The Boy on the Plane

Chapter 7


The next two weeks were, well… what’s the word? I guess frantic comes close. We had a lot to do, and some of it was determined on the fly as we thought of it.

The hearing before the judge took precedence, but it was only one thing. Our list included getting Robin’s things shipped from Massachusetts to California. Dealing with his parents was going to be tricky because I didn’t know what their reaction would be. The judge would decide about their parental rights, whether I’d get custodial rights to Robin, and what financial responsibilities and support requirements his parents would still have. We had to have his school documents forwarded to the school where I’d be teaching, but I couldn’t ask for those before custody was granted. We made a list of everything to be decided by the judge so we wouldn’t forget anything. There were other things to do that didn’t include the judge. For those, I decided to trust my dad’s judgment and prepare for the fact that Robin would be staying with me.

One of our first jobs was the apartment. I had to wonder if we should keep it or look for a larger unit. I decided we should make do until other matters were fixed. So we went out and bought a twin bed and some bedroom furniture from Ikea. I thought it would be a good bonding experience for the two of us to do the assembly. He’d be moving into what was supposed to be my office.

I found that assembly more easily assumed than done.

“I need panel A and two of those hex-head bolts.” Simple request. But Robin wasn’t exactly mechanically minded. Still, how hard is it to read the stickers on the pieces?

“No, it’s one of the larger pieces. It’s the side panel. No, not that; that’s a drawer front. Small. You’re looking for the largest one. Over there. No, over there. Ah, yeah, that’s it. See the A on it? That’s what you’re looking for.”

Aargh! This was going to take all day. And I had to stay cheerful. That was an absolute. He knew he was all thumbs with this sort of thing; he’d been criticized for it all his life. I had to make it sound like we were having fun, no matter what.

I could have done the job in half the time all by myself. But how is that bonding? Of course, getting frustrated wasn’t bonding, either. Not the kind of bonding I wanted at least. So, no frustration. Only fun. Yeah, right.

Somehow, I managed it.

Still, even with my positive attitude floating over everything, the fact remained that he’d never done anything like this before. He had no mechanical aptitude. Little spacial awareness. Little hand/eye coordination. What he did have was a well-practiced ability to get down on himself whenever he couldn’t do anything quickly and correctly. I could see him getting upset. And then he called himself worthless.

“Robin,” I said, “let’s take a break. How about some lemonade? You thirsty?”

So we made lemonade. He did, because I wanted him to do something he could be successful at. I did tell him how, and I watched carefully as he cut two lemons because there was a knife involved and he wasn’t skilled in its use. I cut the first one, explaining why my fingers were placed as they were, then stood close to him as he cut the second one. I had him use the hand squeezer, and he got most of the juice into the glass. I told him how much sugar to add, and how much water, and to mix it up before he added any ice and why.

He was getting better in the kitchen. His actions were more natural now. All the boy needed was some experience. Some muscle memory.

“I saw you getting frustrated in there,” I said after taking a gulp of lemonade.

“I’m—” he started, and I didn’t let him finish.

“If you say worthless again, ever, you and I are going to go ten rounds and then have words. You, Robin, are not worthless. You’re inexperienced. Untrained. But you pick up things fast. You‘re going to be better at some things than others, just like everyone else. But you’re not and never have been worthless. I don’t want you saying it or thinking it. Doing so perpetuates the feeling inside your head. So, stop it. No more.”

He was looking down. He still did that when we were talking about him. He was certain any such talk was going to end up with sharp criticism. Even though I’d never done that with him.

“You okay with that?” I asked.

Slowly, he raised my eyes to me. “I don’t get it,” he said softly. “Why are you so kind to me?”

“Because you are worth it. Because you try hard. Because I’m very fond of you. Lots of reasons. Maybe that should be what you implant in you mind: Daniel thinks I’m worth it. And Daniel’s really smart.”

I grinned at him, showing my self-flattery was a joke, and suddenly, unexpected, he was in my arms.

So working with Robin on things could be frustrating, but it was rewarding, too. It was teaching me to be patient with teenagers, and what was obvious to me wasn’t necessarily so to someone his age. What was easy for me might not be easy for them, and I should give them the time to learn how to do things. Some kids didn’t catch on the first time they saw or read something. You had to be willing to repeat the lesson. What I saw with Robin as time passed was that he wasn’t getting as frustrated as he had at first. I thought about that and wondered if maybe when he saw I didn’t expect him to know how to do something he’d never done before, he shouldn’t expect it of himself, either.

We eventually finished putting all his new furniture together, but not all at once. A little at a time. Taking a few days to do it. He was learning as we went, and I was keeping his frustration level down. Before our talk about how he wasn’t worthless, when I’d asked for things he didn’t find right off, I saw the worry in his eyes. I remembered how he’d told me he’d been criticized for everything he’d done at home and for what he hadn’t done, too. I knew that was the origin of those worried eyes. He thought I’d yell at him, put him down for not having everything I wanted when I wanted it. He thought I’d be scathing about his inability to find things immediately.

So I hadn’t been. I’d smiled. I’d joked. I teased very gently and then laughed so he’d know it was meant in fun. And yet he’d still feel worthless at not being as quick as he thought I’d expect. His feelings had been deeply embedded, and it would take time to extirpate them.

Over time I did get to see his attitude about himself changing. He relaxed. I loved that.

We did bond over that furniture building. Not entirely, of course. We were still strangers. But he was learning what he could expect from me. And I, from him. He was very careful about everything. He did nothing recklessly. No risks. I had the feeling that being a kid had been stomped out of him. It was something I’d have to try to fix. But not then. That was a later project that would take a lot of time and baby steps.

I talked to my dad often. I’d always been very careful with what money I had because I didn’t want to ask for any. I wanted to show him, but mostly myself, I could make it on my salary without help. But that was pre-Robin. It was different now. So I asked my dad how the financial aspect of taking Robin in would work.

“It’ll depend on how much his parents contest. They should pay for his upkeep. But he’s in another state, which complicates it. The fact they shipped him off to where he is now matters, of course. They can’t abrogate their financial obligations by doing that. But the extent of the obligation has to be determined. Their responsibilities will be determined during the court hearing.”

“And when will that be? The thing is, I have costs already. His furniture, clothing before his arrives, food—all that. And I don’t really want to run up bills. I’ve always paid my credit card in full every month. No debt. I’d hate for that to change.”

“That’s easy, Daniel. I’ll put $2,000 in your account. When the matter is settled in court and you begin getting payment from his parents, you can reimburse me. But keep the receipts. The court will probably get the Tressmans to cover them. If they don’t, it’s no biggie. Repay me the $2,000 or don’t. You never have been a financial burden and never will be.”

That was my dad.

That was the way he was. And perhaps that had something to do with who I was. I’d pay him back. Every cent. But no interest. That would have offended him.

During those two weeks, Robin and I got to know each other a lot better. Robin was a timid child, very polite, very quiet, very reluctant to allow any of his wants to be known.

“You know, Robin,” I said to him during the second week, “teenagers are supposed to be sneaky. They’re underhanded little devils, getting away with all sort of crap their parents wouldn’t approve of. Lying little bastards is what they are. They play their awful music way too loud, don’t care about their personal hygiene, leave their rooms worse than pigsties, trash any room they spend any time in and then walk away, leaving it for the next person to clean up, belch and fart whenever it suits them with nary an apology, nary an, ‘Oops, sorry about that,’ sleep into the afternoon and then expect breakfast on the table when they wander in, still in their underwear and scratching themselves.”

“Is that right?” he asked. By then he could see through me. He knew my tones of voice. Knew my sarcastic tone. I wasn’t serious, and he knew it. So he was playing along, seeing where this was going.

“That’s right, and you need to get with it. You need to pull up your braces and get into the game. You’re something of a disgrace to your breed. You don’t do any of those typical 14-year-old things. How are you going to hold your head up proudly with your brethren? I was thinking, maybe I should recruit some kids your age to come over and show you the ropes. What do you think?”

The smile left his face. He was quiet, thinking. I’d grown used to that and waited. “I, uh, I don’t mix well with other kids. To be honest, I’m a little afraid of them. They can tell who I am right off. I guess it’s the way I act, even how I just stand or sit. Mostly they ignore me, but some of them like to bully me. I know you’re teasing, but getting kids my age over here? I hate that idea. If you did, I’d go hide in my room.”

So we were getting to know each other, and he was being honest. It had been difficult for him at first, but with me being supportive, he’d come to see he could be, that he didn’t get anything but compassion and help, and I could tell he liked that. He was much more relaxed with me now.

My dad called. He’d been working on my custody case. “A hearing is scheduled for next Monday, 9 AM in Judge Franklin’s chambers. We’ll have a video conference with a Massachusetts children’s court judge, Robin’s parents and their attorney. I’d like it if you two could come out Saturday or Sunday and stay over till the hearing. We both want to meet Robin, and I know Lucy will want to see you.”

“We can do that. I can show him where I grew up. Uh, what’s your sense about this hearing? Any problems I should know about?”

“You never know.” Dad usually sounded optimistic. Now he sounded cautious. “Robin’s parents could suddenly have a change of heart and want him back. Very difficult to fight that. Or maybe they wouldn’t like the support payments and think that going to court might reduce them. So, it isn’t cut and dried. But my impression, talking to their attorney, is that it’ll be pretty straightforward. The judge there, too, is very much on Robin’s side. He hates deadbeat parents.”

“Okay, we’ll come out Saturday. See you then.”

I told Robin that we’d be driving to Calabasas on Saturday. His response was typical Robin. He always responded to new things the same way. Initial fear, then a lot of thought, the establishment of a strong resolve and determination with which to fortify himself, and then the acceptance that it would be a disaster but that he’d somehow survive it, mostly by retreating into himself.

He still did that. Not as much. I was learning what caused it and was careful not to do things or put him in situations where he felt the need to protect himself that way. Yet it was such a routine defense mechanism for him that nothing I did, no matter how careful I was, could protect him from the need altogether.

I planned to get to my parents’ house mid- to late-afternoon Saturday. That morning Robin was nervous. He withdrew when that happened, not one of his full-scale retreats, just becoming quieter. As he was always quiet, it was only that I knew and recognized his moods now that I could tell what he was feeling.

He was worried about how my parents would receive him. He knew they were both attorneys, partners in a law firm, very well-to-do, respected older adults. He was sure they’d see I’d made a mistake taking him in. He thought it likely that after meeting him they’d insist I dump him on some welfare agency or simply on the streets… and that would be that. No matter what I said, he wouldn’t be convinced otherwise. Such was his sense of self worth.

We arrived in Calabasas a little after four. We still had a short way to drive to get to the house. Robin was surprised at how far it had been, a little over an hour-and-a-half drive, and all the time we’d been in the greater Los Angeles area. I told him Los Angeles was the largest metropolitan area in the U.S. He said he believed it after I told him our drive had only showed him a small part of the whole, that we’d more or less just seen the northern edge of the cities. He said he’d thought Boston was huge. Hah!

My scornful interjection caused him to take out his phone to prove me wrong. He was sure Boston was bigger. After going online, he became sheepish.

“What?” I asked.

“Boston isn’t even in the top five,” he said. “LA is more than twice as large.”

I nodded. “Yeah, and it’s not much fun when you have to drive somewhere that’s two hours away. We won’t be coming here much at all. But I’m happy you’re getting to meet my parents.”

He just scowled and turned to look out the side window.

We got to my neighborhood—well, my parents’, but I guess subconsciously it was still my home to me—a few minutes later. It was a gated community as many are in LA. I punched in the gate code and watched the two cast-iron gates slowly separate. Robin turned to watch them close after we drove through.

My—well, my parents’—house was set back from the tree-lined street beyond a spacious, well-tended lawn. It wasn’t as large a house as its neighbors. I was an only child, and they didn’t need a mansion for only one kid. I’d always thought I was probably a mistake as both parents had careers to work on if they wanted to advance, which they did. Early on, I’d had a nanny because both dad and mom were working. When I was 11 and the nanny wanted to retire, they decided I was old enough to manage by myself in the afternoons till they got home.

I pulled into the driveway. Robin’s head was turning this way and that, looking at the stately homes and manicured lawns that surrounded us. Then he turned to look at my house as a sharp bark caught his attention.

“That’s Lucy,” I said, as the front door opened and my beagle came out. Her tail began waving furiously, and then she was running toward the car. I got out and she was on me. I ended up on the lawn with her frolicking around and over the top of me, licking and happily barking and making a fuss.

I introduced her to Robin, who, as I expected, looked scared. I was sure he’d never had a dog. His mother had insisted on a perfect house, and dogs don’t make for perfect houses. They do make for happy ones, but that was never Robin’s mother’s concern.

But Lucy, who was getting on in years now, was a very smart dog, and she saw immediately that Robin was frightened. She became very gentle and polite. I convinced Robin to pet her, and Lucy licked his hand. I knew if we spent any time there, the two of them would become great friends. Lucy would have made a great companion dog, and Robin was someone who’d really benefit from a companion.

My parents, especially my mother, made as much of a fuss over Robin as Lucy did, and Robin had no experience with that. My mother had always wanted more kids than just me, but her career got in the way of that. Part of her disappointment with my sexuality was it meant no grandkids to pamper. Well, that wasn’t etched in steel, but she’d read it that way. Now I was presenting her with a teenager, but he was a young, naive, damaged and shy teenager. She had been denied being motherly for too long. She took advantage of the opportunity now.

Dad was just himself: friendly, cordial, but a little reserved. I was kind of the same way, I realized. I hadn’t thought of that before.

My mother roped Robin into helping her prepare dinner. The opportunity to feed her son and his newest project wasn’t going to be missed. Robin was soft clay in her hands, and she modeled him to the best of her considerable abilities. He loved it! I could see him opening up. He felt her love and encouragement and gave as much back to her as she was giving him.

She prepared a roast beef dinner with mashed potatoes and a rich gravy, creamed spinach, a green bean casserole, home made dinner rolls, stuffed mushrooms and a green salad. Robin had helped with most of it. I’d been with Dad in the den, talking about all I knew about Robin, which wasn’t all that much. He thought we had a good case for custody.

He also talked seriously to me about whether I wanted the responsibility of taking in a boy of Robin’s age who was a total stranger. What it would mean to me personally. He wasn’t trying to discourage me; he wasn’t at all negative. He just wanted me to be aware of all facets of what I was getting into.

At dinner, Mom regaled Robin with stories about me, many of them embarrassing. What I noticed was how she stayed away from any questions to him that were potentially embarrassing. How did she know to do that? But he was as relaxed as I’d ever seen him. And this was a day and a half prior to a hearing that would decide his fate!

They gave him my old room to sleep in. I had the spare room. Mom said the bed in my old room was more his size. When she had him settled for the night, she pulled me aside.

“That’s one extremely fragile child. You have to protect him, Daniel. You have to make sure he’s okay at school and at home. He’s the type you have to worry about. But I know you. I know you’re the perfect one to look after him.” Then she kissed me on the cheek.

Sunday, she took Robin shopping. “He needs a formal outfit for the hearing, even if it’ll be done with some of the people a half a continent away and with it all being on a computer monitor. This is a major undertaking, serious and important, and he has to be dressed properly for the occasion.

Robin didn’t protest. He was entirely under her spell.

They came back several hours later with the back of the car loaded down with packages. I pulled my mother aside while Robin was making multiple trips, bringing everything in.

“Mom! You do know we may only have a few more hours with Robin, don’t you? The judges may well decide he’s returning to his former home.”

“If so,” she said, rather haughtily, I thought, “he’ll go back well-dressed!”

She had him model his outfit for Monday. It was a dark blue blazer, a crisp white shirt, a blue tie that matched the jacket but with small red dots scattered over it, and sharply creased chinos. She’d also got him some black Florsheim wingtips. I thought that excessive as his shoes wouldn’t be on camera, but if I’d mentioned it she’d have said that was nitpicking, so I let it go.

Robin was eating up the oohs and aahs he was getting when modeling the formal outfit and the casual ones she’d bought. Most of them were coming from her, but Dad and I did our share of showering compliments. Robin wasn’t a cute boy, but dressed to the nines, he was striking. He still had to grow into his looks, but while modeling those clothes with a beaming smile and slightly embarrassed look, I could certainly see where he was heading and that he’d be a very attractive man. Clothes might not entirely make the man, but they certainly can move one a step closer.

Robin was pulled in to help with Sunday dinner, a much less pretentious meal but just as good in my opinion. Toasted cheese sandwiches, tomato soup, macaroni salad and a wonderful quiche.

After dinner, Dad had Robin and me join him in his office. Dad told Robin to relax and that he would ask him the sorts of questions the judges would ask the next day. He said the case was complex because of the two venues and that the judges had decided to both be involved in the decision that would come from the hearing. If they didn’t agree on something, they’d work it out between them. But the final verdict would hold in both Massachusetts and California.

Dad asked a number of questions, and Robin answered them, becoming more and more nervous as the time passed. Dad calmed him down as well as he could, but Robin was Robin. I finally stopped it. Any more and I could see Robin getting no sleep that night and not being in any shape for the hearing.

I spoke to him in his/my room before I went to bed myself.

“It’s going to be fine, Robin.”

He’d undressed down to his boxers and was sitting on the bed with his head in his hands.

“Hey, look at me!” He raised his eyes. “It’ll be fine,” I repeated. “My dad is a great lawyer. And he’s friends with the judge. They’re on the same page with this. You have a part to play. If you act unhappy or stressed out or miserable, it might make everyone think you’re not happy here and want to go back. So you need to make it clear than remaining here is what you want. You won’t do that looking glum. Okay?”

He nodded. I smiled at him and squeezed his shoulder. “Get some sleep. I’ll get you up if you’re not already up in the morning. We’ll have breakfast, then you can change into your new gear, and we’ll drive over to the judge’s office. You’ll do fine. You’ll be fine. Just get that into your head and keep it there. Okay?”

He nodded again, and I said goodnight. I glanced back as I left the room. His head was back in his hands again.