We told Francisca and Roby of our decision. We would train them and a staff to provide a continuous, consistent input with their son. There would be no Sundays or holidays in our attempt to give Robertito everything we could, every chance, every possible opportunity. Again, we stressed the importance of a loving, accepting and non-judgmental attitude. Our only concern was for a period of time four months in the future, when we had obligated ourselves to lecture and teach in England for six weeks during the summer. Since the Sotos could only commit themselves for three months, that eventuality did not pose a problem.
They expressed their willingness to leave their home within a few days. We discouraged them from coming to New York too quickly, not wanting them to deplete their funds while looking for a place to live… too much had to be accomplished before their arrival. Suzi and I would do whatever was necessary rent a house, find furniture, interview volunteers, and then locate a facility that could give Robertito a developmental and psychiatric work-up in Spanish so that we could form base lines and external reference points against which we could check and monitor our program. Though the Sotos would bring a translator, a student who traded her bilingual talent for an opportunity to learn, we decided that the actual working program with Robertito had to be in Spanish. Perhaps, though distant and unavailable, he had absorbed some receptive familiarity with his own language, But more important, Robertito would return to Mexico. If we succeeded in teaching him anything, we did not want to confuse an already confusing world by introducing a second language, Suzi had a minimal grasp of Spanish. I had none. How could we learn another language in three weeks? Suddenly, to our relief, we realized that we did not have to become fluent, just capable enough to speak in some simple one- and two-word sentences … an ability which far outstripped Robertito’s evident skills.
We laid aside our plans to develop an Option teaching center. I referred most of my students and clients to others I had trained. Suzi, after forcing a funny smile on her face, left for Manhattan and withdrew from school.
And so we began. Suzi searched for a house, calling forty real estate agents and answering countless ads. I canvassed doctors, teachers, universities and hospitals looking for professionals capable of administering the appropriate developmental tests and studies. We put signs up at six colleges in our hunt for volunteers. By the end of the first week, our hypothesized weekly input of fifty hours had already toppled the one-hundred-hour mark. The yield for all our energy: no house, no volunteers, no Spanish-speaking professional to give the tests.
After an early morning session with one of the students that I had retained, I came down from my little windowed house on the hill and entered the kitchen. Suzi shifted her papers excitedly.
“I think I found something. After running my butt off all week, I think I’ve hit it. They were hesitant at first because the Sotos can’t sign a year lease, but I explained everything, I think they’re anxious to have the house occupied. We have an appointment at ten.”
The small modest house, painted in battleship gray, sat on a narrow strip of land, sandwiched tightly between its neighbors. The real estate broker, sporting a nineteen-fifties’ pompadour, waited at the front door. As we walked toward him, he discreetly ran his eyes thoroughly up and down my body, then Suzi’s, giving himself several additional moments to assess the condition and value of our Jeep. Momentarily satisfied, he permitted his face to give us a small, rehearsed smile, then he ushered us into the living room. We toured the house quickly. No long term lease. Completely furnished. Perfect.
As Suzi checked the refrigerator and the inside of the stove, I peered out the back windows. I felt the agent’s eyes again feeding the little computer in his brain. I had purposely changed my dungarees and sweatshirt for slacks and a jacket … mostly due to Suzi’s request. But I did not cut my rather longish hair, which flopped over my ears and neck. He studied my head, then my beard; not in a manner dissimilar from that of an artist studying his model … only the man had not brought his paints an easel.
“Excuse me,” he began, “this Mr. and Mrs. Soto are from Mexico. Did you say whether they spoke English?”
“They don’t,” Suzi offered innocently. “They’re wonderful people. We will help them to communicate. Besides, they’ll have an interpreter with them.”
His eyes wandered before she finished speaking, as he formulated his next question.
“What part of Mexico are they from?”
“Encinada. Are you familiar with Baja California.
The broker shook his head. “Actually … no.” He cleared his throat again. He tapped his pencil on the pad nervously. “Are they of Spanish descent?”
I glanced fleetingly at Suzi and said: “As versus what other descent?”
“Well,” he began, “Mexico has different heritage’s I guess … the Spanish, the Indians … ah, people from other continents.”
“They’re two human beings trying to help their son by coming to New York,”
Suzi offered tensely.
I squeezed Suzi’s shoulder. “We’ll take it. I’m willing to cosign the agreement. You can certainly check my references.”
The real estate broker peered at us blankly.
“We’ll take it,” I repeated. “Just send us the agreement in the mail.”
The following day Suzi barged into the den and dropped limply into the chair. “Our friendly real estate agent just called.”
“Are you surprised?” I asked.
“No, Bears…” she sighed. “How could he? His client mysteriously decided not to rent the house. How convenient! You know, at first, I thought we weren’t hitting right. Now, well, my vision has cleared. Every time I’ve called on an ad, as soon as I mention Mexico or the Spanish language, the apartment or house is unavailable.”
“Maybe if we just become slightly less articulate… not dishonest, just give them less information instead of a family biography. They’re our friends. Period. They live on the West Coast. We don’t have to define which side of the border.”
“I’ll keep at it,” Suzi sighed. Just as she left the room, she turned and said: “I’ll bet you that man goes to church every Sunday.”
“Now is that very loving?” I said.
Suzi picked a paperback book off the shelf and tossed it into my lap.
Living within easy access of the city, I presumed finding bilingual psychiatrists and psychologists would be a relatively simple feat. Though the universities had no recommendations, the psychological association of three counties referred eleven professionals fluent in Spanish. The first seven felt ill-equipped to perform the tests on a young autistic child. Two psychologists, who knew of our work, said their busy schedules would not permit them to participate. Another did not want his tests published or reviewed by others. A rather caring physician asked me why I would want to spend all this energy on a child whose medical profile illustrates the hopelessness of his condition. I remembered other doctors with similar pronouncements four years before when we searched for help for our own son. Nothing had changed.
I exhausted my list in two days. By the end of the week, after gathering more references, I spoke with thirty-one professionals without finding one willing and able to see Robertito Soto.
Next, I focused on hospitals and teaching centers. One clinic wanted to do a language scale on Robertito despite the fact he’s a non-verbal child. Though each of these facilities I contacted had Spanish-speaking clientele, one, in fact, servicing the huge Spanish population, none of them had Spanish-speaking professionals capable of administering childhood developmental tests and none of these institutions seemed to view the fact with any deep concern. In effect, English-speaking psychologists and psychiatrists routinely tested Spanish-speaking children. Obviously, they would form opinions and diagnose from their findings – labeling, prescribing and, perhaps, even institutionalizing little people they could not fully understand.
As I sat in my little house on the hill, shuffling through papers and jotting notes from my last telephone conversation, Bryn appeared at the window. She smiled a goofy, cartoon face. I motioned her to come in.
“Bears,” she began as she slipped through the doorway. “I knew you weren’t working with someone, so I thought I would come up. Is it okay?”
I nodded, which became her signal to pounce on me and kiss my nose. I tickled her until she jumped off me. When Bryn stood up straight and bent her head, her long brown hair flowed around her shoulders, almost reaching her elbows. Though only twelve years old, Bryn had the carriage of a mature woman.
She withdrew a small box from her back pocket and placed it in my hand. “Here,” she said. I looked at her, then eyed the small container. Inside, I discovered a varied assortment of dollars, quarters, nickels and pennies.
“There’s eighteen dollars and ninety-seven cents there. I thought since we’re gonna be poor, I wanted to help. I know it’s not a whole lot, but it’s everything I’ve saved for the last two years.”
I hugged my little friend, who, despite her moments of unreasonableness, had always shared with us the best of who she is. “Brynny, I’m really glad for your offer… it’s wonderful to want to share. It’s a real good feeling, for you and for me.” I patted her belly. “There’s more than a stomach in here; there’s a beautiful person.”
Bryn smiled self-consciously. “Daddy, c’mon, don’t say you won’t take it.”
“Let’s start with the idea of being poor,” I suggested. “I didn’t say we would be poor. I just said we would have less for a while; perhaps, a lot less. For the moment, we’re okay … really, we’re okay. Now as far as your offer to give me your savings … how about knowing that I will definitely remember your offer, that if something happens, Bryn has tucked away eighteen dollars and ninety-seven cents for this family. Okay?”
She nodded. “Bears, is it gonna be like this when they come?”
“Like what, babes?”
“I don’t mean to sound selfish, but you guys have been so busy since you told the Sotos to come.”
“Brynny, I know. We’ll be jammed just a couple of weeks more … until we pull it all together. Even so, we’ll always have time for you, for Thea and for Raun. If you think you’re not getting enough, you just shout it loud and clear.”
She seemed relieved. “Lov’ya,” she said as she kissed me and opened the door.
“Hey, I think you forgot something,” I said, holding out her little case. She removed it from my hand and did her little girl walk-skip down the stairs.
The second week bore a different harvest. On Monday, I located someone to do the video tapes. Gratton, a bright, articulate and idiosyncratic man, had once taped a session with Raun years before. He would be available.
The following day, Rita Corwin, a fellow Option mentor and therapist, called with the name of an associate, a psychiatrist, who volunteered to help. Paul Goodman’s retiring manner contrasted dramatically with that of other physicians I had spoken to the previous week. Since his area of specialty was pediatric psychiatry, he expressed his own interest in seeing us work first hand and in assuming the possibilities of an Option approach with a severely dysfunctioning child. Though Paul’s time usually translated into significant fees, he offered his time and expertise without charge. When the Sotos arrived, he would do the first psychiatric evaluation and then successive ones at intervals I specified.
Toward the middle of that week, we located Dr. Carl Yorke, a pediatric psychologist with a specialty in administering a battery of developmental scales and studies for children with suspected developmental, cognitive, neurological and emotional problems. The word autistic did not scare him. He had tested hundreds of autistic and retarded children. Our wanting to dissect all aspects of the examination did not insult him. He welcomed that participation with a full awareness of our needs in terms of the program. Even the Spanish-speaking aspects of our situation did not upset him. Carl had tested many Spanish children and, though he himself was not bilingual, he performed numerous tests with the help of a Spanish special education teacher. They worked as a team, with Carl directing the activity, cataloguing and interpreting the findings. I crisscrossed my references on this psychologist since his role was crucial in providing us with an external yardstick. The feedback was unanimous: highly regarded, seasoned, sensitive and very knowledgeable.
We had managed to secure all the significant trimmings … but no house. On Thursday, Suzi and I split the chore of house-hunting. We had used up half our time. Francisca, Roby and Robertito would arrive in ten days.
By midday, I had seen seven apartments; all unsuitable either because of size, lack of privacy or serious noise problems. My monologue with agents about my friends from the “West Coast” followed the simple format Suzi and I had decided upon after our previous encounters. Ironically, no one probed beyond the few details.
As I drove into the driveway, I spotted Suzi squatting Indian-style on the front curb. She smiled broadly and jumped to her feet like an excited teenager bustling with news about her first date. She brushed her hair out of her face as she sprinted toward the truck.
“C’mon,” she shouted, whipping the door open and catapulting her small form into the Jeep. “We’ve got to put a lot of white light around this one. Oh, Bears, there’s a tiny house available only five blocks from here … it came on the market this morning.”
The little house, snuggled between small shrubs and sheltered by a tall white birch tree, faced an Italian restaurant; the exterior color-battleship gray. Traces of New England in an earlier century echoed along the sloping roof and around the dormer windows on the second floor. Though houses have no voices, this building exuded a peaceful, mellow energy. The Sotos could live here! We could work here. The owner, draped in paint-stained overalls, invited us inside. He had begun to paint the living room, but the floors, the kitchen and all the other rooms needed significant cosmetic work. He rubbed the tip of his bulbous nose, leaving streaks of pastel green on his cheeks. We told him about Raun and about our work. Without hesitation or censorship, we talked about our Spanish-speaking Mexican friends whom we wanted to help. He kept smiling throughout the whole story.
“We’ll take it,” I declared. “The house … we’ll take it. Right now.”
“Fine,” he answered casually.
Suzi hugged the man, paintbrush and all. Startled, he smiled, obviously flattered by her affection. “When would the house be ready?” she asked.
“Well, I’d say maybe four weeks.”
“How about eight days?” I asked,
“No. No,” he said adamantly. “I’d do it if I could, but I have a full-time job.”
“In eight days? Impossible!” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
“You don’t know us,” Suzi said with a giggle.
Supervising a painter, a carpenter, a rag cleaner and a plumber consumed a significant portion of the next five days. Suzi and I, with the help of Bryn, Thea and even Raun, cleaned the house in the late afternoons and evenings.
Sitting on the floor, I scrubbed the bins in the refrigerator. I felt Suzi’s eyes and turned to confront her smiling face.
“This is the best part, really,” she said, laughing. “To see you parked on the floor, scrubbing away – it just breaks me up.”
“I thought about that a few minutes ago,” I admitted. “In, that other lifetime … you do remember, right?” Suzi dipped her head affirmatively. “Well, with twenty-seven people working for me, I did all the cerebral tasks without getting my hands dirty … not that dirty hands are any less attractive than clean hands.” I smiled. “Why doesn’t what I’m saying sound right?” I rubbed the Brillo pad along the metal rim of the drawer. “When I waited tables during school,” I chimed, “I could never reconcile studying Plato, Kant, Hegel and Sartre every day and cleaning pots every night. I never wanted to scrub anything ever again. So this is my karma, of course … scrubbing again.”
Suzi crouched theatrically and framed me between her cupped hands. “Click,” she said. “I like the portrait. Gives you a wholesome look of humility.”
Sandwiched between our activities to refurbish the house on Thelma Street, we started our trek through a series of stores, trying to create an instant home inexpensively with dishes, silverware, garbage pails, a toaster, towels, soap, pots – an endless array of items. Our next major project centered on furniture. We had rented an empty house. The limitations of time and expense suggested furniture rental as a suitable solution. With only six days left, Suzi and I trotted, literally, through a warehouse on Manhattan’s upper West Side, picking this couch, that chair, those two tables, a bed, a second bed, three bureaus, four lamps and one mirror. We had to return the following evening with a bank check to cover security and a month’s rent.
That night, Suzi and I crawled through the eaves in our attic withdrawing over twenty paintings and framed posters we had stored since I closed down my advertising company. We could fill the blank walls of the rented house easily with my works from this era. First, we chose a poster containing a multiracial group portrait of babies designed for a save-the-children campaign; then we picked a startling hand-held eyeball created for an eye safety program. We included an updated art deco illustration that I conceived and designed for a reissue of A Duel in the Sun. Old dreams faded in the forgotten faces of Jennifer Jones, Gregory Peck and Joseph Cotton. We pulled pieces from other campaigns I directed; the mirrored ballroom globe with frozen images of Jane Fonda and Red Buttons dragging themselves one more time around the dance floor in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, the comic portrait of Arlo Guthrie seated at a table with knife and fork in hand prepared to consume his own head for Alice’s Restaurant, the haunting presence of Liv Ullman’s face from Bergman’s Persona, the racy cartoon graphics of the Beatles used for The Yellow Submarine.
I stared at the art and posters, then rummaged through a box filled with television commercials. They represented years of my life, yet now they had no meaning. Raun, Robertito and Option didn’t exist when I turned twenty-four and started my own advertising/communications corporation to the hisses and boos of some who considered my experience flimsy at best. Nevertheless, my company thrived, despite the fact that I experienced business as combat, never able to justify the pain and fatigue as I watched people threaten, compete and, sometimes destroy each other.
The photograph of a mother wearing a gas mask as she clutched a naked child to her breast loomed at me from the darkened recesses of the closet. In the late sixties, before it was fashionable, I supported the October 15 moratorium against the Vietnam war with an ad placed in several major publications. The following day, half my clients withdrew their accounts. The loss almost toppled the agency, but we survived. I felt caught in quicksand as the company grew again. But then Raun’s presence overshadowed everything.
At first, I flirted with selling the business until I realized that by withdrawing myself, I had depleted what a prospective buyer viewed as a major asset. So when I chose to work more intensely with my son and be more available to teach, I had to walk away empty-handed. A part of my life was finished; over, completed. There were other things to do.
The decision to work with Robertito did not seem as clear. As Suzi and I stacked the posters and paintings against the wall, I fantasized about the house on Thelma Street in which they would hang and daydreamed about all the activity that might occur within those walls. What was different? Sure, this was someone else’s child. Certainly that changed the circumstances drastically. The grant. We needed the grant, but there was more. We hadn’t committed ourselves to “cure” little Robertito Soto, though I suspected that fantasy lingered in the minds of his parents. I found myself asking questions which never occurred to me when we worked with Raun. Did Robertito have to progress? And if we provided this special little boy with a roadway out, but he chose, for his own reasons, not to take it … would we trust his choice? The thoughts bombarded me. For the first time since our decision, I considered the possibility of Robertito Soto’s choosing differently from us.
The north wind whistled through the trees, bending the branches and dislodging the loose leaves from their stems. A squirrel scurried across the driveway in front of me as I walked toward the Jeep. The glow from the lamppost pierced the darkness of early evening, allowing me to peek into my pockets as I probed for the keys. Then, on the ground beside me, I noticed the shadow of a looming figure. A quarter-turn of my head enabled me to confirm a dark form poised on the roof of my truck. Instinctively, I swiveled to my right and lunged away from the driveway. But my quick movement did not abort the impact of an airborne body, which catapulted onto my back. Wild hands grabbed at my clothing. I threw my arms out to maintain my balance, but floundered, falling first to my knees, then rolling to the side. Just as I twisted out from beneath my attacker, I heard a loud, silly laugh. Laura rolled onto her back skillfully, then flipped herself upright like a gymnast, landing squarely on her feet. She flashed a huge, mischievous, chimpanzee grin while arching her hip like an old burlesque queen. A two-second tease without intent. Laura always flirted her hellos.
She anticipated my leap toward her as she turned and ran across the lawn. Her laughter drained my thrust, but I followed her small athletic form, duplicating her jump over the hedges. The distance between us diminished. Her thick, long brown hair danced behind her. Her racing form reflected hours, days and years of intense input, tuning and exercising herself like an instrument. The jangle of her egg-shell beads and the soft thumping of her conspicuous engineer’s boots did not compromise the aesthetics of her antique, nineteen-thirties’ maroon dress.
She attracted attention. She demanded attention. It was no accident that Laura played a large, golden tenor saxophone, that her improvised jazz statements included very beguiling body movements which throbbed with her notes. It was no accident that Laura drew the audience’s eyes to her, compelling them to join her in a musical journey that somehow seemed sexual. Yet, in spite of all the dazzle and invisible neon, she earned the applause with an abundance of talent and finely developed skill.
When I grabbed her, her body went limp with more laughter. I threw her up onto my shoulders and began to spin around… faster and faster.
“Bears,” she shouted. “I give up. I’m sorry! Bears! C’mon, let me down.”
I kept twirling her around until I lost my own equilibrium, sinking slowly to the ground. The dizziness cemented me into the earth; a warm floating punctuated by our panting breaths.
“Is that a statement of desire or ownership?” I asked.
“Both,” she said coyly. “I really came for another reason.”
“Hey, Rha,” I responded, using the nickname we affectionately called her, “you don’t need a reason to be here.”
“You guys are so jammed lately, I don’t want to interrupt. I know you finally got a house for the Sotos, but what about helpers?”
house for the Sotos, but what about helpers?”
Laura nodded and we left immediately. The sparse traffic allowed me to arrive in Manhattan within thirty minutes, but then our movement spurted and jerked in the crosstown crawl.
Just as I depressed the accelerator for a clear run, a bag lady pranced off the curb directly in front of the Jeep, forcing me to slam on the brakes. The woman pushed an old rusted supermarket cart containing brown bags filled with all her worldly possessions. Her matted hair, heaped haphazardly into a bundle on top of her head, fell partially in front of her face, obscuring one eye. She wore an old army coat and torn combat boots. Her pock-marked face created little craters filled with the city’s grime and soot. The woman turned, ever so casually, to observe my screeching tires until they came to a complete halt within a few feet of her form. She waved her arm affirmatively as if to compliment me on my driving skills. Laura hunched over the dashboard, disturbed at seeing some flickering similarity between this woman and herself. A hulk, a shell, a carcass, she thought to herself. Burnt out. Battered. Worse than dead. Compassion, she insisted, as she watched the bag lady bend down in the middle of Madison Avenue, pull up her baggy pants and adjust her red-and-white checkered argyle socks.
The old lady peered at me blankly. I smiled. She tipped her ancient chin with great dignity, grinned emphatically and then resumed her afternoon stroll. Laura giggled uncomfortably.
“Only in New York,” I whispered.
“It’s the place where the freaks aren’t freaks. When I’m in the city, I feel really at home, especially in my art classes.” Laura began a reflexology massage on her foot, applying pressure carefully to all of the acu-pressure points. Then, almost routinely, she said, “You know, what you’re doing with the Mexican family … reminds me of my time working with Raun.”
“Somehow, Rha, it’s very different.”
“Yeah, I know. But for me, well…” She dropped her foot and stared out the window.
“Do you want to finish the sentence?” I asked. When I noted her hesitancy, I added: “I’m not lobbying for a complete sentence. How about I ask you something?” She nodded without looking directly at me. “We’re pressed for time. I wouldn’t ask you … only if I had to, I know how involved you are with your music. But could you help us out for a couple of weeks working with Robertito… until we train the others. You were a great teacher for Raun. I know you’d be the same for Robertito.”
Tears began to stream uncontrollably down Laura’s face. “God, Bears, I thought you’d never ask.” She sighed and smiled. “Working with Raun was the best time in my life … really, it was. I love what I’m doing now, but then, I felt so alive, so connected.” She paused and looked down. “You know, you and Suzi taught me how to be soft.”
I double-parked in front of the furniture store, then turned directly to her, “It’ll be good to work together again. I’d want that for both of us, for all of us. And these people are very special to do what they’re doing.” Laura nodded and planted a soft kiss on my cheek. In that instant, she was neither sexual nor theatrical…just Laura.
Laura mounted the front hood of the Jeep. She draped her legs over the fender and let them hang conspicuously apart while she watched the traffic whiz by. A middle-aged man stopped within five feet of her form and leered at her. His eyes scrutinized her body. Laura toyed with the attention for several seconds, then caught herself, angered by his invading eyes and her own vulnerability.
She whipped her legs together and said: “Buzz off!”
“Maybe next time,” the man snickered as he walked away.
Her face flushed. Her voice had had a deadly cutting edge. Maybe those who had accused her of being tough were right. Sometimes, deep down, she felt hard. Cold. Aloof. Anything but soft, feminine, motherly. Those qualities came to life in working with Raun. But that was different. He was special. Could she work with Robertito? Could she feel maternal again? The chorus from her childhood argued against it. Everyone accused Laura of putting Laura first. She knew it was true, even now, but was it wrong? She thought of Molly, her twin sister … her greatest comfort and her greatest burden. They had shared games, secrets, even friends. She depended on their relationship. But then the unexpected fractured the balance. Molly matured first, not by weeks or months, but by years. Her body blossomed fully within a short period. Womanhood came to her breasts and the curves of her hips. Laura remained small, undeveloped and boyish. She waited impatiently for years, inspecting her flat chest and eyeing the straight lines of her body. Her large hypnotic eyes, her strong Mediterranean nose and her prominent chin did not offset the missing attributes. Unable to compete socially, she had made herself tough and strong, a survivor whose music and art gave her special distinctions. Even when her womanhood finally flowered, Laura could not retrace the steps. Physical contact as well as expressions of joy and anger had been implicit taboos in her home, so boldness and self-confidence became her trademarks. And yet, she wanted to be tender, gentle, caring, especially with a child. Would she find that softness in herself again?