The other day, Jordan and I met up here in our hometown of Santa Clarita to continue work on some new, exciting Perception Travel projects.
It was just like all of our other meetings. We meet at a coffee shop. One Americano, one chai latte (used to be two Americanos but I’m sensitive to coffee these days). We each take out our laptops. Notebooks, books. We touch base. Discuss what we want to accomplish. Chat for a bit. Then we both get in our zones and silently get lost in our work.
The cafe we worked at on this day was small, but packed with students as it was in the late afternoon. Most were also immersed in their laptops, books and notebooks strewn across their tables. Everyone quiet, everyone busy, everyone minding their own business.
But on this day, what started off as another average day at the cafe turned real emotional, real quick.
I remember the phrase that pulled me.
“I’ve been really depressed.”
I looked over without thinking, and saw a teenager at the table next to me. He was sitting alone, hunched forward in his chair, forearms resting on the table, one leg shaking anxiously, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled low over his face. One hand to his ear while he talked on the phone, and the other securing the hood over his head. No laptop or books out on the table. Just a closed backpack at his feet beside him.
I quickly turned back to my work. Quit staring, stop eavesdropping, I thought to myself. But I couldn’t help but keep at least one ear open.
He told the person on the phone that he was sexually abused as a child. He told this person that he thinks he is transgender. Whoever was on the phone must have asked about his family. He said he tried to tell his mom. His mom was “abrasive,” he said. She didn’t get it. It’s not that she doesn’t love him, he said. It’s that she doesn’t want to see him go through this struggle and face the type of opposition he was likely to face. It was a very formal conversation, like he was talking to a school counselor. I sat there, and heard this kid’s whole story.
I heard this kid bear all – every challenge, every turning point, every heartbreaking detail. I heard him spill his guts all over that tiny coffee shop table. I felt the shadow of the dark cloud that suddenly seemed to hover over entire cafe, felt the air grow thick and the mood grow unmistakably eerie. That discomfort, that feeling that something is just not right. Yet everyone around seemed unfazed and preoccupied.
I looked up every once in awhile to see if anyone else was as disturbed as I was. No one seemed to blink. I looked to Jordan, who made eye contact with me a few times, but I wasn’t sure if he could hear what I was hearing. But then I knew he was when he whispered to me very seriously, “This is intense.”
“I know,” I said quietly, “I just want to hug him.”
Then a few minutes later, still with his phone to his ear and his head down, he packed up and left. I never saw his face.
Jordan and I looked up from our work immediately and looked at each other, both acknowledging this deep sense of sorrow we felt for this complete stranger, for the unsettling desperation and heartbreak which was sitting next to to us at a mere arm’s length.
“He was right in the middle of this crowded cafe, speaking as loudly as he was. He obviously wanted someone to hear.”
Jordan’s very true statement made my eyes well up instantly.
He was right, and I didn’t even think about it when it was happening. I wanted to get up, to say hi. To very awkwardly say, “Are you OK?” To ask if he wanted to sit with us, to ask if he needed a friend. To give him a hug. But I didn’t know what was the right thing to do. Do I interrupt him on his phone call? Would it mortify him? I should just mind my own business, I thought.
Jordan went down to the front to order food or go to the bathroom or something, and I sat there feeling uneasy. When he came back up to the table, he informed me that the kid had just gotten arrested outside.
We found out afterwards that the kid tried to commit suicide. His second suicide attempt. He was on the phone with a police officer, he was calling for help.
I got the chills. Then I felt sick to my stomach. And then the tears wouldn’t stop.
Thank God the kid called for help, and thank God I saw him, sitting there in the back of that cop car, though his head was down and his arms were behind his back. But he was alive. Well? No. But last night I prayed for him, and tonight I will again.
Jordan and I decided to change locations, as we were both really shook up.
I bawled my eyes out on the car ride over. I know there are so many kids, too many kids, in his same position. It could have been another teen to add to the staggering LGBT teen suicide rates. This poor, lanky, broken kid in jeans and a hoodie sitting right next to me. Essentially screaming for help.
What could I have done differently? What could have been done? What can be done in my community? What types of resources could be in place to make kids like him feel less alone, less scared, less hopeless? More accepted? More loved?
Jordan had the same questions during his car ride over, I found out. Because when I got there, though he had left before me, I saw he hadn’t arrived yet. I called to find out where he was.
“Sorry, I had to pull over to cry.”
I allowed my own tears that were welling up again to flow freely as I told him not to worry, to take his time. Then I went back to my car to cry some more.
When we finally met back up, we felt this sudden sense of purpose. What can we do? How can we help?
We put a halt on the project we were previously working on and took quite a bit of time discussing it. We talked about what could be different. We talked about what it’s like growing up in the suburbs of (mostly conservative) Santa Clarita, what it must be like for kids now. It isn’t always easy to feel different. It isn’t always easy to try to express yourself in a place where you feel like you must fit a certain mold.
We had a really great, meaningful discussion. And even better, we brainstormed ways to take action and make a difference. I’m happy to say that I think we’re on to something.
For now, I am glad the kid is alive. I wonder if he knows I was listening. I wonder if he will come to realize that there are people out there who want to listen. That I wanted to listen, and I wished I came over to say hello.
I’m not sure if anything I would have done would have changed anything. But either way, from now on, I will not hesitate to offer free hugs right in the instant I feel the urge to. I think it would have done more good than harm.
I hope he gets the help and love he deserves.