The spring nestles beneath old shade trees that edge a farm field. It’s a remote location, but for decades, locals have been parking in the dirt turnoff and filling jugs with the cold, fresh water that runs out of a single pipe and into a shallow stream crowded with daylilies. Our family camp has no plumbing, so every couple of days during vacation, we drive to the spring.
When it was my turn to make a water run, I made my teenage son, Sean, come along. Sean had grown over the last year, passing the six foot mark, but he was still the same quiet, gentle kid he’d always been. He brought his Rubik’s cube, and the clicking sound filled the car. Sean’s not much of a talker.
When Sean and I pulled up, a car was already parked beside the spring. An elderly woman stood at the back of her car with several plastic gallons of water at her feet. She fumbled with her keys as she opened her trunk.
“Go help her,” I said to Sean. He didn't look up from his Rubik's cube, but he nodded.
I yanked the crate of empty jugs from the trunk, set them on the ground, and bent down to pick up the loose caps that had fallen.
The car door slammed as Sean got out. I glanced up at the sound, and the woman turned. Even from my awkward position, crouched on the ground behind the car, I could see her face.
She looked terrified.
I looked behind me. A narrow road wound uphill through fields of timothy and daisies, a few roadside trees splashing shade onto the pavement. Cows in a far field chewed contentedly in the sunshine.
But the woman wasn’t looking at the farm fields. Her eyes, wide and frightened, were on my son as he walked towards her.
Sean’s long dark hair was pulled back with a ragged bandana above scruffy facial hair. He wore a black t-shirt and black pants, neither of which had been washed since we arrived at camp. Sean isn’t a smiley person; even when he was a child, he always looked serious. He is tall and strong, and—I realized suddenly—fairly intimidating.
In a flash, I saw the elderly woman's perspective. My sweet, gentle son—the kid who had never even been in a fist fight, who never went fishing because he didn’t like killing things, who helped classmates with their math homework—looked to her like a threat, a menace, a danger.
Quickly, I stood up, so that the woman could see me.
At the same time, Sean stopped walking and said in his shy way: “Do you need some help?”
Relief spread across the woman’s face.
Sean lifted the jugs of water, one at a time, and put them gently into her car. The woman, still flustered, said thank you, and she drove away. Sean carried our crate of water jugs over to the pipe that gushed spring water. He picked up an empty jug, rinsed it, and held it under the water.
“That woman was afraid of you,” I said.
He shrugged. “I get that a lot.”
He spoke so softly that I could barely hear his words above the gurgling water. His hair hung into his face as he screwed the top onto the water jug and reached to grab the next empty one.
“I hate the stereotypes people have about teenage guys,” I said, loudly.
Sean looked up, shaking his hair out of his face.
“It's worse for women," he said. "Because they have legit reasons to be scared."
Janine DeBaise has published in essays in numerous magazines, including Orion Magazine, Southwest Review, and The Hopper. Her poetry includes the book Body Language and the chapbook Of a Feather. Her academic writing focuses on environmental and feminist issues. She teaches writing and literature at SUNY ESF in Syracuse, New York. You can find her at www.JanineDeBaise.com
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