A Despicable Reflex

I did not know this man; I had never laid eyes on him before he entered the visiting room. He walked past the table where I sat with my visitor and gave me a harsh glare full of meanness—that hard prison stare that many guys develop shortly after their arrival. At first, this look is designed to intimidate and to ensure that people take you seriously, not try to take advantage of you. It’s a practiced facade put on just like any other accessory, but it becomes habit, until eventually it simply becomes who you are. We made eye contact for an instant, and I was pretty sure his mean look was not an act at all.

men-neck-tattoos2He seemed to be tailor-made for the cruelty his gaze denoted. His jaw was squared and hard-set, eyes dark and sunk into his skull, hiding under the shelf of his too-prominent Neanderthal brow. Tattoos blackened his neck with many more crawling up his arms. Scar tissue from past violent encounters smudged his cheeks, and his left ear had a sizable chunk missing, probably lost in a brawl of some kind. With a glance, I was fairly certain that I didn’t want to get on this guy’s bad side or run across him in a dark alley.

There was a woman visiting him, probably about his age—mid 30’s—and a girl in a wheelchair; not a regular wheelchair, but one with the seat much higher and a tall inclined back and straps to securely hold its occupant.

The man had to undo the straps before he could hold his daughter. Her arms and legs were spindles, but she wrapped them around him with a loving reflex and made a soft moaning sound that seemed happy to me. With her out of the chair, I could see she had the height of a healthy twelve-year-old girl, but there didn’t appear to be anything else healthy about her. She had a developmental disorder of some kind; her arms had never hefted even the lightest of burdens, and her legs had never bore her weight. Her head rolled around on her neck at times as if independent from the rest of her body, and her eyes had trouble focusing, lolling in their sockets like errant, mischievous marbles. It was clear that her developmental setback was not only a physical one, but mental as well.

This man who I did not know and had pegged as a killer of some kind, or at least a killer-in-waiting, lowered himself into the squat chair, wedging himself into the scant space between the seat and the table, and cradled his daughter in his lap with love and care. Her head snapped back unexpectedly and with frightening force, but he gently repositioned her so she could rest her cheek against his chest, just over his heart. He gathered the lifeless arms hanging at her sides and stowed them in her lap; her legs he pulled close to his body where they wouldn’t dangle haphazardly.

Thin blond hair held mostly atop her head by a lime green scrunchie had fallen over her forehead and eyes. With a hand I’d assumed was made for inflicting pain, he carefully brushed her bangs back in place and smiled down on his daughter, then spoke to her. Though it was clearly a struggle, her eyes fought to focus on her father and eventually achieved the feat. The smile he reserved for his daughter was full of warmth and unequivocal love—the opposite of the stony, uninviting gaze he’d shot my way just moments before. Leaning down, he kissed her forehead, then caressed her cheek while saying something I couldn’t hear from where I was spying. The smile that erupted across her face broke my heart with its open, honest, and unconditional love.

I had to look away, as I felt the burning sting of impending tears at the edges of my eyes and had to shut down the rising well of emotions threatening to flood my system. Shame, hot and angry, rushed over my cheeks and across my neck—shame for judging and pigeon-holing the man so quickly and easily, like a despicable reflex, and shame for interloping on their precious moment of intimacy.

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