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  • When my son Jake was a junior in high school, he hung out with a crowd of kids that skittered along the edge. Jimmy, Shane, Craig, Lebo. Girls called him on the phone from the moment they'd get off the school bus until 9 oclock at night...cut off time for calls. No matter what. I was amazed at his comfort with his friends. He had such ease with people... a happy voice, an even tone, a listening ear, a genuine caring. People liked him.

    It didn't matter the topic.. they could talk for hours. Laughter speckled the conversations and as a single Mom, I listened for that. Sometimes, older kids congregated at our house on weekends. His pretty big sister, I thought. Why not? I liked that he had older friends, too... high school kids who came to our house and hung out. Perhaps just to talk, or eat, or watch scary or serious movies that inspired inevitable conversations. Blade Runner. 2001. Easy summer times with kids. Sit quietly on late afternoons after a swim or a pickup baseball game up at the park. We could walk to the park, it was so close. Tall, steep, metal sliding boards. Swings that hung way down from the stanchion. The wooden whirly that made you dizzy. The ball diamonds. Little dugouts. Picnic tables under pines. Blankets spread on the grass. Easy time... youth. Bikes, then cars. Nothing dangerous. Normal, I thought. Fine with me.

    So it was no surprise that I'd be curious. Who were these kids? What was life like for them, these skittle bugs I hardly knew? Didn't quite know their parents, wasn't always sure what ground rules they had. I had some but...what were theirs? I'd say to Jake, "What's the deal with so-and so (usually with my hands in water at the kitchen sink) and he'd say, "Well Mom, you always ask. Just ask. You have a reputation for asking, anyway. They call you 'twenty-one' because you ask so many questions." I laughed hard. It amused me because it was true. Infinite interest in the lives of kids. How do they grow up to be this way, I wondered? Such great kids. And so I'd ask. What's your favorite subject in school? Do you go to the beach in summer with your family? How long do you stay? ...and after the film 'Jaws", do you swim in the ocean at night? What's your favorite book? Did you ever run away? Where'd you go? What did you take with you?

    This group of kids really interested me. I had the feeling down deep that they were beginning to experiment with drugs, booze. We know. We do. Test the waters. So my questions became bolder. "So, ____ have you ever smoked pot?" Jake's head would snap around and he'd shoot me the look. "M--o--m...", a three-syllable-sound. up--down--up. "Okay, Okay," I'd say. "Sorry." And I was sincerely sorry.

    One time, though, we took Joey out to dinner and I knew as sure as I knew my name that he was fooling around with substances. It took too long for him to answer questions. "How old is your sister?" "...ummmm......" and,
    "Are your parents at home tonight?" ".... ummmm, yeah." Okay. I really liked this kid and was hoping for a great answer to the hard ones I knew were coming. There was just something about his open, wide eyes. Nice kid. Smart. Funny. I wanted him to be ok. I was concerned. I wanted to know. "Mom", said Jake, "don't do the 21 at dinner tonight, please? Joey's bummed. HIs parents are splitting up." "Oh, Okay." But, as we ate, and as comfort made the chatter easy, fun, interesting, I looked into eyes that were truly aquamarine, limitless in depth, like clear water. Curly auburn hair that fell around his ears and a track of freckles under his lashes and up across his nose. An easy smile, a comfortable laugh. A long eye-to-eye gaze as we chatted. He was fun and funny and smart and so unfazed by my being Jake's Mom.

    As dinner progressed and conversation lagged I decided to plunge.. "So, Joey. Tell me. What's your drug of choice?" "Oh", he answered, after a quick intake of breath and while looking directly back at me... aquamarine into hazelnut..."Amphetamines, actually. I don't do them often, but they are my singular preference when I do. You know: pills? The kind every kid can find in their parents' medicine cabinet?. It's no big deal. I'm not into LSD and I've tried 'shrooms but...they aren't for me. I'm into up not down. That's about it. How about you?" I looked at Jake whose face was pale, his head shaking slowly back and forth. "Mom", he said... and I was quick to apologize. "I'm sorry Joey. I'm so sorry. Really. Please... " And I was. I'd asked, you see, and he had answered. Honestly. "Hey, no problem," he said, "I was pretty sure you'd ask the hard one. I hoped you would."

    I remember that conversation as if it had taken place yesterday. It was the last interrogation. The last 21.

    Jake is married with kids of his own, now, and that was 25 years ago. We still talk about that dinner...and now Jake's 14 year old son asks questions just like I did, way-back-when. Hard ones. We smile at each other when they come... because we know the hard questions are coming.

    Once in awhile, Jake's friends will call looking for him, wanting to stay in touch. "Hey, 'Twenty-one', they'll say,
    How's it goin'?" I give an honest answer. I do. Especially when Joey's on the line.

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