“It’s funny to see you with them,” Ned said to me on the escalator ride to the Cheesecake Factory. I was standing among my three giant sons, Nat, Max, and Ben (yes, Ben is now taller than me). We were going out to dinner for the last time before Max was to go back to college. “They’re all so much bigger than you.”
I dropped back behind them. “Just let me bask in them,” I said. We walked in and waited for the table, which was odd because no one else was waiting, and yet the host said, “It may be a few minutes.”
Nat then said to me, “Restaurant.” Yes, indeed. Was this a restaurant, or what? Why were we waiting?
We were soon led to the very back of the place, to a large round table. I felt a languid, liquidy happiness as I reached for the phone-book sized menu. Pretty soon we all started to call out what we wanted. Nat was very interested in our orders. He himself chose spaghetti and meat sauce, Max a portabello burger, Ben a turkey club, Ned a chicken barbecue ranch salad. I didn’t know what I wanted. I said, “I don’t feel that hungry because I ate a lot of goldfish.”
Eventually I settled on chicken tacos. We then talked about Tolkien and the Orcs, and Ben mentioned how they were actually enslaved by the Elves but the movie doesn’t show that. Our conversations are always very technical in one way or another. Max and Ben get into intricate detail over whatever they’re discussing (usually video games, internet memes, cartoon characters, Tolkien, and religion. I like it when I can be involved in their conversations, but because of their extremely focused interests, I can’t always. Max and Ben are geeks, nerds, and perhaps have some legitimate claim to the Asperger’s end of the Spectrum. Just like Ned. Just like me — sometimes I really do think so, especially when I feel that I don’t fit anywhere. But tonight I fit in, because I know just enough about Tolkien to have something to say, and a real interest in learning these new points.
Nat was unabashedly given over to his stimming. While he ate his spaghetti, his head bounced and his self-talking swooped high and wide around our table. And every few moments he would turn and self-talk, but directly to Max, as if trying to engage him. We all love talking to Max.
As we finished up, my rice sat there to my left, untouched. Suddenly Nat noticed it. “Mommy will eat rice,” he said.
“No, Nat, I’m done.”
“Mommy will eat rice.”
“Mommy will eat rice.”
“Nat, it’s okay.”
“Mommy will eat rice. No goldfish!” Remember, I had mentioned casually when we sat down that I had had goldfish and was not that hungry. God, he is so with it, I thought with pride, even while at the same time I was nervous that he would start shouting.
“Nat, I just don’t like rice.”
Ned chimed in. “Nat, we’re just going to throw it away.”
“kay.” And then, “Mommy will eat rice,” very softly.”Mommy will take Tylenol.” Because I must be sick if I’m not cleaning my plate.
“Nat, we’re just going to throw it away,” Max said gently. My heart flipped over in gratitude for this compassionate and cool young man I’d raised. But Nat started hitting his head, his voice getting louder, “Mommy will eat rice! Mommy will eat rice!”
I picked up the fork. But I did not want the damned rice. I realized that I should not be forced to eat rice just to keep Nat calm. That was crazy. I put the fork down. Ned signaled to the waiter to clear it. “Nat, it is time for dessert. Do you want dessert?”
Nat was still smacking his head. Ned said, “Nat should we go outside?” This kind of conversation has not happened in months, years, perhaps. I felt a little nauseous, remembering other tantrums, other escalations… but Nat is not really like that anymore. And indeed he said, “No.” And then started sucking his thumb, which is the way I know he’s helping himself feel better. It had already passed.
And when the trough of cake came, I divided it into five, and felt so happy to have a fresh slab of cake in front of me and all three of my boys around me, a little shaken, but not stirred.