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by Elana Gomel

part 1 of 2

“So how do you dream? In what language, I mean?”

“I don’t dream.”

In Russian, “dream” and “sleep” are the same word. Did I misunderstand him? Was he saying that he never slept? No, impossible. Everybody needs sleep: all animals, even fish. Computers don’t, though. The web is humming through our dreaming brains, perpetually awake and alert.

I imagine Kathy tiptoeing into her son’s room, listening to his steady breathing, making sure the calming blue night-light is plugged in, running her fingers over the untouched cover of the latest iPad, and retreating with a brittle sense of contentment. And him, his long lashes lying on his dark cheeks and the glistening strip of the eyeball peeping through.

Perhaps this is how it happened. It is too late to find out now. The media frenzy is over, the vitriol-dripping comments archived, the pundits pontificating on something else. Still, the story is not gone entirely: nothing is lost in cyberspace. The story is alive on the web, slithering through its obscure pathways, hiding in its nooks and crannies.

“They are surprised you don’t play video games.”

“Other games are better.”

“Like what?”

“Hide and seek.”

I hadn’t seen Kathy and Murray in four years. We kept in touch: Facebook, occasional email. Mostly from her; my vagabond life was not something to be proudly displayed to anonymous friends. Several small grants, a string of broken relationships, rental apartments growing progressively dingier, like an evolutionary sequence run backward.

Compared to mine, her life was a model of stability. She and Murray had married out of college, just as I started on my path of academic penury. I knew they had bought a house in the green unincorporated wilderness of Northern California. Murray had a steady job. They adopted a child.

* * *

I was in Berkeley for yet another two-day seminar, a swarm of hungry “independent scholars” attaching themselves like remoras to the few tenured sharks. After it was over, I was sickened by the thought of flying again, rebreathing the dregs of other people’s oxygen. I needed a vacation but with my minimal funds staying for a couple of days in the Holiday Inn was a decision not to be made lightly.

And then I remembered Kathy. I found her phone number online and dialed it, steeling myself to hear consternation in her voice, or even worse, non-recognition.

But she immediately knew who I was and seemed genuinely happy that I called. And when I said I was in Berkeley and suggested lunch, she insisted I drive over and stay for the weekend. I was whistling when I loaded my bags into my rental Toyota and drove up the winding road among the hushed redwoods, crossing the alternating bands of fogs and pale sunshine.

Their house stood apart from the scatter of other McMansions in the woods, crouching on top of a slight rise and screened from sight by a tangle of madrones. Its earthy colors blended in with the ochre trunks of redwoods and Douglas firs in the back.

There was a silly pink flamingo on the porch and a couple of pumpkins, even though Halloween was three months away. But I was disappointed not to be greeted by the yapping of a dog. Both Kathy and I were dog people, though my vagabond existence now precluded pet ownership.

She waddled out of the house when she heard me in the driveway. This was the first thing I noticed, how much weight she had put on. It gave me a pleasant thrill of Schadenfreude; I can still get into the jeans I wore in college. I may not have a husband, a child, or a house, but I have my body.

The house was impressive enough to dampen my self-congratulatory mood. The husband was not in evidence until the evening: Murray’s commute took the better part of two hours. But the child was there, hanging back on the porch, peering at me through the curly fringe of dark hair. Kathy turned to him after our hug.

“Val,” she said with a slight quiver in her voice, “meet my son.”

This was how I first saw Jonathan.

“Your parents tell me you don’t respond to your name. Is it because you don’t like it?”

“What is your name?”

“Valentina. Valya. But they call me Val here.”

“You can call me Jonathan.”

“But is it really your name?”

“Is Val yours?”

My first thought was that he was deformed. The second was that he was beautiful.

Kathy later told me he was six. At first sight, he looked younger but only because he was so short. His spine was slightly curved and his head was thrust forward, bird-like, vulture-like. Something was wrong with his proportions, but subtly so; one could never pinpoint exactly what it was. It almost seemed that his body changed constantly, cycling through a quicksilver gamut of forms.

His face was dark. Really dark, as if heavily suntanned. But this could not be because his thin knobby arms and legs, sticking out of his Alibaba striped t-shirt and khaki shorts, were as pale as lard. For a moment, I thought he had stolen Mommy’s make-up and applied it liberally. But this piebald two-tone coloring was natural to him, even though according to Kathy’s tearful recital, it had only appeared recently. And if one disregarded it, focusing on the face only, he was quite stunning, with strong, chiseled features and liquid black eyes like a miniature Lord Byron.

Of course, to find him attractive, one would have to disregard more than the discord of this age-inappropriate face on a stunted body. One would also have to overlook the blankness of his expression, the shuttered no-one-is-home look.

Jonathan was autistic, on the extreme end of this terrible spectrum that has become a household word even for those who have never experienced the heartbreak of a damaged child; who have never rushed through the supermarket with their son in tow, praying he would not stomp on cereal boxes or flop down in the middle of an aisle and sway like a metronome; who have not postponed their good-night kiss until the child is safely asleep. Who have not woken up every day to an uphill battle that cannot be won.

Kathy had.

I am an only daughter and I feel shy around kids. I smiled at Jonathan uncertainly but he just stood there and looked past me.

And then, surprising myself, I said in Russian: “Priyatno poznakomitsya!” ‘Glad to meet you’. Why did I do that? I have no idea. Somehow, at the back of my mind, there must have been the old fairy-tale of animals understanding the language of Paradise, which to me is Russian. And here I was, in this paradisiacal setting, and Jonathan, mute and incommunicative, was, I thought, as close to an animal as a two-legged creature wearing clothes can be.

Ironic, isn’t it?

Kathy winced; she never liked to hear a language she did not understand. Jonathan did not react. He turned around and slipped away. I noted a tension mark on Kathy’s forehead when she went after him to make sure he was OK. I heard a door slam, the sound of something breaking, Kathy’s quick soothing voice. I stepped out onto the patio, mesmerized by the sway of the majestic trees in the clear white sky, breathing the air so pure it hurt my city-adapted lungs.

She came back with two glasses of local Cabernet. I lifted an eyebrow: it was only eleven am and in college she had been a teetotaler. But who was I to object? I was sipping mine as she downed hers and brought out a plate of homemade cookies.

* * *

The story came out in fragments throughout the day as she bustled around, showing me to the guest suite, preparing lunch — two of them, as Jonathan was on a special diet — and disappearing from time to time to check on him. Jonathan kept to his room.

I thought he was playing with his game console or surfing the web. But Kathy told me he could not stand computers or electronic devices, broke them with that detached deliberateness that was characteristic of his affliction. I was surprised: subconsciously I expected autistic children to excel at computers as if in compensation for everything else they lacked.

While she was with him, I just drank in the translucent light of the redwoods, the special hushed quiet of the late afternoon, away from the masses of humanity. My life seemed to be sloughing away like a worn snakeskin.

Helping Kathy in the kitchen, I congratulated her on the spaciousness of the house, its uncluttered blond-wood simplicity.

She sighed. “I would like more stuff,” she said. “Ornaments, pictures...But Jonathan would break them. He tore my parents’ wedding photograph. And pets...I wish we could keep a dog. But Jonathan...”

I asked about medication. He was on medication, of course; Kathy and Murray were religious about his pills, believing that without them he would be impossible to control. But now Kathy was inclining toward naturopathy, even thinking about heavy-metal chelation for his supposed mercury poisoning. They needed an explanation and almost anything would do.

Jonathan was adopted at the age of two and a half. After her third glass of Cabernet Kathy was a little vague about his parentage but it seemed he was the child of a teenaged mother, poor and uneducated, perhaps a junkie. His father was unknown. The mother tried to hold on to him, which was the reason he became available for adoption only as a toddler. One day the mother disappeared; the child was found in the filthy apartment, sitting on the floor, as patient and silent as a miniature Buddha.

Kathy and Murray had been overjoyed to have him. He was beautiful, his motor skills were well-developed, and if he did not rush into their embraces, well, what could be expected from the child of such a mother? They were eager to smooth away his scars with their love, to remake this little stranger in the image of their dream baby.

There was one thing, though. He did not talk. But they convinced themselves he would, relying on that hoary chestnut about Einstein not starting to talk until the age of three. I never actually believed the story but now... Who knows? Perhaps it all started earlier than I thought.

The symptoms of autism had emerged slowly at first: avoidance of touch, obsessive behavior, head-banging. And then they came in an avalanche. Instead of a dream baby, they ended up with a changeling, a walking black hole who devoured their time, strength and money and gave nothing in return. And yet they loved him. At least Kathy did, fortified by snacks, alcohol and the indomitable belief in the basic fairness of the universe. She still believed he would eventually find a way to communicate.

“The world no longer speaks your language.”

I called my mother, the first time in six months. It gave me a pang to hear her cigarette-hoarse voice but less than I had expected.

“Valya?” she breathed and then was silent. I came straight to the point, asking her whether I understood the word mir correctly.

“This is why you’re calling?”

“It’s important, Mama.”

She explained and I was right. There was not much to say after that. I promised to call again soon. We both knew I would not.

When Murray came home, his face lit up with a slow smile and he enveloped me in a bear hug. Good, old, dependable Murray. He had put on weight as well, though not as much as Kathy.

The dinner was enormous: steaks and salads and lots of red wine. It was getting foggy outside and I watched the wavering candle lights reflected in the dark glass of the patio door. The three of us were like ghosts, superimposed upon the layered night. And then there were four.

Jonathan had come in.

Kathy stood up so quickly that she spilled her wine, trying to forestall the next domestic disaster. She had described broken dishes and cracked TV sets. I watched, bystander-safe.

But he did not do anything outrageous. He moved, as quiet and compact as a cat, and sat at the table. I heard Murray’s sharp indrawn breath.

Jonathan took an empty plate, ladled it with salad and daintily speared a piece of tomato on his fork. Kathy lurched forward but Murray restrained her. They sat in reverent silence, watching their six-year old eat as if it were a divine visitation.

Jonathan lifted his liquid black eyes and looked at me — really looked, for the first time. I saw that his lids were too short so that a strip of white bordered the pupil. And then he said something, his voice high and whistling.

Both Kathy and Murray simultaneously rose, as if pulled by invisible strings. And then, just as simultaneously, they sat down, deflated.

What he had said was gibberish.

Kathy addressed him in that cooing parental tone that I find intolerable. Jonathan upturned his plate, the soggy lettuce fanning out on the white tablecloth, and walked out.

“That was amazing!” Kathy said, her face bright and brittle. “Real articulation!”

Murray picked up the lettuce.

We sat together for a while, reminiscing about the college days, but the spell was broken. The redwoods outside crowded our island of light, their shaggy boughs scraping at the black sky. I pleaded headache and went to the guest suite.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2012 by Elana Gomel

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