That Was Now, This Is Then
Watching him talk was almost mesmerizing, the way his words came in short high-pitched bursts while his hands slid along the top and back of the chair seemingly oblivious to the conversation. I say conversation in only the loosest sense of the word as he never lifted his eyes or acknowledged the person listening in any way. He simply spoke as if talking to himself while his little fingers explored every nook and cranny of the antique chair. These days instead of calling a kid “quirky” they seem to feel the need to label him as having Attention Deficit Disorder or mild autism or whatever the diagnosis-of-the-month happened to be, but whenever you were alone with him you always somehow felt he was the brightest person in the room … despite the fact that sometimes he would leave that room mid-sentence, completely oblivious to the fact that you were listening.
His mother was a piece of ass even though she was well into her thirties. She wasn’t just cute, she was a piece of ass. Take that however you want but there was no denying it. She had that exotic look that only South American women can possess. Her husband, his father, had cut out before he was born and there was no lack of suitors to replace him but she felt it best if she just focused on her son. Behind her back many people whispered that it was the lack of a strong male role model that was to blame for his effeminate mannerisms and the way he walked on his toes all the time. She whispered back many times that a strong male was the one that abandoned them both, so the boy had all the modeling he needed and she would take it from there.
His mother is a pharmaceutical sales rep and that is how I got to know him. I had known him since he was born but I only got to know him the week I was asked to look after him at his house while his Mother went to a training seminar in Phoenix. When she left, he was surprisingly emotional about her departure but resumed work on his Lego castle moments later seemingly without a care in the world. He talked to himself nonstop even as I did my best to interact with him. Eventually, I gave up and just sat and watched him float from one activity to the next. Although he might have been the most uncoordinated and athletically-challenged kid on the planet I offered to take him on a hike and play catch and such anyway but he was far too busy drawing or building or reading books out loud to himself. Often times, when he didn’t understand something he was reading, he would stop and explain it to himself.
His mother never warned me about his bedroom though; I had to muddle through that experience for myself. The door to his room had the number 571 written on it, when you walked in the air conditioner was blowing out arctic-cold air, and his bed consisted of nothing more than what appeared to be a few seat cushions pushed together. I tried to ask why he didn’t have a normal bed but he just walked past me clutching his bedtime snack of beef jerky and flavorless ice pops he had made himself by putting Popsicle sticks in cups of water and then sticking them in the freezer. The room had none of the toys and games I’d expected to be piled up everywhere and was almost empty but for a few clothes scattered on the ground, a model plane hanging in the middle of the room and what I mistakenly called a football stuck in a corner. When I walked over to touch it the boy yelled for me to stop and that he hated rugby. I didn’t bother to ask why he had the ball in the first place.
Struggling for a conversation re-starter I asked him if he had built the plane himself.
“That’s a twin turboprop Fairchild FH-227D.”
Although he technically didn’t answer the question I felt real progress had been made.
“It crashed Friday the 13th.”
Well so much for progress. Not wanting to let the opportunity for dialogue slip away I replied “Yeah, Friday the 13th is one unlucky day.”
He seemed to nod his agreement as he arranged the cushions together underneath him and then pulled a cover over himself.
For the next few days the only time I felt that he paid any attention to me was when I was putting him to bed. Even when I made him his meals and we sat at the same table he was miles away. It was only in the chill of his room each night that I was able to actually share a few moments with him, fleeting as they were.
“Did you build that model plane yourself?” I inquired, eager to see if he would take the bait.
“I died on that plane.”
Suddenly, I missed the closeness we had shared at the dinner table.
“You died on that plane? How did you die on that plane?” but he was already under his cover and asleep.
The next night when we walked into the room he said “I died on that plane when it crashed” without provocation.
A whole day had passed between his two comments but I knew exactly what he was talking about. A whole day of listening to his lilting voice, giggle and stutter and argue with itself, while I kept myself amused with the TV and a good book. Having experienced his room on previous nights I knew to throw on my jacket before heading up the stairs to the cold that awaited me.
Suddenly we were picking up where we left off 24 hours ago and jacket or no jacket a chill ran down my spine just the same.
“How do you know you died? When was this?”
He started to arrange the cushions but I walked over and sat down on one to impede his progress. He seemed nonplussed and simply walked over to the other side of the room with his head down.
“After I died they ate me.”
I got off the cushion.
The last night there was a part of me that didn’t even want to go into the room to put him to bed. I honestly was waiting for him to look me in the eye and make some unnerving comment that would haunt me for the rest of my life. I wasn’t sure if I was scared of him or simply felt bad for the kid, but I hesitated to go into the room. I hadn’t felt that way all day in the comfort of being anywhere that wasn’t his freezing cold bedroom with the little plane hanging in it but now I had one last task to perform and that was tucking him in.
“Well I hope you had fun this week. Your Mom will be back tomorrow.”
He walked over and got the ball from the corner. He smiled and suddenly tossed it to me in an awkward heave that looked so unpracticed and girly it made me wonder how he was ever going to survive middle school let alone high school. I caught it on the bounce but by the time I went to throw it back he was already making his way to his makeshift bed.
“It’s hard to be in 2 places at once.”
I started to reply that staying with him at his house wasn’t hard at all but then it dawned on me that he wasn’t talking about me. Or even to me.
I walked over and gently put my hands on each side of his face and tried to look directly into his eyes.
“Good night, little man.”
His eyes met mine briefly and then moved off to every other point on the ceiling above us.
“Buenas noches,” he replied.
I thought about asking his Mom about why he sleeps with his room so cold and why he sleeps on seat cushions instead of a bed or why with all the weird behaviors he exhibits the only medication he’s on is one that treats altitude sickness, but in the end every answer would only lead to another dozen questions so when she arrived back home I kept them all to myself. She’s no doubt a good Mom and he’s a great kid so after only a week of interacting with him I should keep my opinions to myself.
Not every kid is in need of rescue.