I was fine heading into work, but then the excruciating, as I once thought of it, happened when I stopped in at my favorite central Los Angeles café. I was sipping espresso at the stand-up bar when a woman and her two small boys, one a preschooler, the other maybe twelve, entered the café and stood at the display case peering in at all the pastries. One of them, the older boy, turned to look around, and as can happen in a room full of strangers his eyes caught mine. At that moment I managed, without knowing it, to superimpose Liam’s face over this random child’s so that my son was there, less than twenty feet from me, looking straight out at me. I didn’t question the mechanism, didn’t question my own sanity and, of course, was struck good and hard by that hollow, sinking feeling in the gut, my feet mired in the muck. The idea that the single-most important person in your lifetime is suddenly in your presence, right there with you in the flesh long after you were forced against your will to let him go, is far more bewildering, mystifying, damning than endearing. Sorrow, elation, yearning, regret; it’s all there, a mixed bag of emotions, the intensity knob cranked full bore.
The freaky thing about it, there was no doubting it was him and I was more than a little tempted to go straight to him, embrace him, and ask him how the hell it is he’s come back from the dead.
I did no such thing, though, the illusion of it all giving way when the boy’s mother noticed something was up, something was happening between her son and this towering, partially balding man, age forty-ish. She stepped between me and the boy, flashing a look of revulsion up at me, a child molester on the take, no doubt. And then, as if it was all some kind of shell game staged just for me, it was over and I realized that it wasn’t Liam at all, not even close—the boy’s hair was amber-blonde, Liam’s was brown-black. But the funny thing was that the boy, for whatever reason, kept looking at me, even with his mother taking him by the arm and turning him away. He kept looking back at me, and that spooked me further. Most in the state of California have entertained the notion of reincarnation at one point or another, as I certainly have, and all I could think inside that café, but dare not say, was, “You couldn’t be Liam, could you? Is there any chance you were once a Liam?”
About that time I stepped to the back of the café, emotionally ripped open as I was, and watched as the two boys pointed out to their mother what they wanted. At the cash register, the mother paid and they took up their drinks and pastries and started for the door, which was when things got a little weird. Going out the door with his mother and little brother, the boy turned—slowly, eerily—and looked square back at me, his bright, curious kid eyes not unlike Liam’s. I was struck dumb, obliterated from the inside out, but managed somehow to smile and nod. And as if to send my way an undeniable, telepathic message—Yeah, it’s me, dad! It’s me!—he did the same.
Shaken, I watched as they got into their car in the parking lot and drove off. I foolishly entertained the notion that Liam and I just set eyes on each other for the first time in over a decade. But then, knowing that they were gone, merged into traffic and as lost to me as the deceased, I plunged head-long into that same depressive sense of despair I had when the LA County Sheriff showed up at the house and announced that Liam, and others, were killed due to injuries sustained in a freak “head-on” on I-10.
In the parking lot, I sat quiet and unmoving inside my car the better part of that morning, peering inward, yet again, for some avenue, some conduit of the cosmos by which to traverse the divide.