September 13th, 1996, Downtown Los Angeles, California
“Remember, Sebastian. Don’t say anything stupid. This is a family affair.”
Everyone in the limo is silent, and the moment my eyes look up from my fumbling fingers I catch them all starring at me. My father, who is wearing a serious and stern look, waiting for me to respond, and William, who is playing with his braces, Patrick, who takes his eyes off of his book, and Elizabeth who’s doe eyes are practically trying to pry into my soul. Even my mother who barely gives me the time of day is peering up at me from over her compact mirror. My heart tightens in my chest and I nod once at my father.
He scoffs, “Figures. Can’t even form an entire sentence.”
“He barely talks anyway,” William says, reaching for his CD walk-man before my mother smacks his hand.
“I do talk,” I mumble.
“What was that? Speak up, Sebastian,” my father orders.
“I said, I do talk,” I say louder. He just rolls his eyes, and everyone resumes what they were doing before my father decided to warn me about saying something stupid. Elizabeth continues to read her magazine and basically fawn over *NSYNC and my mother fixes her already perfect makeup in her mirror. And again, I’m left to look around awkwardly for some type of occupation to pass the time before we reach the ballroom, where my father’s company is holding their annual charity dinner.
I look up again at my older brother, Patrick, who continues to read his book across from me, titled A Farewell to Arms.
I lean over slightly, “What are you...reading?” I ask lightly in an attempt to strike up conversation, even though I’ve read the book.
His eyes shift up to me from above the book and only give me a hateful glare.
“Why do you care?” He asks.
“I-I was just asking.”
“You can obviously see the title of the book on the front here,” he points to the cover.
My face grows hot, “I know I-I-just wanted to know what it was about.”
He begins reading again, “If you would stop pestering me with stupid questions and let me read, I could possibly tell you when I finish.”
For some odd reason, I think it’s a good idea to continue and try to win over Patrick, when I know deep in my heart that I’ll never gain his approval.
“Have-have you gotten to the part where he escapes and jumps in the river?”
He frowns deeply at me and lowers the book, “No. I haven’t,” he growls before closing the book shut dramatically and throwing it on the empty seat next to him, gazing out of the window angrily. I sink further in my own seat.
“Sebastian, fix your posture, you don’t want to gain a hunch-back when you grow older,” my mother says. I sit up straight.
“And Sebastian fix your suit,” she groans. “It’s too expensive to look like a cheap Macy’s purchase on you.”
“It’s because he’s so skinny,” my father adds. “No matter what you put him in, it won’t look flattering.”
I play with my fingers again after adjusting my tie and trying my best to please my mother with the suit on my body, with no victory.
“Being skinny isn’t so bad,” William smiles proudly. “When a zombie apocalypse happens, he’ll have an advantage because he can run faster-”
“Stop, with the stupid zombie apocalypse crap!” Elizabeth yells, her eyes resembling my father’s when he’s irritated. “Some conspiracy theorist made that stupid thing up.”
“It is true! Look, when the world is surrounded by darkness and we’re plunged into a nuclear wasteland full of zombies, I will be the one who will survive while the radiation turns you into an ugly turtle hybrid.”
Elizabeth gasps, “Mom!”
William begins cackling with laughter as my mother scolds him. I even see a smile tug at Patrick’s lips, but quickly it diminishes when he looks at me.
“We’re nearing our destination, sir,” the driver announces.
“Perfect,” my father looks at me again. “Sebastian, I told you what to say. If anyone asks, which I’m certain they won’t, you want to go to an Ivy league to major in business, one day hopefully taking my place. Understand?”
“Understand?” he says louder.
“Yes,” I manage to croak out.
“Good. Don’t fuck this up for me.”
“Harrison’s! Harrison’s! Over here!”
The cameras snap from every direction and practically blind me. We all stand in front of the paparazzi and smile as wide as we can. My father’s business associate guy or whatever he is, Christopher Reynolds, is next to my father taking pictures while my siblings and I are next to my mother.
“Smile here, babies! Smile!” A few photographers yell. William flashes a mouthful of braces at them while Elizabeth does the same with her already perfect smile. Patrick smiles as well, but closed-mouth indicating he’s very irritable. I, however, can’t seem to smile like them—the cameras are too bright, and I wince and cringe at the bright light.
I turn the other way, and the photographers start to “aww” and “c’mon” at me.
“Sebastian!” A woman yells, smiling a fake smile. “C’mon, sweetheart, smile!”
My palms sweat. I feel like I’m letting them down with my inability to smile, but I can’t help it that my eyes are sensitive. I can see from the corner of my eye my mother giving me a disapproving look.
“Sebastian!” A man with a camera says. “Look over here, son!”
“Hey, baby! It’s okay, smile over here!”
“Sebastian! To your right!”
“Does he know his left from his right yet?” A man asks. Everyone laughs, and I blush.
“Of course he does, he’s nine, idiot!” One of the event monitors screams at him. The man shuts his mouth quickly.
“Sebastian, darling,” my mother says through a gritted smile. “Smile. Now.”
I try my best to smile, but it’s crooked and lopsided. As the camera men still yell for my attention, and my mother faintly warns me to smile or else, my head starts hurting and my throat grows tight. I can see my father rolling his eyes at me a little, and the tightening feeling in my throat gets stronger.
The same event monitor rushes over to me and grabs my shoulder lightly.
“That’s enough photos for you, kiddo,” he says.
“Aw, really!?” the camera men scream. “What are you doing?”
“Hey, bring him back, just for a second, we want to see the baby of the group, he’s such a cutie!”
“Sebastian, show us those beautiful green eyes for a second!”
I close my eyes on purpose as the guy takes me away. I try to ignore the sounds of people telling my father “it probably isn’t his night” or, “what’s got him so upset?”
“Don’t feel bad, son,” the man with me says. “I don’t think any kid your age should be put through that anyway.”
I know he’s trying to make me feel better, but it isn’t working. Why? Because I know my parents are mad at me. And I know my sister and brothers probably think I’ve ruined everything again.
But I think the thing that sucks the most is that they think I’m not trying. When I am, every day, for their approval.
“I swear I could just...ergh!”
I hold my head down as my father yells at me. We’re inside the ball room, in a dark hallway by the kitchen where no one can see. He pulled me away before I could even reach the table and dragged me to the hallway we’re in now.
“You’ve just ruined the first half of the night,” he says with a smile that isn’t supposed to make me feel better. “Congratulations.”
“Father, I tried to smile but it was just-”
“Just...shut up. Please.”
I stop talking.
He leans down to meet my height, “You may have fucked up the first part, but we still have the whole night left. So you better stop acting like a child and redeem yourself. We have very important people sitting at our table with us. Don’t make me regret bringing you here more than I do now, Sebastian. Understand?”
“Yes, father,” I mutter down at my polished dress-shoes.
He stands straight, pulls on his suit and nods down the hallway.
“Let’s go,” he says.
We both walk through the ballroom, past tables of people in bright, sparkly dresses and expensive suits. They all say hi to my father and to me. I smile and wave, just like my mother told me.
Our table is near the front. My whole family sits there, with Christopher Reynolds, and three other people I don’t know. I have to sit next to one of the three unknown people, a woman with wrinkles and big lips that look to big to be hers.
I sit down and put my hands on my lap while looking around the table. Elizabeth and William are talking to each other about a TV show, but they’re too far for me to join in the conversation, and I doubt they would still talk if I tried to chime in.
Patrick is talking to Christopher Reynolds, and my father and mother talk to the two others without names. I have no one.
The woman next to me taps my shoulder.
“You must be Sebast-i-on!” she says. She sounds French, or from some other place by the way she pronounces my name.
I nod and smile, “Yes. Hi.”
A waiter comes up from behind and places plates of some weird meat thing with a peanut glaze in front of us. My face falls a little; I’m allergic to peanuts.
The lady then pinches my cheek and giggles.
“My, you are just so cute!” she squeals. “Garrett, I can just wrap him up and take him home with me!”
“Be my guest!” my father jokes. Everyone laughs.
I see him staring at me from the other side of the table. It’s like he’s telling me not to say anything stupid with his eyes.
“My name is Ma-rie!” she says to me, slowly like I’m dumb.
“Hi,” I say again, since I don’t know how to respond.
“How old are you, Sebastian?” the other man asks. Now everyone’s eyes are on me. My heart speeds up again.
“Um, I’m nine,” I answer.
“Oh, four more years!” he exclaims, taking a bite of his meat. “How are you liking school?”
“I like it.”
“Really?” he smiles, and his nose looks like it grows. “What are your favorite classes?”
“Art and music.”
The table grows quiet.
The man widens his eyes and raises his bushy, gray eyebrows. I know what I said was stupid. English and Math, English and Math is what I was told to say. Instead, I forgot.
“Y-you like art...and music?” It looks like he’s trying not to laugh.
I nod reluctantly, “Yeah, and English and Math,” I say, trying to save myself.
It doesn’t work. “What do you want to be when you grow up, Sebastian?”
Should I be honest?
I decide that I should, considering I’ve already messed up everything.
“An artist,” I tell him. “I want to be an artist.”
Marie, along with everyone else, stare at me like I have three heads.
“Why on earth would you want to be that?” Marie laughs.
My parents laugh nervously while everyone else chuckles.
“You can be a banker, or go into real estate, or more importantly, be next in line for Harrison Incorporated,” the big-nosed man explains. “Art is for homeless people who aren’t smart. There’s no money in art,” he laughs. “Art. How funny. And besides, most art programs are being terminated to make room for important classes like...government and economics and...American history. And hopefully if we can get it signed, entrepreneurship 101.”
I sit still at his words. Ending art programs? How could they do something like that?
“Wh-why would...why would you want to end art programs?”
The big-nosed man stops drinking his drink and stares at me. He looks around, amused and generates even more laughter from the table. My father looks angry. My siblings look like they’re waiting for what’s to come next, and my mom looks embarrassed.
“Well they’re pointless. Why give children classes on how to paint things when you can give them classes on how to make money?” he drinks out of his cup again.
“Because money is dumb,” I answer honestly.
His drink sprays out of his mouth and all over the table.
We get home, and my dad decides to let all his bottled-up anger that he held in the car loose on me.
“You idiot!” he screams. “Do you ever think!?”
My siblings have run off to their rooms, and I am alone in my father’s office. I play with my jacket sleeve as he yells at me again.
“Art, art, art what kind of stupid answer is that?”
“I just...I just...”
“You just what?” he snaps. “Thought you could disobey me?”
“I’m sorry I-”
“I told you what to say, but instead you deliberately disobeyed me. I’m so...tired of...this! Of you! Constantly failing me!” he sighs loudly and turns to face the giant window. “Now Henry thinks I’m worth a laugh.”
It’s quiet for a while before my father turns back around and says:
“I wish you would stop being so pathetic.”
I don’t know what to say or do. My dad thinks I’m pathetic. I’ve heard bad things come out of his mouth, but this just seems to hit me harder. Pathetic, meaning I’m worthless and laughable, even when I try.
Slowly, I back out of his office and close the door. I can see my mother at the winding staircase when I try to escape, and it looks like she wants to say something. Before she does, though, I run upstairs because I can’t help but cry. Maybe because I’m pathetic.
The maids all look sad, like they heard everything. That only makes it worse for me. The tears are falling down my face as I run into my room and slam the door.
I cry hard into my pillow. I’m surprised there aren’t faded spots on it from how many times I’ve cried in this same pillow, whether it be from school or from home attacking me.
After ten minutes, I hear my door slowly open behind me.
“Go away...please,” I mumble.
“It’s me,” Gloria says. When I recognize her voice, it makes me more ashamed to lift my face up.
She closes the door behind her and inches her way into my room. She sits on my bed, and I keep my face buried.
“Sebastian,” she says softly. “Look at me.”
“No,” I protest.
“Because I’m pathetic,” I cry. “No one likes me.”
“That’s not true! I like you, very much! And Loretta likes you, too!”
I still keep my face hidden in the pillow. Gloria sighs.
“Sebastian. Will you please look at me?”
I think about it for a second, sniffle, then lift my head and look at her. Gloria is much older than my mom and dad, but she doesn’t have any wrinkles on her dark brown skin. Her hands are on her apron, and her shoes have specks of dirt on them.
She takes her hand and wipes the tears off my cheek. Her hands are rough, but I like it, in a weird way. It makes me feel like more than what my mom makes me feel like.
“Listen here,” she starts. “Just ’cause someone tells you you’re something, don’t mean it’s true.”
“But what if it is?”
“What if it isn’t?”
I look down at my shoes, and avoid her eyes.
“Sebastian, think of it this way,” she scoots closer to me and puts an arm around my shoulder. “How many kids your age can read books like To Kill a Mockingbird? And how many kids your age can do things like algebra and writing good stories?”
“But you had to help me with the words I couldn’t understand, and you have to help me with my homework?”
“Yeah, that’s true,” she smiles. “But most most nine year olds wouldn’t pick up a pencil to substitute ‘x’ with this and that. And no nine year old I’ve seen before would pick up To Kill A Mockingbird.”
She points to the paintings on the wall, “And look at those paintings! What nine year old can paint like that!?”
I start to feel better when she mentions my art. I love art, more than my parents think, and I think my paintings are greater than a lot of other kid’s art in my school.
“You are so smart, Sebastian! And you’re worth something!”
“But you said things people say about you aren’t always true,” I challenge, trying not to smile.
She chuckles, “It’s only true if you believe it is. Tell me, do you think you’re pathetic? I mean, really, really think you’re pathetic?”
I shrug, “Not really. But everyone else does.”
“Because that’s everyone else. No one else’s opinion matters on you, except your own. Now, do you think you’re smart? And a good artist? Be honest, now.”
It takes me a while, but I nod a few times, rubbing the tears away from my eyes.
“Then that’s what you are. You’re whatever you think you are. I think you’re an amazing little boy, but again, it only matters if you believe it yourself.”
I nod again, and Gloria tightens her grip around me.
“There. Now, do you want to read to me again before bed?”
“Yeah,” I get up and walk to my bookshelf. “The Giver!”
“Go ’head and pick it out,” she laughs. I try to find the book out of all the books in my bookshelf. Even though I read it a couple of nights ago, I read a new book every night.
When I find the book, I grab it and turn around to Gloria with a smile, only to find her starring at me.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“Sebastian, promise me somethin’.”
I walk up to her, “What is it?”
“Don’t ever give up on your dreams. Don’t ever give up on you.”
I frown, confused. I can’t think of why I would ever want to give up what I love. The thought of never drawing or painting or playing music makes me scared.
“Why would I give up?” I ask.
“This world has some cruel people in it,” she explains. “There will be a time where you might feel like...you don’t want to go on. But promise me that if that time comes, you won’t give up on anything.”
“Okay, I promise.”
“Pinky-promise?” she holds out her pinky with a sly smile.
I giggle, “Pinky promise!”
I hook my small ivory pinky around her ebony one, and seal it indefinitely (a word Gloria taught me a few weeks ago).
I climb up on the bed and take out the book mark.
“Chapter four,” I read slowly.
“Chapter four,” Gloria repeats before I start to read.