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When He Was Five
When he was thirteen he was taller still. And skinnier. I didn’t understand it. He ate all the time. But he was all right. He looked just like most of his friends. Only cuter.
We were in McDonalds. The place was crowded and noisy with kids telling their parents anything and everything that was important and wasn’t. I was eating a hamburger and had a cup of coffee. He was eating two Big Macs and a large fries and a milk shake and talking persuasively about a fried cherry pie.
Above the controlled din of the restaurant, a baby’s happy squeal rang out. Sometimes babies do that. Sometimes when babies are too happy to contain their joy, they shriek it to the world.
The shriek was cut short by a loud slap. The restaurant was instantly silent. All the customers were staring, open-mouthed and shocked, looking at a young mother who was glaring at her baby, a baby so surprised at suddenly being hit it wasn’t making a sound.
Almost as quickly as they’d become silent, the customers began fidgeting. They looked very unhappy. But no one said anything. They looked at each other. Guilt and shame began to show on their faces. No one got up. No one said a word. I didn’t either.
Then I saw one person moving. A young blond boy. I turned quickly and saw Tyler’s seat empty. I turned back. Tyler was approaching the woman’s table.
“Ma’am?” he said when he arrived. His voice was still high, a boy’s voice. It was soft, but in the silent restaurant, it carried. Everyone could hear. He stood in front of her, talking just to her. “Please, Ma’am? She’s just a baby. You’re all she’s got. She depends on you. She needs you. Some kids, their parents don’t take care of them. Some parents, they just don’t care about their kids. I know. Please care for her. She needs you. She needs you to feed her and care for her and protect her. Most of all, she needs you to love her. Please, Ma’am? She’s just a baby. Please love her?”
I could only see Tyler’s profile. What I saw was a tear running down his cheek. When I looked at the young mother, she was staring at Tyler, complicated emotions filling her eyes. Then a saw a tear form in her eye, too. She reached out, tentatively, and placed one hand briefly on Tyler’s shoulder. Then she stood up, picked up her baby, cuddled it for a moment, and walked out of the restaurant, avoiding any eye contact with anyone, her attention focused on her infant, love and shame mixed in her eyes.
Tyler had turned to watch her go. I could now see he had tears in both eyes and running down both cheeks. He reached up and wiped his face with his arm. When the door closed behind her, he looked over, searching for me, then started to walk back to our table. He was a slender, young boy, walking through a crowded restaurant, in my eyes looking ten feet tall.
One of the customers, a young man with an emotional look in his eyes I couldn’t quite read, stood up and started clapping, softly. Every other adult in the restaurant quickly joined him.
Tyler’s reaction was to blush as he slid into the booth across from me.
“That was wonderful, Tyler.”
“She hit her baby. Someone had to talk to her.”
“No one else did, though.”
“Maybe they were embarrassed.”
“Were you embarrassed?”
“I was only thinking about the baby.”
“You know you’re pretty special, don’t you, Tyler?”
As they left the restaurant, a lot of people stopped to tell Tyler he’d done something pretty good. He met their eyes. A lot of thirteen-year-olds don’t do that.
I put my paper down one night and looked at him, reading in his chair. He was reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I watched him for a few minutes. He had a way of unconsciously twisting a lock of hair with two fingers and a thumb as he read. He was sitting sideways in the chair, his back against one arm, one of his legs crossed over the other. The sole of one of his sneakers looked to be worn pretty thin. I didn’t buy the most expensive kind. He wore them out too quickly.
“Tyler, we need to talk.”
“I’m in the middle of a chapter.”
“Tell me when you’re done.”
I watched him read. It was never boring, watching Tyler. He seemed to be constantly moving, just little bits of him. When he was reading, his foot would bob up and down. His tongue would briefly protrude at the corner of his mouth. His eyebrows would wrinkle at something in the story. He’d shift position in the chair, then shift back again. His tongue would push against the inside of his upper lip, puffing it out, then disappear back who knows where in his mouth. He’d bite his lower lip. He’d turn a page, then scratch his knee like he didn’t know he was doing it. Watching Tyler read was like watching life happening. It was never boring, watching Tyler. I did it all the time.
“OK. What do you want to talk about.”
“Sure, what do you want to know about it?”
Tyler giggled. I loved his giggle. I loved his self-confidence. I wasn’t aware of having had any part in instilling it, but as I was the only constant adult in his life, maybe I’d done something without knowing it. He could have been so timid. He’d been abandoned at an age where he could remember the feelings he’d had. I’d see a look on his face sometimes when he was sitting staring at nothing and thought he might be thinking about it. He’d had nightmares for only a short period, then grown out of them. I didn’t know why being left on a beach hadn’t affected him more. Maybe it had, but I couldn’t see it. All I could see was a happy boy, and a self-confident one. I hadn’t done anything special to nurture that in him. All I’d done was love him.
“I know you’re getting sex education at school. But I’m not sure just what they tell you. Also, you might not want to ask some questions in front of everyone else. Do you have any questions you want to ask me?”
“None at all?”
“Well, I’m not going to let you off the hook that easily. When I was thirteen, I wondered about a lot of things. Boys at school were all talking about masturbation, and I didn’t know what it was. My penis wasn’t growing any bigger and other boys said theirs were. I worried about that. It would get hard a lot, and I didn’t know why. I started getting hair down there. I started getting funny feelings when I’d look at some of the other kids, feelings I’d never had before. I don’t think I was any different at thirteen from any other kids, or any different from how you are. Are you sure there’s nothing you want to talk to me about? Sometimes, I remember wondering if I were normal. I wondered that a lot. Do you wonder about that? A lot of boys do.”
Tyler looked at me, sort of like he were measuring me. We were close, Tyler and I. We talked all the time. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t feel embarrassed talking about anything. Anything at all.
“I think I’m normal. And all that stuff you mentioned? That’s what we talk about in sex ed.”
“Oh. Well, tell me this? Do they talk about the feelings you have when you get a crush on someone? The feelings are really intense, and they’re new to you. How are you supposed to know how to deal with them? And do they talk to you about only liking one person, or whether it’s all right to like six of them? Is that OK? Do they talk about how much better sex is if you love one person a whole lot rather than loving six people a little bit each? Do they talk about sex with six people or with just one. Are both of those OK? Do they talk about love at all, and how love and sex are mixed up together?”
“They don’t talk much about that stuff. A little bit, I guess, but not most of it. Some of it. Why is it better to only love one person?”
And so we talked. Funny how one question leads to another, and how a question that’s been cooking inside a head for a long time will somehow pop out when a bunch of other questions are being asked.
Tyler was friends with a boy named Jordy. They started hanging around each other a lot. I sort of liked Jordy, and sort of didn’t. He had a lot of spirit and enthusiasm that kept the noise level high when he was around. He and Tyler laughed a lot, and roughhoused. He was fun. Also, he had a streak of wildness in him I found disturbing. I worried about whether his parents had taught him limits. Thirteen-year-olds need limits.