5 min

Toughest one

The ache of airport good-byes

Credit: Xtra West files

I picked him up at the airport last week. What struck me first was how ugly his hat was. A fleece baseball cap. I blamed his mother, signed the Unaccompanied Minor form they made him wear on a red elastic string around his neck, stuffed the offending hat into his overstuffed yellow backpack, and we left. No checked baggage. I love a kid who travels light.

Often when Francis and I hook up, some time has passed since we last saw each other. This time it had only been three months, but when you’re seven-and-a-half, three months can hold a decade of things to catch up on. He was taller, and his legs were beginning to take up more of him than they looked like they should. Stick legs folded into oversized green rubber boots with laces. Very practical footwear. I always appreciated that trait in his mother, too. Warm-lined navy blue rainjacket.

Just a normal little boy, right?

He touches everything, runs his hands over things. His knees bounce, his head turns, and his fingers tap. Then I see it.

His pinky fingernails are very long. I’m pretty sure that even Whitehorse Elementary, a historically notoriously tough place to endure Grade 2, does not yet have a cocaine problem.

No, I’m pretty sure Francis has long pinky fingernails because somehow, he has managed to keep a hold on something of the littler boy he once was: the sunflower-print dress be-decked fairy child, before public school and divorces and reality set in and someone started calling him queer.

He left his dresses at home in a box under his bed, even to come to Vancouver to see me, but he did bring his blue crushed velvet hotpants and velour copper coloured top, though, and I breathed a sigh of relief that night when he came out of his room dressed for dinner.

I realized at the Value Village the next day how much I had invested in this little boy. How much I hoped fucking Whitehorse Elementary wouldn’t kick the faggot right out of him. If he can make it, then so can I.

We were going to be pirates for the Fool’s Parade, and fortunately, I was already quite prepared. A short stop at the home of the girl up the street produced a virtual pirate’s booty of baubles and sashes and bandanas. We were searching through the girl’s pants in the Village when it happened.

A pair of black, crushed velvet pants with gold lame parrots embossed around the bell bottoms. My eyes lit up and I ripped them off the hanger. The perfect pirate’s pants. Francis ran his hands over them, and I watched his face go from sparkling to something else altogether. A small cloud crossed inside his brown eyes, a picture played behind it in his head, and he shook it out. He made a face and dropped the pants. “A pirate wouldn’t wear those,” he said with fierce commitment.

“Dude, are you joking? They have parrots on them.” I argued with a seven-year-old for a minute, and then stopped myself. I was doing what my mother did. I remembered the summer I turned 11 and a yellow and grey dress for my Aunt Norah’s wedding, me paralyzed in a dressing room and the shopkeeper standing next to my mother pleading “Come on out honey, it’s okay, I’m sure you look just lovely. It’s a beautiful dress, Pat, and one she can wear anywhere.”

I had felt actual panic that day, both at the thought of looking beautiful, and at the very concept of owning a dress that was both “formal enough for a wedding, but not too dressy for school.”

I made a promise to myself to always let the boy dress himself how he wanted, even if it was boring and didn’t match at all, and bought him the black cargo pants that he thought a pirate should wear.

He did love the tiny little black patent leather dress shoes we found, almost as much as I did, and I took some comfort in that.

We were standing in the line-up when it happened the first time. Women talk to you when you have a child with you, and this one had been watching Francis try on plastic pearls and clip-on earrings as I waited to pay for our booty.

“Now are we picking out some jewellery for Mom?” she piped up with a voice saved for children by women who don’t have any anymore.

Francis froze, his shoulders squared and he returned the pearls to the bent metal hook they had been hanging on. He looked guilty, maybe, or sad.

“Oh dear, I do hope I haven’t said the wrong thing.” She reached for my arm and stroked it, and left her hand on the inside of my elbow.

I thought Francis looked like a small faggot child busted doing something that he knows everybody thinks is wrong or weird, and my heart broke for him. She thought he was the confused child of a broken home, and thus I was the grieving divorced single father of one, and her heart broke for us.

“Everything is okay with Mom,” I let her off the hook, smiling, which was easy to do imagining Chris in her wool army pant and felt jacket, reeking of wood smoke and wearing rubber boots, be-decked in Francis’ string of plastic pearls and a clip-on hoop earring.

She breathed a sigh of relief. I was just a nice guy taking my boy out shopping for Mom. Maybe I was even one of those new-fangled stay-at-home dads.

I began to revel in my new disguise, my new cloak and mirror. A child. Proof of my heterosexuality, even if I was a little faggoty myself, and maybe it was rubbing off on the kid; at least I was fertile.

I realize this must suck for straighter-looking moms or dads trying to seek a little action, but it was some novelty to me. No one, no matter what gender they mistake me for, ever mistakes me as straight. I might even have a chance to come out of the closet, for the first time ever, I thought with a kind of glee.

I dropped Francis off at the airport yesterday, wearing his sensible shoes. Me and four other Spring Break single fathers milled around the security gate, seeing off our respective unaccompanied minors. We called out last minute reminders to not eat any dairy and tell your mom to call me and don’t drink any pop even if they give it to you and tie up your boots. Francis didn’t look back, and let the pretty stewardess take his hand.

The guy with the tight pants and John Deere belt buckle’s little boy started to bawl, and his Dad teared up himself and waved through the glass yelling “Daddy loves you” unabashedly. He turned to me and a set of someone’s grandparents and said in a choked voice that pulled at the corners of my eyes, “Now that is harder than a guy would think, huh? Won’t see him ’til September. I’m a merchant marine.”

I nodded like I understood, because he thought I did. I felt secretly proud that Francis didn’t cry one bit, that in fact my kid was the toughest one of them all.