Johnny held tightly to his mother’s hand as they browsed the bicycles on display at Toys R Us. The smell of rubber was reminding Patti of the long past summer when she first learned to ride a bike, of skinned knees and bandaids, of the fear that had pulsed through her when her dad said he was letting go, managing to wobble forward for about five seconds before crashing, and the ensuing lectures about getting back on and trying again when she cried and said it was too hard.
When Patti and John asked their son to start thinking of things he’d like to get for his seventh birthday, a bike was the first thing he asked for. It was so rare for him to be interested in anything other than playing with his toy horses or watching The Hobbit that they decided let him have it now, so he could at least enjoy it for the whole summer. They’d signed him up for soccer that spring, after trying baseball the year before. Both were busts, and when it became clear that not only was he not any good at playing, but had absolutely no desire to, they let him quit. The other parents shook their heads and told them they were making a mistake; how would Johnny ever learn about commitment if they let him quit everything he tried? But the Weirs stuck to their guns, thinking it pointless and cruel to make their son unhappy for no good reason. It was better to let Johnny keep trying new things until something finally stuck. The way they saw it, the whole point of playing soccer or baseball or gymnastics was because it was fun, and if a kid hated being on a team he wasn’t going to learn about teamwork, social skills, and sportsmanship, he was just going to be resentful.
Her reverie was broken by Johnny suddenly tightening his grip, jumping up and down and exclaiming, “That one! Mama, I want that one!” She looked at where he was pointing. The bike in question was, well it was…pretty. It was electric blue, and covered with neon green and bright yellow stars outlined in hot pink, and had a white seat and streamers dangling from the handlebars. She was a little taken aback, and her first impulse was to say, no honey, that’s a girl’s bike. Johnny let go of her hand to stand closer to it, and ran his fingers through the streamers covetously. He was so excited, and Patti felt a painful tug on her heart.
Of course she wanted to give her child whatever he wanted, whatever made him happy. What mother didn’t? But that bike—she could just imagine the reaction other kids, other parents, would have when they saw it. His elation would be completely deflated when kids laughed at him because of it. They already laugh at him, though, she thought. They laughed when he when he ran the wrong way on the soccer field, when he decided to play some elaborate game of make believe by himself instead of playing with other boys and their GI Joes and Hot Wheels. They laughed and called him weird when he announced that his favorite composer was Chopin and that he was going to go to Russia one day. And when they did, he just shrugged, and did whatever he wanted anyway.
“Are you sure, honey? Really, really sure this is the one you want?”
“Uh huh, positive!”
“Johnny,” she said, putting on her best mom voice.
“I mean yes ma’am,” he replied without breaking a stride. “Can I please have it, can I can I can I? I mean may? Pleeeeeease?”
Patti checked the price tag; $39.59, just within their budget. Instead of answering him directly, she took the bike off the rack, and Johnny jumped up and down again, and squealed his thank yous as he proudly walked it all the way to the checkout line.
When she pulled into their driveway, Patti steeled herself for her husband’s reaction. She hoped he wouldn’t say anything in front of Johnny. They both agreed that they needed to present a united front, and keep all arguments and disagreements behind closed doors. Kids didn’t need to see that kind of thing. John came out of the front door, Brian in tow, just as she was pulling the bike out of the trunk of the car. He took one look at the bike, one look at Johnny, and gave her a significant glance, but thankfully said nothing. Patti just shrugged her shoulders as Johnny took the bike from her, setting it in the middle of the driveway. She went into the house so she could start dinner, while John, shaking his head, headed into the garage to get his wrench so he could take the training wheels off. Johnny was showing off his new treasure to Brian, promising his little brother that he would let him ride it when he was big enough. Brian pointed at Johnny’s head, (Johnny’d been so excited he took the helmet out of its box as soon as the cashier rung it up, and wore it the whole ride home) and Johnny patiently explained that he needed to wear his helmet to prevent head injuries, but Brian could wear it when he was finished.
She glanced out the window from time to time, checking on her boys while she browned some ground beef. Brian was staying on the front porch, watching the proceedings intently while John pushed Johnny around on the bike, letting him get a feel for it before letting him go. He hadn’t made much progress, but his enthusiasm wasn’t dampened at all by the dinosaur bandaids he was wearing on his palms by the time dinner was ready. Everyone got pretty quiet as they ate their spaghetti and garlic bread, listening to Johnny babble on about all the places he was going when he learned to ride.
A sink full of dirty dishes later, and an hour of tv time, baths, and a chapter of The Hobbit, Patti stood in front of the big mirror in the master bathroom, taking off her makeup. John was already in bed, pretending to read a magazine.
“All right, go ahead and say it,” Patti began.
“About the bike?” John replied. He looked uncomfortable. “It’s too late to say he can’t have it now, but, why on earth did you let him pick it out, Patti?”
Patti pulled back the covers and crawled in. “Well, first of all, it was your idea to let him have it as an early birthday present. If we’d waited until his birthday, we could have picked one out ourselves, and he would still have been happy with it. But it doesn’t matter. This is the bike that makes him happiest.”
“You aren’t worried at all about what people will think?” he said incredulously. “What they’ll say? To him? Everyone already makes fun of him! This will make it even worse.”
“John. We both know kids can be cruel. And grown ups can be idiots. We can’t shelter him from that. The best we can do is teach him how to deal with it, and the worst way to go about doing that is to make him think that the way he is, is—is shameful.”
John sighed. “I don’t know. I just, I worry for him. God knows when we found out we were having a boy we both had certain…expectations. And you know I love him as much as you do, but I still worry. About what’s best. If we’re doing the right thing by him. If—“
“Look, John, we either still agree to let our kids be themselves, choose what’s best for them, live their own lives on their terms, or we start imposing our own wills and expectations on them. Which is it? Are you really concerned about what’s best for Johnny, or are you concerned about what people think of you, what must be wrong with you that your son acts the way he does?”
John remained silent. She continued fiercely, “You think I’m not concerned about him, too? You think I didn’t almost tell him he couldn’t have that bike because it was obviously meant for girls? I worry. My heart breaks when I think about what he’ll have to go through when he hits puberty.”
Patti could tell by the way he wouldn’t look at her what her husband was thinking.
“You think it too, don’t you. You think he might be gay.”
It was something they’d both thought, privately. Something they never dared to talk about. But now their suspicion was daring them to continue ignoring it. John rubbed his face with both hands. “Yeah. I’ve thought that.” He heaved a massive sigh. “And I’ve wondered why. Why him, and why us.”
Patti suddenly felt on the verge of tears. She’d thought that herself, many times. She reached out to her husband, placed her hand on his broad, strong, football player’s shoulder. “We don’t need to know why. We just need to raise our beautiful, precocious little boy. And if our son grows up and tells us he’s gay, then we deal with that. We accept it and love him anyway.”
“It’s not just that, Patti,” he responded, sounding frustrated. “It’s not that I think less of him, or anyone else who’s like that. But what if he gets beat up or killed by some assholes who think they have something to prove? What if he gets sick? What about the church? The world is—“ he stopped, choking up.
“The world isn’t kind to anyone, John,” Patti spoke, softly, feeling the same fear, but refusing to let it change her mind. “We can’t change the world. And we can’t change our son. We can only make him strong enough to face it.”
John sniffed, nodded his head. “Yeah.” He put his arm around her. “Yeah,” he replied more firmly. “You’re right.”
Two weeks later
“What are you doing to your bike, Johnny?” Patti called from the front porch. Johnny looked like he was fiddling with the handlebars; if it there was something wrong with the steering she absolutely didn’t want him riding it.
“I’m braiding the streamers, Mama,” he called out.
Patti just shook her head, and laughed to herself as she went back inside.