Tuesday, July 24, 2018

An Unexpected Gift

I’ve been in this room many times in the past five years. I’ve grown accustomed to the long, mirrored wall, the worn hardwood floor, the high ceiling, and the large window at the opposite end with its rounded top, now turning slowly black due to the setting sun. The room is filling up, mostly with young girls and their parents, but my gaze has settled onto Jacob. Lately, he only wears gleaming white tights that come down to his knees and his shoes—which still look peculiar to me—during class. Jacob’s reddish brown hair isn’t too long, but it is long enough so that it bounces and tumbles with every move he makes. His fair skin is specked with freckles that match the color of his hair. Recently, he has become quite tall—over six foot. He’s stretching in preparation of Ms. Whitmore’s drills. His right foot—clad in one of those odd looking shoes—is up on the bar, and all of his muscles are taut as a result. Even though he retains the look of an angular, emaciated youth when he is fully dressed, I can’t help but notice how extraordinarily toned he is now.
At this point, no one expects Jacob to become a professional. I don’t think Ms. Whitmore—a sharp-boned woman who still dresses like one of her students even though her dancing days are well behind her—has ever produced a professional. Two or three years ago, Jacob dreamed about the possibility of getting accepted by one of the larger metropolitan ballet companies, but he knew scouts hardly ever made it this far out into suburbia, and they weren’t likely to make the journey for a boy who only practiced a few hours a week. Jacob now admits that he comes here only because he wants to, and that he’s likely to give up dancing once he goes to college.

Even though Jacob doesn’t have the drive to become a star, his efforts have been steady and reliable over the years, and this has given him a payoff of sorts. Although he is tall and reedy, Jacob is not awkward or clumsy. He moves with confidence while holding his head high. Although his voice is small and delicate, he speaks clearly and with a certain amount of self-assurance that is never cocky or flip. And Jacob is nearly always unfailingly polite. So you could say that dance has given him poise. He commands respect in a way that I never thought he would.

Jacob drove the car to the studio this evening, but because he only has a learner’s permit, I had to come with him. His mother, Jenna, usually accompanies him to dance class, but she had to work late, so I stepped in. I don’t mind. Waiting for Jacob will give me a chance to catch up on my reading. Just as I am about to turn to my book, Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse, a smiling, happy-faced woman with curly blond hair steps in front of my chair, blocking my view of Jacob.

“Hi, Arty. Remember me? I’m Karen, Ashton’s mother.”

Ash, as Jacob always calls him, is a fairly shy dark-haired boy who started coming to Ms. Whitmore about the same time Jacob did. I catch him ducking into the locker room out of the corner of my eye just as I speak. “Of course, I remember you, Karen.”

Her expression becomes a bit more serious when she says, “I have a favor to ask of you.”

“Sure,” I say, not knowing what I could possibly do for this woman.

“Bruce, my husband, and I want to get away this weekend, and we were hoping that we could leave Ashton with you and Jenna.”

I hesitate for maybe a second, but then I say, “That would be fine.”

Karen’s smile lights up, and she says, “Great. I know Ashton will be thrilled. You are aware that he has a huge crush on your son, right?”

I try to match her levity as much as I can when I rejoin, “I’m pretty sure Jacob is just as smitten with Ash, Karen.”

She shakes her head in agreement and says in a slightly lower voice, “I caught them kissing the other day in the family room.” She giggles in a way that is surprisingly girlish and then adds, “It was so cute. When they noticed I was there, they were so embarrassed, but they tried to act cool and casual.”

My face freezes for a moment, and I scramble to think of a reply. Finally, I say, “Teenagers can be so self-conscious.”

“Yes... Well, anyway, thanks for taking Ashton this weekend. I’ll drop him off at your house on Friday about five or six.”

“No problem,” I say, making sure I sound sincere.

The request causes me to remember an incident that occurred a few weeks ago. As Karen steps away, the details come into focus. Jacob and I were sitting in the living room. I was reading, and he was doing his homework, when suddenly I realized he was looking directly at me, studying me. I asked him if anything was wrong, and he said no, but he asked if it would be okay if Ash stayed over the next night. Without thinking, I curtly replied, “Aren’t you a little old for sleepovers?” I’m not sure why I responded this way, and I knew immediately I was being foolish, but before I could apologize, Jacob’s fair skin burned red. He got up and left the room without saying another word. After that, I couldn’t bring myself to broach the subject, and apparently neither could Jacob, for he never mentioned it again.

In the days that followed, I picked up on a few clues that suggested I had been making my son uncomfortable about his feelings for Ash. For instance, one day when I walked through the kitchen, I saw that Jacob was sitting at the counter with his sketch pad—he loves to draw. When he noticed me, he turned the page in a way that was meant to appear nonchalant, but I was able to see what he had been working on before the maneuver was complete. Jacob had been putting the finishing touches on a sketch of Ash lying shirtless in a meadow. From what I saw of it, the likeness was pretty good. I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to tell him that there wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, but something was blocking me, blocking both of us. And now Karen made me realize something else; Jacob has been spending a lot of time at Ashton’s house, but Ash hardly ever shows up at ours. It seems Jacob feels the need to hide his friend from me, and there shouldn’t be any reason for that. Ash is a good and decent kid.

As the class gets underway, I open my book to where I left off three days ago and drift into the story. I pay little attention to the flurry of activity taking place in front of me, the classical music coming from the old-fashioned record player or the sound of Ms. Whitmore belting out her instructions. But when I hear her call out my son’s name, I look up just in time to see Jacob catch a young woman by her waist and twirl her around. The young woman remains rigid, and she keeps her arms high above her head as my son spins her. I am struck by this move because Jacob does it with seemingly little effort, and I’m reminded of how people will sometimes swing a baby around in the air, only Jacob is much more graceful and fluid than the average new parent. I wonder how long he has been able to do that.

I watch in awe for a moment, but then I return to my book before Jacob catches me staring. I sit there engrossed in my story for quite a while. I am only dimly aware of the end of class and the people filing out of the room. When I look up, I realize that the only people left are Ms. Whitmore, one of the young girls in her class and the girl’s mother. They are down by the window, and it seems the two women are having a serious discussion, presumably about the little girl who waits silently and patiently a few feet away.

I instinctively look at my watch and see that it’s late, and then I look toward the locker rooms. I’m slightly annoyed that Jacob has kept me waiting, so I sit my book down and head toward the boys’ locker room. I go in thinking he is the only boy left inside. The showers are just past the door, and I can hear the water and feel the steam wafting in the air. I look into the shower room expecting to see Jacob lazily allowing the hot spray to flow over his tall frame. I almost call out to him in my fatherly voice, meaning to tell him to hurry up. But before saying anything, I see that Jacob is not alone. Ash is with him even though I didn’t notice Karen outside. It dawns on me that what the boys are doing is meant to be just between the two of them, so I quickly turn and leave before either one notices me.

When I’m out in the hall, I feel safe, and suddenly I feel washed in gratitude for having managed to get away without being detected. But then the gravity of what I just witnessed sinks in. I only caught a glimpse, but it was obvious the boys were dancing together. The little bit that I saw mirrored what took place outside earlier, only Jacob was spinning his wet, naked friend rather than a young lady. I have to admit that it was elegant. At least for this moment, they were meant to be together.

Jacob is nothing like what I expected when I was told that I was going to be the father of a boy. But as I stand there in the hall, I come to know that I wouldn’t want any other boy. He is a unique gift, and I’m so happy that he was given to me of all people. I am proud of him. So much so I laugh with joy as I imagine him and Ash dancing in their private studio.

Fifteen minutes later, after having read another chapter in my book, I return to the locker room. I open the door and listen before entering. When I don’t hear the sound of water running or feet skidding across the tiled floor, I go inside. As I make my way, I hear the boys chattering. I find them sitting on the bench in front of their adjoining lockers with their big white towels wrapped around their waists. They haven’t even begun to dress.

“Guys,” I say pleadingly, “take pity on the old man and get a move on it.”

Jacob looks over at me and says plaintively, “Sorry, Dad.”

To ease their disappointment, I say as I draw closer, “You two will have lots of time to talk in a couple of days. Ash’s mother tells me that he’ll be spending the weekend with us.”

Jacob turns in surprise, and Ash leans closer to him and says in a low voice that I’m able to hear clearly, “I told her to wait and let you ask him.”

“It’s okay,” I say as I turn to face our soon to be guest. “Ash, you’re welcome at our house anytime.”

When I look back at Jacob, I see that his shock is almost comical. “Don’t give me that,” I say.

“What?” he asks innocently.

“Stop staring at me as if you expected to find a monster behind you instead of your father.”

While keeping the rest of his body impossibly still, he curls his lips into a grin.

I place my hand on his shoulder and say, “Jake, I was watching you earlier, and I just wanted to tell you that you dance beautifully.”

His expression softens. “Thanks, Dad.”

Turning back to Ash, I say, “Is your mother waiting for you out in the parking lot? She’s not out in the studio.”

“She only dropped me off. There’s something she had to do, so she couldn’t wait.” As he speaks, he lowers his gaze. It’s obvious that he can’t maintain eye contact without blushing.

“How will you get home?”

“I’ll take the bus…if I’ve not missed the last one.”

Immediately Jacob begs, “Can’t we take him home?”


“Thanks,” Ash says. “And thanks for letting me stay this weekend.”

“No problem. We’ll be happy to have you.” When I head toward the door, I say to both of them, “I’m giving you guys exactly two minutes to finish up in here.”

Before leaving the room, I hear Ash say to Jacob in his confidential tone, “I thought you said he was going to be uptight about me staying over."

No comments:

Post a Comment