Yesterday afternoon I sat in a cafe with my son, tapping away at a blog post for work on my netbook while he calmly ate a bagel and read a book on animal habitats for homework. "That's a well-mannered young man you have there," a grey-haired man noted approvingly as he walked past our table toward the exit. It wasn't the first time I've received a compliment on my son's behavior from a stranger. On good days, which are most days, these days, he is uncannily proper in adult-centered places like libraries, churches and restaurants.
It was only twenty minutes or so later that another little boy, perhaps eight years old, sat down at, or rather bounced into, the table next to ours, as his mother waited in line to place an order. My own son had finished his bagel now, but was still reading intently, oblivious to the new arrival.
"Hello," the stranger boy said." At first I assumed he was speaking to my son, trying to get a potential playmate's attention, but when I turned to glance in the boy's direction I saw that he was staring straight at me, expectantly. "Hello," I said, and smiled, then turned back to my work.
"It's-very-nice-to-meet-you," he said in a very measured tone, even though I was no longer facing him, and I knew at once that he'd been taught to say that, and had practiced saying it, diligently, after "Hello." I turned around.
"It's very nice to meet you, too." I said. "Thank you."
"You are using a computer in a restaurant instead of eating," the boy said. It was a statement of fact, not a question.
"That's true," I said.
"But you are not in a computer lab." This the boy said a bit more loudly, in a tone that fell somewhere between mildly accusatory and utterly perplexed. My son looked up from his book at the boy quizzically for a second, smiled politely, then went back to his reading.
I glanced at the boy's mother, still in line.
"That's true," I said to the boy. "I'm not in a computer lab, but they do let you use computers here. I'm not breaking the rules."
"Oh. Oh. KAY!"
His volume was all out of sorts, whisper one minute, too loud the next. I could see that the boy's mother, still stuck in the line, saw us talking now. Her forehead crumpled a bit, as her mouth fell into a pressed line. I smiled briefly and brightly at her, trying to convey that I was not bothered. NOT BOTHERED.
"Do you know where the restroom sign is?" The boy asked me. Not the restroom. The sign. But maybe he meant he needed the restroom, and wanted directions?
I pointed helpfully. "It's over there."
He bounded gently off toward the restrooms, then, to my surprise, came straight back to the table without going in, eyes shining.
"They're beautiful," he exclaimed. Seeing my confusion, he added, "The letters on the restroom sign on the door. They're gold. They're shiny. It's just what I wanted." Then he sat down, in his chair, blissful, as his mother hurried over, her order finally taken. She took hold of his arm and guided him quickly to an emptier corner of the room. Over the clamor of the kitchen and the chatter of the diners, I couldn't hear all that she said, but I caught the words, "Inappropriate," "talking to people," and lastly, "Now we'll have to eat in the car." She looked exhausted.
I could hear the boy's words clearly. "I'm so sorry, Momma. I didn't mean to. I won't next time."
I stood. I walked over. I said to his mother, "Excuse me. I wanted to let you know. He wasn't bothering me. Not at all. I think he's sweet."
"Thank you," she said. "But you see, we're pressed for time anyway. It's been a long day. He just got out of a class . . ." While she said this, she looked not at me, but at my son, sitting so properly at the table.
I wanted to say, four years ago I hid with that boy you see there in a phone booth in a restaurant, unable even to make it out the exit, holding the booth door shut with one hand and desperately trying to calm him with the other while his face flushed and his eyes bulged and he screamed a terrible wild pained scream, as if I were beating the life right out of him, because he had been overwhelmed by the noise of the crowd, and I was half-convinced that any moment someone would call the police.
I wanted to say, years ago on my birthday I was ushered out of my favorite Indian place with the check and a box before I'd had five bites of food because my son was humming almost silently and rocking in his chair and biting his hands because he was terrified of the food and even though there were two other toddlers playing loudly and bumping into waiters in the very next booth while their parents ignored them, the people sitting next to us were disturbed by him, not them, and complained.
I wanted to say, there but for the grace of God go I.
I wanted to say, your son is beautiful. I know you know it. Don't you see I can see it, too? He sees the beauty everywhere that others miss. He made my day just now, reminding me to look at the world instead of rushing and bumbling through it with my eyes ten steps ahead. He's a joy and he's welcome to sit next to me anytime.
But as I saw her looking wistfully at my son, a six-year-old sitting there reading a twelve-year-old's science book and sipping his juice like a perfect model of what is expected of a child in a cafe, the only words I could eke out were, "I understand. Please trust me. I do understand," and then she smiled a tight smile and nodded and left in a hurry.