Waiting for her to come to her senses, he’d gone through a myriad of emotions. Today he’d welcomed anger. How in the hell could she believe I’d ever do anything to hurt her? Roth sighed heavily. Watching that woman walk away from him had been like watching an alligator gnaw off your leg and not doing anything to stop it because you had no idea what to do.
Dammit, you should have done something.
“Yes!” Damn. Roth massaged his temple, took a deep breath, then turned toward a stunned-faced Sebastian, one of the kids in his class. “I didn’t mean to snap at you, Sebastian. I apologize.”
Sebastian ambled toward him, his hands tucked inside his tattered jean pockets. The ten-year-old was as timid as an abused puppy, but Roth saw something in the kid. Maybe a little of himself at that age. Roth had quickly outgrown his timid stage. Maybe Sebastian would, too.
“What’s up, man?”
Sebastian lowered his head, lifted it, then lowered it again. “I wanted to make sure you were okay.” He dug the tip of his worn tennis shoe into the scuffed industrial tile, his gaze never meeting Roth’s. “You always tell us to practice, practice, practice at the end of each class, but you didn’t say that tonight. You say it after every class. And before dismissing us, you always make us say, ‘We’re strong black men, and we matter.’ You didn’t do that, either.”
Roth chuckled. Damn. He guessed he had been a little off tonight. Sebastian paid attention to everything, so it didn’t surprise him that the inquisitive boy had picked up on his turmoil.
“So, is everything okay?” Sebastian asked. “You’re not leaving us, are you?” He finally glanced up, pushing his wire-framed glasses up his nose.
The kid reminded Roth of a young philosopher. With the right guidance, he would do great things. Adjusting his mood, Roth said, “Dude, no, I’m not leaving you guys. You know how much I love teaching you knuckleheads how to play. Even though I think the only reason most of you come is for the pizza on Thursdays.”
Sebastian lowered his head, but Roth could see the smile that played on his lips. Every young man who participated in Roth’s twelve-week-long academies were required to sign a pledge to take their lessons seriously. While each Tuesday and Thursday they showed up faithfully, he suspected the reward was what kept most of them so dedicated.
But he didn’t care what it took to get them through the door. If they were in class with him, they weren’t out in the streets causing or getting into trouble.
Then there were the two or three he had like Sebastian, who truly enjoyed learning to read music and play the saxophone. Their eagerness alone made this all worth it.
Roth placed a hand on Sebastian’s shoulder and jostled him playfully. “I apologize for straying away from routine. I’ll have it together by Thursday. I promise. Thank you for keeping me on my toes, man. I owe you.”
“My dad stopped doing things he used to do right before he left me and my mom.” Sebastian shrugged a scrawny shoulder. “I don’t want you to leave, Mr. L. You’re a great teacher and you don’t treat us like kids. Plus, you buy us pizza.” He smiled, revealing a missing bottom tooth.
“Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere,” Roth said.
Sebastian’s words hit home. If nothing else, Roth understood abandonment. He would never do that to his boys. Or someone he loved.
* * *
For the past week Tressa had hidden her pain behind forced smiles and work. Still, no matter how brilliantly she smiled or how many hours she strolled the halls of Tender Hearts Memorial Hospital, Roth eventually invaded her thoughts. And when that happened, her heart shattered all over again.
Vivian grabbed another mozzarella stick off the table and crunched into it, drawing Tressa’s attention. Tressa smiled at her best friend opposite her on the couch, who’d arrived at her place an hour ago with an overnight bag and comfort food: mozzarella sticks, chicken wings, pizza, garlic knots, fried ravioli and vanilla ice cream to wash it all down.
“You do know I’m trying to lose a couple of pounds, not gain,” Tressa said, reaching for another one of the meat-filled ravioli and popping it into her mouth. She’d start fresh tomorrow.