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An Ugly Conversation

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Two weeks ago, my son, Gobez, adopted from Ethiopia, turned 10. His birthday happened to fall on an early release day from school, so we went out for a special lunch, just the two of us. We opted for our favorite Thai restaurant, mostly because of its proximity to the fabulous gelato shop where we planned to indulge in giant scoops of Oreogasmic afterward. Quality time like that is rare in our busy family of five, and, I have to admit, I was feeling pretty good about making it happen.

Inside the bustling restaurant, the hostess seated us at the only available table for two, located just a foot away from a middle-aged white couple. I didn't want to be so close to another party -- what if Gobez chewed with his mouth open or cracked a fart joke? And then there was the odd way that the woman looked at us as we sat down. She didn't seem hostile, exactly, but she'd noticed us, and her look made me feel on notice. We had no other seating options, so I tried to brush away my discomfort.

We placed our order: Pad Thai for Gobez, Spicy Chicken with Eggplant for me. Meanwhile, our neighbors chatted about work. We were so close, it was impossible not to overhear. I needed to use the restroom, so I handed Gobez my phone so that he could play a quick game of Pocket God while I was gone.

"Turn off the sound," I reminded him. "You don't want to disturb other people."

When I returned a few minutes later, my son appeared deep in an online game stupor. I sipped my water and tried not to listen to the next table's conversation, but there was no escaping it.

"He had gashes on the back of his head. He was bleeding," I heard the woman say.

"The 911 operator told him to stand down," said the man.

"What's he supposed to do if he's attacked?"

"If you start a bar fight, you know you're gonna get punched."

It took me a few seconds to process the exchange, but then it hit me: They're talking about Trayvon Martin. I'd seen the latest news photos of a bleeding George Zimmerman, the man accused of shooting Martin, an unarmed black teenager. Zimmerman's lawyers claim these injuries prove their client acted in self-defense after the teen attacked him, but to my mind, the boy had clearly been minding his own business until Zimmerman started trailing him out of suspicion through a suburban Florida neighborhood.

"Sounds like the kid threw the first punch." The tone of the woman's voice told me that she blamed Trayvon Martin for his own death.

I felt sick. Why were they talking about this with my son right here? Had the mere sight of my big-for-his-age African child sparked the ugly conversation?

I looked at Gobez, still seemingly engrossed in his game. Had he heard? Did he understand?

Although I talk to my kids about how to deal with racism, they're still young enough that I try to shield them from violent and sensational stories in the media. We don't watch TV news at home, though Gobez did catch one CNN report on a pizzeria TV when the case first broke. As far as I knew, that story had been his only exposure to the details of the tragedy, but who knows what he might have heard at school or at a friend's house? And so I faced a dilemma: Should I probe my son about what he might have understood about the restaurant conversation, souring his birthday, or convince myself that he hadn't heard a thing?

The waitress delivered our food. Inexplicably, she patted Gobez affectionately on the back as she left, almost as if she'd heard something awful, too, and wanted to comfort him. We began to eat, and I felt a rush of relief as the conversation next to us turned to fishing.

"Mom," Gobez said after awhile, "Can I get a fish for my birthday?"

I took a deep breath. Just because he's listening now doesn't mean he was listening earlier. My mind whirred with the insanity of the situation, even as the usual "No, you can't have a fish/parrot/lizard/pit-bull" speech came out of my mouth. I wondered if the couple next door was now eavesdropping on us. I silently screamed for them to GET OUT of the restaurant, but they took their time.

After our lunch plates had been cleared, Gobez declared himself too full for ice cream. I can count on one hand the number of times my son has been too full for anything but broccoli -- he typically eats enough for two grown men -- and I worried that he'd lost his appetite because of our neighbors' conversation. Then again, I consoled myself, he'd certainly cleaned up the Pad Thai.

At home, we rolled into our afternoon routine of homework and chores, and in the evening, more celebrating and lots of gifts. My son seemed happy. Normal.

I never said anything to Gobez about what happened in the restaurant. I couldn't even bring myself to tell my husband for several days; the shock and pain felt too deep. Even now, as I write this, I don't know how to put my pain into words. I know some will read this and think I overreacted, saying that couple's conversation had nothing to do with us. But I know better. Sometimes I wish I didn't.