bastard child

By H TOMLIN | Published: July 13, 2010

The restaurant white noise grew. Metal scraping surfaces, murmuring, movement of cloth, blending into a single indistinguishable sound. With my back to the restaurant in the table nearest the far wall I faced the boy. A handsome five-year-old with dark hair and eyes, reminding me of his mother. His feet dangled a foot from the floor and he seemed happy.

At first meeting the boy I assumed he was older. The way he spoke, looked me in the eyes, made him seem very intelligent and mature. Much more control of himself than is common in five-year-old children.

I asked about his favorite subject in school. He looked at me surprised.

"Why did you ask me that? I wish you wouldn't ask me that." Was the strangest reply I could have expected. The other adults at the table kept to themselves, leaving the boy alone to answer my questions. I encouraged him further and hardly got another two words from him. Finally gave up.

Sitting beside him was a tall man, my friend. I had watched this man grow from a gangly fourth grader, into a skinny teenager, and now he was nearing thirty but looking much older. You could read through the bags under his eyes, frown, and stomach fat that here sat a man who had served on aircraft carrier through two wars, the loss of his home to Katrina, and who lived with a woman suffering untreated depression for years. A man I wrote letters to while on a boat in the ocean. A man who rekindled a dead faith when the pilots he befriended started flying out on missions, never to return. My friend.

“Get out of my space” a severe tone, void of emotion.

I looked around, wondering what had evoked the sudden hostility. My shoulders tensed as I realized it was a command to the boy. What gave it away was the sudden look of fear and confusion. Panic. His chair had been pushed in too close and his feet were far above the ground.

“Get out of my space!” the order came again with more poison in it now. There was a threat buried inside the statement.

I was trying to figure out how to move the chair with my leg under the table, but couldn’t reach. Finally the boy took firm hold of the seat and rocked with everything he had to slide himself away. He only made it an inch, but it stopped the demands for the moment.

His mother sat beside me, as though nothing was happening. Focused on the two year old girl. Telling me how she could not make the girl eat the way she wanted her to. The child throwing food around and giggling. Her black eyes in complete control. Elated at the mess she freely made.

I looked back at the boy, holding his body stiffly inside a small safe space. Desperately trying not to touch his dad who was still sitting dangerously close. Eating his food, careful not to make mistakes.

My cheeks and neck grew hot. It would have been so easy to simply reach out and move the boy’s chair further away. It would only have taken an arm extending, grabing hold, gently guiding. But instead this man, my friend of twenty years, had kept his arms tightly crossed and made his son feel small. As if it pleased him to make the boy go passive.

I only met their children for the first time that morning. At their mother’s childhood house where I had spent many days of my high school years feeling at home. There was a different climate now; it took me some time to discern it, only beginning to sense it like smoke in the air or a dimming of lights. Something happened with this woman and man in the six years since I saw them last. They transformed from the light hearted tender friends I had known, into something else. Burden.

I sat in the living room, watching the toddler being doted on, wiggling away from each adult’s grasp, adored by her grandparents with smiling faces and open arms. The boy had greeted me with an overly eager hug. He then squeezed in between me and another adult and leaned into me. As if I were a favorite relative, one who always brought candies and presents and gave him a rich dose of attention. I was not.

His affection towards a stranger reminded me of the children I had met in inner-city LA at a daycare that was over crowded and filthy. The children who were dangerous. Who knew abuse and neglect too well. Children that, at the age of five, could torture others in the same art form as had been demonstrated by the adults in their lives.

This boy’s affection scared me. He was in the beginning stages of learning how to be lethal.

Everyone else ignored him.

Unsuspectingly after a few moments of feeling annoyed by his baby sister and disconnected from the parents who had once been dear friends, the boy looked me in the eye, “I want to show you something.”

The boy took my hand and with his other, gently pried out the empty coffee mug I was holding. It was such a gentle act I did not realize right away what was happening. He had waited for me to finish drinking the coffee and now carefully set the ceramic mug on the counter. Still holding my hand he led me out of the living room. Down the hall and up the stairs, we ended the journey in a familiar game room, billiard table in the center, beer signs all around.

Still silent, the boy walked straight to the bookshelf and withdrew a box of Chinese checkers.

“Have you played this game before?”

Yes, I had, which surprised him. Despite the appearance of age, he was still only five and saw the world through the narrow confines of his own home.

“We had it in Kentucky,” he said with a drawl. I giggled and smiled. It’s not every day you meet a small boy who looks like two of your best friends and who says 'Kentucky' with an accent, it tickled me silly.

“In our house in Kentucky. Do you want to play?” There was a tinge of mournfulness when he mentioned their house. They had just moved away. I wondered how many friends he had left behind.

Why not, and I sat down on the carpet as he methodically set up the board. He proceeded to make up a series of rules that had nothing to do with the game of Chinese checkers, but I laughingly followed along. It was fun. This was a first encounter with a child I had known of since conception, the child of two people I had known and loved for the better part of my life. My smile arose from a deep joy. In a way he was family, a nephew.

I loved this child.

In my heart he could do no wrong. The politeness, creativity, intelligence, all gleamed like precious metals, forming a human who I could invest my attention, my affections in.

Then, in walked the man, his father. Frowning. In a few strides reached the far corner and dropped into the chair. Looking at the situation without word. Tired.

As he entered the room that had just been full of laughter, the climate changed. Neither the boy or myself could fit anymore for the thickness, the weight of it. We both withdrew. I became a silent observer, and the boys face was abandoned. His expression, his eyes, empty.

I made a desperate attempt to bring back the jovial mood, but it fell to the ground. We all wore frowns now.

I then attempted to chat. Pretend I hadn’t sensed the mass of anger, depression, ruthless authority, that trailed behind the man like an obese dead thing tied around his neck.

After a few moments he told the boy we were leaving soon followed by a series of orders that made no sense to my adult mind. Instructions that leaped steps. Going from an announcement to reprimand with no middle, no chance for the boy to succeed, to meet the expectation.

It was a cruel game. A game I had rarely seen, especially with a five year old child.

The boy’s emptiness grew deeper. He moved away from the spot on the floor where we had played our game, took a new seat near the window, facing the glass, allowing his consciousness to be on the other side, down below, on the grass maybe. Maybe the neighbor’s yard. A different house. A different family.

And in that moment, grew inside of me a person I never thought I could be. A person who hated her own. The hour glass had turned upside down. The affection I had held for this man, the respect, it all poured out in that moment. There was no equilibrium to be had, the grains trickled downward into this new compartment in my heart, my love for this boy.

And now I sat facing him. The laminate table, linoleum floor, aluminum chair legs, white wall paper, unnaturally large framed portrait of a bowl of fruit, and the eyes of this child.

Already a pro at managing the abuse, he kept to his food. Not allowing himself to be taken off into his imagination, the realms of exploration a child is prone to. The rights of a child. To play. Instead he kept his consciousness to the solid bowl in front of him. Making no sound, no extra movement. Just eating. A prisoner at this table. The guard so very close.

“Get out of my space.” The man demanded again. His arms crossed tightly across his chest. He spoke to the child as if he were a stranger, an offensive, filthy stranger. It would have been so easy, so simple to help the boy. Instead the child braced his hands against the seat again to try to move himself further.

And I was transported back to when this man was eighteen. We were in his parent’s house. His father always an embarrassment. Sitting on the couch in nothing but underwear even though his son had warned him he'd have me with him. Smiling at me with only three remaining teeth. Made me wonder how he could chew solid foods. The house dirty and hot. Only stopped by quickly to grab some things from his room but his dad took the opportunity to yell at him. Tell him he’s worthless, tell him he is nothing.

And I saw the prophetic future of this little boy.

Joining the military, escaping as soon as possible. Telling his parents he hates them, just as his father did ten years earlier with me standing beside him. Angry at the man who told him he had no worth. Knowing the lie. Furious that his own father could not see him. Could not simply love his son.

“I’ll sign the papers.” the boy’s father says, with a bare hatred. His mother agrees. The boy knows better than to speak.

I drove away with a wish to rescue him. Crying for the five-year-old bastard child. Wishing he were mine.



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