The hardest part was seeing other children on the playground and their ‘normal’ families. Children the same age who could talk, play, and all that. Parents talking about what this or that child did.
And today, he was again seeing it and thinking about how many of those things Michael could not do. He was trying not to think too much about them, but he failed pretty much every time.
It was a scorching hot Saturday in July and Jon was alone with his son over the weekend while Carrie and Emma were in LA visiting Carrie’s irascible mother and her larger-than-life stepfather. After spending most of the day indoors, Jon had decided that the late afternoon provided enough shadow for an excursion with Michael’s buggy.
Playgrounds were few and far between in the outskirts of a desert town but he knew one relatively close by. Saguaro Park was mostly, well, a lawn you could play baseball on. But there was also a kind of fancy castle you could climb around in, with various slides and stairs and rope bridges. It was covered by a canopy tent to protect against the sun.
Michael always wanted to try every part of the castle, but only once and in the same sequence every time. For example, he would try the biggest slide first and no more. Then he would move on to the rope bridge. After he had been everywhere in the castle once, he climbed down and found some other aspect of the playground that completely engulfed his attention thereafter.
Today it was a sign saying, ‘Smoke-free Playground’. He would walk around the sign and look at it from many different angles, repeating the text over and over, and smiling. On other days it had been the license plates on cars parked nearby. And so on.
Jon let him do all that, of course, but if anything, Michael’s preferences put a big fat shining light on the fact that his son was different.
There were three other kids there today, about the same age, and their parents. Mothers, of course. Especially two girls, who appeared to be siblings, stared after Michael and talked rapidly in hushed tones, while occasionally pointing at him. The last kid was a little boy, about the same age as Michael, but of Korean descent or something similar.
Jon willed himself to sit still and just observe. Just when he thought Michael couldn’t be more conspicuous, Michael ran over to the Korean boy and tried to embrace him.
The boy reeled back, obviously unsure how to respond, and his mother got up from her bench so quickly, she even left her phone behind. Until then it had looked as if they were inseparable, and the Korean child was kind of an appendage.
Jon got up. “It’s okay, ma’am. He is … “
Jon wanted to say that Michael was ‘on the spectrum’. He had devised a quick short explanation that usually included elements of ‘the boy is different’, ‘autism’ maybe, ‘handicapped’ if he dealt with people who absolutely did not have a clue. Even though he felt bad about it.
But it usually worked, because that somehow made the invisible visible. Even if it wasn’t right. And Jon was always seeking out what worked …
However, right now nothing worked.
His words were stuck in his throat. He just stood there and watched Michael trying to embrace the Korean boy while chuckling and saying various gibberish sentences.
Finally, the Korean boy’s mother got in between the two children. “Don’t go so close, little friend,” she said to Michael. “Do you want to play with Choi? Just say so …” She looked expectantly, but also slightly disconcerted, over at Jon.
Jon walked over. He pulled Michael to the side and held him. It felt a little better than being gutted but not much. “My son can’t talk.”
“Oh … ?” The lady seemed to expect some kind of follow-up but Jon just shook his head. “Come, Michael, we need to get home now.”
Michael followed somewhat reluctantly but didn’t look at the other boy anymore. He just did not want to leave. “Nooo … ”
“Yes. We are going.” Jon pulled Michael’s arm a bit harder.
“It’s okay,” the mother said. “It really is.”
“I don’t think it is,” Jon said, without looking.
He placed Michael in his buggy and got out his beverages from his rucksack – one water, one juice, and one milk, each in a little bottle which he fitted to the sides of the buggy with strips. There was a handle on each bottle because they were baby bottles, used to practice drinking for toddlers. The handle fit perfectly in the loop, Jon had made with the strips, fastened to the chassis of the buggy.
Michael never drank the milk or juice when he was out but it had to be there. He looked at the bottles, a contented but also somewhat resigned smile touching his lips. He had accepted they were going home.
When they were well clear of the playground, and the chatter that followed them, Jon looked up. They were walking neatly along S Avenue E 8, and there wasn’t really any traffic on this lazy Saturday. Michael hummed a song in this buggy and chewed on a slice of bread. He didn’t seem affected at all by what had just happened.
But Jon wasn’t so sure. He remembered an argument he had had recently with Carrie.
“If we don’t let him try playing with other kids, he will never have any friends. He is not connected to anyone in kindergarten. He is alone all day at home.”
“I get that,” Jon had said, leaning heavily on the kitchen counter. “But last time I was out he scared some little girl from Cibola, and her mother read me the riot act.”
Carrie crossed her arms. “We have to let him try.”
“What if he gets a bad experience? Or make things worse?”
“How will he learn, if we don’t try?” Carrie insisted.
“He’ll start in school soon.” Jon looked at the coffee cup in his hand. It was empty. “The teachers there are pros. They’ll help him.”
“You just don’t get it, do you?” Carrie had turned and walked.
As Jon walked home that Saturday he felt that he got it all too well. Like when he had prevented his little brother from joining a gang back in San Pedro when they were teens. Dave got beat up because he didn’t have any protection.
But he didn’t join the gang.
As they walked, Jon could hear the wheels of the buggy chink-chunk over the occasional piece of desert gravel on the pavement.
He had protected Michael, he told himself. But it felt like betrayal.
Michael hummed happily along to his tune of the month. “We are Going on A Lion Hunt … “
Last updated 23 Aug 2023