PORTRAIT OF A BOY

by

Cosmo

© 2013 - 2014 Cosmo
cosmonaut@hush.com

This Story is works of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

These stories are copyrighted by Cosmo, all rights reserved. Distribution, including but not limited to: posting on internet sites, newsgroups, or message boards, or in book form (either as a whole or part of a compilation), or on CD, DVD or any other electronic media, is expressly prohibited without the author's written consent.


Chapter 15: At The Edge

School was very different now, that is on the isolated occasions when I was able to attend. Most of the time, the school set work for me to do at home, but occasionally I was able to go into school to hand in my assignments and catch up on the lessons. But it was not like it was before. There was nothing to look forward to. I no longer had the pleasure of being able to seek out Tony to hang around with. I missed him. I found myself longing for the days even before I knew Tony, when I at least could admire him from a distance, and when a quick glance or a chance smile, caught and returned, could make my day. It seemed that no sooner had I got to know Tony, he was gone. It was as if our friendship had been a mere firework, a brief and intense flash of energy, a quick starburst that had flared into life and all too soon exhausted itself. Now Tony was on the other side of the world, and I hadn't heard from him since. But then, I should have known that Tony wouldn't bother getting in touch. I started out by giving him the benefit of the doubt, willing myself to be patient. I waited and waited for him to contact me, for a phone call, an email, even a letter, but nothing came. It was the one thing that might have helped lift me from the general malaise that my life had stagnated into. Even if Tony's intentions had been genuine, chances are he was having such a wonderful time in Hong Kong, with new friends and a new home, that he was probably too caught up in the novelty of his new life to remember much about the old one. Weeks went by and I heard nothing. When a whole month passed and I still hadn't heard from him, I had to eventually conclude that Tony was never going to get in touch. It was stupid of me to ever believe that he would. So, my doubts and suspicions had been realized. I figured I might as well give up hope and accept that I was probably never going to see or hear from him again. I had lost Tony, just as I feared.

Worse still was that even Julian wasn't at school anymore. I could always have looked to him for solace, or even just for some encouragement, a kind word, a friendly smile. But even he had been excluded, as though we were both being unjustly punished. Which only made my isolation all the more tangible. I felt lonely and abandoned. There was no one left to fight my corner or provide succor, a refuge from those who sought to undermine me. And there were plenty of them. My protracted absence was a source of curiosity to the other boys, who seemed to share the consensus that I must somehow have been excluded from school as a result of some transgression or other. Boys of our age always liked to assume the worst, and loved to revel in gossip and speculation. This was brought home to me ever more starkly because Danish and his usual cronies were never very far away, constantly sniggering and pointing and leering at me. Their psychology was even more potent because they kept their distance. They never confronted me directly, but seemed to have embarked on a concerted campaign to demoralize me. It was never anything more than whispering and pointing, mocking laughter and killing looks. Their methods were subtle, but very effective.

This campaign of attrition was intensified further by what happened on the first day I went back to school after Tony's departure. I entered the atrium of the main school building - ordinarily a very public area, and always busy. It was a major artery of the school because it was the point where the two wings of the building met. That was where our lockers were situated, where they were easily accessible and in full view. I stopped as I arrived at my locker, seeing that it had been defaced with some ugly graffiti, in thick black marker pen. There, scrawled on my locker door in childish, irregular handwriting, was the phrase 'sexy dexy' and below that 'dexy the rent boy.' I stood and just stared at it, immobilized by an overwhelming sense of injustice and incensed by the simplistic, juvenile mentality of it. The mindless sensationalism was almost laughable. The brazenness of such a statement, committed to written words for all to see, made it all the more an act of treachery because I couldn't conceive how such a spurious allegation was ever arrived at, yet alone considered newsworthy. I closed my eyes and hung my head in despair. The atrium was filled with other boys all milling around me, all going about their business, and most of them were not focused on my plight, but my humiliation was nevertheless public. And as I stood there, stopped dead in my tracks, with my head dropped forward, I could hear the cruel sniggers emanating from somewhere behind me, as Danish and his accomplices sucked up my anguish, wallowing maliciously in their twisted pleasure.

* * * * * *

Some days after his initial diagnosis, Dr Shapiro called me back into his office. He had investigated further into Joey's condition and discovered that there was a doctor who specialized in treating this rare form of cancer. His name was Dr Touliev, a pediatric oncologist who was considered to be the world authority on this type of brain tumor. He was a Russian-born ‚migr‚ who had treated almost all of the known cases of this rare cancer in the world. The only problem was that this Dr Touliev was in London. He had set up a dedicated unit for treating this type of cancer at one of the prominent London hospitals. But London was way beyond our means. Firstly, there was no guarantee that he could help us, but even if he could, how would we ever get to London? Even my generous health insurance didn't cover treatment in another country. It would mean plane tickets, accommodation, subsistence, and the recovery period for such invasive surgery could be months. It seemed an impossible aspiration.

As usual, just like all the other major events of my adult life, Sandra played a very important role. It was Sandra who first mooted the idea of trying to raise the money for Joey's treatment. Of course I laughed. It was such an outlandish proposition that I didn't think the initial prospect was even worthy of serious cogitation. But on closer inspection it appeared there was some merit to the idea. On reflection, it seemed that what Sandra was proposing was actually doable. It was a long shot, but not altogether unfeasible.

Sandra had worked out that by consolidating all the funds at our disposal, the shortfall was not so great. I had some savings that I of course could contribute, and the school district, as my employer, was also very generous in advancing a one-off sum, as I was entitled under my benefits. That left a shortfall between what my health insurance would cover, and the cost of Joey's treatment. The rest of the money came from some very unlikely sources. The kids and teachers from Joey's school had organized various fundraising activities, even arranging sponsored events, and spreading the word around town. They managed to get the local press involved, which resulted in a great deal of unsolicited donations from ordinary townsfolk who had heard of Joey's plight. The publicity also caused the local fire department to get involved. Apparently, the fire chief had heard that Joey once expressed an aspiration to become a firefighter, and the fire chief was so impressed by that, they organized a visit to the fire department for all the local kids. The local TV news network was there, which generated a huge buzz of publicity for the cause. For the next few weeks, money was constantly rolling in. Checks and even banknotes started arriving in the post. Unknown individuals were turning up at the front door offering donations. People's generosity and kindness was very humbling. I would have preferred not to take money from people, especially strangers who didn't even know Joey. But I took it. I took everything people gave me because Joey's life was more important to me than my pride. If there was any chance of a positive outcome, I was obliged to take it, for Joey's sake. In the end, with all the publicity, we managed to raise more than what we needed for Joey's treatment.

And so, we did get to go to London after all. Joey and I packed our things, boarded a plane, and flew to London in the certain knowledge that this was our last chance. It was very disorientating for Joey who had been wrenched from his usual routine, forced to endure a ten hour flight, suddenly finding himself catapulted halfway around the world to a strange country, where yet more unspeakable things were going to be done to him. It was a lot to expect from a little ten-year-old boy. But Joey took it all with his usual characteristic stoicism. He was excited, but apprehensive. It was understandable. What would have been the trip of a lifetime for this little boy was instead tinged with the sadness of knowing that he was here not for a vacation, but to save his life.

We went to see Dr Touliev immediately we arrived in London for an initial assessment, going straight to his offices directly from the airport. Dr Touliev was an impressive man, tall and handsome, with movie-star features and a thick head of wavy black hair. He was very distinguished. And he spoke perfect English, with just a hint of Russian accent. He was clearly an educated man. He was confident, self-assured, intelligent and personable. I liked him and trusted him straight away.

Dr Touliev was also very realistic. He made it clear that he could not provide any certain outcomes, only a commitment to carry out a tentative exploratory operation which could, depending on his findings, progress into full surgery. We both knew there were no guarantees. The truth was, he didn't know what he would find. He would only know the extent of Joey's tumor once he had actually been able to look at it. Then, and only then, would we know for sure. Apparently he had pioneered a revolutionary new technique of microsurgery which could be carried out by accessing the brain through the nasal passage. The first step was to simply look by using an endoscope and then using computer tomography to compile an augmented reality image of the tumor. It was all very clever, and the technique was in its very early stages of development, but it was the only chance Joey had. If anyone could save him, it was Dr Touliev. He was confident to operate and the operation was scheduled for two days time.

I can remember that in those two days before the operation, brief though they were, I took Joey to see all the sights of this grand imperial capital, one of the greatest cities in the world, in what became a whirlwind whistle-stop tour of all the iconic London landmarks. We took in Buckingham Palace and the gothic looking Parliament building, as well as Piccadilly Circus and Tower Bridge. I can clearly recall, as we photographed each other in front of the fountains in Trafalgar Square, wondering whether this was going to be the last great adventure of this little boy's life. It was fun, and yet so tragic, for we might never have the opportunity - at some far-off point in the future - to reminisce on these momentous days. It is strange how the inability to envisage the future sullies what goes on in the present. So we made the best of those two days in London - two days of reprieve, two days of deliverance, two days stay on the inevitable, though they were unavoidably tainted by the Damoclean specter that was hanging over us - the specter of knowing that you may be doing something for the very last time.

Five hours, Dr Touliev had said. He estimated that the entire operation could take up to five hours. It was delicate, painstaking, precision surgery. It required patience, a cool head and a steady hand. He promised he would come and see me the minute he was out of the operating theatre. But it was only barely an hour into the operation when Dr Touliev came to me. He sought me out in the relatives room, where I was waiting. He was still wearing his green surgical gown and cap, and the face mask was pulled down around his throat. It was not good news, he said. He had looked into Joey's skull using his revolutionary technique, but had decided not to progress any further with actual surgery. The tumor was simply too advanced and too ingrained. It had spread to his spinal chord. It was impossible to even attempt to operate without risking imminent and irreparable damage, or even death. There was simply nothing he could do. He apologized and said he wished the circumstances had been more favorable, and that he would have preferred to tell me something good. But alas, it was beyond even his considerable expertise. Joey had only a matter of months, maybe only weeks left, he said. Joey was now free to return home. There was no purpose to us remaining in London now. Perhaps Joey would prefer to spend his final days at home, Dr Touliev said. He touched me softly on the arm, conveyed his condolences and turned to go. So that was it. As Dr Touliev walked away, I listened to his footsteps receding back down the corridor, just as Joey's chances of survival were also receding. It was all over. I cannot describe the utter desolation of that moment. I thought of Joey, still anesthetized, his frail little body lying alone in this sterile place, thousands of miles away from home. All for nothing. And it was me that brought him here. It was probably the loneliest and most forlorn moment of my entire life.

Dr Touliev's prognosis was prophetically accurate. Within weeks of returning home, Joey's seizures became all too frequent and unmanageable, despite the medication. They were so powerful and debilitating that he was completely incapacitated by them. Hospitalization swiftly followed, and then I knew it was really the beginning of the end. In the last few weeks of his life, his little body withstood so much pain and trauma, more than I ever thought a boy of his age could endure. It was heartrending to see him suffer like that. He was such a courageous little boy.

I recall that I was in the small anteroom next to Joey's hospital room, not really sleeping, but catching what rest I could whilst Joey's condition slowly deteriorated. There was a gentle rap on the door. It was the nurse, looking in on me briefly. I knew instantly from the expression on his face that it was time. We had agreed that he would let me know when that dreaded hour arrived, and now, after so much hoping against hope that it would never come, finally it was here. He didn't have to say anything. He just looked at me, not with any particular words or expression, but I knew nevertheless. The time had come.

It was 3.30 in the morning. The lowest hours of the lowest day of my entire life. The dead of night. The time when all things are at their weakest and most vulnerable. I knew that Joey would not live to see the morning. He was heavily medicated, and for the moment, perfectly calm. He was lying on his side and had twisted himself into an awkward S shape in the bed, his knees pointing one way, his face another, and his head at such an angle that ordinarily I would have feared he would get a crick in his neck. But what difference could it make now? He seemed comfortable like that. His eyes had eerily rolled into the back of his head so that only the whites were showing through the narrowed slits of his eyelids. His breaths were so quiet and long that he took an eternity to exhale. I almost held my breath waiting for him to breathe in again. His breaths seemed to get weaker and longer, and became so quiet that they were barely audible.

The nurse took Joey's temperature and confirmed that his body was now in its death throes. I could do nothing but hold his little hand - his pale, emaciated, weak little hand - and stare at the face of this beautiful child - the face that had captured my heart the very first time I saw him, now looking gaunt and pale - the face that had evoked such love and affection in me - the face I adored and admired and was soon never to look upon again. Joey trembled. I looked at the nurse in fear and uncertainty, but he seemed unperturbed. He always remained calm and in control at all times. His imperturbability was very reassuring. So we just sat there, like slaves to this unwanted vigil, this unwelcome call of duty, this unbidden nightwatch. Finally, when it was nearly 4.00am, Joey took his last breath, exhaled a long, whispery, throaty breath, and didn't breathe in again. Then I knew that Joey was gone. Finally his suffering was over.

I came home from the hospital at daybreak. I had been up all night. I was physically exhausted and mentally drained and my eyes were reddened from not having slept. My emotions were in such a profound state of turmoil that the trauma left me virtually numb. For the moment, I concentrated on doing a few mundane things, staggering from room to room in a kind of preprogrammed daze. I made a cup of coffee which I never drank. I loaded up the dishwasher with dishes I had absently left in the sink the evening before, then tidied up the kitchen and took out the trash. Finally, when I had completed all the routine little jobs, I found myself going upstairs, thinking I should get some sleep. At the top of the stairs, I stepped onto the threshold of Joey's room and looked in. I don't really know why. Maybe force of habit. I always looked into Joey's room when I passed, even when he wasn't there. The room was empty of course - completely devoid of his presence. Everything was just as he had left it, prematurely abandoned, right down to the bookmark that was sticking out of the closed book on the little desk in the corner, almost as though he was going to sit down and continue reading at any moment. And as I looked around and saw how expectantly everything had been left, it struck me just how sad it was. Everything echoed the life of the little boy that had once laughed and played within these walls. The redundant accoutrements of an existence that was no more still littered the room. No one had told it that he wasn't coming back.

I went about the house in something of a trance until it was time to go to bed, thinking neither one thing nor the other, not really knowing how I should be feeling, perhaps distracting myself with routine trivialities. Then, when I was finally getting ready to go to bed, I opened the mirrored cabinet on the bathroom wall, just above the basin, and I spotted Joey's little toothbrush hanging there in its stand, next to mine. I don't know why, but out of all the things that could have set me off, the toothbrush was the thing that did it. I stared at his little red toothbrush for a good minute or two, suddenly deeply stunned by the realization that Joey was never going to use it again. After staring fixedly at that little toothbrush for so long, I finally could not hold back the tears. The enormity of Joey's death suddenly became so tangible that I was almost incapacitated with emotion. I was overcome by something that was relentless and frightening, and it welled up inside me like some vast tidal wave of sadness that crashed ashore and overpowered me with a bottomless grief that was all-consuming, a black, blinding deluge of helplessness and sorrow. I broke down instantly. I wept out loud in pain, wailing like a wounded animal. I cried and cried and couldn't stop. I don't think I had ever cried so deeply and with such utter wretchedness in my whole life. God, how I cried.

* * * * * *

Those dark days were always a troublesome memory. It was ironic that the anniversary of Joey's death coincided with all the other woes that were currently bearing down on me. It was exactly a year ago, and going back over the last weeks of Joey's life only compounded my misery, for here I was, barely a year down the line, not yet recovered from losing Joey, and my life had entered yet another dark and prospectless period. How I had dreaded this day, hated it even. I had promised myself that I would not spend it alone. I had vowed that I would make sure I was around other people, and that all my friends were with me, to avoid me getting maudlin and wallowing in pity and sentimentality. But where were my friends? I was forbidden from contacting Ben, and by association Sandra who was my best friend. Which left me feeling more isolated than ever. The separation from Ben was painful enough. He seemed to be the only thing that gave my life any meaning nowadays - the only thing that I actually looked forward to, that gave me reason to smile, so that being forbidden any contact with Ben was simply cruel. Ben was so far away from me, there was no chance of anything good now.

On top of that, I was suspended from work - separated from the only other thing that gave me a reason to get up in the morning - the only thing that was still good in my life. I was under investigation by the Department, in their eyes a potential predator and child molester, and in real danger of sinking beneath the oppression of the question mark that was hanging over me. I knew I had done nothing wrong, but to them, the possibility was still very real. The weight of that distrust was stifling. The very fact that anyone could suspect me capable of doing the things they accused me of was shameful and demoralizing. I wasn't sure I could live with that stigma, undeserved though it was. And yet, it was true that I had done things with Ben that I perhaps should not have done. I had undressed him. I had caressed him. Indeed, I had even hugged and kissed him. That was enough to give cause for suspicion. Perhaps the worst that could be said was that I had not exercised my best judgment, that I had unwittingly put myself in this compromising situation, when I really should have known better. The weight of that suspicion was so great, that I had even started to doubt myself.

And so, with my life in crisis, and the specter of Joey's death still so lucid in my memory, I had started drinking more and more. It didn't help that I had so much time on my hands, with very little to occupy my days, so I had plenty of opportunity to drink. I drank in the morning. I drank in the afternoon. I drank all evening. I drank until the pain was numbed and my mind was so saturated with alcohol that I didn't need to think anymore.

It was cold, and evening was already drawing in. I was considering whether to go out. Anything was better than being alone in this house with all my memories. I quickly downed a good quantity of bourbon and decided to go out anyway. I was too far under the influence to drive, so I left the car and decided to walk. I wrapped myself up in my coat and walked to the store, even if only to give me something to do, to be around other people.

The trip to the supermarket would have been relatively uneventful and forgettable if it hadn't been for a random event which made me regret my decision to step out this particular evening. The whole episode upset me beyond words. It happened soon after I had entered the store. There was a rather large woman, who was seriously overweight, pushing a shopping cart down the aisle. Her cart was full to overflowing with nothing but junk food, and she was puffing quite loudly, apparently from the sheer effort of walking. She was sweating profusely and seemed impervious to the two tiny little boys that were trailing along forlornly behind her. They were cute little things, probably about five or six years old. I guess they must have been twins. They were not identical, but looked very similar in appearance, with little mops of straight golden blond hair, button noses and big brown eyes. Their diminutive little bodies were decked out in basketball jerseys and shorts. On their bare feet were open sandals which exposed the full length of their sinewy little legs. But there was no sign of any jackets or outdoor clothing to protect them from the cold. My first thought was that it had turned quite chilly outside, and I couldn't see how these two cute little specimens wouldn't be cold, even if it was just walking out to the parking lot. All they had on were these skimpy basketball jerseys and loose shorts. I found myself walking behind them in the aisle and they were cheekily whispering things in each other's ear and giggling. Their corpulent mother forged on ahead, completely immersed in her shopping, throwing things indiscriminately into the shopping cart, looking oppressed and impatient. The two little boys turned and smiled at me and they giggled to each other. I gave them a warm, friendly smile. It was delightful to see how they responded to me. They were very endearing and I was captivated by the little boys' prettiness and cheeky smiles. Just then, their mother loomed up unexpectedly, grabbed them each by an arm, and abruptly swung them around, dealing out a harsh, resounding slap, first to one, then the other. She hit them quite hard, the sharp blow causing their heads to jolt violently. I must have gasped in shock, almost recoiling at the sight of that.

"I told you little fuckers to stay close to me!" she hissed, with real malice and vehemence in her tone.

The two little boys held their smarting cheeks, visibly shocked into silence by the unwarranted blows meted out to them. What had been a delightful and tender moment had been prematurely curtailed and perverted by their mother's disproportionate overreaction. I felt so sorry for them. She grabbed them both by their jerseys and violently jerked them away, and as she did so, their little jerseys rode up exposing a small expanse of their midriffs, so that you could see their flat little tummies and their cute little innie belly-buttons. They reluctantly went, their happy giggles now silenced and the cheeky smiles of a moment ago now cruelly wiped from their faces. I watched them go, their expressions contorted in pain and self-pity and with enormous tears welling up in their eyes.

I was overcome with such outrage and pity, that I turned abruptly and left immediately, simply not having the stomach to continue. I abandoned the shopping cart in the aisle and headed for the exit, leaving the door swinging in my wake. I scurried away from there almost in a canter, horrified at the thought of what those poor boys must have had to contend with. It was beyond me how parents could treat their children with such contempt, how they failed to appreciate the children they had, how they didn't value the wonder of childhood, nurture it and respect it, and enjoy the pleasure of watching their children grow, instead of frightening them, hurting them and neglecting them. What a waste, when there was so much redundant love lying dormant within those of us who had no child to lavish our affection on.

I ran back out to the parking lot as though trying to erase the memory of what I had just witnessed. I needed to get away. I walked out into the night with no purpose other than to try to distance myself from that awful scene. I walked and walked, ignoring the other people on the sidewalk, charging through them as though I was being pursued. I just walked on, without any clear direction or destination, tramping the dark and deserted streets, not even aware of how far I had gone or how I was going to get back.

I eventually found myself down by the river. Perhaps my footsteps had unconsciously led me there. I often used to go there to clear my head, and whilst it had not been my intention, that was where I ended up. It was only a narrow river, not very fast flowing, but deep and dark and forbidding. There was an old stone bridge which spanned the river at one of its narrowest points. It was a road bridge, though not often used because it had been superseded by the larger bridges that had been built more recently further upstream. It had been left as more of a tourist attraction now, frequented by courting couples and lovers who vowed their allegiance to each other by attaching lovelocks to the rails, the keys of which ended up being tossed into the river some forty feet below. Yes, it was a perfect venue for lovers, for secret trysts and romantic rendezvous. It was considered romantic because it afforded a stunning view. The parapets on each side were very low, perfect for gazing out along the river. I stopped and looked over the parapet, and down at the reflection of the blazing lights of the distant cityscape bouncing back off the surface of the water.

I suddenly felt the urge to get an unimpeded view, and the parapet looked easy to climb. So I jumped up and clambered onto the top of the parapet. Standing up there was dizzyingly high, and slightly scary, but the view was spectacular. A bracing breeze was blowing off the river, and up there I could feel the chill rising up off the icy waters below, which sent a momentary shiver right through me. Looking down at the toes of my shoes, the river appeared to be flowing directly beneath my feet. Still woozy from all the bourbon, I swayed precariously for a moment as I stood up there staring down into the murky waters. It was so dark and dirty in the river, like a rich gravy, which at that moment seemed very inviting; a fitting way to submerge oneself into oblivion, and erase all the troubles that were bearing down on me, threatening to crush me. It was actually quite a tempting prospect. It was funny, but a random quotation suddenly came into my head, just as I had a knack of reciting some spontaneous literary fragment at the oddest of moments, especially when I had been drinking. The literature that I taught in my lessons provided endless inspiration, so a fitting passage was never too far from my lips. To be or not to be? Indeed. Was it better to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or take arms against this sea of troubles? Right now, the slings and arrows were almost too much to bear, with the full weight of the law threatening to overwhelm me. My career was in ruins, my reputation in tatters, and Ben was beyond reach. All was lost. The sea of troubles had been whipped up into a veritable ocean of turmoil, so that it would have been all too effortless to allow myself to simply sink beneath the waves without a trace. It would have been so easy to just jump into that river to be swept along by the tide, to leave the cares of this world behind, so that all my tribulations would be simply washed away. One quick leap, a short descent through the air followed by a muted splash, a few moments of breathlessness, and then welcome oblivion. The cathartic peace that I craved. Sanctuary for my soul at last.

I don't know what I would have done next because I never got the chance to find out. At that precise moment, as if by some supernatural providence, my cellphone rang. It shocked me momentarily back into sobering reality, and strangely I couldn't suppress a little laugh. I don't know if it was the timing of the disturbance, or the humorous paradox of my somewhat nose-thumbing ringtone - I had always thought it slightly subversive to have the first few bars of The Beatles' 'Don't Bother Me' as my ringtone.

Without even thinking, almost as a reflex action, I pulled the phone from my coat pocket to see who was calling. It was Joey's cellphone number, so I knew that it must be Ben. I answered it immediately.

"Julian?"

It was Ben alright. I knew that pretty treble voice. Strange, he was the one person in the whole world I would most liked to have heard from at this very moment, and by some mystical serendipity here he was calling me.

"Hello Ben," I said, trying to sound upbeat.

"What are you doing?" he asked warily, perhaps already detecting that I was out somewhere.

"Contemplating," I said, cryptically.

"Contemplating what?" he asked, with characteristic boyish impertinence.

He had that familiar tone of skepticism in his voice, which indicated to me that he suspected I had been drinking. I don't know how, but Ben always knew. At any rate, the querulous tone in his voice was confirmation that he was not totally convinced. He sure was intrusive and nosey when he wanted to be.

"Just contemplating," I replied, indicating that it was nothing noteworthy.

"Are you okay?" he asked, with genuine empathy.

What a sweet boy, that he should even concern himself with how I might be feeling.

"I'm fine," I lied, "And really happy to hear from you."

"Oh, that's good," said Ben, hesitantly.

It was delightful to hear Ben's mellifluous young voice once again, his high-pitched tones like a little angel of redemption on the other end of the phone, instantly lifting my spirits.

"You know you shouldn't really be calling me," I chided, gently, "We're not supposed to contact each other."

"I know," he said, "But I really needed to talk to you and... well, Sandra doesn't know I have this phone."

"Oh, okay," I said, "Let's be careful, I don't want you to get Sandra into trouble."

"I won't," he replied, obediently.

Then there was a short pause, during which I could hear him breathing uneasily.

"So, how are you?" I asked him, deigning to begin the conversation proper.

He hesitated before answering, and I could detect that he was mustering his response.

"My mom won't agree to an adoption," he said, in a downbeat, almost tearful manner, almost blurting it out as though he had been longing for the opportunity to enunciate this stark fact.

With that brief announcement he had instantly switched the tone of our conversation from what I had expected would be one of mundane pleasantries to a heartfelt and intimate one. That he had come straight to the point made it clear that he had called specifically to tell me this momentous news. I realized that he must have been feeling pretty down, and understood immediately why he was probably anxious to share it with me. I was actually glad he did.

"Oh," I said, "I'm sorry to hear that," because it was all I could think to say.

He explained briefly the circumstances, describing the meeting that had taken place with the social workers at the Department, and how his mom had threatened to stop him from seeing Petey. It seemed he too was having a miserable time lately. I felt so sorry for him.

When Ben had finished, he slowed down and stopped altogether, finally running out of steam and falling silent. Then, after a short pause, he spoke again.

"Julian?"

"Yes Ben?"

"I miss you," he said, plainly, and I knew instantly that it had taken him a lot of courage to say that.

His statement brought a little tear of emotion to my eye because it was a lovely sentiment, honest and sincere. It was almost a plea, a confession, a little admission of weakness on his part, that in his moment of turmoil he acknowledged that he needed me.

"I miss you too, Ben."

"When will I be able to see you again?" he asked.

"Soon," I said, sounding more upbeat, "I promise."

Upon which, we launched straight into a more positive and animated conversation. He started telling me about life at Sandra's, and all the little nuances of his day. They were trivial, everyday occurrences that were really nothing memorable, but it was lovely boyish chatter, full of throwaway remarks about the minutiae of his life. More importantly, we talked about the future, and when we might be allowed to see each other again. The fact that his mom had basically vetoed any adoption didn't appear to dull his desire to continue our relationship, nor his eagerness to talk to me. And as we talked, it all suddenly became clear that Ben was depending on me. By calling me like this, the first time he had ever called me using the cellphone I had given him, he was reaching out, leaning on me, begging for my attention, wanting to confide in me. He could be scared, anxious, or simply lonely. Whatever it was, his tender words revealed just how much I meant to this boy, and in turn, made me realize just how much he meant to me. I knew then that there was no way I could so thoughtlessly disregard that. I couldn't abandon him so callously.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Ben might even have saved me from doing something stupid that night. Ben had immediately engaged me in conversation, and before I knew it, I had stepped away from the parapet without even thinking about it. I jumped down and walked away, heading back in the direction of home, charmed and captivated by his boyish banter, and with my dark thoughts of a moment ago already forgotten.


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