My son had gotten to the dentist first. He was leaning back in a waiting room chair, wearing a white beater and black basketball shorts, black ankle socks and his prized black Adidas. He had on a white baseball cap, too big for his head, with a flat brim with a shiny manufacturer’s sticker on it. I wanted to take the cap off his head, bend the brim so it looked like a real baseball cap, so it looked like a cap that my son, the athlete, would wear. Today, he didn’t look like an athlete. He looked like a punk.
God, he could be hard to love sometimes, I thought, sitting down in a chair across from him. “I have to hang up. My mom is here.” With that, he flipped his phone shut and put it in the deep pocket of his shorts. Why can’t he look like the middle class boy I raised? Would that be so hard?
I’d trained myself that every time I had this ‘he’s so hard to love’ flash, I had to flip on the ‘you’re probably not what he had in mind’ either. We both caught the double takes of teachers and social workers. White mom, Latino son. How did that happen, they looked sideways at us. Not willing to explain, we looked back. The miracle of adoption – it makes the most interesting pairings.
Now we were catching looks at the dentist’s office, the same place we’d gone every month to have his braces adjusted, where he’d had to explain how he’d bit into a Lego and busted a wire, where everybody had known him and his siblings, patted us all on the head and kept our teeth on the straight and narrow.
A week earlier, he’d sat across from me in our little breakfast nook, a 20-year old, holding his chin and wincing. So unlike him to notice pain or to make any visible fuss over anything uncomfortable. He was impervious to the things that make other people miserable – heat, cold, injuries, exhaustion. After an especially tough weatherization job in an old house, he went for days with fiberglass in the skin on his arms, finally texting me, “Do u know how 2 get fiberglass out of skin?”
After I saw the broken tooth in the back of his mouth, I told him we were going to the dentist. No dental insurance? No matter. I’ll pay for it. I couldn’t stand it, seeing the broken tooth. I wanted to wrap him in a blanket and take him to the ER.
Within minutes, the dental assistant called his name. He gathered himself, hitched up his long shorts, gave me a little grin as if to say remember all the hundreds of times we did this when I was a kid?, and then he disappeared behind the closed door. I rifled through the stack of magazines to find the most recent People and settled in to wait. My job was to wait and then pay the bill.
“Yes?” I looked up to see a middle-aged African American man, in a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, his tie loosened around his neck.
“Is that your son?” he said, nodding toward the door that went into the exam rooms.
I knew in my experienced heart, knew based on every approach anyone had ever made to me about my kids, knew from the look on this man’s face that he was not seeking me out to compliment me on what a fine young man I’d raised.
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
“You should know that all the while I’ve been sitting here with my wife and my daughter, he’s been talking on that phone and using the N-word.”
He went on to describe how upsetting it was to hear such language in a public place, how disturbing to his daughter, how inappropriate it was.
I was at a loss. I kept shaking me head as if in disbelief. I had never heard my son use the N-word but I knew the man wasn’t lying. I trusted the guy to be telling me the truth. My son had sat there in his awful basketball shorts and his precious Adidas and fake whispered into the phone N-word this, N-word that. My Bar Mitzvah boy.
I wanted to tell this man everything about my son and our family, tell him we weren’t trash, that our kids weren’t raised like that, roll out our resumes and lists of our friends, call people to give testimonials about how non-racist we were.
Instead I told him I was sorry. I told him that my son was probably talking on the phone to his best friend, an African American kid he’d gone to high school with, partied with, and lived with at various times when our home life got rough. It sounded like an excuse, though, and I didn’t want to make excuses.
I apologized again, nodding in the direction of the man’s wife and daughter who had been watching the whole conversation from across the room. They nodded back. We all sat down.
“What are you thinking sitting in a roomful of people and using the N-word on the phone?” By the time we’d gotten to the parking lot, I wanted to beat my grown son with my purse, kick him in the shins, and twist the ear right off his head. No matter to me that he was 20 years old.
“Where did you grow up? What’s the matter with you?” The profanity bulleted out of me like a machine gun. My son stood there, like he had so many times, looking at his shoes, not agreeing with me but not wanting to argue. It sounds crazy to say but he was always too respectful to argue with me.
“How on earth could you talk like that? It’s so wrong!”
“Yeah, you’re right. But it was just Levon, Mom. We talk like that all the time. He doesn’t care. That’s just how we talk.” He was calm and quiet. He didn’t see it as a big deal.
“Thanks for helping me with the dentist, Mom.”
He drove off in his car, his seat set so low that he was practically on his back, just the tip of his white cap visible.