The drone of the plane should have put me to sleep. I’d been up for hours already and this was a late, cheaper-fare flight. But I was too keyed up for sleep. Everything lay in front of me: a new job, new living arrangements, new people to meet, new life. How could I sleep with my head full of all that?
I’d just finished college and was moving back to the area where I’d grown up, a sprawling city in the West—Los Angeles, to be more specific, although for anyone knowing Los Angeles and how spread out it was, saying you’re moving to L.A. doesn’t tell you much of anything.
I’d left home to go to a prestigious college back East. I’d been like most college freshmen, eager and ready for new challenges, naive and as wet behind the ears as anyone could be but pretty sure I could take care of myself and looking forward to the challenges.
My parents had wanted me to stay closer to home. Heaven knows, there were many excellent schools in California, even in the close-by vicinity of L.A. Why go all the way to Massachusetts for an education? Sure, the unis were good on the East coast, but they were so distant, and I knew no one there, and what if I needed help and my main support system was thousands of miles away? They’d be too distant to help me if I needed it.
That was the point of it for me. I wanted to do it all on my own, just to show myself I could. And I had. I was flying back home for good now, though not back to my parents. I was a full-fledged, educated, degreed graduate of a highly rated university. I’d interviewed and gotten a job offer from a school district in the same general area where my parents lived—if you extend the limits of ‘general area’ about as wide as possible. They lived in Calabasas, a municipality near the western edge of the San Fernando Valley, which is a vast area comprising much of the northern part of the city of Los Angeles and running to the northwest. Many Angelenos make their homes in the San Fernando Valley.
My job, however, would be teaching in Rancho Cucamonga, a suburb of L.A. which had seen rapid expansion. It was a financially sound city far to the east of L.A.—in a different county, even—but still an exurb of that city. One of the things I liked best about it was it was over 60 miles and more than an hour’s drive from Calabasas. Taking up residence at this distance from my parents, I wouldn’t have many unannounced drop-ins.
I’m making it sound like I have a problem with them, and I really don’t. They’re great. But they are still my parents, and I am still young enough to value my independence. I’d lived with them for 17 years, and I’d been mostly without them now for five. Now I’d be a working man, living on my own, making my own way, and I wanted to do that without parental oversight/involvement of any kind. I’d live with my own decisions, good or bad. That’s what I wanted. I was fiercely independent and wanted to retain that autonomy.
So why return to SoCal at all? Because I liked it. Liked the weather, the almost perpetual sun, the mostly laid-back and friendly and generous people, the variety of things to do. The lack of a nasty winter to deal with, the sight of the mountains that picturesquely surrounded the L.A. basin and provided hiking trails and even skiing if that tickled your fancy, along with a wide blue ocean to the south and west which allowed year-round swimming and beach crawling. Well, swimming wearing a wetsuit if you were like me; that water can be cold!
Most of this stuff didn’t tickle my fancy at all, if I indeed had a fancy, but it was all available if I wanted to try it.
I guess I just felt at home there. And it would be nice to see my parents occasionally but on my own terms.
I’d rented an apartment, shipped my belongings—what there were for a former impecunious college student—and this was my final trip from where I’d spent almost my entire time for the last five years of my life. Coming home, in a sense, with all the hopes for a great future than a young man just starting out could have.
Most of the passengers around me were fast asleep or dozing. I still had my reading light on, but only a few of us shared my sleeplessness. The plane was only about two-thirds full. It had a late departure time from Logan International Airport in Boston and heading to Southern California. We weren’t flying into LAX. That would have taken well over an hour’s drive, more probably, to where I’d be living. Ontario Airport was much more convenient, if a few dollars more expensive. That’s where this plane was headed.
I had an aisle seat. Those always seem slightly more roomy than the others. I’ve flown often enough to know what the landscape several miles below looked like and didn’t need to see it now. At night it was mostly black, anyway. I’d chosen an aisle seat.
The middle seat was empty, and I’d folded back the armrest between it and my seatback so I wasn’t pinned into my seat at all. Not that I really needed to do that. I’m not a large man. I stand just at six feet and weigh about 170. Well, more like 164, but 170 sounds better. I’d always wished I were a little larger, but you are what you are, and the sooner you came to terms with that, the better off you were. I’d learned that growing up when I was hiding that I was gay. When I finally stopped keeping that a secret, I found out how much of a disservice I’d been doing myself. Nope, you should accept who you are with regards to things you can’t change. In the long run, it’s easier that way. Better to trade short-term unpleasantness, if that even happens, for long-term happiness.
So, okay. 164 pounds. Although that was something I could do something about, and I planned on getting a lot more exercise and building myself up a bit once I was settled. I’d be enjoying more regular hours than a university student could. Regular hours, adequate sleep, decent eating habits—yeah. I could do that and maybe jog some. Get fitter and stronger. 170 was a very attainable goal.
I closed my book, stretched in my seat, and in the process glanced over at the guy sitting in the window seat. He hadn’t said a word to me and we were over Kansas at the very least by now. He’d been in his seat when I’d boarded, and I hadn’t seen his face at all. When the attendant came by asking about drinks and handing out peanuts, he’d never looked up. He’d spent the flight so far either looking out the window or with his face in his hands. All I could tell was that he was smaller than I was, which I took to mean he was probably a teenager. He looked slim, had long, brown hair and was dressed like a teen: jeans, sneakers, tee shirt. Skinny arms.
As I was glancing at him, he took his head out of his hands and sat back in his seat. His eyes were closed. I finally got a better look at him. Yeah, a teen, and a young one. And not a happy one. He looked sad. I even thought perhaps he’d spent some of the flight crying. I thought I could detect tear lines on his face, and his eyes, when he opened them very briefly, appeared red in the deflected glow from my reading light.
I guessed he felt my gaze because he turned to look at me before turning away again. Damn. The kid looked like the world had knocked him for a loop recently and he hadn’t recovered yet. Not that he looked bruised; he just looked like he’d about given up. That he’d had about all he could handle.
Here I’d been feeling pretty good about myself. New job, new life, doing what I’d been looking forward to and prepared for since I’d been in middle school. I’d watched all my teachers throughout my schooling and felt they had the best job in the world: working with kids, opening eyes, influencing and motivating young people. I wanted to do that, to emulate the good teachers I’d had and be better than the poor ones. I wanted to awaken, to stimulate the kids sitting at their desks in front of me, get them interested in the world, interested in learning, just like I’d been.
The kid next to me certainly didn’t look like someone who’d be enthralled by whatever lesson I’d be teaching. He looked like he’d not even hear it, so wrapped up in his personal demons as he was. I noticed the bags under his eyes and wondered when he’d last slept.
I’ll admit to having a serious character fault. I’m too sensitive, too emotional, when it comes to other people having troubles, especially kids. My life has been pretty much trouble-free. How can a kid growing up gay say that? Well, the mood in the country changed just when I needed it to. Or just before that. When I came out, my parents had no problem accepting me, nor did the kids at school. California, especially Southern California, is very liberal, and political correctness was in vogue with supportive attitudes toward different, races, lifestyles, religions and sexualities. Kids like me were okay being who and what we were.
I’d even had a couple of boyfriends. Those relationships hadn’t lasted long, and by the time I went away to school, there were no heartbreaks involved. I’d had a couple of—alright, several—flings at college, too, but had known I’d be moving west when I was done with my degree. Boston was way too unpleasant in the winter for anyone born and bred in L.A. I was leaving no one behind me. My life lay in front of me.
But back to my character flaw. I’d grown up with a lot of empathy for those that didn’t have what I had. Both my parents had instilled that in me, and I saw what they did as much as heard them talking about it. As a male teenager, people don’t expect you to be empathetic, and, in fact, many will treat you like you’re defective if you show too much of that. Men are supposed to be competitive, and winning is extolled. Who the hell cares about the losers? That’s for them to do something about, and you certainly shouldn’t feel sorry or waste empathy on them. That’s a girl’s job, if anyone’s, they’ll say.
I didn’t pay any attention to that. It was old-fashioned and stupid.
But, that flaw of mine had been with me for years, and right then it kicked me in the butt when I looked at the kid. He’d met my eyes for only a moment and now had his face in his hands again.
I was feeling for him. Wanting to help. Wanting him to stop being so troubled.
Another way to look at it would be that I was sticking my nose where it probably wasn’t wanted. Well, that’s who I was. I wanted to help. I hated seeing him so sad.
But how does one approach someone who seems to be grieving and has made no effort at all to meet you halfway? Halfway? Hell. To meet you at all.
I thought about it. I did get the sense that I’d have to be very low-key, very nonthreatening, very nonaggressive if I were to talk to him. And maybe beating around the bush would be the best way to begin.
So, I waited. I picked up my book, then put it down, pulled out the magazine from the pocket in the seat in front of me and riffled through it, found the crossword puzzle half-finished and realized this might work. I took out my pen and started in. Then I said, “Hmmmph!” in a soft voice, making it clear I was talking to myself.
Then again, a minute later: “Hmmmph!” Slightly louder, and a little sarcastic.
I saw him move a little. Just a little. I had his attention.
A moment later: “Well, what do you think of that?” Still to myself, but marginally less so.
The kid dropped his hands and sat up. He sat back in his seat and wriggled his shoulders. Being crouched forward as he had been, they had to be tight; he had to be stiff. At that point, I had him on the hook. I needed to set it.
I gave him a quick glance and looked away. It should be just enough so he knew I knew he was there. Then I looked back at the puzzle and laughed. Well, it was more of a chuckle. Then I spoke. “Whoever was doing this puzzle, they got halfway through before realizing they’d had too much hubris, doing it in ink. Most of the answers are wrong.”
I closed the magazine and put it back where I’d gotten it, then glanced at the kid again. He was looking at me now. I’d gotten his attention. Now to hold it. Innocuous and engaging, that’s what I needed to be. Easier said than done.
“First time in California?” I asked. Very softly. Gently. “For me, it’s going home again.”
He wasn’t sure he was going to answer. I wasn’t sure, either. He met me halfway; he nodded.
“I’ve been mostly in the Boston area the past few years,” I said, alternately looking to the seatback in front of me and at him. Mostly the seatback. “Just graduated. Now I’m going home. Really looking forward to it. Flying into Ontario. Better than LAX. Much nicer airport. Guess you’re headed for the Inland Empire as well.”
I didn’t inflect it as a question. Just a statement. Rhetorical. Could be responded to. Could be ignored. Up to him.
He ignored it for a moment—and maybe forever if I gave him the chance. I didn’t want to give him that chance, so I pushed a little.
“Someone meeting you?”
That got a response. He shuddered. Enough that I could see it. He was sitting back in his seat now, and he closed his eyes. So, I kept going.
“That bad, huh? I’m sorry. I’m not meeting anyone. Don’t really know anyone out in this eastern part of the L.A. basin. Everyone I know lives way west of Ontario. I guess when I said I was going home, that was an overstatement. Home to California, but not home to family—at least not close by. Who’re you meeting up with?”
He’d either answer or not. I know I’d jolted him, making him think about what was next up for him.
He was quiet for a moment or two, then said in a very soft voice, almost as if he were speaking to himself, “My uncle. I’m going to live with him.” He shuddered again. “I don’t like him. He doesn’t like me, either.”
Should I ask why? No, that was way too personal. But I had to say something to keep him talking. I thought he’d be better off talking than sitting brooding and feeling miserable.
“Do you have to live with him? Isn’t there someone else?”
His voice was a little stronger answering. It had some tone in it now, maybe some bitterness. “I’m being sent here. My parents don’t want me. I don’t have any say in it.”
“Damn,” I said, copying his tone of voice as well as I could. Feeling compassionate, but not really wanting to express too much of that, afraid of how he might react to compassion. I didn’t say anything else. If he wanted to talk, he now had that opening. If not, well, it was entirely up to him. I’d just give him one more little push. “That sucks.”
He had the opportunity but didn’t take advantage of it. He was quiet for the rest of the trip into Ontario.
Planes always make a slow descent coming into Ontario International after passing over Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead. They pass over San Bernadino and Colton, dropping lower and lower on a very long glide path coming toward the area just east of the I-15, the eastern route going south from L.A. to San Diego and going north from L.A. to Las Vegas. After that long descent, they finally cross the I-15 and very shortly thereafter settle onto the runway.
Then came a not-so-long taxi to the gates. The silence of the jets cutting off was always welcome, as much as the announcement itself that we were in Ontario, California. Then we waited for the Jetway to be extended and locked to the plane.
When I stood and retrieved my carry-on from the overhead compartment, my seatmate made no move to slide over to the aisle. I looked at him and saw his eyes were still closed, his seatbelt still fastened. I had to move. The passengers in front of me had finally stepped forward and it was my turn. The social ethos of airplane logistics said that you waited for the people in the row just ahead of you to slide out and retrieve their overhead bags before moving forward yourself. It was my turn, and I had to move or the people waiting in the aisle behind me might have turned into terrorists. I took a final look at the boy and said, “Good luck,” meaning it, and went.
No one is allowed at the arrival/departure gates in Ontario unless they’re a ticketed passenger, just like at other airports since 9/11. Even someone collecting a minor has to wait outside the checkpoints, which at Ontario are on the ground floor between the ticketing and baggage-claim area.
I went down the escalator and turned right. There were several baggage conveyors, each with an electronic message screen above identifying the flights from which they’d be delivering baggage. I knew from experience I’d have anywhere from a ten- to twenty-minute wait, so I sat down on one of the chairs placed along the front widows that separated the baggage claim area from outside and the parking areas. I’d wait for the alarm buzzer to ring on my conveyor. I saw a group of people still waiting at the bottom of the escalators to meet arriving passengers coming from the Boston flight. I watched them, interested in seeing whether the kid would be greeted, and who it would be. The uncle, I supposed.
The wait for one’s luggage to begin emerging out of the plastic flaps at the beginning of the conveyor, beginning their endless journey round and round, always seems interminable. It did this time, too, so I finally got to see the kid I’d been looking for at the top of the escalator. He looked scared. On the flight he’d looked sad and miserable but not scared. Now, that was the only way to describe him. He hesitated, just stood looking down. I had the impression he was very much looking for a way to escape. Several people moved past him. Eventually, he had to step forward. Trying to look determined—and failing—he took the initiative and got on the escalator. It was about a thirty-second descent. He was looking at the people waiting at the bottom, so that’s where I looked, too. And I saw a rather large man push his way through to the bottom of the escalator. The uncle, I was certain, because when the boy saw him, he became even paler. I hadn’t thought that possible.
The man grabbed the boy’s arm when he reached the bottom of the escalator and pulled him through the crowd into the baggage-claim area. He pulled him to the row of seats up against the glass wall near where I was sitting. Every ten feet there was a gap in the seats where anyone could step up to the windows to look out. The man pulled the boy through one of those gaps and pushed him up against the window, the kid’s back against the glass so that the kid was looking into the baggage claim area and the man was facing the windows and the boy.
No one was sitting in the seats other than me. The baggage conveyor farthest away had just started up and the crowd was moving in that direction. The man and boy were pretty much unnoticed. I was the only one close enough to hear what was being said.
Only the man was speaking. The boy still looked scared. The man was towering over him, and his voice was rough.
“Ground rules. You won’t contaminate my kids! You won’t pretend to be or act gay any longer. Not around me, my wife, my kids, my home. You got that? No more of this gay shit. I see anything that looks gay at all, I’ll fuckin’ beat the shit out of you. I’m doing my sister a favor by taking you in. I don’t want you here. None of us do. You’re a burden. We’ll suffer it because families do that. But you’re not wanted here, and you’ll only survive this if you do what we tell you to do, exactly what we tell you to do, and no arguing—just ‘yes, sir’, ‘yes, ma’am’. That’s all we’ll ever get from you. You got that?”
The boy opened his mouth, then closed it. He appeared unable to speak.
“When I ask you a question, you’ll answer me!” The man’s voice had risen and was radiating anger. His face had reddened, too. I saw his hands were fists now. I got up and took a step closer.
“One more time—you understand? You’ll do what you’re told and like it. Got it?”
The boy was nodding but still apparently too scared to speak.
That nod wasn’t enough for the man. He drew back his arm, opened his fist and slapped the boy hard across his face. The boy’s head rocked back against the glass. He looked completely out of it to me. Dazed, his legs gave way. The man saw that and jammed his hand hard against the boy’s chest, pinning him to the glass, holding him up.
The man ignored the fact the boy was only semi-conscious. “You stay on your feet while we’re talking, you hear me? You’ll stand there and take it like a man. No more wimpy candy-ass. That slap was nothing. I get you home, then you’ll see what happens when you disrespect me! You’ve got a beating coming, and you’ll learn to do what I say and do it damn quick.”
He pulled back his arm again. I was sure another slap was coming, and I was coming toward them, yelling, “STOP IT!”
The man hesitated while turning his head to look at me. He was still holding the boy against the glass with his left hand.
“I’m calling the cops!” I shouted, hurrying toward the man. He was now staring furiously at me. I probably was showing the same anger myself.
I don’t know if it was my shouting drawing attention or other people coming off the escalator being in a position to see the boy and his uncle, but suddenly I wasn’t the only one noticing what was happening. I even saw a TSA official looking our way.
I shouted at him. “Hey! Arrest this man! He’s abusing this boy!”
The TSA guy, an older black man with gray hair and an ample build, approached me. “What’s going on here?” he asked, speaking to me. The boy’s uncle was watching us now, ignoring his nephew while keeping him pressed against the window.
I pointed. “That man slapped the boy, hard, and was about to do it again. I stopped him. He needs to be arrested!”
The TSA man was glancing back and forth between the other two and me as I spoke. When he replied, it was to me. “I can’t arrest anyone. The police have to do that. TSA doesn’t have the authority to arrest people.”
“Then get a cop. There’s one just outside not letting cars linger after dropping people off.” I pointed through the windows to the policeman walking back and forth on the sidewalk. “Get him—and quick—before he hits the kid again. That man hurt him already.”
The TSA agent looked back at the uncle again, and the man glared back, still red in the face. Perhaps that decided it; maybe the fact the boy’s face had turned just as bright a red where he’d been slapped did, too. In any case the TSA man turned toward the outside door, moving faster than he had before.
I had seconds to assess the situation and didn’t like it at all. Whatever happened with the police, the boy was going to end up back with the man, I guessed, and there was nothing I could do about that. The boy himself would have absolutely no say in the matter whatsoever. The decision of what happened to him would be made by strangers. And it would take forever. The boy didn’t look like he could hold himself together for that.
So I made a decision of my own. Split-second and perhaps incorrect, but a decision, and I made it.
“Hey,” I called to the man. I still was several yards away from him. I started walking toward him. “This is your chance. Get the fuck out of here. You don’t want the boy, anyway, and he doesn’t want you. Go, or stay if you want. The policeman is coming. You’ll get arrested, and I’ll be a witness against you. More important, the video I just took of you will get you some jail time. No jury will be sympathetic. You only have a few seconds to decide.”
The uncle looked like he wanted to hit the boy again, or hit me. I pulled myself up a little taller.
The man did neither. “Fuck you, then,” he said to the boy. “I’ll have nothing more to do with you, you, you . . .”
He didn’t complete the thought. Through the window, we could see both the TSA agent and the policeman were heading toward the door at a brisk pace. The uncle pulled away from the boy, who wobbled and sank to one knee. The man seemed to be swearing under his breath as he took off and joined into the crowd of people carrying suitcases which was moving from the carousels outside through another door farther down the room. He blended into it and was quickly lost to view.
Just as quickly, I was at the boy’s side. “Do you want the police involved?” I asked him.
The boy shook his head. I could see how upset he was, shaken from too much having happened. Exhausted, too.
“Come with me. Quickly,” I said, and gestured toward the carousels. There was another crowd of exiting passengers getting off the escalator now, and the TSA agent and policeman were behind them. I helped pull the boy to his feet and we quickly walked into the crowd that the uncle had joined, steering the boy in front of me. He kept wanting to stop; I kept cajoling him along. “We’ll stop in a moment. Keep going, out through the door and turn right. Keep walking.”
When we were outside and had walked past the windows to the very end of the building, I had him step around the corner. “Okay, we can stop here,” I told him. “We’re out of sight here.”
He stopped walking, leaned back against the building’s wall, then slid down so he was sitting. I had the feeling this was as far as he could go, both physically and mentally.
“My stuff. I have to get my stuff,” he said. I could hardly hear him.
“We will.” I tried to sound reassuring. “The carousel will turn for quite a while. I want both the TSA guy and the policeman to give up on you and not be looking for me, either. Then we’ll get your stuff. Mine, too.”
“And then what?” I could hear desperation in his voice. Tears didn’t sound like they were far behind.
“Then I take you home with me and put you to bed. In the morning, we’ll talk, and you can decide what option you want to take. You will have options. But it’ll be you deciding, not some uncle who’s a brute and a bully, not some Child Protective Services agent, not some judge. You. We’ll talk it over. But first, if anyone needs a night’s sleep, a night without worry, it’s you.
“Right now, I’m just talking so you don’t have to, so you can think about what I’m saying and decide. Now’s the time to do that. You have to say yes, you want to come with me at least for tonight, or say no, you don’t want me helping you. Say no and I’ll leave you alone and walk away. Which will it be? Yes or no.”