This kid was something else. I’d seen how he’d acted on the plane. I’d seen how he’d been at the airport. He was completely out of it there. I left him momentarily to collect our luggage from the baggage-claim carousel and brought it back to where he was sitting out of sight of people on the sidewalk in front of the terminal building. He was dead to the world, effectively hidden from view around a corner and out of sight of the passengers waiting curbside to be picked up. He was isolated enough where he was that I could leave him for a few moments. I took his duffle bag with me and my own suitcases when I collected my car. I drove as close as I could to where he was, then woke him enough so he was halfway awake and got him into the car.
‘Halfway awake’ was more a figure of speech than an actual happening. He was still out of it and zombie-like; I had to support him as he walked to the car. I put him in the back seat so he’d have room to sprawl.
It was more of the same at my apartment. I somehow managed to get him inside, took him to my bedroom, undressed him and put him to bed. Then I went back for all the luggage.
My apartment was a two-bedroom space not really big enough for two. Not comfortably for two, at least. There was a second bedroom that to me seemed to have been put in so the apartment could be advertised and rented as a two-bedroom unit; it would bring the landlord lots more money than a one-bedroom unit would. But the person using that bedroom would have pulled the short straw. I intended to use that room as an office. It would be perfect for that.
After bringing everything inside, I made up the couch where I’d sleep, then went to bed there myself. It had been a long time since I’d slept.
I was winging it with the kid. No plan or anything. I just knew the boy needed help, and I was available to give him some. Beyond that, I hadn’t figured anything out. I was tired, too. Figuring things out was what tomorrow was for.
I slept late the next day because of the late night I’d had, not getting off the couch till past 11 in the morning, local time. I was happy I’d come early and had a few days before my job started to get myself organized.
The apartment was quiet. I wondered if perhaps my companion had left, but I found he was still conked out when I checked on him. I wasn’t surprised; he’d been so wasted last night, I thought it possible he’d sleep the day through.
This was my first day here, and there was nothing to eat. My first order of business was to go shopping. I left a note on the kitchen counter saying I’d be back soon, then went to the closest grocery store I could find and stocked up. While doing that, I had the chance to think about things. Like, what was up with the kid? What was I getting involved for, and how deep did I want that involvement to go?
I’d only been operating on instinct yesterday. If ever I saw someone who needed rescuing, it was this boy. All I knew about the uncle he hated were the few words the boy had said to me on the plane and then seeing the man in action at the airport.
What I could have done after stopping that second slap was let the police handle it. Maybe it’s what I should have done. But I envisioned that poor kid having to explain his situation several times to different tiers of police officials and maybe CPS workers, and it would be like an eight-cylinder engine operating on only one—and it had bad rings. The boy obviously needed sleep, not interrogation after interrogation. My main reason for doing what I did was to prevent him from having to go through that. So, now what?
The obvious thing would be to turn this over to someone else. Call CPS, even call the police and let them handle it. But I had an aversion to doing either of those things. At least, I didn’t want to do them till I’d spoken to the boy. I knew he’d not been in the right mind after his uncle had hit him, but I didn’t think he’d been right on the plane, either, long before the uncle was involved. I needed to talk to him when he wasn’t facing what he assumed was disaster. When he was safe. When he felt a little more in control of himself, a little more comfortable. I needed to know what he wanted, but he needed to have settled down before we spoke.
So I decided that was what I needed to do. Settle him down. Let him sleep as long as he would, then feed him in a friendly, non-stressful atmosphere. Then talk.
And that’s what I did. When I got home carrying the groceries I’d bought, he appeared, looking like he’d only been up for a minute or two. And the thing was, I saw much more than that just by being with him for a very few minutes.
The teachers’ training I’d received had been very good, and the hands-on training working in real classrooms had been just as valuable. I’d been taught that to connect with a child, to really connect, one had to understand him. Had to read him and get an idea of what he was thinking and feeling. Had to try to imagine what the world looked like through his eyes. To assist me in doing that, I’d been shown how kids revealed their thoughts and emotions with their body language, their eyes, their voices. If you paid attention to those things, really paid attention, you’d find kids weren’t as enigmatic as many adults thought they were.
I’d put that training to use when I’d spent only a few minutes with the boy after I’d returned from the store with the groceries. It was early afternoon, but it felt like morning because I hadn’t been up that long. But the boy—everything about him told me he was incredibly fragile. The way he moved, his posture, the hesitations when he spoke, the eye contact he avoided, the softness of his voice and what he said—they all spoke of an uncertainty, a lack of self. This was a boy I was going to have to be very careful with, very much like trying to gain the confidence of a timid wild animal. This was a boy who needed enormous support.
I managed through perseverance to get him to announce he liked pancakes. Then I was amused to see him so interested in learning how to make them. He was curious, always a good thing in a youngster. A boy with no curiosity was headed for a dismal future. This boy’s curiosity was the first positive thing I’d seen from him.
When we sat down to eat, I could see he was still worried about all sorts of things, things that wouldn’t even occur to many boys his age: where should he sit; should he wait for me to sit down before he did; if he drank all his milk, could he have more; how many of the pancakes could he eat without eating more than his share; there were six slices of bacon, but how many of them were for him? Those questions and more were nagging at him.
I had to stop his brain from working overtime. “You’re probably wondering about a whole lot of things. I am, too. First, what’s your name? Mine is Daniel. Daniel Perry.”
He looked up at me and hesitated.
“Come on,” I said placatingly. “You’re with a friend now, or at least someone who wants to be one. I’m not going to bite your head off. Daniel Perry, at your service. Who’re you?” I smiled benevolently at him.
“Robin Tressman,” he said softly, only catching my eye briefly.
“Great. Okay, Robin. I’m sure you have a lot of questions. I could make you ask them, but you wouldn’t like that. Sooooo, I’ll see if I can answer them without stressing you out. Anything I don’t mention, you’ll have to ask me yourself, but perhaps you’ll be more comfortable by then. While I’m talking, you can eat. Have as much as you want of everything. I mostly just drink coffee in the morning. I may have one pancake. They do look good. You did a great job with them.”
I started talking, and he started eating, sort of picking at things at first, and then getting more into it. I broke off half a piece of bacon and ate that. He came close to finishing the rest of the food. It took him some time, but he must have been ravenous, the way it eventually all got shoveled in.
I told about sitting next to him on the plane, about what had happened at the airport, and how I’d brought him to my apartment because I figured he had nowhere else to go and that I’d wanted to spare him meeting with anyone before he’d had a chance to sleep. I told him I was a teacher—or would be in a couple of weeks when school started. That I was single, I’d just rented this apartment, my first on my own, and I was as new in town as he was.
When I was done and he’d eaten and drunk two glasses of milk, I told him it was his turn. That I’d like to know something about him, something more than I already did. Like, for instance, his age.
“I’m 14,” he said. Then he said, “Almost,” and stopped.
“Okay,” I said, “that’s a start. I now know you’re Robin Tressman, you’re 14—almost—probably ready to enter high school for the first time. Your parents don’t want you, which you said on the plane, and you don’t want to live with your uncle. I can’t blame you for that! So, I guess there are some options open for you, but not many. The thing that’s usually done when a kid your age has no place to live, no one to see to his needs, is to call Child Protective Services. They take you in and find you a place to live: a foster home or a group home. They get your registered at a school and are responsible for your upkeep till you’re 18, at which time you become independent. It’s a little more complicated in your case because you’re not a resident of California, neither are your parents, and so CPS here might want to send you back. Are you from Massachusetts?”
He was staring at me, actually meeting my eyes, and his were huge. He nodded, evidently not trusting his voice. I think hearing where he stood was scaring the bejesus out of him. But I had to talk to him about this.
“So what would happen in your case,” I said, continuing, “is CPS here would take you in, probably stash you in a group home while they try to work with Massachusetts to figure out who’ll take you. I can see that taking some time. Massachusetts won’t be in any rush to get you back.
He dropped his head.
“The reason I’m telling you this, explaining what’ll probably happen, is that for the first time in your life, in all likelihood, you may have some say in your own well-being. So that’s what I want to do here: figure out what’s best for you. What would you like?” I tried to put all the compassion I could into my question. It was easy to see how upset this was making him. He was thirteen, okay, almost fourteen, but in fact still thirteen, and that’s still very young. In a very short time, he’d been torn from his home, flown the entire breadth of the country, foisted onto a homophobic monster, and now, mere hours later, he was being asked to say what he wanted to do with himself. From the looks of him, that was as easy to deal with as a ten-ton safe falling on his head.
My compassion didn’t help. He was silent long enough that I wasn’t sure he’d respond at all, but then, in a meek voice, he said, “I don’t know.”
Not a big surprise.
“Well, I think you might have options. You’ll have to tell me if any of this makes sense.” I stopped long enough to consider. “You might have friends back home who would be willing to take you in, especially as your parents have a financial responsibility for you, so your friend’s parents would receive money.”
I hope that would strike a chord with him. But he showed no reaction at all.
“Another possibility would be any relatives you have. Perhaps some on your dad’s side of the family if your mother’s side are like your uncle.”
“Then maybe you’ve gone to school with some kids who were in a group home for boys, guys you were friends with and who told you that it was okay living there.”
I was getting no response at all from him. Maybe I should show him the other side of the coin.
“These all seem better to me than a more radical approach, Robin: living on the streets, dodging truant officers and CPS agents and policemen. Not going to school. For me, I’d like to believe that you have relatives or friends who would be able to provide for you. What do you think? This is your chance to have some input into your life rather than letting some unknown adults decide your life for you.”
He just looked at me for a moment, then looked away. I thought I might have seen a tear.
I really felt for him. It was easy for me to remember how I’d been at 14, just beginning to get a real sense of myself, but without much confidence. Certainly not enough to feel I could successfully face the world alone.
I’d always had my parents’ love behind me. That makes a difference to any child.
He wasn’t going to say anything. I could see that. I had to say something else. I couldn’t leave him hanging there. “There’s no rush to answer me. I really should be calling CPS or someone, and the longer I delay, the more trouble I might be in, but this—all of this—has to be a shock to you, and it simply isn’t fair to make you decide on the spur of the moment. Take some time, think about what I said, see if you have some ideas of your own, and maybe, when we have dinner, you can tell me what you’re thinking, and we can kick it around a little. In the meantime, feel free to do whatever you want. Go for a walk, watch TV, read a book, take a shower, just lie on your bed and think. What I have to do is start setting the apartment up. Sorting out all the stuff in boxes and putting it away, that sort of thing. But interrupt me if you want anything. Okay? I’ll always be available to talk if you want. Don’t feel you’d be interrupting me.”
He nodded again, not emphatically or enthusiastically, then stood up and trudged to his room. My bedroom, really, but for right then, it was his. He closed the door. I was pretty sure he’d have a good cry. Maybe feel better after that. I hoped so. I felt for him.
I spent a little time that afternoon making the apartment more livable and, while doing that, thought about Robin’s situation.
I still had a lot to do to make the apartment how I wanted it. I didn’t have that much stuff. After I’d rented it, my parents had moved some things in, some kitchen things and a few pieces of furniture; I’d buy more over time as it became clear what I wanted. But deciding how to arrange what was already there, then changing my mind and moving it—it all took time. I stopped long before I was done. I’d come to a decision about Robin. I realized I’d been asking too much of him. He obviously had no idea what to do. He was lost. And I hadn’t been much help. I was forcing him to decide something he had no idea how to decide. That wasn’t very nice of me.
So I decided what he most needed right then was to get his mind off his problems. How? Well, I did have an idea about that.
I thought about how the only time I’d seen any life in Robin had been when he showed interest in how pancakes were made. Maybe he found cooking interesting, or maybe it just got him thinking about something other than his problems. In any case, I thought maybe I could try that same tack again. I could even take it a step further.
I knocked on his closed door. “Robin?” I called out softly.
He didn’t answer. That could mean he didn’t want to answer or that he’d fallen back asleep. Neither would help me at all, nor help him.
I knocked a little louder, and when there was still no response, I opened the door. Robin was lying on the bed on his back. His eyes were open. He was awake, at least. That was good.
I walked in and sat on the bed next to him. I stayed quiet for a moment, then asked, “Worried?”
“Okay. I’ve got something to do, and I want your help. So, first thing first, you need to get up. Go into the bathroom and use the toilet if you need to, then wash your face. There’s a new toothbrush in the drawer in there. Never been used. Now it’s yours. I have another for myself. Come out when you’re done. I’ll tell you what we’re doing after. First, though, get up. That’s what you need to do right now.”
I stood up and stepped back from the bed, obviously waiting for him. I could see he didn’t much like the idea of getting up, but he looked at me, then sat up and put his feet on the floor.
“Great!” I said. “I’ll be in the living room, waiting for you.”
I did that, went into the living room and stood there, just waiting. He did as I asked, and a few minutes later joined me.
“Okay,” I told him. “Now we go shopping.”
“Yeah. We need to go back to the grocery store and get things for dinner. I never asked you what want you wanted for dinner. That’s the next thing on our agenda. We’re going to forget about everything that’s bothering you for now. That’s for the future. You’ll be staying with me again tonight. Right now, we’re going to do what we need to do for dinner. We’re going to decide what to have for dinner, then buy it and come home and cook it. You’re going to help.”
“I don’t know how to cook anything,” he said, sounding a bit whiney.
I knew this was going to be something of a struggle. But I figured if I could get him thinking about dinner rather than his future, I could settle him down, and maybe he’d even enjoy it. It was worth the battle.
“Not now, but you soon will. Right now, all you know how to cook is pancakes. Soon, there’ll be more than that one thing. The first thing now, however, is what do you want for dinner?”
“I don’t know.”
“Perfect! When we get to the store, we’ll figure that out. We’ll look at the meats and poultry and fish and such, and you can make up your mind. Then we’ll decide what goes with what you select, and we’ll buy that, too. Then it’ll be dessert. We could buy something, but it’s much more fun to make it ourselves, and it usually tastes better.”
I was talking enthusiastically about this, hoping my optimism would be catching. I took a quick glance at him. It didn’t seem to be working, but it was early times yet. Early times.
What I needed to do was give the boy some hope—or some reason to hope. He didn’t have that now. That was what I needed to correct. Could I do that by taking him shopping? That did seem a bit weird. It also seemed to me a place to start.
A start is what this boy needed.