The Boy on the Plane

Chapter 5


I’d never met a kid like Robin. He looked much like most 14-year-olds in that he had an unfinished appearance. Like he was ready to grow into something he wasn’t and hadn’t done so yet. His hair was long and unruly, his face whisker-free, his skin so far unblemished. What was different about him was his eyes. They were either sad or blank. That was about it. He’d had no affect at all at first. As I’d spent the day with him, he seemed to come out of himself, at least somewhat. I enjoyed seeing that. There was a real live kid in there. It had just been in hiding.

He showed no self-confidence at all. Most kids have some at least. His had been beaten out of him in some way. That can be done physically or just as effectively verbally. However it had been done with him, it had been done awfully well. Very thoroughly.

I tried getting him involved in the grocery store we visited and in making dinner. It was like pulling teeth at first, but I stayed as positive as I could, and I could see the beginnings of a personality seeping out around his tightly wrapped edges. At one point in the day, I could even hear some sarcasm from him! Yeah! I was getting to him. You have to have some confidence to be sarcastic. At least a little.

Making the meatloaf was an experience. He’d never done much of anything in the kitchen before! How does one become 14 and never have cooked a thing? But his enthusiasm kept rising as we worked together. When he dumped the meatloaf in the pan and spread it evenly—getting his fingers down into it, making sure it was just right—when he looked up at me when he was done, the look of pride on his face almost made me tear up. At the beginning, when we’d just gotten started, he’d kept looking up at me with fear on his face, fear he was about to be criticized for doing something wrong. By the time he put the uncooked loaf in the pan, the look he gave me wasn’t fear but pride, and I had to look away. Man, what a change. I felt so good for him.

I had him wash his hands and took the time he was doing it to pull myself back together.

He was ready for the pie-making, and so was I. I asked him what he wanted to do, make the crust or the filling.

He thought about it. He seemed to think about everything. Maybe in the past he’d been criticized for answering something incorrectly. I didn’t know but did know if there was anything he wasn’t, it was spontaneous. He thought, then asked, “Which is more difficult?”

Did he want to know that so he could do the easy part or the hard? I looked him in the eye. He wasn’t dropping his eyes from mine nearly as much any longer—a great accomplishment, a great improvement. I couldn’t read the answer to that, so simply told him. “Anyone can mix the ingredients. Just throw everything into a mixer bowl and turn it on. Very easy. In fact, I’ll have you do that after making the crust so it’ll be all your pie when it’s done. The more difficult part is the crust.”

“Okay, that sounds good. But I don’t know how. Will you show me?”

“I’ll talk you through it. It’ll be like the meatloaf—screw it all up, and it’ll still be great. You can’t go wrong. And doing it is again kind of fun, something to do and accomplish that isn’t all that hard. No worries, just good eats when you’re done.”

And so he made the crust. I told him it would be an 8” pie and how much flour and Crisco to mix together for a single-crust pie of that size. “Most recipes call for a cup of flour and a third of a cup of Crisco or butter. I use a half cup of Crisco and no butter at all. That makes a better crust. And for baked goods, I measure things. Measuring is more important when baking.”

I showed him how to cut in the shortening. Told him about using the little bit of cold water that was needed to get the dough to hold together and why working fast and not letting anything warm up was important. Told him about not over-rolling-out the dough. When it was rolled out, I told him the dough would be hard to pick up and put in the pie pan because of the extra Crisco he’d used, how I cut the rolled-out dough into four triangular wedges and then fit them together in the pan. “Once you’ve sealed them together, no one will ever know what you did, and picking up each triangle is far easier.”

He did as I asked. He rolled the dough out on a floured board so it was larger than the pie pan. He cut and placed the pieces of the dough in the pie pan, having some problem doing so while I kept telling him that was normal and nothing to worry about. I told him he wanted about an inch or so of dough sticking up over the top edge of the pie pan.

I showed him how to crimp that, and he did it. I held up the pan with the dough now ready for the filling and said, “Wow. Look at that. Perfect. Now you know all my tricks.” He seemed to get a kick out of that. Robin was actually smiling now. The uncooked crust in the pan did look good.

He’d said hardly a word all the time he was working. He had flour down his front and on his nose where he’d scratched it. Robin wasn’t really a cute boy. He wasn’t bad looking; he was simply a boy, looking like boys looked. A boy still becoming a man. But a boy with potential. More individual-looking than one who was traditionally movie-star cute. But right then? Floured and shyly proud? Robin looked cute as hell.

With the dough now in the pie pan, I showed him the recipe for the filling of an 8” pecan pie. He added dark Karo syrup, melted butter, white sugar, eggs, salt, vanilla and lemon juice in the right amounts to the bowl to be mixed together. He was very precise in his measurements, much more so than necessary, but I didn’t comment. He’d obviously been told too many times he wasn’t doing something correctly; he didn’t need to hear it again when it didn’t matter.

He measured and added, then asked about pecans. I told him we’d add them after the pie shell was full, using just enough to have a single layer covering all the liquid filling.

We cooked the meatloaf first. I told him that would take about an hour and that we’d cook the pie while we were eating. He was funny, his eagerness showing, his eyes alive and sparkling. He seemed to have forgotten we were still basically strangers. All the protective reflexes he’d shown earlier had been forgotten.

He wanted to help with the entire dinner, and I was happy to have him do that. I had him make the macaroni and cheese, showing him each step. I showed him how to microwave the cauliflower and how much shredded cheese to add to the covered bowl when it was done. I made a salad so we’d have meat, salad, veggie and a starch for the meal. I showed him how to make a salad dressing after finding out what kind he liked. He couldn’t believe a salad dressing was something you could make rather than pour out of a bottle.

He put the pie in the oven after I’d taken the meatloaf out to rest before we cut into it. While it had been cooking, Robin had been resting, too. I had the impression he’d done a lot more today, been on his feet a lot more today, than was usual for him.

I’d told him he could lie down for a few minutes if he’d like, but to wash his hands and maybe change his shirt before we sat down to dinner. He looked grateful. But when I called him back, with things about ready to serve, he wasn’t meeting my eyes again.

He still had the same shirt on. He’d brushed off all the flour he could, but flour, being flour, doesn’t come off clothing very easily. He took a quick glance up at me, saw me looking, and dropped his eyes again. Damn. He’d been doing so much better.

“I don’t have any other clothes,” he mumbled. I could hardly hear him.

“Hey, look at me,” I said gently. When he looked up, I said, “That’s fine. Changing shirts was just a suggestion. It was more for you than for me. I’m not disappointed. What I am is proud of you. But sit down. You did most of the work for this scrumptious meal, and you need to enjoy eating it!”

I grinned at him, and he seemed to recover enough to grin back. Wanly, but a grin.

The food was fine. First-rate. His reaction was even better.

He raved about the meatloaf, saying his only comparison was the stuff he had at school, and while that was pretty good, and most of the kids thought so, too, it wasn’t anything like this. This was amazing!

I couldn’t help smiling at how he kept going on about it. When he finally slowed down, I said, “And you know what? You made it. And since you did it, you now know how. You know the ingredients and approximate amounts of everything, how long to cook it, everything. So, it’s the best meatloaf ever, and you can make it any time you want. It’s one of your skills now.”

He ate a lot. I don’t know how. He was talking during most of the meal. Talking about the food, about making it, about the store, and wondering about the pie. Nothing about his past, his future, his situation, his worries. I was happy to let him rattle on. Happy his mind was on something other than his troubles for at least a little while.

I told him it would be best to do the dishes and clean up the kitchen to give the food we’d eaten a chance to sort itself out and that we could have the pie later. He was agreeable. I had the impression he’d always agree with whatever I asked. I didn’t know if that had been drilled into him and he always did that with everyone, or if it was just with me.

I needed to talk to him about what came next with regards to his situation but kept hesitating. I had a strong feeling he was trying not to think about that, that this day with me had been an island of separation from his problems. He seemed to be forcing himself not to think about his worries by being attentive to what we were doing together and not allowing his mind to drift to anything else. I was getting the benefit of that and enjoying his obvious pleasure in what he was learning, but I knew we had to talk about his situation. I’d been putting it off all day. When would be the right time to approach it?

When we were done with the dishes and the pie was out of the oven and cooling, I told him it was time for him to make the whipped cream. He looked puzzled. “I thought it came from a can where you pressed a nozzle and out it squirted.”

I laughed. How does a boy grow to be 14 and know so little about how the world worked?

I showed him how to make whipped cream using my KitchenAid mixer, powdered sugar and just a little vanilla. And emphasized how not to end up with butter.

The pie was excellent. I complimented him about the crust.

“This is the best crust I’ve ever tasted,” he told me enthusiastically. “The best pie, too. I never had pecan pie before. This is wonderful.”

When he was so happy, I thought maybe now was the time to strike.

“Robin, we need to talk about what comes next for you. Your situation.”

He had a forkful of pie headed toward his mouth. It was his third piece. After that dinner, three pieces of pie? Yikes. But he stopped the fork midway and just looked at me for the moment. Then he said, “Tomorrow. This has been the best day I can remember, and I want to go to bed tonight treasuring it. That means doing the talking tomorrow. Not today. Please?”

How could I take that away from him? I couldn’t. So we waited till the next day.

I made him a breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, fried potatoes and toasted English muffins. I had coffee and one of the English muffin halves. If I ate like he was doing, I’d gain 50 pounds in a week. He was mostly skin and bones.

While I had him glued to his chair munching away, a captive audience if there ever was one, I knew it was time to start in. The thing was, I had a lot of questions that I knew he had no answers to. I didn’t have any answers, either. So where would we go with this?

Well, at least it would have been discussed.

“Robin,” I said as he was shoveling eggs, “we do need to talk about your situation. There are rules in place, and I doubt I’ve complied with them. My reason for that is probably good enough that it won’t be a problem yet, but we have to do something today, report where you are to the proper people. If we don’t, I’ll be in a great deal of trouble. I can’t just pick up a boy your age off the street and take him home with me. There are all sorts of authorities who shake their heads at that. Some of them would want to throw me in jail. So, let’s kick this around. Okay?”

He stopped eating long enough to give me a glance, then looked down at his plate. I knew I could gauge how upset this was making him, having to think about and discuss it, by whether he kept eating or not. He picked up his fork again and took another bite; I relaxed a bit.

I pushed forward. “I need to call Social Services or the police, and probably both. I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t really know all the laws about this. However, both my parents are lawyers. I can call them and get their advice, and I will. But before talking to anyone, I want input from you. Maybe you’d like to go back home now that you’ve had a chance to think about it.

“I mentioned some options already: friends at school that might let you stay with them, relatives, guys you know in a group home. Maybe you had a neighbor you like who would be willing to help. Or even a teacher. But there are good things about you being back home: you’d know your way around; you’d know teachers at your school; everything wouldn’t be so new and different than it is here. It also might be good to be back there because you’d be closer to your parents and they very well could have a change of heart and take you back.”

The expression on his face told me the chances of that were either slim or none. I kept talking so he wouldn’t dwell on that. “So, do you think any of this makes sense? Is there something in that list of options to explore? I could help if you wanted to talk to someone back there, I mean in CPS or whatever the agency is that deals with homeless kids. Even talking to your parents on the phone. I could help with that. I’m here for you.”

He glanced up at me again and finally put his fork down. I noticed his plate was empty, so perhaps that was why.

“I don’t know what I want. I’ve been trying not to think about it, but I can’t always get away with that. The thing is, I don’t want to go back to what I had before. I don’t want to go to a group home. I don’t want to be fostered by people I don’t know. There are a lot of things I know I don’t want. But what do I want? I don’t know.”

He sounded like the boy on the plane. Like all the problems in the world were laid on shoulders that weren’t nearly broad enough to carry them. He sounded desperate. He sounded like he was about to burst into tears.

If anyone was going to solve this, I saw it would be me. And I didn’t have any answers, either. Well, I did have one thing.

“Okay, okay, settle down,” I said. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I should be calling the authorities, but I’m going to call my parents first.”

He took his plate to the sink, rinsed it off, then just stood there. He was returning into his funk. Obvious to see. I stood up and went to him, put my arm around his shoulder and said softly, “I’ll call my parents. They know the law, and they’re both very smart. They can tell me what has to be done and when, and they may even have some suggestions I haven’t thought of that you’d like better than what I’ve mentioned. Don’t get too down yet.

“Hey, Robin. You’re a great kid. I’ve spent enough time with you now to know that. So let me make that call, and we’ll see what’s what. Till then, why don’t you wash the breakfast dishes? Give you something to do. Okay?”

He nodded desultorily.

“Say it,” I grumbled and grinned, trying to show him this wasn’t the time to sulk.

He almost grinned. “Okay,” he said, and I squeezed him with my arm, then went to use the phone.

“Hey, Dad.”

“Daniel! You get in all right. Getting settled?”

“Yep, no problems. Thanks with the stuff you left in the kitchen. And problems? Well, one tiny one. That’s the reason I’m calling. I brought a roommate with me.”

“Oh? I thought you were going to leave all those one-nighters behind and look for something steady—or even permanent—out here. Did that change?”

One thing about my dad. He’d accepted my orientation totally when I’d come out. He’d hugged me when I told him and whispered in my ear that I was his son, always would be, and when I brought a guy home to meet him, he’d welcome him with open arms.

Mom took a little longer, but she seemed to have accepted it by now. There was nothing like acceptance with Dad. He took it like I was born with one earlobe slightly smaller than the other—not something you’d approve or disapprove of, just something that was the way it was and required no extra thought or adjustment or thinking about. It was just who I was, and he loved me.

I knew he’d want me to settle down, find just one partner, hopefully have kids. I wanted that, too. I’d found a few short-term partners in college, but I wasn’t looking for more than that. I would now, eventually, once I was settled in my job.

He knew that was my plan. So he was wondering why I’d brought a companion with me. Fair question.

“It isn’t that at all. Through a combination of events, I’ve ended up with a 14-year-old boy who’s essentially homeless at this point. He was a Massachusetts resident. His parents didn’t want him any longer and shipped him off to a California relative who also doesn’t want him and is inappropriate for him in any case. The boy’s been with me now for a day and two nights. I wanted to know my responsibilities for reporting that I have him, who I need to report him to, and what happens when I do. He’s very fragile at this point as all of this happened to him in an eyeblink. Whatever I do, it’s him I’m worried about.”

My dad, to give him credit, didn’t chuckle and tease about this. He knew me well. He knew I cared about other people and even animals much more than most guys my age did. He didn’t disparage that quality in me as many men would do.

“Daniel, that’s a can of worms, a homeless youth. There are multiple agencies involved, tons of legislation, and lots of confusion. It becomes even more complex with his having come from a different state. What is it you want to do with him?”

“See that he’s okay. I suggested things for him, and he rejected all of them. I don’t think he has any ideas that would be workable. He’s floundering, full of worries and fears. Whoever I report him to would probably stick him in a home of some sort while they figure out what to do with him, and the thought of that scares the hell out of him. So I don’t know how to answer your question. But I’m worried that I have him and haven’t notified anyone. That’s what I’m calling you about now, figuring you’d know what my legal responsibilities are.”

“Yes, I see why you’d think that. But it isn’t really all that clear whether you have to report you have him, to whom you’d report, when you have to report—all that. You’re right, though, about what happens if you contact CPS. They’ll quickly take him away and throw him into some sort of institutional facility.”

“Is there any way to prevent that while I try to find something suitable for him, while I talk to him and see if we can come up with something he’d agree to? If even that is possible?”

“Well, maybe. I assume you don’t want to try for an appointed guardianship for him. That might be difficult anyway as he does still have living parents. But besides guardianship, there is another route. There’s custody. You could apply for that. You have to go to court and have a judge grant you that. Then you call the shots on him. He could even stay with you if that’s what you want.”

“I don’t know about that! I never even considered that. I’m just beginning a new job. I wasn’t planning on having a kid living with me while I did that. I hardly even know him. That wasn’t really on the table!”

Now he chuckled! “Who are you complaining to? I’m just giving you what might be a temporary option while you try to work this out.”

“Could that even be possible? Would a judge okay that? I mean, I’m gay; I’m 23-years-old; I’ve just moved back to California. I don’t know that I’m really equipped to have custody of myself, let alone a kid.”

“The question to ask yourself has nothing to do with any of that. The question is: do you want to take custody of him? Be responsible for him? His health, his education? His happiness?

“I don’t want him stuck in a system, that’s for sure. I think it would destroy him.”

I could almost see my dad shaking his head. ‘Unresponsive,’ I could hear him muttering. What he did say was, “I didn’t ask you what you didn’t want, son, I asked what you did want. Do you want custody of him? If not, then yes, you have to work out what do to with him that doesn’t include you looking after his best interests. Because when you pass him on to someone else, you’ll no longer be involved with him at all.”

I was silent for a time. My dad, being smart, didn’t say a word. He knew I was thinking. I finally asked him in a very soft, very tentative voice, “Do you think there’s any chance a judge would give me custody?”

“Now that’s a question I can answer with some certainty. I know a judge that I’ve worked with several times on youth cases over the years. He’s a friend; I play golf with him. As this is a California case, I could get a hearing in front of him, and he’d be easy to convince. He’s a softy for kids. I’d say we’d have no problem, I could represent you, and you’d get custody. As long as there are no problems from Massachusetts.”