I don’t mind doing the dishes. I actually appreciate Daniel giving me something to do—anything to do—to keep my mind off what he wants to talk to me about. I’ve been having such a great time all day. I’ve been able to think about things that had nothing to do with my situation. Then, with the best pie I’ve ever had and whipped cream I made myself, he’d started talking about what could happen to me next, and the world started to collapse in on me again.
I don’t know where I get the nerve to say what I do to him. I tell him to stop, not to do this now, not tonight. I want to go to bed only remembering the best day I could remember having, not thinking about what’s to come. I know that will be horrible. But I want to deal with horrible tomorrow and not ruin the best day I can remember having. Today is the only thing I want to think about in bed tonight.
He gives in. Says tomorrow’s fine. He is so supportive of me! So kind. I don’t know why that is. Adults either ignore me or walk all over me. I’ve never met one like Daniel before.
I actually sleep well. I lie down with visions of what I’ve done that day in my head, thinking about whipping cream and tasting it and adding sugar and tasting it again till it was just perfect, and no one looking over my shoulder and criticizing every move I made. I think of that wonderful pie. Of the meatloaf. Of the cheesy macaroni and cheese I made with four kinds of cheese that was perfect and that I think I could have eaten a gallon of, it was so good. And then, suddenly, it’s morning, and I feel refreshed.
He makes me one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had. I don’t help with this one. I loved working with him in the kitchen the day before. Maybe he is tired of all the time I wasted learning all that stuff. Or maybe he just wants to get on with getting rid of me—I’ve been here long enough; get it over with, move on. That’s more likely. I know that’s going to be happening quickly now.
At least I had a wonderful time with him. I’ll always have that to remember.
But he lets me eat breakfast first. Then he starts in, and I just shut down. I can’t deal with it. The only thing I can imagine happening to me is being put in an orphanage or being put on a plane, sent home, and then going into an orphanage there. Doesn’t make any difference where. Me in an orphanage—that just won’t work. I couldn’t possibly cope there. There’d be competition there for everything, and I’d be below the bottom rung of the ladder. Mentally, I’d be so scared I wouldn’t be able to survive. Let alone physically. I don’t know how to fight. I’m not strong and brave. I’ll just end up letting anyone do anything at all to me. The ‘me’ in me will die.
He’s watching me. I can feel it rather than see it because I’m looking at the table again. Anywhere but him. This is where I always look. Down.
He’s quiet, looking at me. I don’t respond to anything he’s saying. I barely hear it. He’ll get tired of my deafness really quickly and call someone. He seems intent on calling the police or some welfare agency or something. I realize he spoke about doing that earlier. I guess he’s really been thinking of getting rid of me since I’ve been with him. Well, why wouldn’t he? I’m just a nuisance and burden for him. For everyone, really.
He asks me to do the dishes while he makes his phone call. I know the end is starting.
He’s on the phone long enough that I finish with the dishes, clean up the kitchen, and then go into my room. My room, yeah! I realize this is meant to be his bedroom. He gave it up for me. He could have made me sleep on the couch. He slept there, instead. I shake my head at the absurdity of that. Then I gather all the things that are mine into my duffel bag. There’s very little to pack. Then I go into the living room and sit down on the couch, bringing my duffel with me. My stomach isn’t reacting well, what with my anxiety flaring up. The big breakfast I just ate is sitting heavily in my stomach. I hope I don’t throw up. I don’t know when I’ll eat again, and when I do, it won’t be good like Daniel’s breakfast was.
Finally Daniel comes in. He doesn’t say anything right away. I guess he can tell from my posture I’m not doing well. He comes over and squeezes my shoulder. I kind of wish he’d hug me. Not that it would help. He’s still going to ship me off to who knows where. He probably has the police on their way now. I hope they don’t throw me into a cell and forget about me.
I start to tremble. I can’t help it. Daniel sits down next to me. Close enough to touch. He reaches out and briefly touches my arm. “Look at me,” he says. He speaks softly. I can hear compassion in his voice.
I can’t do it. If I look up, I’ll probably start crying. I hate doing that. But he says it again. So I glance up, catch his eyes for the briefest of moments, and very quickly look down again.
“Robin,” he says, “I called and spoke to my dad. I have a little better understanding of how your situation works as far as the law goes. We discussed possible options for you. But our coming up with anything is the wrong way to approach this. It’s your life. I need you to tell me what you want. What will make you happy. I think that might be returning home and having your mother go into counseling—counseling mandated and monitored by the state. My dad thinks that would be possible. But again, that was us talking. I need you to tell me what you want.”
He stops. My eyes are still focusing on my lap. But I hear him. Mostly what I hear is he hasn’t called the cops. If he only called his dad, that means no one’s on their way to pick me up. I can breathe a little easier.
I realize he’s expecting me to speak when he says my name again: “Robin?” Then I remember, he asked me a question.
I take a quick glance at him again. He’s looking at me expectantly.
“I don’t know what I want,” I tell him. It’s the truth. I have no idea what I want. I’ve never had to think about that. I do what adults tell me to do. My mom never cared whether I liked what she had me do. Never even gave that a passing thought.
Realizing that, I did know one thing. “I don’t want to go back to my mom. Counseling wouldn’t make any difference. She doesn’t love me, and I don’t love her. I don’t know what I want, but what I don’t want is to live with her any longer.”
He’s quiet then, quiet long enough that I sneak another look at him. He’s staring at me. When I meet his eyes, he speaks again.
“Robin, it may be hard, but you need to answer that question. This is your life. You have to decide what you want. If you do that by dismissing all the things you don’t want, that’s one way to go about it. But you have to decide. You. If I do that for you, I’ll be just like your mother, making important decisions for you. From now on, you have to be grown up enough to decide what’s to become of you. You might not think you’re ready for that, but you are. You know yourself. You know what you like and what you don’t. You’re smart. We already talked about that. At 14, a smart 14, you’re the one who has to be deciding who you are and where you’re going. Eventually, you have to know if you want a job as a butcher or gardener, a man who repaves streets or a teacher or lawyer, a judge or a cop, but those decisions can be put off till you’re older.
“This one can’t be put off. This has to be decided now and has to be based on what you like and what you don’t like and what you know. You’re smart. Use that. Tell me what you want.”
“But I don’t know!” I wail. How am I supposed to know what I want? I know a lot of things I don’t want. I don’t want to go back home. I don’t want to live with my uncle. I wouldn’t mind staying with Daniel. He is the nicest adult I’ve ever met. But that isn’t what he’s suggesting. I think he wants me to choose between a home for boys, being put up for adoption, being fostered by someone—all those things he talked about. I don’t want any of them. What do I want? What would be okay?
“I can’t choose for you, Robin,” he says again. His voice is so caring, I can hardly bear looking at him. But then I do. He’s telling me I have to decide, so I do. “Can I stay with you? That’s what I want.” I say it so softly, I’m not sure he can hear me.
I immediately drop my eyes. I can’t look up at him. I can’t. I hadn’t realized until I said it how much I wanted it. But I said it and then knew. Yes, now I know. That is what I want, and I want it more than I’d ever wanted anything. I want it so much that when he doesn’t say anything, I begin sobbing.
Then I feel his hand again, touching my arm, and then grasping it and pulling me toward him. I risk a look at him, crying eyes and all, and he is smiling, and he is opening his other arm, and then he does hug me, and I sob as he does, sobbing for different reasons now, and I don’t even feel embarrassed.
“We have a lot to talk about, Robin,” he says. I can only stay glued to him so long, and he gently pries me off. It felt sooo good being held by him. I think I have a hugging deficit.
“You probably have a lot of questions to ask me, and they’ll occur to you whenever. I’ll answer them. I’ll be truthful with you. I’d like it if you’d do the same, but I was your age not all that long ago. I know how hard it is to always tell the truth at that age. It’s good if you have the courage to do so, though. Really good—and for you more than me. Your character will grow stronger with every truth you tell when a lie would have been easier.”
He touches my arm again. I’m not sure why, but I have the feeling it is sort of like pinching yourself to know you’re awake. Not that I ever did that. But I’ve read about it. He sort of has that look in his eyes. Maybe things are moving as fast for him as they are for me.
“I have to tell you something right off, Robin. So you’ll know. I’m going to try to be able to have you here. But it’s not my final say; the court has to decide your fate. However, my dad is a lawyer and thinks I can get custody of you. That doesn’t mean adoption. It means I get to be in charge of things like where you live, where you go to school, your medical care—all those details a parent is supposed to take care of. Things that yours have been lax about. Custody decisions involving minors are decided by a judge. My dad knows one and thinks it’ll be a no-brainer that he’ll approve putting you in my custody as long as that’s what you want.”
“Yes!” I say, emphatically. “That’s what I want.”
He smiles at me. “You don’t even know me very well. I might be a slave driver. I might make you do all the chores around here and only feed you table scraps and make you wear rags.”
“Yeah, sure you would. That’s just how you’ve acted as long as I’ve been here. What you’ve done is shown me how to do things, and more than that, most important, really, is show me that you care. Care about me as a person. That’s who you are, someone who cares about a poor, screwed-up, worthless kid he doesn’t even know.”
“Well, thanks, but I’m just a normal guy. Well, not that normal. I need to tell you this; you have to know it right from the beginning: I’m gay. That won’t affect how I treat you and interact with you. I’m not sexually attracted to kids. I also hope you’re not attracted to older men. That’s me, an older man.” He smiles when he says that. I’m still thinking about him declaring he’s gay. I’d never have guessed that. I’ll have to think about it. Right off the top, I think how good that can be for me. If anyone can understand a 14-year-old who’s gay but has yet to experience a major part of that, it would be someone who’s been where I am now and gone through what I’m going through.
“Is that going to be a problem?” he asks.
“No,” I tell him. “But I hope that doesn’t mean you won’t hug me anymore. I liked that!”
We talk a lot more. I ask him why he’s agreed to this: me staying. He says he likes me, feels bad about how my life has gone so far, that he’s a teacher who likes kids, and, well, he does like me and thinks he can help me and wants me to be happy. He thinks I can have a much better life than I’ve had before, and he wants that for me.
Somehow, that doesn’t sound right to me. I mean, that’s fine and all, but not enough, either. He’ll be taking on a huge responsibility, his life as a bachelor with no one to worry about but himself will be taking an unexpected and sudden 180-degree uey, and it seems there should be more of an explanation for that than he likes me and wants me to have a better, happier life.
No, there has to be more than that. I wonder if he understands that. If he realizes the extent of what he’s getting into.
He’s smart. He must see that. But he just said we need to be truthful with each other. And I have the distinct feeling he’s not doing that.
I think we need to get this relationship off on the right foot. Not with me having doubts. Yes, I’m not brave. Not a bit. I just got handed the best thing I can imagine ever getting. Do I want to jeopardize that by calling him on not being entirely honest?
I think I should but don’t have the courage to. So, confused and uncertain, I do what I do. I go into a private funk. Existing inside myself.
When I get like this, I’m no longer relating or reacting to the world. I’m in my own world. Oblivious. I often find it a safer place to visit.
And then I’m yanked out of my sanctuary. “Robin!” He says it quite loudly and holds my shoulder. I jerk a little, coming back. He’s looking hard at me. My heart speeds up.
Then his gaze softens. “I said something wrong, didn’t I?” he asks. I’m not used to that. I’m used to people being mad at me or being dismissive or cruel. Not asking why I went away for a spell. He acts as if my going way had been his fault. No, I’d never, ever had that happen before.
“Tell me. Please? I’m going to make mistakes. You will, too. But knowing what I did wrong will help prevent me from doing it again. What was it?”
I should tell him. I really should. But everything inside of me says not to. Not to take the risk.
Then he grins. Why is he grinning? But his grin grows wider, and he says, “Most boys your age are ticklish. You can get them to talk with a tickle attack. How about you? Do you scream bloody murder when someone turns on the tickle machine? Do you give up all your secrets?”
He slides a little closer to me on the couch, his eyes bright and devious. I just look at him, don’t move away at all, and wrinkle my brow. He sees that and stops. “What?” he says.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’ve never been tickled.”
“Oh, my God,” he says, and drops his hands which he was holding like claws. “Never?”
His expression changes to sadness. “I’m not going to do it then; not now at least. I want you to be happy when I tickle you. So I’m just going to have to beg. What did I say or do that caused you to retreat like you did? Please tell me?”
How could I not respond to that? I’d be disappointing him. I might disappoint him if I tell him, but that just means he might be disappointed both ways, so there’s no reason not to tell him. And maybe he’ll see my point, that he’s starting us off not doing as he said we should.
“Okay, but it might hurt your feelings,” I say.
“All right. I’ll be ready for that. Go on.”
So I tell him. I can’t look at him when I do, but I manage to get out that he said we had to be truthful with each other, but I don’t think he was when he answered my question. I tell him I didn’t know how to call him on that, and I kind of just retreated into myself, not knowing what else to do.
I glance up at him to see if he’s mad. He doesn’t look mad. He looks contemplative.
“Robin, you’re right. Absolutely. What I said to you was true, but it wasn’t the whole truth. I didn’t say the rest because I was afraid of hurting your feelings. See? You’re braver than I am!
“What I left out? Okay. I felt really, really bad seeing what you were facing, and I knew I was in a position to help. You can talk to my dad—well, you will talk to him soon—and he’ll tell you I’ve been this way all my life, wanting—in fact, needing—to help people and animals that are hurting. I was afraid if I told you that’s why I decided to ask if you wanted to stay here, you’d think I was pitying you, and I didn’t want you to think that. I want to help you because you need help, and because I think you’ll thrive with it. You’ll become what you’re able to become, and I doubted that would happen if I turned you away. There’s all that and the fact I really like what I see in you. You’re polite, smart, cuddly and need to have a chance to make something of yourself.”
I look up at him, and he’s looking worried, like maybe I’d have a problem with what he’d said. I don’t have a problem with it. I don’t have any problems at all.
I think for a moment, then decide what to do. “Cuddly?” I ask. He does what I hoped he would. He takes me in his arms and hugs me. Nothing’s a good as being hugged by Daniel.
When he lets me go, it feels way too soon, and I say, “The tickle machine, huh? How about the hugging machine?” And with a fierce growl, I throw myself at him again and wrap my arms around him and hold on for dear life.