“Don’t forget I’m going to be late tonight,” Billy said. I was on my way out the door, rushing to work.
“Because I have Manuel tonight.”
“Oh. Okay. Are you guys having dinner?”
“Yeah. I’m going to take him to this place he keeps talking about that he always wanted to go to,” he said. I took my hand off the doorknob as I realized I’d forgotten to do something – I swept Billy in my arms and kissed him.
“You guys have a great time.”
Billy had enrolled in a neighborhood outreach Big Brother-type program that Goldman-Sachs had organized, and Manuel was his charge. At first, Billy was nervous; uncertain he would know what to do or what the specific responsibilities would require. Once he met the nine-year old, though, he’d found a boy whose family was in terrible chaos, a kid who just needed someone to turn to, and Billy understood his role -- to just have fun.
The schedule started as short bonding sessions, usually held at the Goldman-Sachs’ daycare center, after Manuel would get out of school. Billy started to take him to dinner, knowing there wasn’t going to be much waiting for Manuel at home, and sometimes they’d go to a movie. It was three months before this became part of Billy’s routine for Tuesdays and Thursdays.
One night, Billy brought Manuel home. Manuel was tentative, his eyes cast downward when he walked in to the apartment, his handshake small and awkward. I’d cooked meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and I had stopped at the Little Pie Company on 43rd for dessert. We sat around the TV, our dinner plates on our laps. Two minutes into our meal, Manuel started to laugh, a church giggle he struggled to stiffen but soon it billowed into a full-blown burst. His eyes bright, he put his hand over his mouth full of food, and looked to Billy.
“What is so funny, mister?” Billy said, catching the laugh wave and adding his own volume. Soon both of them doubled over, their plates almost upending onto the floor. I started thinking it was my cooking, a likely source of amusement, and I began to feel that knot of being mocked. My anger began.
“What is so funny?” Had I been standing up, my hands most certainly would have slammed against my hips.
“He’s just crazy,” Billy said. It was an explanation that didn’t mollify my increasing embarrassment as I was now convinced my bad meal was some unspoken punchline.
“You’re crazy!” Manuel shot back to Billy, his voice high and unguarded.
“No, you are,” Billy choked out between giggles, and I realized it was some game they had concocted, a silent cue unseen by me, having nothing to do with me or my food preparation, and I joined them in hopes of catching up.
I didn’t, though, or rather, I couldn’t. I don’t speak kid very well, I never have. Billy, however, was fluent. His parenting skills were instinctive and he ached to flex them. I watched those two for the rest of the evening, wrestling over the remote, the two of them on the balcony as Billy showed him the city from a perspective Manuel had never seen, and for a brief second glimpsing in Manuel’s eyes the appreciation he felt for Billy.
“Come on, it’s time for you to go home,” Billy said. It was around nine. “I’ll take you downstairs and make sure you get a cab.” Manuel turned to me, stuck out his hand, confident as could be, and said good night. “Let’s go, you big goof, you’re going to be late!” I heard the chime from the elevator arriving. I was cleaning up when Billy came back from downstairs.
“That’s a good kid!” Billy said.
“Who? You or him?” I said. Billy laughed; something that he had done all night long.
Manuel has to be at least nineteen now, and I pray he was able to find someone else to turn to once Billy and I left had New York about six months after that evening; someone who could temper his family’s insanity and continue the path Billy had started. I’ve thought of searching for Manuel to make sure he’s safe but I decided the pursuit would be pointless, or worse, grimmer than I could bear. I think he’ll always remember Billy and his memories of him should be as rosy as their relationship.