excused myself. I had to leave the table because I was a little overwhelmed. I headed for the restrooms almost in a canter. Letting the door swing shut behind me, blotting out the noise and commotion of the restaurant, I stood for a moment in front of the mirror, appreciating the cool, quiet, calm of the restroom, and took some time to compose myself. It was a little unnerving because I realized that Ben's remark had affected me more than I expected. "I wanted them to think you were my dad," he had said, "So they could see I had a father." Did he really feel the lack of a father that much? I had to try very hard not to break down just from the sheer tenderness of his words. His remark was so revealing and had touched me so deeply, that I actually felt the sting of tears in my eyes. But more than that, I was flattered. I was flattered because I think it was one of the nicest things anyone had ever said to me. Yet it was also precisely the kind of thing that twelve-year-old boys said. Sometimes their remarks were extraordinarily authentic and succinct. This was no exception. But more than that, he had perhaps unwittingly told me more about his life and his outlook through those few simple words than I had been able to ascertain in all the time I had known him. I knew he had problems at home, though I had never been able to determine the full story. It should have come as no surprise to me that here was yet another young male without the guiding benevolence of a father figure in his life; another little boy crying out for the paternal companionship of an older man. Yes, Ben had never confided in me as such, and yet he had just told me everything I needed to know. Out of the mouths of babes... for he had uttered a truism that encapsulated everything that was symptomatic of the problems in both our lives: me grieving for the loss of a son, him for the absence of a father.