I was in Chicago for a week visiting family, which is always a startling reminder of the existence of children. As a single, gay, 30-something transplant in Midtown, I rarely have opportunities to share company with young people.
Back home, little people are everywhere, and my lack of dealing with children on a regular basis helps me be the cool uncle when I return. I have a tolerance for the chaos and misbehavior that quickly triggers parental discipline, so I’m known to plead for forgiveness on the disruptive child’s behalf.
“They’re just being kids,” says the man who a few sentences ago confessed to occasionally forgetting that kids are part of this world.
I also enjoy younger people because I am not burnt out on their never-ending stories, so I easily surrender to their winding, aimless narratives. It’s obvious that some of them appreciate having a discussion with an adult without being told to shoo or shut up, and I’m genuinely awed by the manifestation of their thought process, and their interpretation of our world.
Sometimes the kids put me on edge. I usually can scroll through profiles and private pictures on Jack’d without having my cell phone snatched out of my hand by a (literally) sticky-fingered four-year-old. And there’s that one toddler who stared at me like she was auditioning for the possessed lead in a straight-to-streaming horror film.
After suffering under her unwavering gaze for what felt like hours, relief came when she was distracted by a bowl of French fries. The anonymous little girl, who belonged to a friend of a friend of a friend—I told you, all sorts of children become part of my circle in Chicago—drowned her fries in ranch dressing until the Kraft bottle farted, then took the gum she was chewing out of her mouth and placed it on the rim of the bowl to save for dessert.
Midway through the meal, the piece of gum fell into the bowl and the little girl looked around to make sure no one noticed her wiping it off on her shirt, and caught me staring at her with the same dumbfounded expression that she had showered upon me.
But childhood in Chicago is not always adorable, and some of the children in my family prompt sobering concern and painful conversations. More precisely, the ways some of the children are being raised, and the environment that they are being asked to develop within, are infuriating. Sitting on the hard floor of an unlit, furniture-less living room on the South Side, I listen to my dearest relative praise the youngest of the six children living in the apartment, and her hope that they avoid the dropout, tattoo-faced fate of the two oldest sons who are now 19 and 20.
“It’s going to take more than hope for that to happen,” I say with much delicacy, but no equivocation.
“I remember when the oldest two were as sweet and promising as the younger ones are now, and anyone who was paying attention knows that they have turned out just as you would expect given this,” I continue, sweeping my arms to take in the barren, hopeless living room.
“And I see nothing that has changed here that would give any hope that the younger ones are on a different course.”
It devastates me to suggest such a thing about my youngest loved ones, and it crushes my spirit to hear the most important person in my life start to cry, her shame preventing her from offering any counterargument to my denunciation of her guardianship. I try not to let her tears silence my observations; until I hear myself having the same conversation we’ve had a dozen times before.
I didn’t come to Chicago to parent parents, nor am I in any position to do so.
Everything I said was from someone who has never had responsibility for another person’s life. It’s terrifying to think about a young person being profoundly impacted by my flaws and poor decisions, and I again realize what a privilege being gay can be.
Ryan Lee is an Atlanta writer.