“Do you want to…?” Asher nodded his chin in the direction of the bathroom. I nodded quickly, gratefully, and darted away to wash my hands and face.
When I emerged, they had resumed chatting and eating; I moved to the table, bobbed my head, and seated myself. They all smiled; Asher’s smile had recovered some of what I now saw as his habitual mischievousness, though I could still hear his legs kicking against his chair. He slid an empty plate to me. The food looked and smelled good: some kind of grain salad with parsley and tomatoes chopped small, spiced chicken, peeled oranges, fresh bread. I wondered who had made the food, and then, again belatedly, Asher’s voice filtered back into my head, explaining his monthly lunches with his parents: We swap off places, and whoever hosts does the cooking, too…
Slowly, I relaxed, just watching and listening; after a few minutes I felt settled enough to reach for food. Asher’s mother had been telling a story about one of her students; she worked as an art teacher, and an art therapist, I remembered – something I’d never heard of until Asher had explained it to me.
This student – from the way Rebekah talked about him, I got the sense he was really young, kindergartenish – liked to draw chickens, red feathered blobs, and Rebekah was gradually working out that there was a particular chicken, one with a flower in its “hair,” that represented him. “So I was wondering,” she said animatedly, “if perhaps there was something he was trying to say about gender, although he’s certainly too young for us to jump to any conclusions, though really, so many children do start feeling that out so young, you could say many already have convictions about that…”
“So what did you do?” Asher said, smiling, his eyes bright; I could tell his legs had stopped kicking, and, since he was taking a break from eating, he had moved his hand on the table so that his little finger touched my arm, which sent a curl of warmth through me.
“Well, I started encouraging him to show me more about the chicken with the flower, what would the chicken like to do this weekend, where does the chicken like to go, etc.”
“And?” said Asher’s father this time. His voice sounded so much like Asher’s, just roughened and deepened with age. I couldn’t resist looking back and forth between the two of them, seeing all the little things that made them look alike: the shape of their ears, the way their hair curled, the long bones of the face and nose. Asher was just much smaller than his father, sized after his mother, and with her large eyes.
“Sports cars!” Asher’s mother burst out, laughing at her own story. “It turns out the chicken likes sports cars.” Asher was laughing, too. “Also, carrots. And back doors. I’m not quite sure what to do with the carrots, I confess, but there is something interesting about the back door – he started to say something about sneaking around, needing to sneak around like a spy. That’s where I’d like to pick up again next week.”
“I love it, Mom,” Asher said, leaning back in his chair. “Kid detective. Their brains are so weird, I just love hearing these stories. Does he actually like carrots?”
“No!” said his mother, laughing again, at about the same time that his father put in, with his mild voice, “I don’t think our brains get any less weird. We just get better at knowing what we’re supposed to hide.”
“How much did Mom pay you to say that?” Asher said with a grin; his father leveled one back at him, brows raised, while his mother laughed and gave Asher’s shoulder a reproving tap.
I looked back and forth among the three of them. Asher-people, the thought came into my head. It was so easy to see where Asher had come from, his patience, his bright inquisitiveness, his humor. I couldn’t imagine my parents talking about any of the things that had just been talked about; I couldn’t imagine them laughing so easily together over little things.
And they had, all three of them, accepted me so easily, silent in their midst, but not ignored; one or another would occasionally look at me to see if I needed anything, if there was anything I wanted to say (not yet, although I was working up to it), or just to include me in a smile.
I had also belatedly remembered that Asher had told me that some of his friends with disabilities couldn’t talk with their own voices, had to use tablets or other devices to speak for them – I would have liked to see how that worked, figured I would at some point in the near future, if things kept going the way they did. (And when did you become a guy who actually got introduced to friends? To family? said a voice in my head.) So, it stood to reason that his parents would hardly blink if he had a friend who just took a while to talk – even if he did also interrupt lunch while sweaty and filthy. Working through thoughts like this, I was gradually cooling the shame and embarrassment I’d felt.
Asher moved his hand onto my arm. His mother’s smile might have widened a little, but otherwise, his parents didn’t react: also a new, previously unthinkable thing for me. “Roy,” he said, his look gently teasing, “is your plant getting hungry on the doormat?”
“My p-plant?” I said, startled. I set down my fork, and then I remembered the yew. “Oh! Oh, yes. That was ggg-going to be a present for you.” His mother’s smile widened even further. “No, he’s g-good,” I said, “he’s a ppp-patient little guy.” It had taken me a little while to pick up Asher’s gentle style of bantering, when we were first getting to know each other, but now it was easy, especially with two other Kleins in the room.
“What did I do to deserve a present?”
I wanted to say, just being you, but resisted while his parents were here. I wiped my mouth with my napkin. “He wouldn’t have gg-g-gotten any love b-back where he came f-from. I thought he would be h-happier with your other trees.” I pointed to the two in the corner.
“Oh, hey, thank you,” Asher said, grinning with real pleasure; the fingers of his small hand flexed slowly. “I can’t wait to meet him. Neither can my trees.”
“Did you come straight from a job?” Asher’s mother said. “Asher tells us you work in landscaping.” I looked at her gratefully; she was giving me a chance to excuse my muddy arrival.
“Yes, I did,” I said. “So, sorry about – “ I gestured to encompass my t-shirt and so on. Everyone murmured that it wasn’t a problem, and I felt infinitely better.
These people, I thought.
“Everything went well with the job?” said Asher’s father.
“Yes,” I said automatically, “it was easy, just ss-switching out s-seasonal plants. Only…” The image of Mrs. Petersen came back into my head, her darkened, unhappy eyes. I paused, unsure if I wanted to talk about this, but felt I needed to. “There’s s-s-something s-strange about the woman we worked for today. She’s pregnant, and young, and she has a bb-beautiful house, but she sssss… suh… she seems very sad.”
Asher looked at me with a troubled expression; I think he could sense some of what I wasn’t saying.
His mother made a sympathetic noise, her eyes soft. “Does it feel strange to know you can’t do anything about it?”
I thought about it. “Yes,” I realized. I opened my mouth to say more, and then realized I didn’t have anything more to say about it, that that was how it made me feel: strange, and helpless. Her coming on to me did give me a slight sense of the wrongness, the kind of impatient discomfort that I always felt when women took interest in me; but in her case it hardly seemed to have anything to do with me. I, and Eduardo, had just been there. I looked at Rebekah and nodded once, emphatically.
“You’ve probably seen quite a lot of strange things in your time, working around people’s houses,” she said, more lightly.
I laughed, shaking my head. “T-t… too many.” And, only a little haltingly, I was able to get out the story of the time I’d found a “tame” raccoon being kept by a teenager in the mildewy toolshed that his mother wanted demolished, which had ended in tears and rabies shots.
Afterwards, I still found myself prickling with occasional waves of nerves – these were Asher’s parents, they knew that I was… with their son, had to be sizing me up, asking themselves all sorts of questions about how on earth I made sense as a match to their college-educated, computer programmer son. But, looking at their faces – I seemed to have pulled the story off, they were chuckling incredulously – I felt a sense that I had performed enough.
The word “perform” did occasionally pop into my head when I was with Asher, to my regret. It was hard to escape the sense that as patient as he was, he was always waiting for me to say more than I felt either capable of or interested in saying. Talking was his element, he’d told me so, directly, but to me it was like fire: untrustworthy, unreliable. I wasn’t sure how often I’d imagined a look of disappointed expectation in his eyes when I’d said what felt, to me, like enough, a complete thought – but maybe (I needed to ask him sometime, hadn’t yet had the courage) only left him with more unanswered questions. For a moment I thought back to our conversation in Crown Hill Park, about my past; immediately I flinched away.
You can do better, I thought to myself, with a deep stab of shame and anger.
I pulled myself out of the spiral, glanced around the table. Asher’s parents were talking softly to each other – it sounded like they were sorting out other weekend plans. Asher gave the appearance of listening to them, while slowly starting to stack the emptied dishes that he could reach. But I could tell he had his eye on me.
When he saw that he had my attention, he leaned towards me. “Doing okay?” he said softly.
I gave him a one-sided smile, and raised my eyebrows questioningly: I don’t know, am I?
“They like you,” he said immediately, and even more softly. And he smiled.
My stomach flipped; I couldn’t tell if it was his smile, renewed nerves, or both. I raised my eyebrows again, made an “if you say so” face, and then gently nudged his hand aside from the stacked dishes to make it clear that I’d take charge of the washing-up. He gave me an appreciative look, and turned to listen to his parents’ conversation.
I listened in carefully as I scraped off bits of food, did the rinsing and racking in the dishwasher. They were just talking about an event that one of Asher’s cousins was holding soon (I didn’t totally get what, maybe because it was a Jewish thing) – but I wanted to understand their patterns, how they thought about things, what they expected of each other. The last time I’d spent any time with somebody else’s family was probably in – Jesus – high school, back before I had to quit the soccer team. I felt like a street dog trying to remember how to sit, roll over, shake, speak.
I was listening so intently to everything in and around the conversation that it took me a moment to register that they had actually asked me a question, had all turned to look at me expectantly. I shook my head quickly and widened my eyes in apology.
Asher repeated, “November 18th? What do you think, Roy?”
I took a pause, a long one. First of all, I still wasn’t sure what I was being invited to, and was embarrassed to ask them to repeat themselves, again.
Second of all: November 18th – three days away – was the arraignment date for the four men who had assaulted Asher in the alleyway. And from the innocent way that Asher was asking about it, I couldn’t tell if he had genuinely forgotten about it – which I couldn’t believe – or if he was putting on a front because he still hadn’t told his parents about it.
Which, the more I thought about it, seemed more and more likely the case, because I could not believe that parents like Asher’s wouldn’t have commented at least once about the court date.
I opened my mouth, but couldn’t say anything. I could tell that Mrs. Klein was getting ready to say something nice – probably she just thought that I was being shy again. I moved my gaze to Asher and raised my eyebrows at him slightly. Did you…?
When he couldn’t hold my gaze, my stomach sank. Mrs. Klein stopped whatever she was going to say; both of his parents looked back and forth between us curiously as the silence stretched on and on.
I had no intention of forcing Asher to do anything in front of his parents. And it wasn’t as if Asher had even planned to attend the arraignment, so for him there wasn’t even a timing conflict with his cousin’s event – just the symbolic weight of the date. (But I sure as hell wanted to see the four standing in front of a judge.) So there was still no reason I couldn’t just play this whole thing off as me being perpetually socially incompetent.
Except that – and I’d tried not to subject Asher to this line of thinking too much, but it was often at the back of my mind – if the assholes didn’t all take plea bargains, the case would go to trial, and then Asher would be stuck lying to his parents about the nonexistence of multiple future court dates, stretching out over months, all while his stress went through the roof.
And, Asher was sitting there now with a crushingly clear look of guilt on his face, his legs so tense that they were trembling continuously, hovering a few inches out of the seat of his chair, while his mild, kind parents continued to look back and forth between us in confusion.
I had to say something. Physically, I forced out the words: “I’m really sss – sorry –”
“Oh, no no no, honey,” Rebekah rushed to say, leaning forward so quickly that her glasses shifted half an inch down her nose; distractedly she pushed them back up again. “If it’s at all an issue for you, please don’t worry about it, it’s just a little get-together.”
“Honey”? part of my brain remarked incredulously.
“Actually…” Asher said slowly. I looked back to him, worry twisting through my stomach. He didn’t look up at any of us, and I could tell he was holding himself very carefully in his chair, trying to minimize the distraction of his trembling legs. He continued deliberately, “I think… Roy is hesitating because there’s something I didn’t tell you about that date. The 18th.”
I crossed one arm across my chest, put my other hand to my jaw to rub it. My heart was pounding, I couldn’t escape the sense that I had no idea what was going to happen next – except that Asher had to be feeling twenty times worse than I was right now. I wanted to go to him and hold his hand, but didn’t want to distract.
The next time he looked up, I did my best to give him an encouraging smile. He returned it with sudden and astonishing warmth. I blinked in surprise – and Asher began to tell his parents the story of how we’d met.