Coming of Age Drama Fiction


Thomas Clary is from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Most people think of Cambridge as a city of elite thinkers and gentlemen. Harvard and MIT, beautiful scenery, deep history, and bridges over the Charles River into Boston. It is, indeed, all of that. But Cambridge also has lesser-known neighborhoods where the regular blue-collar folk live. The factory workers and shop owners and people who clean the floors at those prestigious universities. It is one of these neighborhoods that Thomas and his mother call home: Inman Square.

Thomas’ mother, Sofia, is the middle of seven daughters in the Almeida family; Portuguese immigrants who own a popular deli in Inman Square. She was always a disappointment to her parents, for no particular reason except that she was the middle child and was never the funniest or the prettiest or the cleverest or the best at anything. Sofia was just a quiet, solemn girl who kept to herself. So when she became pregnant with Thomas and left home to marry his father, Patrick Clary, no one really paid attention.

Unfortunately for Sofia, Patrick Clary didn’t pay attention, either. Within a few months he was gone, and Sofia was left on her own to raise Thomas.

They see the Almeidas occasionally, at holidays and weddings and birthdays, but Sofia and Thomas are the wallflowers at these boisterous gatherings. Never fitting in or feeling like they belong.

Sofia supports them by cooking and cleaning for the Dean of the History Department at Harvard. Dr. Laszlo Bartok is a large, dignified man with a thick Hungarian accent, who values tradition, art, books, his houseplants, and silence. Not necessarily in that order.

Sofia has been his housekeeper since Thomas was born, so by the time Thomas is a teenager, she knows just how to maintain the order and serenity that Dr. Bartok values. Sometimes Thomas goes with her to Dr. Bartok’s house. When he was young Sofia occasionally had to bring him if she did not have a babysitter, or if he was sick. Any time she asked Dr. Bartok if Thomas could come to his house while she cleaned, his answer was always the same: “As long as he keeps quiet.”

Keeping quiet has never been a difficult task for Thomas. Like Sofia, he is sensitive and introspective by nature. Conversations with the Almeida clan seem, to him, like being surrounded by cymbals and landmines. Filled with explosive laughter and yelling, even when they’re not angry.

No, silence is not a problem for Thomas.

He loves going to Dr. Bartok’s house with his mother. Dr. Bartok has a room that is Thomas’ favorite place in the whole world. A library, filled with books on every wall and stacked on coffee tables. The room is light and airy, surrounded by windows, and there are houseplants hanging from corners and filling the windowsills.  Tropical plants, cacti, flowers… many that Thomas has never seen or learned about anywhere else. After years of a peaceable routine, Dr. Bartok has become comfortable with Thomas sitting in his library, reading his books and helping take care of his plants.

Dr. Bartok smokes a pipe while he is reading and Thomas loves to sit there reading with him, smelling the smoke from his pipe. Occasionally Thomas looks up from his reading and finds Dr. Bartok regarding him with interest. They rarely speak, other than occasional instructions about the houseplants or small talk about school. Dr. Bartok is always interested in how Thomas is doing in school. But mostly when Thomas finds Dr. Bartok looking at him, they just give each other a quick smile or nod and go back to their reading.

There is a shelf in the library dedicated to art history. This is where Thomas spends much of his time and where he finds his true love. The first time he opens an art book to Vermeer and sees the crisp colors and stark lines, he is shocked to feel tears welling up in his eyes and running down his cheeks. Worse, he looks up to find Dr. Bartok regarding him, as he tries to surreptitiously wipe the moisture from his eyes. But Dr. Bartok doesn’t say anything and just looks back down at his book.

But that Christmas, Sofia’s annual bonus includes a membership for Thomas to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The Museum quickly becomes another sanctuary for him, and Thomas sometimes finds himself unexpectedly moved to tears by other pieces of art. He sits for long stretches in front of John Singer Sargent’s “Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” and finds new details every time he studies it.

By the time Thomas is a senior in high school he knows he wants to go to college to study art history. But it is a pipe dream. His mother does not have the money for college, and it is certainly not something the Almeidas would support. They would say that he has been spending too much time in Harvard Square around those fancy professor-types, and to get his head out of his ass. College is simply not a consideration.

Thomas has been working at the family deli with his clamorous aunts and cousins since he can remember, and the thought of continuing there after school is unbearable to him. He is an excellent student but paying for college is simply not possible. Still… he is curious what would happen if he were to apply. His first-choice school is Colby College in Waterville, Maine. Close enough to visit home occasionally, but far enough to be away from his family. Rural and quiet. And very importantly, they have an excellent small art museum on campus. It is perfect.

He completes his application and sends it in, not knowing what to expect.

Several weeks later, he receives a reply. He is overjoyed to learn he has been accepted to Colby! His heart races and he does a little dance of joy. But… although he received a generous scholarship, it is simply not enough.

He cannot go.

That afternoon he goes to Dr. Bartok’s house to read and soothe himself with some quiet time in the library. Dr. Bartok asks him about his application and Thomas explains the situation, trying to keep a cheerful face.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” is all Dr. Bartok says, as he goes back to smoking his pipe and reading his book.


Several days later, Sofia comes rushing into their small apartment in Inman Square, tears running down her face, waving an envelope at Thomas. He takes it from her and reads the letter inside, stunned.

“Dear Sofia and Thomas,

As you know, I am a private man. I lost my family many years ago and it is a pain too great for me to discuss. Unbeknownst to you, you have provided me with exactly the companionship I have needed over these many long years.

It has been a joy to watch Thomas learn and grow in my library. Although he is not technically one of my students, I can earnestly say he is one of the finest students I have ever witnessed. He finds joy and beauty in learning. He reminds me of myself as a boy.

I hope you will not find it presumptuous that I have contacted Colby College to alert them that Thomas’ tuition will be paid in full. In addition, I enclose a check to you so that Thomas may focus on his studies and not feel pressured to work because of financial constraints.

I offer this, of course, with utmost respect to you and your family. I expect nothing in return. You have already paid me in advance for many years, with your quiet and respectful company.

Yours Truly,

Laszlo Bartok”

The check is enormous. Much more than Thomas will need to sustain himself for his 4 years in school, particularly if his tuition is paid. He and his mother break down and sob.

Little did he ever know that the thing that kept them separate from their own family – silence – would be the one thing that would someday set him free.

August 19, 2022 22:44

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