The Boy on the Plane

Chapter 2


I hate myself. For a long time now. Hate everything about me. I’m small, shy and cowardly. Never stand up for myself. But what’s to stand up for? And if I ever tried to stand up to anyone else, they’d just laugh because I’m such a nothing.

I think I get a lot of that from my stepfather. He’s weak, too. Lets everyone walk all over him. Especially my mother. No one stands up to her. So maybe there’s some reason for me being like I am, although it’s not genetic with him because he’s not my real dad. Not that that’s anything to be proud of or thankful for. To him, I’m invisible, just the way my mom likes it. But to be invisible to someone you’re living with? To be that much of a non-entity? To be that worthless? Is it any surprise I hate myself? I do, and that’s that.

My mom? She’s a bitch. Mean and sarcastic and controlling. If it isn’t her way, well, you’d better duck and cover. There’s no satisfying her, either. She likes the drama, likes being mad. It’s who she is. She likes attention, and she gets it by attacking people with words and humiliation. The more commotion she causes, the better she likes it. She likes people looking at her.

I can’t remember when she was ever motherly. Maybe she never was. I know for a while when I was young I tried really hard to please her. I never could. Of course that caused me problems, both mental and physical. I got horrible stomachaches. Still do, sometimes. They were just one more reason for her to belittle me. Finally, my mother, when she got tired of me whining and crying, told my stepfather to take me to a doctor. He did take me. The doctor said what I needed was a psychiatrist, that I was ‘highly anxious’, whatever that meant, and, if things didn’t change, I’d have ulcers. My stomach was already showing signs.

He was in the same building with the stomach man, and my stepdad took me to him right then. Mother found out and hit the roof. What would anyone think of her if they discovered her son was a mental case? “I’m not having it,” she’d said. “You have to work your problems out for yourself,” she said to me, “and stop being such a wuss. And especially no more head doctors!”

I did come to a decision from that. I was only 10, but I decided to stop trying to please her. I’d never been able to, and the stress that caused was making me sick. The answer was: stop trying. Accept the fact she was as she was. Let her yell her head off at me. Sometimes pretend I was sorry if I had to. But stop paying attention to her and stop worrying about her feelings. Learn to pay no attention to her jibes and put-downs. Stop thinking of her as my mother because she never acted like one.

That decision helped with the stomach but not with my self-esteem. I didn’t have any. I still don’t.

A little later, around when I was 11, I started to notice that I was different from the other boys in school. When I was 12, it wasn’t hard for me to figure out I was gay. I read about a lot of boys who are confused and uncertain and wondering. That wasn’t me, and I didn’t understand their confusion. If you like to look at and think about boys and not girls, you’re gay. Accept it and move on. Except I knew I had to keep it from Mother. It would give her just one more thing to denigrate me for. She’d also pick the absolutely worst time to announce it in a loud voice, saying something like, “Look at me, I’m the mother of a fairy, and woe is me.’ That would get her the attention she craved and make me want to crawl into a dark hole. Thinking how that would happen tied my stomach in knots.

Living with her was like walking on eggshells. Every day. Never knowing when she’d strike. ‘See my gay son here? I hate to think what he does in bed. He’s all alone when he does it, at least. I don’t have to worry about a boyfriend. Who’d ever want to be his boyfriend? No, I don’t worry about that. Just about washing his sheets.’

Hah! As if! She’d been making me do my own laundry since I was 9.

But she did find out. After that, it was nothing but scathing rebukes for me being me. That didn’t last long, however. After getting all the mileage she could get by humiliating me in front of everyone she could, trying to win sympathy for herself, she pulled one last nasty trick: she sent me off to the other side of the country. To get rid of me and the embarrassment I caused her.

She threw me away. Got rid of me.

I had the feeling she’d been trying to find a reason to do that for some time.

As with most of her cruelty, this last blow came with no warning. I learned of it from overhearing her on the phone talking to a friend. “I can’t put up with him embarrassing me any longer, Marge. The way people look at me now. It’s too much. I’ll have a breakdown if this continues. So, I’m putting my foot down. He’s going to live with my brother. If anything can erase this blot on our family, that’ll do it. My brother’s not as nice as I am. He’ll straighten Robin out—and right off, too.”

I finally tried standing up to her after hearing that, but she outweighed me by double and said if I didn’t pack my things, she’d throw them out. And she started doing that. So, I had about two minutes to get used to the idea that I was being discarded. Then the getting-rid-of-me began.

Clothes, laptop, toiletries, shoes—out the window onto the front yard. I finally started packing what I could in my duffle bag. Mostly what I packed was what I cared about the most: my books.

But this fighting and yelling and packing and all came with so much drama that I had no sleep at all that night. I was a physical and mental wreck when I boarded my plane to California after sitting in the airport much of the day. She booked me on the cheapest flight that was available, a late one, with no thought at all of how I’d have to wait all day before boarding. I was too upset to sleep all that time waiting for the flight to be called. I just sat there, my mind all over the place. I needed sleep, but it wasn’t there for me. In its place was worry.

I was being sent to live with my uncle who had a farm out somewhere in San Bernadino County, east of Los Angeles. That was something to really worry about.

I’d only met the man once when he’d come to Boston. This was before my mom knew about me. He was large, homophobic, stupid and mean as a skunk. And he drank. He got along great with my mother, putting down everyone and everything; they were quite a pair. When he saw two men on the street holding hands, his response was, “If I ever saw that where I live, I’d beat the living shit out of both of them. We don’t put up with crap like that out there. They do in Los Angeles, but not out in farm country. We know the difference between right and wrong, and people like that are wrong. Beating them till they can’t walk is the way to fix them. Just keep on beating on them till they change or die. Either one is okay with me.”

That’s where she was sending me. To him. Her parting words to me as I got in the cab to the airport were, “He’ll fix you good, you pervert.” My stepfather was nowhere to be seen.

When I boarded the plane, I was the first one on after the first-class passengers and adults traveling with babies and handicapped people and old people needing assistance and young people traveling alone, and it seemed like a whole planeload of others. It wasn’t assigned seating, and I grabbed the first window seat I could find. I was mentally out of it. I’d lost my home with no time to get used to that. I was on a plane to somewhere I’d never been to live with a man I didn’t know anything about other than he hated people like me and thought it his duty to beat the crap out of them. I had no money, no options, nothing. I was 13 going on 14 next week. I’d cried a few times sitting for hours in the airport, hungry but with no money for food. I didn’t feel like crying now. I felt like dying.

The plane took off and I didn’t even watch it happen. I had my head in my hands. This was the first plane I’d ever been on, and I was actually thinking how it might be best for me if it crashed.

I wanted to sleep. It had been over 24 hours since I’d had any. I hadn’t eaten in all that time, either, but my stomach didn’t feel like it would tolerate any food. I couldn’t remember the last water I’d had, either, but I must have drunk something. I just didn’t remember. My brain was on some sort of autopilot and not functioning all that great.

I think the guy sitting in my row next to the empty seat beside me made a half-hearted effort to engage with me, but I was too far gone to make much sense out of it. I may have said a few words to him; I had the impression of seeing kind eyes. But by the time we’d landed, I couldn’t tell if that was real or not.

The plane was empty when I got off. I only did that because the stewardess made me. I found my way toward baggage claim, following the crowd. I was numb. The gate area I was leaving was on a floor that was a long way above the lower floor that had ticketing and baggage claim. At the top of the escalator, I stopped to see what I would be descending into. I looked down into the crowd, dreading seeing the guy I expected to see waiting for me down there. But my uncle wasn’t in sight, which was the only reason I was able to step forward for the ride down. I kept telling myself: collect your duffle. Collect your duffle. Focus on that. That duffle was all I had that was part of me. I had the vague thought that I could grab it off the baggage-claim conveyor and then get out of there before my uncle showed up. I’d have no money, nowhere to go, but anything would be better than living with him.

But then, just as I was nearing the bottom of the escalator, I saw him. He burst through the crowd and grabbed me, pulled me into the baggage-claim area, pushed me up against the windows and started yelling at me. I was too far gone to understand what he was saying, and then he suddenly slapped me.

The slap knocked my head back into the glass, and for a few seconds, I was gone. I don’t know how I stayed on my feet, but I must have because when things started coming back into focus and stopped being all fuzzy and blurry, I was still on my feet, sort of. Then I noticed my uncle was rearing back to hit me again. At that point, I really didn’t care and hoped maybe he’d knock me out for good.

He didn’t hit me. He started to but didn’t. I’m a little vague about why not, and what happened next. I remember being very concerned about my duffle bag. It seemed like that contained a part of me I didn’t want to lose after losing everything else. I know I wasn’t thinking straight. I was hardly thinking at all. Someone somehow got me away from my uncle, and I was being pulled along out of the airport, through a crowd of people I only half saw, and then was dragged outside to where I couldn’t be seen, and whoever was doing that mumbled something and then disappeared for who knows how long before suddenly he was with me again and had my duffle and a couple of suitcases. I think he asked me a question. I’m quite sure I didn’t answer it; everything was simply black after that. I might have fallen asleep. I might just have passed out. Who knows?

I’m still half asleep, all these thoughts and memories and fragments running through my head, but as the escape I made from the airport is coming back, I’m becoming more and more aware. I suddenly jerk up and look around, my eyes finally open. I’m in a bed. In a room I know I’ve never been in before. Where am I?

There’s a thin cotton blanket over me. I throw it off and see I’m naked other than my boxer briefs. The room is neither warm nor cold, and while there are closed curtains at the windows, enough light is making its way through that it is obviously daytime. It was late at night, or early morning, well after midnight, the last time I remember being conscious.

I slide my legs out of bed and put my feet on the floor. I do a mental inventory of myself; it’s rather disconcerting to find yourself you know not where with no idea how you got there. Had something been done to me? Drugged? Beaten? Raped?

So I take an inventory. I don’t feel any real pain anywhere. I do feel lightheaded, for sure. But my limbs seem to move all right; I don’t have a headache. I have an uncertain memory of my uncle slamming my head against something. I feel the back of my head and discover a tender spot, but evidently I hadn’t hit anything either recently enough or hard enough to give me a headache now that I’m awake.

Further checking my state of being makes me realize I’m thirsty and, thinking about that, hungry, too. Quite hungry indeed, and quite thirsty. Then I realize I can’t remember when I last tended to either of those bodily needs. I recall that yesterday… was it yesterday? I can’t imagine it was anything else. But then, whenever it was, my stomach had been reacting to my anxiety and upset emotions; it hadn’t felt like anything would stay down.

I am so used to feeling anxious that realizing my stomach is now asking for something to be put in it makes me accept that even though my mind is entirely discombobulated, it is also absent the fear that accompanies it as a constant companion. Which might explain the hunger. But it also makes me wonder where this feeling of calm is coming from? Very strange, considering I have no idea where I am.

Another realization hits me then. I need to piss. Even if I can’t remember the last time I actually drank anything, obviously I must have. Of course, as I don’t know where I am, I also don’t know where a bathroom is. That’s my first task: find the bathroom.

I’m in a bedroom, a dimly lit bedroom because of the drawn curtains. Rather than opening them, I look at the door, the task I’d set for myself now feeling more urgent. I walk to the closed door, open it, and step out into the hallway beyond. That’s when I remember I’m wearing boxers and nothing else. Tented boxers.

Can I wander around in my current state? Will anyone see me? The thing is, I do need a bathroom ever more urgently. Being seen in my current state seems less worrisome than the alternative, which very soon will be being seen in my current state leaking urine. No, finding a bathroom and not worrying about being seen by anyone is what I need to do.

I’m in a short hallway. There are two other doors in the hallway: a door right across from the one I’m standing in and one farther down. The other end of the hallway, the one which doesn’t end in a closed door, appears to open into the rest of the house. Looking that direction, I can see just a little of what seems to be a living room.

I knock very lightly on the door right in front of me and get no response. I turn the knob and see this is indeed a bathroom. With a sigh, I go in. Relief!

Finishing in the bathroom, I’m curious but think it best to dress before exploring. My head is still swimming a little, and I decide maybe that’s from hunger. I really can’t remember my last meal. That can’t be good: I am, after all, a growing boy! Boys need fuel.

I find my clothes in ‘my’ room. Dressing quickly, I step cautiously into the hall and walk down it to the living room. I haven’t heard a sound since being up; am I alone here?

That makes me think. Would I rather be alone? I think about why either way could be good or bad and decide to look around and just see what comes and be prepared for the worst. Like I always am. Like I always expect. Except I still am not as anxious as usual. That’s strange but a little exciting. Good-exciting.

What’s wrong with me? I never feel good-exciting. Trepidation. That’s what I always feel.

The living room is much larger than I could see from the hallway. In fact, it’s a living room, dining area and kitchen combined. I realize I must be in an apartment, not a house. It is also quite apparent I’m alone here. I can’t hear anyone else, and the clock over the kitchen sink says it’s 1:06 PM. That means it’s 4:06 PM my time, assuming this is still California. I have no idea when I ended up in bed last night, and I can’t tell from how I feel how long I was asleep. But, whoever this apartment belongs to, it seems very unlikely to me they’d still be in bed at one in the afternoon.

Still, curious, I walk back down the hallway and knock softly on the other closed door. No response. I turn the knob. It’s probably intended to be another bedroom, although it doesn’t have a bed in it. There are a few bookcases, empty, and some suitcases. That’s it.

As I’m gazing at this, two things happen. My stomach grumbles at me, and I hear the front door open.

Suddenly nervous but not wanting to be seen snooping, I close the door and walk down the hall to meet whoever it was who brought me here from the airport and put me in bed. And I want to know about how all that happened. For me, confronting this person is very brave. But I stand up straight, walk out of the hallway to face whoever it is.

“Hey, there,” the man says, smiling at me. He’s young, in his twenties I guess. He’s got a bag of groceries in each arm, and he kicks the front door closed before heading for the kitchen. He’s about the least scary individual I’ve ever seen. I follow him.

He sets the bags down on the counter, then looks at me. “You look like you just got up. That’s good. There was no food in the house so you’d have had to wait even longer for breakfast if I didn’t go out for groceries till you woke up. The timing was perfect. Now you can have your choice. Eggs, pancakes, hash, sweet rolls, cereal—I got all sorts of stuff, and you get to pick. What would you like? I have to warn you: I’m not the world’s greatest cook, but I’m certainly proficient. And breakfast is what I do best, my specialty. I screw it up much less than other meals.”

He grins, still looking at me. He expects me to choose breakfast.

I always just pour myself a bowl of cereal if we hadn’t run out. If we had, I skip that meal. No one ever cooked for me. And certainly no one ever asked me to choose what I wanted.

“Uh . . .” I say. I drop my eyes from his.

He waits. He really does want me to make a decision.

Maybe I should. Maybe I can. Then I think, what do I really want? Wow! Never have thought like that, at least not recently. What do I want?

I think about breakfast foods. Pancakes. That sounds good. That sounds more than good. My stomach likes the idea, I can tell that by the way it rumbles.

“Pancakes?” I ask. Very tentatively. Very softly.

I raise my eyes to meet his and am just in time to see some curiosity there—and what looks like awareness and compassion. He says, “Pancakes!” enthusiastically and makes it sound like I just made the best decision he’s ever heard. He sounds joyful.

“Do you want to help?” he asks. “You could set the table. We need plates and silverware and glasses. And butter and warm syrup. I could show you where all that stuff is, but as small as this kitchen is, it’ll take you about ten seconds to find it all on your own while I’m throwing the batter together. Or, if you’d rather, you can watch me, see what I’m doing.”

He unloads the groceries he’s bought, sets them on the counter, emptying the bags before putting what goes in the refrigerator there. He puts the stuff that goes in the cupboards away, too. He leaves some refrigerator stuff on the counter—milk, eggs, bacon—and a new bottle of syrup on the table. I watch as he puts several slices of bacon in a pan and sets it on a stove burner. “Everyone likes bacon,” he says cheerfully. “I’ve never known a boy who didn’t.”

Instead of setting the table, I watch him. I’d have to be dodging around him in the kitchen’s confined space to find all that stuff he mentioned, and anyway, I’ve never seen pancakes made. I’m kinda interested in seeing that. He doesn’t seem to mind my watching.

He breaks a couple of eggs in a large bowl, pours in some milk and vegetable oil, uses a whisk to mix them together, then opens a box of Bisquick and dumps some of that into the bowl. He doesn’t measure anything. Don’t you have to measure?

The bacon is sizzling, and he stops mixing to turn it over. He looks at me and smiles. He hasn’t told me his name or why I’m here. He hasn’t asked me mine. But somehow, I’m not worrying about that. He’s very relaxed, and that makes me feel the same way. Where my mother is always high drama, this guy defines laid back. I guess I’ll find out all the things I’m wondering about when we’re eating breakfast. My stomach rumbles again.

He goes back to mixing up his batter. I watch, and curiosity gets the better of me. I ask him a question. “Why didn’t you measure anything?”

He laughs. “You don’t really have to with pancakes. If the batter’s too thin, add more flour, or in this case, pancake mix. If it’s too thick, add more milk. Nothing to it. You can also add things to it if you want—stuff like vanilla, cinnamon, blueberries, chopped bananas, chocolate chips—just a whole host of things. I’m making these plain because it’s quicker and you look hungry.”

He strips off two paper towels, lays them on a plate, then takes up the bacon and sets it on the paper towels. “I didn’t ask you,” he says, sounding like he’s apologizing to me. To me! “I should have asked how you like your bacon. I like it crisp, and just cooked it that way without thinking. If you like it still floppy, I’ll cook some more.” He looks at me, a question in his eyes. He wants me to answer.

“Crisp is fine,” I say, assuming that was what he wanted me to say.

He gives me a look, then asks, “You never made pancakes yourself?”

“I’ve never cooked anything,” I tell him.

“Ah. Well, you’re learning from a master,” he says, and laughs like that’s really funny. I remember only minutes ago he told me he was a lousy cook, and now he’s saying he’s a master. Weird!

“I’ll talk you through this, and you’ll be able to do it yourself next time there’s an opportunity,” he says. He’s actually going to bother with showing me how to do this.

He does. He talks about what he’s doing. First, he turns on the oven to low. Then he drains the bacon grease into a small bowl, leaving enough in the pan to coat the bottom. He shows me what the thickness of the batter is and says that how thick it is will determine how thick the pancakes will be, and that he likes them medium thick. Then he ladles four small circles of batter into the pan. He tells me that when I do all this by myself to use medium heat for cooking pancakes.

After a minute or so, he uses a spatula to check the bottoms, then flips them over. Another minute or so and he says they’re done. He puts them on a plate and into the oven. “We’ll keep them warm till we’re ready to eat,” he tells me. He picks up the ladle, but instead of dipping it in the batter, he hands it to me. “Your turn,” he says.

I immediately start to worry. He sees this in my eyes. He’s watching me and sees it. I see compassion in his eyes again. How can he read me that well?

“Hey, no problems here. It’s impossible to screw this up. Totally impossible. Just do what you saw me doing. Exactly like I did. If they’re too big or too small or run together, so what? If you spill some batter on the stove, so what? They’re pancakes! Not even the end of the world if you drop the bowl on the floor. Oh, one thing first.”

He pours a little of the bacon grease from the bowl into the pan and swirls it around. I see that after cooking the first four pancakes, there’s none left in the pan.

I fill the ladle, just like he did, and pour it where I think it should go. I can’t believe it. I didn’t mess it up. Four new pancakes are cooking.

I watch them as they cook. He sets the table, showing me where things are. When I start worrying about whether they’re ready to be flipped, he says, “Peek at the underneath side of one of them.”

I do that and see they look perfect. I flip them over like I saw him do. Well, I don’t do it as well as he did, but still, success! They splatter a little batter out to the sides when they hit the pan because I did it too high above the pan, but I don’t worry about it because he says, “Great job!” and sounds like he means it.

I do the rest of them! I can’t believe it, but I do. I do the oiling, the ladling, the flipping, the laying them on the plate that’s in the oven. He shows me where the oven mitts are so I don’t burn myself.

While I’m doing that, he warms the bottle of syrup in the microwave oven and puts that and the bacon and a stick of butter on the table. I put the plate full of pancakes on a hot pad on the table, and we’re ready to eat. Well, almost. He pours milk for me and coffee for himself and asks me if I forgot anything. I look down at my feet, figuring I must have screwed up.

He says, “Hey. You’re fine. I was just going to remind you to turn off the oven and the burner. I often forget those, too. Then, let’s eat. I’m starved! Great looking pancakes you made for us.”