by Tamuira Reid
Oliver, take your binky out.
He wriggles free from my grasp and stands under a small television haphazardly jetting out from the waiting room wall. I hate waiting rooms. You're always waiting for something bad to happen.
A woman appears, says she is The Doctor, and begins to watch television with my two year-old son. He notices her but doesn't acknowledge her, a habit he's picked up.
What are you looking at, Oliver?
He grunts. Shrugs.
I asked, what do you see up there?
Without turning his head, he answers, It Nemo.
Close. It is a show about some burly fishermen in Alaska.
In her office, I'm told to take a seat in the corner and not to participate. I stuff my hands in my coat pockets. Unstuff them. Cross and uncross my legs.
They play cars. Look at books. Count blocks. She scribbles on a legal pad, glasses sliding down the bridge of her nose.
Eventually Oliver takes to a corner, rolls around on the carpet, and disengages except to push a tiny toy motorcycle with his finger. He looks bored.
I have some questions for you, she says, facing me.
When did you first notice…
And it happens. I crack. She is so shrink-y and I really need shrink-y. I tell her all of our secrets in rapid-fire sentences, the weird little things that only Oliver and I know about. How he arranges everything into long rows. How he doesn't always answer when I call his name. How he can scream for hours, like he's trying to fight off a piece of himself. But I don't tell her how he pees in the houseplants. That one is mine.
Everything I know about Autism I learned from the movies, so when she breaks the news that Oliver is on the Spectrum, it's mild but there, the film reel in my head goes into overdrive. Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in a convertible. Tom Hanks offering old ladies chocolate on a park bench. Leonardo DiCaprio stuck up in a tree.
Will people wonder What's Eating Oliver Duffy?
I go into all the pregnancy faux pas I committed: Staying in the bathtub too long, accidentally cooking part of his brain. Drinking too much coffee. That stolen cigarette break between classes. Sushi on my birthday.
Later, another reality will present itself. A darker one
where a boy can slide out of class unnoticed, push through the school doors, unspeakable things waiting for him on the other side.
I want to call his father but don't know where he is. Last time I'd checked, he was working on himself somewhere in Southern California. Which means that I have to love our son double. Love him enough for the both of us.
The Doctor walks us back outside where a cab waits, driver's hairy arm resting on the rolled-down window. It's a cold Bronx morning and a line of cold, unemployed people wrap around the face of the building, waiting to be employed again. Waiting for someone to care. Oliver tugs at my jeans, points to the front of his pants that are soaked in what I assume is pee.
Listen. Oliver is a smart child and a lot can change. There's no telling where he will be in few years. I think he's going to be just fine.
Fine. Fuck fine. He's gonna be great.
I pull him from his overcrowded Chelsea nursery school and enroll him in the best center-based preschool I can find. A place for special needs children with happy art on the walls and even happier teachers carting toddlers around on their hips. The Department of Education throws free bussing into the deal, which means no more commuting. No more of Oliver throwing food at people on the train or grabbing them inappropriately. No more howling from 96th street to 23rd. No more peeling his limp body like lunchmeat from the crowded subway platform.
Hordes of therapists begin to flutter in and out of our daily lives with their clipboards and stacking cups and Elmo puzzles easy enough for anyone to do. They come to our apartment and set-up camp in the back bedroom and I make them coffee because I don't know what to do with myself. How to manage the seemingly unmanageable.
Most days, his disability is flat, edgeless. If you blink, you miss it. A slight hiccup in the normal pattern. A tree with a bent limb. A sweater that's missing a button. Something just slightly off.
On a bad day, however, he is all frustration and flailing limbs and green eyes that go black then green again. I know this isn't possible but it's how it feels.
I eavesdrop in on their therapy sessions, trying not to laugh when the fresh-out-of-college speech specialist corrects him.
I think you mean to say truck, Oliver.
No. Oliver mean say fuck.
My sentiments exactly.
The alarm goes off and we fly out of bed. I go to work on his vitamin smoothie and decide a good war anthem is needed, a good victory song. Something flashy and hard and sort of emo. I put on Smashing Pumpkins. Then it dawns on me; my son is that Rat In A Cage.
Pulling a pink dinosaur shirt over his head, I pause, does this scream Spectrum? I decide it does and go with the sweater vest instead.
And he's ready. Cars backpack loaded and on, coke-bottle glasses smear-free, jean jacket snapped all the way up.
He looks at me and smiles, dimples firing on all cylinders, patting the jacket with his chubby hands. Somehow this breaks my heart but at this point I'm used to that. My heart never stood a chance.
Our sneakered feet clunk down the three flights of stairs and through the front door and out onto the cracked stoop. Neighborhood kids hustle off to their respective buses and I spit-flatten his hair and suddenly feel part of something much larger than myself. This morning ritual of getting babies to buses.
We've been talking about the bus. Making jokes about the bus. Wondering aloud who will be on the bus. Will it have big wheels, small doors, enough seats for everyone? Will it shudder and spit in the cold, skid in the rain, glow in the sun? Each night we've played with a convoy of plastic Duane Reade buses, zigging and zagging them across the kitchen floor. I've given my excited, over-the-top mom lectures on school bus safety. He's pretended to listen.
Now we sit and wait. And wait.
At some point it becomes clear that the bus is not coming.
It's – it's not coming. I don't know what happened. I'm sorry, honey.
No. I don't think so.
His breathing becomes more erratic, the exhales choppy and quick. I can't look at him. I can't.
And then he does it. He hits me. Hard. Damn hard. Right in the arm. A perfect, solid sucker punch to my bicep. I slowly turn and he stares right into my eyes, challenging me, letting me know this sucks mom, this really fucking sucks. His chin quivers but his eyes stay locked on mine.
I couldn't be any prouder.
I want to send all The Doctors and Psychologists and Social Workers with their sad, apologetic faces a big, old-fashioned fuck-you note. Do you see this?, it would say. They told me his inappropriate reactions to social situations were troublesome. That he couldn't read the cues. But this! This is as normal as it gets. He's feeling screwed-over by the world and he is right. So very, very right.
Days later, the bus finally gets its shit straight and arrives in all its pomp and circumstance. Lights flashing, cabs and commuter cars rolling to a reluctant stop behind it. It is short, fat and awesomely orange, breaking the monotony of the dilapidated brownstones and forgotten flowerbeds lining our block.
Oliver makes a run for the open door, shoving my hands away, the bus swallowing him whole, plucking him like the Jaws of Life from my moment. Our moment.
I wave goodbye from the sidewalk as he stares blankly out and over my head, over our building, ignoring my need for him. Eyes on the prize.