Nothing to Be Afraid Of

[Short story won the Sarah Tucker Prize from “Confrontation” magazine in 2005 and the Whitman Award for Fiction from Southampton College in 2004, and was a finalist for a “Glimmer Train” fiction award]

When I met my son Alex it was three years ago, on a rainy spring Saturday morning, after I had walked four blocks to the Babylon community center—a place I never had been—and volunteered with a Long Island chapter of Big Brothers. A caseworker named Bryan asked about my interests and the amount of hours I had available. I said I was flexible and he was happy to hear it. The interview was brief, and he suggested I observe the children and their interaction with adults. I proceeded to watch the boys from a distance as they played tag with each other and shot baskets with the older men.

The Big Brothers were white and black men. Being an Indian man, and often the only Indian man in a place, I notice such things. That’s not to say I was uncomfortable. I did keep to a corner of the claustrophobic gym in my damp clothes with my arms crossed; I was a stranger and naturally felt out of place.

The fact the men were of similar age (I’m now thirty-six) and were smiling reassured me. If they attended to feel purposeful, and I suspected they did, then they must have found fulfillment in the process, a sequence of weekly visits with boys who needed every warm emotion and word of guidance Big Brothers could provide.
Unlike the men, the boys were an inconsistent group. They ranged from kindergarten age to teenagers taller than the volunteers who accompanied them. Many were relentlessly giddy, happy to just run around and be social. The time with their designated Big Brother, it was clear, ebbed whatever negativity was in their past or present home lives. For others, malaise could be shaken only for a few moments before they returned to a sulk or grave-faced stare, as if happiness was a boundary they did not want to approach, an untouchable treat they might be punished for indulging in.

Of those boys, Alex was the most fractured. In my eyes, he stood out among this gathering of males that seemed ritualistic in a way. Alex was small and round, and not at all good at the games. He heaved up shots that fell far short of the basket, eliciting snickers, even from the men who knew better. He ran out of breath easily while playing tag and always seemed to be “It”, causing him to be teased and to grow frustrated. At one point, he shoved another boy for an inexplicable reason and stomped away. A young counselor punished him for uncooperative behavior and removed him from the group, isolating him on a bench. I watched this ordeal without knowing how noticeable my vexation and concern was.

“Abusive father,” Bryan, the caseworker, said, “very abusive alcoholic mother. Both long gone, no one knows where.”

Bryan had come out of nowhere to tell me this. “I don’t know what foster care is doing for him. Sometimes kids just fall through the cracks.” He added that most social workers in New York foster care cope with more than forty cases a month, when they’re supposed to have seventeen. Reports are falsified, Bryan told me, because workers can’t handle all the cases. As a result, children such as Alex go unaccounted. He was eight then and had been bounced from home to home, and from Big Brother to Big Brother.

“He’s a loner.” Bryan watched with his arms crossed. “As you can see.”

We moved into a utilitarian cafeteria adjacent to the gym. Lunch was being served, and the situation grew worse for Alex. The Little Brothers made a game of avoiding sitting next to him, then chiding the boy who eventually had to, because he was too tardy or not forceful enough to get another spot. The boy relegated to being Alex’s neighbor shuffled his chair so its legs grated conspicuously on the concrete floor. He then made knowing eyes at his friends and held his nose and pointed until he was told to stop and be nice. Alex, in the mean time, furrowed his eyebrows, bent his head and pouted. He seethed while champing on his pizza, dribbling sauce and cheese onto his Jurassic Park T-shirt, and I turned away.

I pinched the bridge of my nose between my eyes and decided it was time to leave. I told Bryan I was glad I had come. We shook hands and he said he would tell me when the background check was clear, then I could join the group officially. He also informed me he was going to match me with Alex. “If that’s okay,” he said.

The thought had never occurred to me. Somehow I believed that Alex was for a more advanced Big Brother, someone with experience, and I was more suited to one of the well-adjusted kids with a semblance of a family. No such hierarchy existed among the volunteers, though, and when Bryan made that clear, my eyes widened as if I had just received an incomprehensibly large bill. I looked at Alex again. Behind him, a boy was holding two fingers above his head, a mocking gesture that was corrected by one of the men at the end of the table. Obliviously, Alex continued to frown and masticate in a solitude that was endearing in its sadness.

“Of course it’s okay,” I replied.

Bryan smiled and sighed, then went over to retrieve Alex, who came toward me with his chin touching his chest and a gait that resembled a waddle. “Alex, this is Sam,” Bryan said. “He’s going to be your Big Brother, starting next week.”

I grinned, bent down and took Alex’s tiny hand, which was warm and soft, like a freshly used sponge. “It’s very nice to meet you, Alex,” I said.

His response: “Yeah, whatever.”

A gloomy face and an enervating tone matched the words, which deflated me immediately. Later, after I left the community center, the thought of his voice angered me as an insult would. Later still, as I pondered Alex further, I found myself invigorated. Such hopelessness as I saw from Alex that day should not be known by any living, breathing thing, I determined, let alone a child not yet out of grade school. Alex was a boy with scars that needed to be healed and thick memories that had to be gradually reduced until they seemed as if they were of another life.

The next week, I took him out to lunch, away from the kids at the community center. He remained aloof, speaking with shrugs and in whines, and eating quickly, as if he wanted to get the chore over with. He never thanked me, although he waved and managed a smile when he said goodbye.

The week after that we went on a bus trip to Yankee Stadium with the group from Big Brothers. We sat in the front and he looked out the window and I looked out the windshield as the bus rattled along the Grand Central Parkway. I glanced around once, smiling at Bryan and another counselor beside us, both of whom had been observing us peripherally. The others, it seemed, got along fine and apparently had known each other for some time. They joked in the way friends do when they have shared an experience, speaking obtusely as if in code, in the lingo of an exclusive club. The men teased a man named Marshall about his use of a golf cart and the children kept repeating the phrase, “Watch the finger.” As we entered the Bronx through the Triboro Bridge, I removed a pen from my jacket, opened a notebook I had brought to score the baseball game, and asked Alex if he wanted to play Hangman. He nodded enthusiastically and proceeded to win the first game. When I told him how smart he was, he was very pleased and his blue eyes even gleamed with life as the pearls of a shell do. However, Alex couldn’t figure out the second word I gave him, and he abruptly called it quits and returned to staring out the window as the stadium approached.

We sat with the others in the rightfield bleachers and I bought him a hot dog, a Coke, and a ice cream bar before the third inning was through. In the fifth inning, I made a futile attempt to teach him how to score the game like an official does. He became fed up and angry when he couldn’t remember that the shortstop was 6 on the scorecard and the third baseman 5. I told him it was an easy mistake, because on the field it does seem like it should be the other way around. Also, he didn’t understand why a player could move up a base on a flyball out and why pitchers kept throwing to the first baseman all the time. It frustrated him, being so confused by a game so many others his age seemed to understand without effort. I told him he had legitimate questions and it was good he was curious enough to ask, but he again appeared bothered by my presence and, to be honest, I was discouraged.

“You’re making a difference, Sam,” Bryan said when I admitted my distress.

“Am I?”

“Yes!” He went on to give examples of my influence and did so emphatically. Alex’s teachers said he was less temperamental at school in the days after the baseball game and the fact that he was participating in anything was a leap. He even bragged about how I bought him a souvenir baseball. “You’re spoiling him a little,” Bryan said, “and he needs that. He needs to feel like he’s worth the time.”

I exhaled and ran a hand through my hair and said okay. Bryan had convinced me to continue. Sometimes, in those early months, I regretted it. Alex was extremely misanthropic and I am no social savant, nor an athlete, so we sat in corners, with him pouting and me wearing a mask of a smile, and we left events early, after finishing last in the three-legged race or the potato sack relay. I wondered if Alex didn’t need someone more like himself, a typically American Big Brother, and there are occasions when I still wonder such things. Alex has never been a confident boy, although he has gotten much better. He is large and not terribly cute, although he’s still a boy and good looks are sometimes an attribute one grows into. There is a sweetness to Alex, in his innocence and his unabashed craving for love. In fact, he was the one who advanced our relationship beyond four or five hours a week.

When I informed him I was living alone because Amrita, my wife, had left and moved closer to her family in California, he began to call daily. “Sam,” he said, “anytime you want to do something, you know, outside of Big Brothers, I could make myself available.” I smiled and felt a great sense of reward and happiness, and suggested we visit the museum that weekend, the second Saturday in June.

That was the first big step for us. After a few more months of stepping gingerly, I told Alex I wanted to adopt him. He said he didn’t believe me. (Actually, he said he would believe it when he saw it.) As the process began and as the social workers asked him often if he wanted to be my son, he started to see I was serious and took a moment one day, over milkshakes at a McDonald’s, to inform me that I didn’t know what I was doing.

“I don’t think you can be my father.” He kept sucking on his straw after he was finished his shake, causing a wheezing sound that reminded me of hunger. “Fathers are supposed to love their sons, you know.”
I reached for his arm, clenching it as if I wanted to squeeze out poison, and said, “I love you very much, Alex.” He ducked his chin to his chest, and shook his head. “I do, Alex. I do,” I said, as families of three and four past with Happy Meals on their trays, and smiles and features that said they were the same, that they belonged to each other by nature’s decree. “I love you very much, and I want you to be my son.”
No part of him moved, other than the trickle of tears he had begun to shed.

“Do you understand?” I asked, and he nodded, moving his head in a taut motion that seemed a struggle.
The adoption was not easy, although I was told it was less difficult than most. The court wasn’t keen on handing Alex over to a person not of his background, with no parental experience and with a recently broken home. I managed to show that Amrita—a good woman who never took to her arranged marriage—had made an amicable split with me, and that I had the means to support him because of my practice as a tax accountant, which also allowed me to work at home. The testimony of Bryan at Big Brothers was a great help, as were recent laws that have made it easier for older children to be placed into homes that may be considered unconventional, but are stable. Stability, it was wisely determined, is what children most need, and if they don’t have two parents of the same sex and color to provide it, the system now allows them alternatives. I am an alternative. As such, I was put through several background checks before Alex was allowed to temporarily stay in my home. After those processes, an appointed counselor came into our home for two weeks to carefully observe us—especially me.

Our conversations were scrutinized. He shouldn’t have been scolded for damaging the VCR because he wasn’t aware of how it worked. He should have been told not to do homework after his bedtime, otherwise he wouldn’t know his limits and Alex was very much a boy in need of limits. On the same point, I was asked why I let him watch so much unsupervised television at night and why I allowed him to eat all of the donuts in one sitting. The time I spent on the phone with clients after Alex came home from school would have to be cut down significantly if I wanted to be an effective parent. I also needed to introduce him to my friends. Alex should see how adults communicate with each other in different situations. When I informed her that I tend to keep to myself, she said I needed to change. Also, I didn’t have enough physical contact with him. Nothing was wrong with a pat on the back, or a mussing of the hair, or an outright hug. In fact, it was necessary.

I knew that, of course, and I was also well aware any touching would be recorded and homed in on while the woman was there. I had decided beforehand that I wouldn’t lay a hand on Alex during the counselor’s stay.
The counselor did have some positive things to say. Most importantly, it was obvious my feelings and intentions for Alex were genuine, as was his affection for me. This home of mine would be stable and fit for any child I wanted to welcome into it, I was pleased to hear. She recommended the adoption, and several months later it was approved.

We celebrated with ice cream and many Coney Island ferris wheel rides. The following day, we finally moved Alex out of the home of his foster parents. It didn’t take long to get the rest of his belongings; we found them waiting for him in a box on the porch of their home. I was angry and rang the bell and knocked on the door several times. I had been there before and understood these people were more concerned with the money they were given for housing Alex than for the boy himself. For some time, I wanted to confront them and I was finally angry enough to do so. No answer came, however, even though lights were on and I could hear the television droning inside.

Alex didn’t say anything. He simply kept his head down and meandered back to the car when it became clear there would be no goodbyes or wishes of good luck.

I don’t know why people are so hard on Alex, so ignorant of his feelings; he can be good company. He is talkative and has many interests. Also, he is very, very bright, but he has been left back a year, several grades ago, and is cognizant of the stigma of that “failure.” To convince those who may doubt his brightness, he has relentlessly pursued knowledge. I find it sweet, possibly because he reminds me of me, when I was young and had just arrived with my family from New Delhi and felt I needed to know all things American to fit in. Besides dinosaurs, Alex, in the time he has been with me, has memorized the names of presidents and generals, capitals of far-off countries, Greek gods and Super Bowl winners, and dinosaurs, everything about dinosaurs. He can’t stop talking about dinosaurs.

We’ve been together for fourteen months and today marked our third annual visit to The American Museum of Natural History, and our second as father and son. Alex is into dinosaurs the way most boys his age are into sports and how I was into American movies when I was young. He rattles off the names of saurs and raptors as if naming accomplished baseball players, and he can even supply statistics, so to speak, for each extinct reptile. Paleontologists have estimated the height, weight, and tendencies of most dinosaurs, and Alex has spent many hours on the Internet searching out these bits of information. Once, I asked why he was so fascinated by this subject and he shrugged and declared loudly, with a hint of conceit, he just was. I could have pressed for a more expressive answer, but I didn’t want him to feel self-conscious for having a healthy interest.

“Bet ya didn’t know that oviraptors had feathers,” he told me several weeks ago.

“You’re right,” I replied, while flipping through the paper. “I didn’t know that.”

“I know you didn’t!” His tone implied I wasn’t as smart as he, but I didn’t point it out. For one thing, I try to keep from always correcting him. I also have found the silent treatment can convey my displeasure to Alex more effectively than yelling.

“Reptiles with feathers!” he continued while I kept reading. “And they couldn’t fly. Just like turkeys. They couldn’t fly.” He put a hand to his chubby cheek and shook his head. “Stupid birds.”
Here, I had to correct him, asking him to please not speak like that.

“Like what?”

“In a denigrating . . . Like you’re putting down the birds.”

“They’re dead birds!”

I tsked in annoyance, then sighed and rattled the paper. I turned the page to a new story and took my eyes off him completely. My mind, though, stayed on Alex. I was curious to see how he would react. First, he sat and slumped, then exhaled loudly. Then he was quiet for a moment, before turning on the TV. I clenched my teeth. He knows I prefer the TV off when I’m reading. He began to flip channels and giggled when he paused on a cartoon or commercial. He glanced over at me and his giggles grew louder, then transformed into obstreperous laughs as he clutched his stomach and doubled over and turned up the volume until I couldn’t concentrate.

I ruffled and rumpled the paper, folded it under my arm and left the room without looking at him. From the kitchen table, I heard his laughter grow more desperate. He is eleven now and he has to learn he can’t get attention this way, or by throwing angry fits, or crying uncontrollably. I continued reading and Alex stayed in the other room matching the volume of the TV with his cackles.

During a commercial, about a half-hour after I got up, he came into the kitchen and asked if he could have a cookie. I said no, because it was too close to dinner for him to be snacking. He whined and said please, and I said no. He huffed and collapsed next to me with another loud sigh. From the periphery of my vision, over the fold of the paper, I saw him glance at me a couple of times. Initially, he didn’t move or speak.

“No cookies,” I told him.

He began to fidget. He crossed his arms, shook his leg, raised his head all the way back, then brought it all the way forward again. These motions were repeated at least twice before he smacked an elbow down on the table and rested his chin in his palm, settling into a sulk. A few minutes later, he lifted his face from his hand and, with a barely audible murmur, broke the silence.

“The name means egg stealer,” he said.

“Hmmm.”

“That’s what an oviraptor is.” He stared at the table. “An egg stealer.”

I ruffled the paper, folded it carefully, and set it down, pressing my elbow on top of it. I turned to him and asked, “Is that right?”

Alex smiled and said yes, politely, and told me a great many more facts about dinosaurs, some of which I didn’t know, most of which I had forgotten or apparently needed brushing up on. At the end of his dissertation, he became so excited that he blurted, “I can’t wait to go back to the museum. When can we go, Sam?”

“We can go any time you want.” I smiled and touched his hand and rubbed his sturdy shoulder as I got up to fix him dinner. “Just tell me when.”

He thought about this for a while and looked anxious, almost as if he was fighting to suppress an urge to speak his mind. It’s fascinating how children think and prioritize, and how they’re quite capable of making decisions based on need. “I’ll wait until the first Saturday in June,” he said. “It’s our tradition.”

I agreed and in that agreement, Museum Day, which had been only a joke or silly notion to me, was marked permanently in my heart, just as Alex is.

[Wish to read more? Purchase the issue of “Confrontation” in which “Nothing to Be Afraid Of” by Adrian Brijbassi appeared – or send a friendly email requesting the full story!]

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