What Would You Have Done?

I don’t want this to be my story, because it isn’t. And every time I read through it, I change a word here, a phrase there, and it becomes a bit more mine, and a bit less true. And so I have to stop.

Maybe I want to own it. Maybe the more mine it becomes, and the less true it becomes, the less I will have to deal with the reality that it started out as something completely true, that happened to real people about twenty feet away from me, and one of the people was Laurel. And maybe if I can make it completely mine, and completely false, then I finally can stop thinking about it.

Laurel and I went to Supercuts, so I could get a quick, cheap, haircut. She was in a reasonably good mood when my name was called. And she was silent and sad when I next saw her, more silent and sad then my bad haircut would merit. I got my coat, almost tripping over a little boy hiding under his, and we got in the car. Laurel started to tell me what was wrong as soon as I put the car into drive, and continued as we ate lunch. Part of being in love is sharing burdens… I’m sure her burden was lighter after she told her story. But mine wasn’t. I can’t tell you for sure why her story didn’t leave me, although I could make a few guesses. But now I am sitting here, dear World, hoping that I can tell you Laurel’s story and maybe you can share it with me a bit. I need to feel better. I really do.

This is Laurel’s story, but I’m telling it in my voice, because it would be ridiculous to try to tell it in hers. They are too different.

You hate those people who go up to strangers and tell them how to raise their kids, right? When the children aren’t being abused per se’, only a complete busybody is going to get in somebody’s face, telling them, “I would do it differently.” So I did the right thing at Supercuts, by sitting still and waiting for my fiancee’ to get his haircut, and then leaving without saying a word to them, right? Please tell me that I’m right, and tell me in a way to make me believe it.

They came in together; Mom, Dad, little brother, big brother. Haircut day. Except for me, there was not a soul in the waiting area – plenty of places to sit. Dad sat in the center, and opened a magazine. And that’s the end of Dad’s role in the story.

Mom and Big brother sat next to each other, and got out their electronics. Big brother had a game-boy, Mom had a cell phone with games on it. They were up and running even before Dad had gotten his magazine open. Little brother was about six, and he didn’t have any electronics, but I don’t know if he wanted any. He wanted to talk about haircuts. He was so damned happy and excited. That’s the part that’s killing me now as I think about it. He was so damned happy and excited.

He didn’t start off talking about himself. “What kind of haircut are you going to get? Are you going to get it cut short?” When that conversation opener didn’t work, he tried a different tack – asking for advice. “What kind of haircut should I get? I think I want short hair.” Dad ignored him completely. So he went to Mom, who also pretended he was not there. Big brother hadn’t yet learned this trick, this trick of making someone feel completely invisible. He didn’t speak to him, of course, but he didn’t ignore him completely, either. But Mom soon realized that some parenting had to be done. “Please go and sit in those chairs over there,” she said to her younger son, pointing to the chairs across the waiting area, far away from the rest of the family. She rolled her eyes a bit at Big brother as she said it, bonding with her teenaged son. Big brother didn’t see; he was playing with his game boy. And he didn’t have much of a chance to see the gesture anyway, her eyes left her cell phone for only a fraction of a second.

So Little brother, six years old, went to the other side of the room, and sat down, with nothing to do. He did it with a smooth motion that sickened me – he did not think this was unusual. This is what his family was like. No problem. He was no longer excited and happy-looking. He was clearly bored. But then he had an idea. He got on his knees, put his hands at 10 and 2, and started driving an imaginary car. And he had this grin on his face that was amazing to see. It made me happy to see him smiling like that – he was unflappable. He must have been driving his ghost-car to a wonderful place because he was certainly enjoying the trip. Until his mother, still not looking up, told him to stop. “Get back in the chair,” she said. I have no idea íhow she knew he was out of it. Maybe she had that sixth sense of always knowing where her children are, like all good parents do. And she said something to Big Brother about where she was in her game, and Big Brother politely spoke back. A teenager, and a mother of two dressed as a teenager, talking video games, their lives completely happy as long as the six-year old didn’t spoil anything by moving.

And the six-year old boy’s upper lip quivered a bit, but he did not cry. Instead he eventually became a mole. Not merry any more, but not miserable. he crawled under the chairs, from his side of the room, to under his father’s row, to his mother and brother’s row. He was a quiet little mole, a thoughtful little mole, an unobtrusive one. Until his mother told him to stop, to go to his end of the room and sit in his chair.

Now it was Dad’s turn to get his haircut. And Dad sat in the chair, and the barber put the smock on him, and began to cut his hair. And Dad’s youngest son was curious. What kind of haircut would Dad get? What does it look like when hair is getting cut? What a big mirror. He knew better than to ask such questions, so he just watched, kneeling on his chair, so he could be turned around to see the only sign of life in the shop. Until his mother told him to stop, to turn around and sit back in his chair so he could watch nothing but her at her cell phone, talking to her other son at his game-boy.

And he oozed out of his chair, no pretense at unflappability now, and found his coat which had fallen off of the coat-rack. And he crawled under his coat, and stayed there. Now completely invisible. Now non-existant. My boyfriend almost stepped on him when he got his own coat, not noticing the lump on the floor. And he took my arm, and I turned and looked at the lump one last time, and then Mom made eye-contact with me. She saw something in my eyes that was so dramatic that it caused her to take three full seconds away from her cell-phone game. And I said nothing. You hate those people who go up to strangers and tell them how to raise their kids, right? What could I have said? What should I have said?

Years after I wrote this essay, a stranger asked if he could make it into a short film. Of course I said yes. I can’t describe what it is like to see it dramatized. I think he did an excellent job.