My boyfriend Andrew plays this little trick on me. The prank is funny, because I fall for it every time. And it’s irritating, because I fall for it every time.
We were having pizza at Cane Rosso when Andrew pointed over my shoulder and said “Hey! Is that Robert?” I immediately spun around and tried to spot my oldest son among the people coming in and out of the dining room. I considered and rejected the elderly gentleman leaning on a cane, and the young mother wrestling her toddler into a high chair.
“What? That guy!” The only person who might resemble Robert also outweighed him by about eighty pounds. Mentally I scrolled through images of Robert. There’s Robert as he looked in college, the Christmas I drove out to Lubbock to pick him up. It was snowing, and he came out of the dorm wearing flip flops and a short sleeved t-shirt, a large drawstring bag of laundry slung over his back. He had a scraggly beard and as he walked through the snow to my car, I thought he resembled a homeless Santa Claus. There’s the Robert wearing a ball cap and a plumbing company uniform, his name handily embroidered on the front. Or maybe it’s the Robert with silvery hair from Facebook photos.
I turned back around to Andrew and frowned, but not because I missed the pizza that he robbed from my plate while my back was turned. I was disappointed that the words “Is that Robert?” failed to conjure up my son. After a moment Andrew confessed and returned the pizza. Because what good is a practical joke if no one notices?
Robert and my younger son, Andy live nearby and are busy, grown men with their own lives. I’ll see them on holidays and birthdays, but sometimes I feel I’m more likely to encounter them shopping at Half Price Books or IKEA than sitting across the dinner table. It’s not unreasonable to feel that little thrill of excitement at the prospect of encountering one of them somewhere unexpected. It’s like when someone stops by your cubicle at work and tells you there’s birthday cake in the breakroom.
All it takes is a suggestion from Andrew that Robert might be walking in the door of the restaurant, or strolling through the park, and I immediately scan the faces nearby. We can be close to home, or hundreds of miles away, it doesn’t matter. I’ll feel that small disappointment, a failure on my part because I can’t find my own son in a sea of strangers.
When Robert was an infant I dreamt that I lost him, and I was forced to search through dozens of identical babies, trying to figure out which one belonged to me. Ironically it was his younger brother Andy that wandered off once in a mall. I spent a hellish fifteen minutes imagining him gone forever before I found him. I have never misplaced Robert.
One time I drove past the park where Robert’s first grade class was enjoying a field trip, and I watched from my car as he tossed sand on another child. I hesitated, and wondered if I should intervene, but then remembered that this particular misbehavior was not under my authority, it belonged to his teacher. This was the first time I realized that I would not always have to answer for my offspring, eventually they would find their own way in the world, and others would hold them accountable.
They are my family, but no longer my responsibility. They are my sons, but no longer my children. It is this freedom that makes every chance meeting a joy. Back when they were teenagers and I spotted them somewhere unexpected, it resulted in a series of intense questioning, and not a happy reunion.
I told Andrew that it’s okay if he continues to play the joke on me, as long as he returns the pizza he takes from my plate. But next time, I suggest, maybe he can say “Look! There’s Elvis!” instead.