Twenty-one Sons

By Steven Amsterdam

I remember standing next to my father at the supermarket, helping him pack our groceries while my mother paid the cashier. Other customers filed past with their shopping, but one old man slowed down when he got close. He was holding a barely concealed bottle of beer in a small brown bag. He seemed ancient to me, though he was probably only a few years older than I am now. He didn’t look at our faces: his eyes were on the meat and eggs we were packing into our bags. My father glanced at him and saw someone who was going home to an empty refrigerator. In one movement, Dad folded the top edge of the bag he was packing and handed it over to the man, who took it with a polite dip of his head and just walked on, as if the action was all part of some expected assembly line. I wasn’t surprised by what my father did but I remember being scared about what was going to happen when my mother turned around and saw he’d given away our groceries again. As I feared, she got angry, which led to the argument that caused the car accident that afternoon which left me an orphan. What I learned is that you give whenever someone needs something you have, you never argue, and there’s no use in getting upset about what’s already gone.

At school, I didn’t speak more than needed in class and kept to the side of the corridor when walking through the halls. Physically, I took after my father, with plain features, hair and eyes, all in colours you would paint an inoffensive room. Do not think I was some soft, sad loner, though. I was waiting to see where I was needed.

As one of a band of four friends growing up within the same square mile (we measured it once), my role was to organize our efforts, whatever they were — buying and releasing goldfish into the creek, racing our dogs or, as the tallest, buying the beer. If no one had an idea about what we should do with an unscripted Saturday, they turned to me for ringleading. If anyone objected to my suggestion, I would happily adjust to a different plan. This is how I found my purpose. Their families always found extra food, time or money for such an obliging boy. They saw to it that I never looked as if I were being raised by pitying relatives.

During college I worked at the local radio station and afterwards managed to ingratiate myself into a full-time production job. Angela arrived one morning. She was there as an apprentice sound engineer for a few weeks and I, as the lowest paid employee, was in charge of showing her around.

As soon as my manager left us alone I extended my hand in an effort to affirm my appropriateness and said, “Hi, I’m Gerry.” I spoke a little too loud, which yielded a giggle. She played along, though, shaking my hand and letting me charge into my tour. She had long brown hair that seemed to follow every turn of her head, and the dead-serious presence of a grown woman of seventeen. Of course, it didn’t hurt that she was a knockout, which is all I needed to know about her that day.

In the still of the studio, everything about her startled me. She touched each mic, ran her hands along consoles, fingering dials. And giving commentary the whole time, telling me about the lunch she’d forgotten on her kitchen counter that morning and wondering where she would be able to buy something cheap, complaining about her housemate’s cat. When it came to me and my enthusiasm, though, she was maddeningly quiet, and redirected her focus to whatever I was demonstrating. I sensed this was the way she operated. Either she knew she was way out of my reach or she was shyly hiding the fact that she might let herself be swayed.

Both options proved true. I offered to let her share a desk with me and she accepted. Within a week, we were plotting moments to lock ourselves away in the record library to make out. I thought that this was how life was going to be. I wasn’t picturing a home with a family barbecue pit and two cars in the driveway. I’ve never been able to think that far ahead. I simply thought we would continue to meet every day at two-thirty (when her classes let out) for all eternity. With a glance that dismissed everyone else as unfortunate mortals, we would make a daily escape to an unscheduled sound booth, the archive room or the park, for the hungry pleasure of holding each other close. It was less than a month later, though, that she stopped returning calls as readily. When we finally spoke, she apologized. She told me that she and her previous boyfriend, Colin, had made up. “It doesn’t mean that what we had is less, but I have to follow this to wherever it goes,” she said.

A week of my sulky silence later, she offered to introduce me to a friend of a friend of hers, Emily, whom she thought I might like. Dutifully, heartbroken, I agreed to her plan.

I lost my virginity and got Emily pregnant on the same day. We were young and ambitious enough to be careful of such developments. So, in the middle of a steamy August morning a few weeks later, I found myself lying on a lawn, waiting for her to have an abortion. I tried to avoid looking at the intentionally innocuous brick building where the procedure was proceeding. My focus was on the tiny worlds of the grass around me, each blade sprouting up proud, from an impossibly tight crowd of its brothers. I remember thinking, At least Angela now knows I’m a man. Emily, predictably, ended our brief mishap and faded fast from my mind. I felt badly about not feeling badly.

Part Two

I had the time and energy to become successful quickly. With the help of my proven enthusiasm and the kick-start of a small inheritance from my last living aunt, I purchased a struggling radio station and moved on to take control of another in a smaller city nearby. Back then, radio had an old-time kind of charm for me. It seemed like someone was in the room with you, whispering in your ear what the news was in Africa, or playing a recording of string quartet just for you. With slow force, I changed the format of both stations, boosting the role of the announcers with those close-sounding voices and programmers with an ear for the popular. I increased audience when almost no other station could say the same. As I’d hoped, the advancement allowed more contact with Angela.

I maintained the pretense that my interest in her life was related to her career, alerting her to changes in hardware and helping her get a job with a production studio. By then, she was already settled with Colin, whom she would soon marry, and I had become her radio friend. She indulged me in lunches where we would talk only about work. Sometimes, I was invited to their house for parties, where she would introduce me to other friends of friends. Often I would comply, take them out on a few dates, and then the connection would disintegrate. Despite my best efforts, I failed to charm. Or maybe they saw a man who belonged to someone else.

One day, Angela and I were near the inevitable end of one our lunches — after I had ordered an appetizer and a main course and dessert despite not being hungry — when her face went purposeful and she stopped talking. She put down her wine glass, and opened her hands out, as if she was about to say something important. Then she brought them back to her chest. She looked guilty.

“—I don’t want to overstep—” she said, finally. Her sense of sympathy showed, telling me that though she couldn’t comply with all my wishes she wanted to take care of me as best as she could.

“You can tell me anything, you know that,” I said.

“I’m only trying to understand. Why do you think you’re still alone?”  she asked.

I was not pathetic enough to tell her that as long as she was with me I was not alone. I told her, “I’m taking my time.”

“Ever think about children?”

My dream of life involved her and our very large family. Instead, I said, “When it’s right.”

“That’s smart,” she said, as if I’d given her a good idea. She returned to her wine.

The next day Colin called to schedule a time for us to “catch up,” though we had never done so before.  After sitting on a park bench and fingering its wooden slats for several silences, he finally got to his point: his sperm count was low. Would I be willing to be a donor to help them start their family? It would be done at a clinic, of course, and we would have a contract ensuring no expectations on either side. The child would never know I was the father. I remember thinking, But I would. Still, it was what Angela wanted so I agreed to do it.

They named the perfect baby Tim, after Colin’s father who had died many years before. Tim was healthy, well behaved and just short of astoundingly smart. He was thoroughly robust, grew into all the best percentiles, and bounded past his milestones like a racing dog. Every time I heard news of his achievements, I was quietly happy for a day or two.

Angela and Colin were understandably guarded with me at first, but soon realized that I didn’t mind keeping my satisfaction to myself. Still, the only times I was invited to their house over the next years were for Tim’s birthdays. I gave presents that were appropriate for a work friend’s son, though whenever I saw him fearlessly hurling himself toward Colin, I felt like giving a little more so he might give some extra glances to me. After a lunch when Angela confessed they were having financial trouble, I opened an account in Tim’s name and started putting money aside for his future. Angela didn’t mind, as long as its source wouldn’t get back to Tim or Colin.

At Tim’s fourth birthday, I was introduced to Ona, a close friend of Angela’s. At first I suspected I was supposed to pair up with her, if only for the few dates that it would take for her to discern my unavailability. I wondered what it might be like to kiss her.

Angela had confided in her of my relationship to Tim, and she told me that my respect and restraint in the matter was admirable. I said, quite honestly, that it came naturally. She studied my face for a moment, as if what I told her couldn’t be true or as if I might be lacking some common feeling. I wondered if, in time, I might be able to love Ona, curious, earnest and in the world. She shifted, straightened a bra strap with her thumb, and cleared her throat. Then she said that she had recently found herself feeling quite confident and in a place in life when all things seemed possible. Would I mind donating some of my evidently high-quality sperm?

Ona got pregnant from the first insemination, which she gratefully attributed to my virility. She had a boy too, Zed. He was introduced to me a few times, under the most scripted of circumstances, but it was pleasant. He would never know who I was either. Still there was satisfaction in seeing the love that he shared with his mother. On the last meeting, when he was old enough to say “Gerry,” Ona assured me that because of her connection to Angela, Zed and Tim would grow up as friends.

*   *   *

Instead of raising my boys, I worked. The success was no longer a matter of struggle, but seemed to have become an inevitable fact. The radio stations kept me working in two, and then three different cities. There was enough to keep me occupied during the day and preoccupied at night. I was a fair employer and I prospered.

Friends of Ona’s contacted me next, a lesbian couple. I provided what they wanted and they were happy, one boy each. Another friend of theirs, a single woman, sent me a contract as an introduction. On her cover letter, she mentioned that she had considered going to a sperm bank or asking one of her friends, but was emboldened by seeing how my boys were thriving. Plus, she assured me, she would have a girl. She had a boy. Another year went by and another couple approached me at a party, very friendly. By then I could tell by her intense gaze and his sheepish expression, exactly what they wanted before they spoke.

I always said yes.

It seemed that I would get my large family. The family would be a secret, but the secret would be mine and that might be enough. For fairness, I established savings accounts for each of the boys, set up so that the parents could access funds when they wanted. Nobody objected, and my anonymity gave me a Santa-like satisfaction.

Despite all this, I realized that my romantic prospects and libido were operating in a downward mechanism. My attempts to attract women had become worse than perfunctory. Industry cocktail parties, notoriously easy trees for picking something casual, became unappealing. Rather than chance the forced friendliness of a cooking class, I bought cookbooks and taught myself enough Italian and Thai dishes to widen my repertoire and make sure my evenings weren’t entirely static. I stayed home, becoming well acquainted with cartoons and adventure movies that I hoped I would one day watch with the boys.

For a while, it seemed like the most interesting moments of my sex life occurred in the “patient’s room” at the local fertility clinic. There was a tan vinyl recliner, like you would have found in any suburban living room in the 70s, which I always draped with my own towel before sitting down. Copies of Playboy, Hustler and one issue of Barely Legal (which looked like it had been left by a previous customer), all fanned out for my viewing pleasure on the low black coffee table. I managed to produce the specimen and get it into the little plastic cup without the use of the supplied pornography or any fleeting thoughts of Angela. Doing so somehow seemed more spiritually pure.

Part Three

Then, as if by magic, Colin died.

There was a family history of cancer and he had put off check-ups for five years. When I heard this, my sympathy for him turned to empathy for Tim, who was eight. I wondered what it would be like to lose only one parent. Before I could even imagine what length of time would be respectful to wait before inching closer to her, Angela proposed that the three of us live together.

“Tim’s going to need some male influence,” she said. At school he had been caught trading clothes in a coat closet with a little girl from his class, which everyone agreed was an unusual manifestation of grief. “And with Colin gone, we’re going to need some additional financial support,” she added.

I lived Colin’s life, but from the guest room. At first, Tim would pretend not to hear me when I spoke. I had moved in too soon, I felt, and offered to move out, but Angela insisted I stay. She spent a lot of time by herself, or going to yoga classes, which she said were helpful with her mourning. For me, I was happy to have people around.

Tim warmed to me after a few months, to the extent that on weekends he would let me take him to parks and ball games. When I cooked dinner for us, though, he would read in the living room instead of hovering around me and getting in my way as I would have liked. Once, he became furious because I wouldn’t let him have an ice cream sundae before dinner. He said that his real father would have allowed it. Aside from that incident, he continued to let me spend time with him. By then he was older than I was when I lost my parents, which made me overly sentimental on the afternoons that we spent together. Since my affection mainly manifested itself in gifts or permission to do things his mother might not allow, he tolerated me.

As for Angela, our friendship was as close as it had been before, but it wasn’t rare for her to come out for a plateful of whatever I had made for dinner and bring it back to her room to eat alone. Afterwards she would often take herself for walks in the park. Even on dark winter nights, when I could legitimately offer my company, she declined. I understood grieving and I knew that she and Tim simply needed more time.

After the second year had passed, there was a Saturday when Tim was sleeping over at a friend’s house. I asked Angela out to a restaurant on the river, the type of place where couples get engaged. She accepted the invitation. She was conscious of where we were, and when she spoke it was as if we were on an awkward date with nothing to say.

We’d already discussed Colin over many previous meals. Tim’s progress since I’d moved in had been uneventful, showing steady growth. I knew all the bills were paid up. So she told me about my other boys. The only interruption was the waiter coming by from time to time with a new tiny plate requiring description of its composition. I didn’t listen to him. She told me about the boys growing tall and energetic and thoughtful. She seemed surprised to report how their looks seemed to echo mine. She told me about her friends and their friends and the joy I had brought to all of them. She spoke with pride, as if I were her discovery, in a way that made me feel proud too.

The next night, she called me into her bedroom. I stood respectfully in the doorway. She’d been watching television and gazed over at me, as if I were another channel. She had recently brushed her hair and, it seemed in the bluish light, put on a small amount of makeup.

“Why do you think we are where we are?” she asked.

“You and me?”

“Yes, you and me,” she said.

It felt like a trick question. She had always determined where we would be.

“Fate?” I said.

“Maybe,” she laughed, “I won’t pretend to know. Come here.”

“Where?”

She opened her arms up to me. I put a knee on the bed and leaned down to kiss her. She turned off the television. We weren’t young and we weren’t in a hurry. We hugged as if we’d been running up a hill and needed to catch our breath. The air was cool and she pulled the sheet over us as we started to undress. I imagined that she wanted what I wanted and so I just went endlessly forward into this new land. She never stopped me. There was a moment that she didn’t see, when I raised both my arms over my head in victory and humble acknowledgment of the mysterious powers that be.

When we were done and she was in the bathroom, I looked around from this new perspective — the bookshelf with books stacked horizontally, the chair where her day’s clothes were draped. The view out the window at this angle let me see a bit of a lit-up city sky. I heard the toilet flush. The ordinariness about it all felt wonderful. I thought this was how life was going to be.

She didn’t send me back to my room and we slept lightly touching. Two nights later, I came back late from some broadcasters’ function and she called me in again. After that, I gravitated there at the end of every evening and she usually let me stay. Needless to say, my libido returned. She told me she didn’t want to discuss our sleeping arrangements with Tim, unless he asked. Like his old man, he had matured by then into the type of young man who had the wisdom not to ask about something he could see for himself.

*   *   *

Around that time, one of the donor families mentioned my name to a university researcher who contacted me because he was curious about my enormous success producing boys with a variety of mothers. His lab wanted a specimen, so of course I went into some nondescript room at the lab and provided one. The study turned out to be funded by a Mr. Guo, a businessman from China who shared the cultural obsession with the primacy of sons. His secretary contacted me to arrange a meeting. Angela encouraged me to go.

In short, I was paid $2.8 million dollars for one specimen for the purposes of study. My lawyer was comfortable with the contract so I arranged for nearly half of the money to go directly into an account for Tim, which pleased Angela.

Once I was paid for my minimal labors, I planned our first family vacation. The three of us went to an island resort for a week. Tim entertained himself on the beach all day or read, or made easy friendships with other kids stuck on family holidays. Meanwhile we were free to do whatever we wanted — to laze in the ocean or in bed. In the afternoon, the three of us followed well-tamed nature walks into the nearby jungle.

I held down branches as Angela and Tim ducked through to the clearing that was the endpoint of our walk, a cliff looking down over our pink-and-tan resort and to the endless ocean beyond it.

The squawks of the birds along the trail were raucous. “I never knew that this was how it sounded,” I told them.

As Tim ran ahead of us, Angela said, “Then maybe we should take more vacations,” and gave me a poke.

We will have children together, I thought. I imagined a dozen. On Saturday mornings, they will sneak into our room, climb up the edge of our bed, yank at our sheets, crawl across our sleeping bodies, and wake us up to play.

Part Four

When we returned from the trip, we found a letter from Emily, telling me that she had not, in fact, gone through with the abortion that day when I lay on the grass waiting for her. The letter said that she had wanted to have the child (a son), but knew that I would never have committed to her at that moment in my life. The letter was to inform me that I had a fine healthy boy and, now that he was a teenager, he wanted to meet me.

“I don’t think you should do it,” Angela said, examining the letterhead. “She must have found out about the money somehow.”

“I can’t say no. If he wants to meet me and know me as his father, I want to meet him.”

Angela looked challenged, as if I was questioning our own arrangement. “He’s at a tender age,” she said in a lowered tone, referring to Tim, in the next room. “I’m not about to tell him now that Colin wasn’t his father.”

Her misinterpretation silenced everything but the hum of the refrigerator.

I straightened myself to be understood. “I made an agreement with you and Colin. I will never ask you to tell Tim. I just want the chance to meet one of my sons and have him know who I am.”

“If he’s really your son. You should insist on a test.”

Her shoulders suddenly softened as she heard herself. She dropped her forehead against my neck and said, “I’m sorry.”

“You know, you and I could have a child,” I said.

She smiled. “I think you mean a son.”

“I’m not particular.”

“I’m too old.”

She was 38 and healthy. For a moment, it seemed like her response came from a lack of love.

Then she said, “Yes,” as if the idea had suddenly come to her, “let’s try.”

And from then on, we did, with frequency and fervor.

As for Emily’s son, Angela convinced me that shaking hands with this young man — who had jumped off furniture and climbed trees for a whole childhood without me and was now on the verge of needing braces or tuition — would have only made me bitter. The fact that the proposed meeting was to be in a lawyer’s office only strengthened Angela’s suggestion that Emily was after money. I didn’t go.

Angela made it up to me by making herself even more available. In conversation, she opened up new terrain of her childhood and endlessly prodded me for more details about mine. I had forgotten much of it up to the day at the supermarket, which only seemed to deepen her efforts at drawing me out. She started inviting me on her walks, taking me more into her confidence, chattering in a way she hadn’t done since we first met. There weren’t any deficits before, but now I felt that she was almost as happy with me as I was with her. One night on a walk, after a minute or two of quiet between us, I got nervous and assured her that the silence wasn’t dead air at all, but very contented, very live air. She smiled, as if what I’d said was true for her too. If she had said another word, I promised myself I would propose. She didn’t, but her hand found its way into mine and that was enough.

*   *   *

This long period of peace was interrupted by news from China. With my contribution, Mr. Guo had bred twelve boys. The numbers nine and three are quite lucky, it seems, and being able to harvest one specimen so economically certainly represented a propitious scientific breakthrough. He used a dozen different surrogate women, all of whom became pregnant within weeks of each other.

I tried to shield this news from Angela, but the news was everywhere. I had become quietly anxious about the many months that had passed without us conceiving, and I imagined her stress to be even greater with this development.

The boys in China had their first birthday and the event was open to the press. Mr. Guo grinned in every picture. As his assistant served the twelve cakes, the proud papa said he was embracing the modern world by allowing children of mixed blood to be called his. The several companies he owned now had the heirs he needed to run them. He would support the boys and they would respect him, like all fathers and sons. Watching coverage of the event, I felt the urge to open twelve bank accounts, but even I knew this was foolish. I watched as Mr Guo stood in front of a carton, handing out specially wrapped bottles of Courvoisier to each of his guests.

One of the reporters did his research and soon my face accompanied all the articles on the subject. Angela was livid, both on my behalf and at the intrusion by the media. Tim seemed gleeful. The story of my mad siring of a dozen children aside, his mother’s boyfriend was now world-famous and rich for doing something that he and his friends did in secret and for free.

We moved to a hotel to wait until the story lost its charm with the tabloids. The school year had just ended so Tim would be stuck with us for the foreseeable weeks. On the afternoon we checked in, he and Angela swam in the rooftop pool, while I stayed on our bed staring at the ceiling.

My lawyer came by that evening. He suspected that differences in the translation of the contract made the multiple inseminations illegal.

Angela, in the room, drying her hair, wanted to pursue this. “We deserve twelve times what we got before,” she said.

I said to her and I said to him, “Let’s not go after money.”

“Then what do you want?” he asked.

Looking out from the 27th floor over the city, I imagined twelve boys, so many that Mr. Guo and his two assistants couldn’t hold them in their arms. He had given the boys all auspicious names and surely their lives would be interesting. They would be brothers. I thought about all of the boys, taking them to the park one day, and spinning each one of them in my arms until they were all satisfied and I was dizzy with love. What did I want? “Nothing.”

Angela rolled her eyes and disappeared into the bathroom.

Two weeks of semi-confinement at a hotel with a swimming pool is interesting. The three of us frequently moved as one, from the room, to the restaurant, to the pool, with maybe a brief peek into the world. But you’re forced to make new rhythms to your days and you discover where it is you want solitude and where you still slip into needing each other around.

The two of them went out to a movie while I treated myself to the hotel spa one afternoon. A bearded masseur encouraged me to pay extra and get a salt scrub. Though he coated me with scented oils afterwards, my back was still itchy when I returned to the room. I went looking for Angela’s moisturizer. It wasn’t in her drug kit, so I looked in her suitcase, on a rack in the closet. That’s where I found her packet of birth control pills. I held it up to be sure: she had taken the morning’s dose.

One of those radiation-proof smocks, the kind you wear at the dentist, seemed to fall across my chest.

I will take a few things with me, I thought, the rest I can buy.

I packed some clothes and my toothbrush. I called the concierge to arrange for a car, and went downstairs to be picked up. I met with my attorney and two producers from my station. I explained that I would be making fewer management decisions from that point on. They thought it was related to the news from China and I corrected them, saying that I had been disappointed at home. I told my financial planner that I might not be as reachable, but I would need access to funds. Angela and Tim could live off the money from Mr. Guo. I left instructions for funds to continue accumulating for my other boys. Their mothers would keep getting their statements.

When I arrived at the airport, a reporter recognized me and enthusiastically asked if I was on my way to meet my sons.

There were twenty of them in total. “No,” I said.

“Then where are you off to?”

“Elsewhere,” I told him, and he seemed to know not to follow.

When the plane reached cruising altitude, I pushed the seat all the way back, and pulled the blue blanket over my face.

Part Five

I wandered for a few years, staying long enough in places so that I could see the sights that made them famous. When I still had the strength I hiked across forests and deserts, camping by myself or with other people I’d meet on the trail. We would share whatever needed to be shared and then move onward in the same direction for a day or two until our paths diverged. Where I could make myself useful, I worked, making friends, and learning enough of the language to get by. I stayed in villages where a dozen families relied on the one radio that received reception from a city hundreds of miles away. Even children, who believe almost anything, were perplexed at the idea that a person would use a radio to find out about the weather. I spent so much time outdoors that I became like them.

When the time came, I tried to find a home for myself in larger cities first. The people who took the time to meet with me were polite, but unable or unwilling to find a use for my management or technical skills. The conversations often ended with them wanting money, but by then I wanted to conserve my resources, so that’s where it ended. I found smaller towns the most accommodating.

An older man, especially if healthy, can still meet women. Sometimes I find myself walking along a trailhead or standing in an old church, talking amiably to a woman traveling alone when I detect a shift in the attention we’re giving to each other. It’s strange. We will be pleasantly idle together, watching the monkeys or observing how a gallery window illuminates a tile floor, but then the conversation continues past our interest in it. I suppose this is how it has always been for other people, but it is a pleasure for me to discover it now. When it happens I know I don’t have to eat dinner alone and the evening will pass easily. We become, like my hiking companions, intimate for a day or two, and then we part with the feeling that we may see each other at some point in the future, as if we have nothing but time.

What I learned is that people are only as generous as they can afford to be. You must forgive them for what they cannot provide. This is true everywhere. At night sometimes, it seems like I made a mistake in not paying more attention to Emily when we first met. But as she so rightly observed, it was more than I could provide at the time. Or maybe I should have gone to the meeting with her and her boy and the lawyer. But that was evidently beyond me or else I would have done it. Even thoughts of Angela don’t feel bittersweet to me anymore.

I am less clear when I think about the boys. A child is a dream that you can’t stop. Boys become men and surely mine have all done so by now. They’re driving and holding jobs and beginning to have half-conscious moments when they wonder what they’re going to make of themselves. I couldn’t hope to tell them what to become but I would like to have one or two of them nearby for company. Maybe one will be told the truth and try to find me. I’d be slower and shorter than he imagines, but I would do my best to keep pace. I have made it difficult by staying away for so long, but I’ve always made sure that their parents know how to reach me.

The town where I’m living these days is very old and still revolves around its market. The central square itself is lined with terraced and gargoyled buildings, some held up with permanent scaffolding. The walls are hundreds of years old and blasted almost to chalk by the sun. To go from the cavernous market inside the longest of these buildings to my room in the guesthouse I must carry my groceries across the black-and-ochre-tiled square. As I walk through the crowd, I am blessed with a frantic and majestic view of the village, surely as busy as it was centuries ago, with its famous flocks of sparrows still duelling overhead. Holding my vegetables in a string bag and tonight’s meat wrapped in paper under my arm, I feel more fortunate for living here than the tourists posing for pictures around me who are just passing through. But lately I’m beginning to know, half-conscious myself, that I am just passing through too.

An amazing thing happened to me this morning. I was walking home from the market when a boy of four or five ran up to me and wrapped his arms around my leg. I looked down at him with a stern smile, figuring it to be a case of mistaken identity, but as he looked at my face he only grinned. He didn’t let go. I was the one he wanted. I squatted down to talk to him. He was local, with dark hair and eyes, and was dressed for a formal occasion, in a stiff black suit, white shirt, and a clip-on sky-blue tie. He spoke quickly in the local language, which I didn’t understand. I stood up and turned my head around the square, expecting to see a wedding party somewhere. He spoke with confidence, not like he was confused or lost. He held his arms out to me, to be picked up. I obliged. He was heavier than he looked or I’m weaker than I was. I lifted him onto my shoulders and turned around a few times so anyone who was looking for him might see.

The weight felt marvelous. He pulled my hair to get me to stop as he waved madly at someone in the distance. I followed his gaze to a relieved and exasperated grandmother now pushing toward us through the crowd. I lowered him back to the ground as she approached. He was practically squealing and talking at full speed now, still looking at my face for a reaction. Not understanding a word of it, all I could do was smile.

When the woman was close and saw a harmless old foreigner, she thanked me in English and reached into the baker’s bag she was carrying and offered me a biscuit. I declined politely. She gave it to the boy as she started chastising him for running away. She beckoned him to come with her, but he only nibbled at the biscuit while playfully clinging to my leg. When he finished it, he reached out and grabbed the bag from her. She laughed loud and put her hands on her hips. Giggling at the game of it all, he pulled two biscuits out of the bag. The first, he shoved entirely into his grinning mouth, and the second, he held straight up over his head, waiting for mine.