Love and Other Dangers

My name is Danger Will Bukowski.

Is there a story behind this? Why, yes there is. My ghetto fairytale begins in Compton, where my meth-addicted teen parents crashed a county general hospital, high as kites, neither even remotely realizing Tweedle-Dum was actually pregnant. Upon disclosure, they found it hilarious, and while Dum screamed, “Danger!  Danger, Will Robinson!” for three hours of back labor, a child was born. “Danger Will Robinson,” was what Dum hysterically demanded I be named. Fortunately, the nurse thought the better of it, and gave me my mother’s last name, though it didn’t matter, because my birth parents abandoned me at that hospital.

“Here.” The small Black boy I am working with hands me a stack of yellow Legos. He is six and has separated the Legos into their respective colors and is now stacking them so that each set of corresponding colors are the same stacked length. Bo has obsessive compulsive disorder.

I lay the column of yellow Legos next to the blue stack, realizing Bo is going to put them in the same order as the colors of the rainbow.

I, being born a meth-addicted baby, am fine now. I can be a little hyper sometimes, though I deal. School was a challenge, but when I realized it was a welcome haven from some of the homes they put me in, I embraced it. Somehow I graduated at the top of my class. I earned three scholarships and received my masters in social work.

“I visited my dad in jail last week,” Bo mentions, off-handedly, handing me the stack of red Legos.

“How was it?” I ask, taking them. My heart races a little. It’s weird. I’ve been counseling kids for five years now, under the umbrella of a federally funded system in our county. Still, the idea of a child’s psyche being malleable in my hands sometimes frightens me.

“Dirty. Tons of germs. Smelly. Gross.” He reaches for the plastic tub of Matchbox cars and starts pulling them out, arranging them in similar color groups.

Well, it’s a jail, I think to myself. Thanks to “Orange is the New Black,” no one holds accurate ideas of what incarceration is really about anymore. I say, “How was your father?”

“Momma says he’s a lyin’ fool.”

“What do you say?” I press.

“That I don’t wanna go to the jail no more.”

I feel a little tug on my heart.

I remembered. I was eight. Living with the St. Johns. A crucifix in every room. Prayers every morning, every afternoon, every night. Church every Sunday. No swearing. No candy. No friends outside of the church. And an undying conviction that I visit Tweedle-Dum where she was incarcerated at the local jail for prostitution and possession of drug paraphernalia. Bo wasn’t exactly off on his descriptions, OCD or not.

“Have you told your mom you don’t want to visit him anymore?” I ask.

Bo shrugs, wheeling a yellow monster truck toward a taxi cab. “She don’t care.”

“Did she actually say that, Bo?”

“She said I need to go again next month.”

I make a mental note to address some concerns with Bo’s mom. Again.

When I ran away from the St. Johns, they found a new family for me. The Morans. They were hippy-dippies, for the most part, but once I got used to burgers made out of sawdust and vegetables, I did okay. Instead of crucifixes in every room, there were Goddess figurines with incense spears smoking from them. Instead of morning, afternoon and evening prayer, we meditated, did yoga and went to drummings where kids like me ran around without shirts and shoes. Somehow in that loosely organized chaos that was granola-living, I found myself.

“How’s your sister?” I venture to ask Bo.

“Learning to read.”

Bo’s sister Melanie was twelve and behind her peers. Her needs demanded more of Bo’s mother’s attention. I was constantly trying to urge her to look into the “Big Brother” program for him, but her mama told her about a boy who was molested by his big brother and she wasn’t “gonna have none o’ that.”

“Are you helping with that?” I smile at him and he drinks it in for one big, brown-eyed moment, before casting his eyes back down to a row of police cars he’s lined up perfectly. Still, he moves each car forward, then backward literally one millimeter.

“Yeah,” is all he says.

Bo is somewhat of a savant. I’ve had that point argued by my supervisor, but show me another six year old kid who can read two paragraphs of “Beowulf,” and I’ll show you a genius. He can also add three pairs of dice in one second flat and finishes Sudoku puzzles in a quarter the time an educated adult can. I initially thought he was on the Autism spectrum, but all tests show he is just an amazing, smart child who is getting very little attention at home.

I remembered how Vidalia Moran spent an entire summer teaching me to knit as if she had nothing better to do with her time. She sold those hippy-dippy knitted hats at the local farmers’ markets. We spent that summer, sitting under an umbrella on the shores of Laguna Beach, while she tirelessly taught me “knit one, purl two,” until my fingers blistered a little. The entire time, she told me stories about growing up on the Kansas plains and how all of her friends hated living out in the middle of nowhere, but that she liked it and, had there been an ocean, she would have stayed. Last Christmas, I sent her and her husband Patrick a matching set of knitted hats, mittens and scarves, just to reassure Vidalia I hadn’t lost the skill since moving from California to Colorado. Not that they would need them in Laguna Beach, but I actually hoped they might visit me.

I notice the monster truck Bo has parked in the red group isn’t lined up with the other red vehicles. He notices, too, and makes the adjustment.

“How is first grade?” I ask, referencing his first week back to school.

“Boring.”

I expected as much. The school, recognizing his abilities, had wanted to accelerate him by placing him in the second grade for all subjects but reading. His reading capabilities were at a solid, surprising fourth grade level and the school was willing to work with that by having him in upper level reading classes. His mother chose to keep him with children his own age. “I already got me a special child,” she reasoned, referring to Melanie. “I want at least one normal one.” But Bo wasn’t her idea of “normal” either.

“We’re reading stupid Dick and Jane books.”

I smile on the outside, and chuckle on the inside, imagining Bo reading “See Jane run. Run, Jane, run,” after telling me last week that Tchaikovsky was actually a closeted gay man, then discussing how brilliant he thought “Swan Lake” was. Bo watched copious amounts of Public Television to escape loneliness and boredom.

“Maybe you could help some of the other kids?” I suggested.

He shrugged. “They don’t like me.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I’m the weird kid that’s always using Wet Wipes.”

“So you have good hygiene practices. What’s wrong with that?” I half tease.

He looks at me out of the corner of his eye. He knows he has issues. He knows that I know he has issues.

“Why do you keep your hair so short?” he asks me, out of the blue.

Self-consciously, I rake my fingers through my short, black choppy locks. “I like it that way. It’s easy.”

“Mom says you’re a lesbian.”

Very few things surprise me. After all, I am a social worker for children under the age of twelve and, well, kids can say the darnedest things. But Bo’s question shakes me just a little, though I am not sure why.

“She told you this?” I ask.

“She actually says `lezzy,` but Mrs. Patterson at school says the right word is `lesbian.`” He parks a fire engine by the monster truck and off-handedly adds, “So . . . you’re kinda like Tchaikovsky. Except you aren’t musically inclined.” He remembers my saying this.

I ponder this a moment. I safely, cleanly reply, “I never said I was gay, Bo.”

“Are you?”

“We’re supposed to be talking about you.”

“I answer your questions,” he sullenly replies, lifting those large, dark eyes toward me again.

I try not to laugh at the effort he makes to pull at my heartstrings. “And I am grateful that you do. But there is a code I have to follow, Bo, and it involves not talking about my personal life.”

“Bummer.” He turns toward the bucket of Matchbox cars. “Maybe I won’t answer any more questions.”

“Dude. Are you trying to play me?” I am half-teasing, hoping to break his resolve, but part of me panics a little.  I’m not supposed to have favorite clients. But Bo has been seeing me weekly, for a year now, by court order, and I have come a long way with him.

Bo first visited me after choosing to be non-verbal for a year, the result of watching his father stab another man in the alleyway by their apartment building over a drug deal gone horrifically bad. His mother waited months to take him to a doctor, primarily because it had taken her that long to notice. Between having a husband on trial for murder and a daughter with fairly serious mental delays, Bo’s mother was having difficulty functioning as a parent. “I never shoulda had Bo. You know, he was an accident, and I almost aborted.” She had confessed this to me our first visit. I tried to forget, but those words came back to me almost every time Bo opened his mouth.

Bo changed the subject. “Last week, my momma left for two days.”

“Oh. Was it a trip?”

He looked at me sideways again like I might be the biggest idiot he had come across in quite some time.

“Who did she leave you with?” I ask. For some reason, my heart begins to race and I feel my ears start to get hot. I am getting vibes from him. Not good ones.

“My sister.”

Bo only has one sister.

“Bo. Are you telling me she left you and your sister alone overnight?”

His eyes were wide and he nodded slowly. “Mrs. Carter next door was there for emergencies.”

My stomach pitches a little. Instantly, I am imagining Bo and his sister Melanie alone in an apartment for forty-eight hours. What did they eat? Did they attempt to use the stove? Did they remember to lock the doors? Were they afraid? Were they even able to sleep? My heart is pounding in my ears. They are children.

We sit there for one long moment, watching each other. Bo, with his wide eyes, his short buzzed hair, his slightly sunken cheeks and grave demeanor. Arranging Matchbox cars appropriately. Not playing with them, but constantly, never-endingly arranging them the way they were “supposed to be.” In fact, that is all Bo did with anything he came into contact with… he arranged it how it was supposed to be. Because his life wasn’t anything like it should have been.

I look down, feeling like someone punched me in the stomach. For a moment, I can’t breathe. My throat aches, my eyes sting, and I want to beat on an inanimate object until my fists bleed.

I excuse myself, I tell Porsche I am going to the restroom. Porsche is the employee who sits at her desk, pretending to work, but whose job is literally to “police” Bo and me. To make sure I am doing my job right and Bo doesn’t attack me, I assume.

In the bathroom, I put my hands tightly over my mouth so that I can scream and not scare anyone outside of the restroom. Then I throw cold water on my face.

Before the St. Johns, I lived with the Washburns. They had eight foster kids in a beautiful home that proved to be a more than adequate façade. Mr. Washburn was an accountant and, while he never touched me, he insisted on helping me dress myself until I was seven. Mrs. Washburn was a socialite. Cocktail parties, teas, spa days, weekend trips with the “girls,” anything to get away from the party of eight she and her husband had taken on to supplement their income. Francine and I took care of the other six kids. Francine was thirteen and could cook. I was particularly good at breaking up fights between the others. Then, one weekend, while Mr. Washburn was away on business, and Mrs. Washburn was in Las Vegas for the weekend with her friends, Francine accidently started a fire in the kitchen. The Washburns lost their house, their party of eight, and were put on trial for regular abandonment of minors.

Bo’s mother wasn’t trying to take advantage of the system, but she certainly was showing signs of a lacking capacity to care for her children. As a social worker, I was a mandatory reporter for this kind of abuse. It wasn’t the first time I had to report an incident and I knew it wouldn’t be the last. After living my life in the system, though, I knew what reporting this to the authorities would mean for Bo and Melanie.

On days like today, I hated my job.

I patted my face dry and took a few deep breaths, watching myself in the mirror. Short hair. No makeup. Steel blue eyes that always looked like hard stones to me. Was that life? Or was my soul just naturally hard?

“I’m gay, you know,” I had told Mrs. St. John when I was eight.

She dropped the bowl of cake batter she’d just beaten to perfection. The bowl crashed on the kitchen tile floor. Her face was bright red, her grey eyes wide with horror, her lips white. “What did you just say?” she demanded.

I stared down at the chocolate-battered, broken glass-infused mess on the floor. The lump in my throat was enormous. Tears stung the backs of my eyes and my legs were so shaky, I had to set my hand on the dining table to stabilize myself. “I – I think I like girls, ma’am.” The St. Johns were always “Sir” and “Ma’am.”

“You’re eight. How can you possibly know that?” she pressed on, her tone caustic and unaccepting.

“I – I just know.” I looked down at the floor. The floral tile pattern swam in the tears I fought to hold back. Immediately, I regretted being honest. I regretted wishing I had normal parents to share my deepest secrets with and I most definitely regretted the loveless path my life had taken.

She called Father McVie that day and for two weeks, I met with him for two hours every afternoon so that he could pray my gay away. It would have gone on longer, but I finally just pretended to no longer be gay. He was so excited that he had “cured” me that he arranged to have me make my “statement of rebirth” in front of the entire parish that Sunday morning. I needed to stand up before the congregation and declare that Fr. McVie and I had successfully prayed my gay away. Saturday night, I packed my backpack with all I could fit inside of it, snuck out of my bedroom window, and bought a bus ticket to San Francisco. My friend Javier, who attended school with me, had told me San Francisco was the mothership for gays. I figured he should know. He was a closeted Catholic gay boy. I still wondered what happened to him.

I exited the bathroom to find Bo explaining to Porsche why interest bearing savings accounts were better than regular checking accounts. A no-brainer for most adults, but this kid is six. Then I remembered how, last week, he had explained to me the entire process of buying a new home, from start to finish.

I take Bo back to the cars and we put them all in the bucket one by one. Bo insists we complete the task by taking one of each color, then another of each color, and so forth. A pattern within a pattern, which is how Bo operates. We do the same with the Legos, tasks that take nearly ten minutes to complete. I let him ramble on about the documentary he watched on Freddie Mercury the night before.

At three o’clock, Bo’s mother does not show up. We give her to a quarter after, and still, she isn’t there. Porsche calls all three of the numbers she has provided to us, beginning with her place of employment. Mr. Rickets at R&R Laundromat says she didn’t show up for her shift today. My stomach starts to knot up. Still, Bo appears unmoved. He watches us make telephone calls and quietly discuss the results as if he already knows the answers. Her home telephone is shut off. Her cell phone doesn’t have the voice mailbox activated.

I am sweating. Under my arms. Along my hairline. My stomach acids are out of control. My heart is beating so quickly, I am almost light-headed. I thought, in the last five years, I’d almost seen it all. This, however, this I hadn’t seen yet.

By four, Bo’s mother still isn’t there. We call a supervisor and wheels are put in motion. A car is sent to their residence, but what Pete and Derrick, two other social workers on our team, find is an empty apartment. She has cleaned out her things and Melanie’s things, but Bo’s remain, along with a note that says, “He deserves better.”

As Porsche tells me this, I feel the room close in. My vision is tunneled and I find myself in a state of disbelief. After living in the system as a child, and working in the system as an adult, this still takes me by surprise. It’s Bo, after all. He’s smart, caring, loving, patient and well-behaved. How could he be left behind? How could she have abandoned him?

I excuse myself for a moment. I literally race to evacuate the building. I need air and no walls.

Once outside, I finally scream. In fact, I scream so loud, I turn heads, stop cars and raise general panic for about ten seconds until I throw my hands up and shout, “I’m okay!” But I’m not okay. Not by a longshot. I am bitter. I am angry. I am appalled. Emotionally, I am brought to my knees.

I whip my cell phone out of my pocket and push *1. The phone rings, and soon I hear Vidalia Moran on the other line. She is excited and surprised to hear from me, and is everything okay?

“I’m stuck,” I blurt, as the tears start to pour down my cheeks. I am not sad, I am fired up angry.

“What’s wrong, Moon?” It was my nickname. The night I arrived on their doorstep the moon was full and they had been meditating for new direction. Apparently, I was what they needed.

“Bo.”

She knew about Bo because I talked about him often. We weren’t supposed to use names, but this was Vidalia, living in Laguna Beach. And the Morans were my safety.

“Is – is he okay?” her voice trembled and I realized, though we never ever said it, that I loved Vidalia.

“He’s been abandoned. His mother hasn’t shown to pick him up from his appointment with me. Their apartment is empty. Only his things are left.”

“Are you going to get them?”

“Vee, I have no idea where his mother and sister went. They could be in another state by now. I –“

“I mean his things, love, his things. Are you going to get them?”

“Someone is bringing his stuff to the office.”

“Ah. So, what happens next?” she asked.

I knew she knew this already, but still replied, “He enters the foster system, like me.”

“Oh. What a shame.” Her voice is soft, quiet, and pensive.

“Of course it’s a shame. And I am livid.”

Kindly, she asks, “I understand. But is that helping?”

I roll my eyes. “No.”

“Would everything be fixed if his mother came back and took him?”

I considered this for a moment, pulling up old tapes in my mind of things Bo and I talked about, of little secrets he shared with me, and I realized, “Actually, probably not.”

“Maybe his mother knew that.”

“It doesn’t make it right, Vee.”

“Oh, dear, of course it doesn’t make it right,” she agreed, the timbre of her voice familiar, comforting.  “But it does make it human. None of us are perfect, Moon. Not a one. We can only try our best. I’m not saying this makes what she did right. But it also doesn’t mean something right can’t come from it.”

As I say a fond goodbye to Vidalia, I realize that the Morans, in the end, were my something right that came from years of wrongs. If I had been forced to stay with meth-addicted parents, my life would have turned out completely different. By the time I came into the Morans’ life, I’d been through eight different families. Had I stayed with any of them, my life also would have turned out very different.

I wouldn’t be here for Bo.

As Bo and I arrive at the little Colonial I share with my partner, Cindy, I watch Bo’s eyes widen. It’s blue and white, with white shutters and a brown front porch with a swing. It’s my slice of normal. I keep the lawn nicely manicured and Cindy tends to the rose and lilac bushes. We are talking about putting a garden in the back yard, if we can be assured the squirrels won’t pillage the efforts. This summer, I taught her to knit out on our front porch. We sat in that swing for hours each day, knitting one, purling two, and I told her stories about the Morans.

“This is where you live? In a real house?” his voice almost squeaks.

I nod and smile. “Do you like cats? I have three of them.”

“Are you one of those ladies?” he questions, that sideways look sizing me up again, and I can see he is trying to imagine me as a crazy cat lady.

Cindy comes out onto the porch before I can answer. She looks beautiful, with her long, red hair loose and ablaze on her shoulders in the filtering sunlight. She’s wearing a blue sundress, arms folded over her chest, her smile broad. I’ve already called her and she is remarkably thrilled. She teaches kindergarteners and can’t seem to get enough of children. Sometimes I get nervous when she starts mentioning “in vitro fertilization,” so the fact that I am showing up with Bo is an interesting turn of events.

Bo’s gaze follows mine and I hear him gasp, eyes wide. Then he looks at me sideways again and grins. “So. . . .”

I laugh. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

We exit the car. He slings his backpack over his shoulder, and I grab two suitcases holding the remainder of his things. As he climbs the steps to the porch, Cindy holds her hand out and introduces herself. He clasps her hand, but doesn’t let it go, and she looks at me. Her smile widens and there is a twinkle in her eyes.

“This is temporary,” I mutter, grinning slowly.

She reaches up to ruffle my hair, her devilish grin lassoing my heart. “Yeah. We’ll see.”

***

Suzanne Calvin-YimSuzanne Marie Calvin-Yim is a late-in-life student, majoring in English with a minor in Secondary Education. A seasoned wearer of many hats, she has worked as a waitress, bank teller, paralegal, and a Certified Nurse Aide, in addition to having homeschooled her son and daughter. She has three published romance novels with Amber Quill Press, and has freelanced for The Colorado Springs Independent and Out Front Colorado. Suzanne lives in Colorado Springs with her wife, Juli, her adult son and daughter, and Lily the human Schnauzer. Her hobbies include swimming, hiking, biking, reading, watching British films, and thinking reflectively. Currently, she is working on two novels and a collection of short stories.