BEYOND ANY EXPERIENCE - CHAPTER ONE
When frustrated, Olivia’s son doled out words the way a miser handed over coins—one at a time, and with a churlish, begrudging curtness—so she read him by the semaphore of his body and the tenor of his movements. Today, the angry clatter of silverware in the drawer sounded the first warning. Setting the table usually soothed Ben. He loved the precision of a fork lined up on a folded paper towel, a smooth plate rim unmarred by chips. This chore needed no prescribed checklist, required no adult confirmation. He could see for himself it had been done correctly, and he orchestrated all of it to the demanding rhythm of his internal metronome.
A cabinet door slammed, and Olivia twitched. Chair legs growled against hardwood. Ben fussed with his glass, centering it on the line where the table leaves met, and huffed a sigh through his nose. Even the way he collapsed into his chair—toes scraping the floor in irritated sweeps—broadcast his discontent. She piled a tangle of fettuccine alfredo on his plate and sank into her seat next to him.
She didn’t speak right away. The truth was, if she never spoke, the whole meal could pass in comfortable silence. Ben preferred it that way, and it had happened more times than Olivia liked to admit in the three years since her wife’s death. At first, nights with no words provided a fragile peace after hours of grief-fueled rages and tears. Now, on some days, the effort of speech was simply beyond the both of them, Ben drained by the well-intentioned cajoling at school and therapy to “use his words,” and Olivia numbed by phone calls and verbal negotiations at work.
The empty chair across the table chided her with memories of Sophia’s gentle but persistent efforts at the dinner table, the artful way she could coax Ben out of a gloomy mood. His head hung low now, dark unruly bangs whispering against the bridge of his nose as he poked at the pile of noodles on his plate.
“Hey, wasn’t art class today?” Olivia asked. He always needed a direct question to answer, or else his words sank beneath a sea of possible answers.
Ben ignored her, nibbling on the end of one strand of pasta.
“The big mural project started this week, right?”
“Murals are stupid.”
“You didn’t think so this morning. You were excited.”
“I said they’re stupid!”
Olivia swallowed a frustrated sigh. “Did Jamal think they were stupid?” How Ben’s best, and only, friend took things set the tone for how he handled them.
“He was sick.”
The first clue to Ben’s mood tumbled from his lips. Seeing Jamal was often the only reason she could get him out of the house in the morning. “I’m sorry, buddy. I know how much you hate it when he’s not there.” She chewed slowly as Ben pushed his fettuccine into clumps, tines screeching tortured paths around the plate. “How’s the alfredo?”
He shrugged and dropped his fork with a rattle.
“I need some words, okay? How’s the alfredo?”
“I don’t like it.”
“But it was your request. Because you liked it so much last week.”
“It feels funny on my tongue.”
“It’s the same recipe, I promise. Same everything.”
“It’s too THICK!” His eyes snapped up for a burst of eye contact, and an ugly flush crawled across his pale cheeks.
“Hey! That tone isn’t appropriate.”
“BUT I HATE IT!”
“You know the rule. If you choose the meal, you have to eat it.”
Tears shone against his tea-colored eyes before spilling over his cheeks. “You never understand!” He shoved away from the table and bolted up the stairs, the hollow thump of his feet echoing in the old house.
Olivia rubbed her face with a weary hand and dropped her chin to her palm. She’d faced this choice hundreds of times before, and the perfect answer never revealed itself. Allow her son to lose a meal to the consequences of his own rigidities and boiling emotions, or wipe away the fragile line she’d drawn and make him something else, hoping to pack more calories onto a thin frame that some days didn’t seem strong enough to handle the double demands of autism and grief.
She pushed away from her own half-finished plate and climbed the stairs, taking them two at a time. A wet snuffle sounded from Ben’s room, where he hunched in a miserable crouch between his bed and the wall. Olivia curled her long frame into the meager space next to him, shoulder to shoulder.
“It sounds like you had a hard day.”
He wiped his snotty nose on the corner of his sheet.
“I know things are harder for you when Jamal is absent. That part I get.”
A worn red sneaker patted a beat on the floor.
“But art class isn’t making sense yet. Can you help me understand?”
He tapped his thumbs to his fingertips in quick succession, pinky to index, index back to pinky.
Olivia pushed a strip of blonde curls from her face and played her only hand. “If you can tell me about art class, then we can talk about a different dinner option.”
His hands froze, index fingers against thumbs in a weak suggestion of the okay sign.
“But they have to be your words. You can’t make me guess.”
“I don’t know where to start.” The whispered admission signaled he’d accepted her terms.
“Start at the beginning. That’s always easier. You finished lunch, and then you went to art class.” Olivia knew his schedule cold. The moment her caller ID flashed his school’s name, she could guess at the problem just from the time. Tuesday at 11:13? Gym class. His aide had probably forgotten his noise-cancelling headphones, and overwhelmed by the ricochet of sound, he’d exploded in anger halfway through a game. Thursday at 2:32? He’d refused to eat lunch, and in a moment of hunger-exacerbated emotionality, he’d burst into tears during a dreaded spelling test.
“I went to art class, and…and…there was a substitute. She was mean! I hated her!”
“You hated her right away, or—”
“No! Mrs. Garibaldi promised I could paint trees and not cars on the mural because cars are hard. I like trees.”
“I know you do.” Olivia had a drawer full of trees—tall trees with elaborate, spindly branches; stubby trees with fat limbs. Something about the form calmed Ben, an endless succession of lines forking across the paper in an orderly fashion. They always looked like trees when he was done, as opposed to cars or people, which his crude drawing attempts couldn’t come close to approximating.
“The substitute said cars were required. That I couldn’t help if I wouldn’t draw them. It was so unfair. Mrs. Garibaldi promised I could help with Lincoln Park!”
Olivia dug a thumb and finger into her temples. They had discussed this weeks ago. The entire school was painting a mural of the Chicago skyline, and while Ben’s class had been assigned a traffic scene on Lake Shore Drive, it was agreed he could work on the park in the background. “Where was your aide?”
“I know, but there’s supposed to be another woman who helps while Ms. Richards eats lunch.”
“I don’t know! They said I could do art on my own. But I couldn’t! I couldn’t make the other teacher understand, and she didn’t let me help, and now everyone but me will be on the mural!”
“Okay, okay, buddy. It must have felt terrible to be left out.” She slipped a cautious arm around his shoulders, and he collapsed against her and cried harder. The unrestricted contact said more than his tears about how devastated he was. Days like this were the worst, when something that should have been the highlight of his day turned sour. “I have a question.”
“What?” Ben whimpered in her armpit.
“Did they finish the mural?”
“No. It’s really big.”
“Then next week, when Mrs. Garibaldi is back, the class will still be working on it?”
His head popped up, and for the first time all night, his face lost that tight, strained look. “Yes.”
“Maybe you can add trees then?”
“I’ll call the school tomorrow and explain, just to be sure, okay?”
“Okay. I used my words. I did! But the substitute wouldn’t listen.”
“I believe you. I do.”
He wiped his face on his shirt, a mix of tears and snot staining the fabric. “So, I don’t have to eat fettuccine?”
“Not tonight. But remember, it’s not fair to ask for something and then not eat it.”
“Can I have applesauce?”
“Yes, but not just applesauce. Something with protein.”
“Do you really think after refusing to eat what I cooked, you’re getting ice cream?”
His lower lip budged out, and his shoulders slumped. “Probably not.”
“How about some cottage cheese?”
Ben shifted away from her now, his spike of emotion fading. “Okay.” He clambered to his feet and ran to the door. “I’ll get the applesauce packs!”
As his feet thudded down the stairs, Olivia thumped the back of her head against the wall. Her son’s surges peaked and retreated with equal alacrity, leaving her wrung out from threading her way through the minefield of his day. This time, at least, it had been worth it. Her patience had been rewarded with clarity, a small victory in a long history of battles. She blew out a sigh and pushed to her feet.