When I saw you crying in the Bell Towne Plaza breezeway somewhere between Jamba Juice, Peter Piper Pizza and what appeared to be inconsolable anguish, I could only imagine what you were going through. I thought maybe some bullies at school were giving you a hard time. You said you ran away from home. And when I asked you why, you called it “rough times”. Then you broke down and said you just wanted to call your dad. Did I jump at the opportunity to offload your woes on someone else? Instead of asking you; I told you how you felt and you agreed.
You didn’t even attempt to hide the way your body heaved with each convulsive sob. I didn’t even offer you a hug. Water, yes and the peanut butter crackers I keep on hand in emergency situations like this one, along with the first aid kit and flashlight—but what about compassion, sympathy, genuine emotion? All I could muster was that sweet smile I put on especially for times like these, coupled with an intense desire to fix this for you.
I should’ve thought it through before I drove ahead and parked with the intention of accidentally intercepting you in your forward path and simply asking you if you we’re okay when you so obviously were not.
I know that hopeless feeling. The one that says you can’t go back but where do you go from here?
The one that tilts your head up to the skies seeking an answer, any answer and the one that pulls your shoulders down so low it looks as if you’re carrying a bag of slump blocks instead of books on your back.
Oh, Johnny. I know how unbearable that weight can be. So, why didn’t I ask you before? Is there any reason why you wouldn’t want to go home?
You were so determined to make that call and the urgency in your voice forced me to comply. Twelve years old. I could feel you putting on the mask for me so I wouldn’t hurt for you like you hurt. I recognize the protective instinct. Do you have any brothers or sisters? “Yes, my little brother is probably so scared I’m gone.” He hung his head in shame at having caused that. Let’s go inside and find a phone. We’ll call your dad and tell him you’re fine and where you are and he’ll come pick you up and everything will be okay.
Only some dads are the reason things aren’t okay. I thought maybe that crack on your lip was just dry air and heat and you really seemed desperate to speak with your father. A few yes ‘sirs and a couple I love yous later I thought okay, you’ll be just fine now. I thought. But did I see? I listened, but I did I observe? “He’s not angry. More upset than anything,” you say reassuringly.
Just as I ask out loud, “Johnny, is there any reason..” Jesus jumps in from behind the counter with the rapport-establishing small talk. What grade are you in? What school do you go to? Do you like sports? The stuff I always take for granted no one really wants to hear. The kind of questions that make a person want to tell you what you want to know without asking. I let him take over, nod and smile at the kid consciously wondering if there is not a more appropriate facial expression to wear at the moment but still can’t think of one so I just sort of flatten it out a little.
“Things have just been rough,” you say again. You got a bad grade in math. “Been there,” Jesus half sighs as if he’s confessing his entire life story in an exhale so sharp I know you must have felt it too, Johnny because you stepped back and the tears came out again. Only this time you seemed relieved. “Me too,” I say.
I swear it was never uttered but I’m quite certain what we all heard was—You’re not alone.
With that we were silent long enough for the lady not really browsing reading glasses nearby to jump into the conversation she was eavesdropping on, most likely trying to determine if some sort of authoritative intervention was going to be required or if Jesus and I could handle it. Well, lady the TWO security guards I strategically met Johnny in front of were not interested in the slightest bit to this boy bawling his eyeballs out or the young woman who kept making eye-contact with them while they chatted about who knows what. Another human being is suffering right in front of you and you don’t even see it! I thought I heard her think, “That’s just inviting drama into your life.” as she stepped back in front of the mirror and tried on the 24th pair.
You started to look antsy so I thought it might be best to leave you two for some man to man time before dad arrived just in case there was something you needed to say that you couldn’t say in front of me. But I invited you out “to warm up in the sun” and to my satisfaction you opted to stay, looking strangely at ease with the man assembling lamps behind the counter. Before I’m out of range I hear him ask you if you have anyone to talk to, someone you trust? You say yes, you have counselors and it’s been a rough time. Your eyes soften. The tears subside.
Well, if you ever need a big brother man, or just someone to talk to—I’m here. And that’s just what I want to hear before I walk out the door and redial the phone number you tried on my cell before we went into the store. I spoke with your grandfather. He sounded scared. I repeated my name and phone number and told him I was the person who found you and he could call
I have to be honest, Johnny. I think I failed you.
When your dad pulled up looking all sketchy and fingered you over rather than approach Jesus, who escorted you out of the store I got between you for a second but couldn’t decide. I looked him in the eyes and saw nothing before they darted away. Your grandma smiled graciously as I waved to you and sang, “Goodbye, Johnny. It was nice to meet you,” with a smile in my voice so sweet I got sweaters on my teeth. What I really wanted to say was drown out by the music in my head.
Be good, be good. Be good. Be good, be good. Be good. Be good, be good. Be good. Be good, Johnny.
When you told me your name as we entered the store, I said deliberately, “That was my dad’s name,” to illicit some response from you. You twinged.
I cried too, just like you: On the city bus, on the walk to school, at my locker, in the girls’ restroom, all the way through home room and halfway into second period geometry before Mrs. B gently folded up my soggy, unfinished first-quarter final and led me outside the classroom.
I was scared too. Just like you. I should have seen! I should have been there, instead of wherever I was. Sipping my Caribbean Dream uncontrollably and smiling. After you left, I went back in to consult with Jesus. Did we do the right thing? Do you think he’s going to be okay?
He looked into my eyes for a few seconds searching for the right words. Then he smiled the smile the son of god surely smiled at the men below him. The one that means forgive them for they know not what they do and said, “If he was my son, I would have hugged him.”
Oh, Jesus! What have I done?
All I ever claimed to want in life is to help others. I failed this innocent child who had escaped the grip of blinding, deafening love that is an abusive parent—if only momentarily and through the greatest feat of strength he had probably exhibited in his life up to this point in a death-defying leap of faith into the unknown which I know from experience requires enormous amounts of will and determination. Not to mention a steel resolve to disregard the pain and suffering that will surely follow whether you get caught or not.
Because the fact is Johnny, none of your counselors may ever be with you long enough to tell you that to be the kind of person who runs away from an abusive love relationship you have to be the kind of person who is willing to accept and inflict pain on yourself. As a child, realizing that your parents are the bad guys and that it just might be safer out there than in here YOU end up feeling like the one out of control. Eventually, you dare to go out on your own alone into the world just to try it and decide half way down the block you’re never going back because you’ve practiced feeling the pain of separation by cutting yourself or getting into it with the bullies. You’ve internalized the guilt over not accepting that kind of love by reminding yourself that you’re not worthy of love anyway because that’s what you hear them say when they ignore you to fight over bill collectors or how to get cash for these useless food stamps. You train yourself to accept the fear of no longer pleasing those you wish to please most by getting bad grades in your best subjects and being punished for it. Isn’t that right, Johnny?
I may have sent you back into the lion’s den, but I can promise you this. They do love you, Johnny. They do care. They’re just too wrapped up in their own hell to show you how much. THIS is the hidden gift in the smile I gave you. You will get to the place where you don’t have to hurt yourself anymore. You will be a capable, talented human being who loves and accepts love, respects and is respected by those you choose to let into your life. And you won’t have to run—anymore.
Jesus, you were perfect. But now I am so jaded I question if you did it for me or for the boy? Because later when you had me paged at the store I told you I would be going to when you said we don’t carry that sort of thing here, I thought you were just as lost and concerned as I was.
I thought you genuinely cared enough to ask for a miracle. When the voice over the loud speaker inconceivably announced, “If there is a customer in the store named Jessica, please come to the fitting room,” and then repeated itself I was busy staring blankly into a dusty plastic bin wondering if it would hold everything I needed it to hold. I am constantly, consciously unfurrowing my brow over and over at the thought of Johnny’s less than joyous homecoming to grandpa, baby brother and no hugs. WHERE is his mother?
Ever so slowly, I push my empty cart back to the fitting room reasoning there must be a least five Jessicas in the store at any given time, but there is no one. Only the kindly attendant Theresa, who had helped my niece and I find the just the right bathing suit two weeks before and what do you know, it just happens to be on sale too.
“Have you found your Jessica?” I ask disbelieving my own question. She puts both hands on my shoulders. Oh my GOD! Are you her? “Well, I don’t know…” It’s the strangest things she proclaims. Never had anything like this happen to me before—a man called and asked if I could.. and if I would.. could she.. So I did.
I called you back at the store across the street, thinking god knows what about Johnny. I’m not even sure what you said, but I gave you my phone number and you texted me yours and what the hell is that shit they’re trying to pass off as food in the grocery isle anyway?
I’m having trouble concentrating on this list. Why do you need boxes? I’m running away too. But this is different. Isn’t it? Don’t be so hard on yourself. No one else even bothered to stop. I need to eat. Sit down. Smoke. Talk to someone real about why and how and if only and maybe I’m just projecting.
There are some dads who do make everything okay. Maybe Jesus is one. Or maybe he just wanted my phone number.
Either way, Theresa insists she’ll be an honored guest at the wedding.
And Johnny, if you’re out there and you’re still listening—be good.