Charlie wanted a ride in the black car when I got home from work so, green rabbit in hand, he got into the backseat, my mom beside him. The car had been speckled with mud droplets for the past few days: As a result of the recent rainstorm, a pool of brackish water (with strange items floating in it) had collected at the bottom of the exit ramp off the Pulaski Skyway. I had been driving gingerly through this pool for the past few days, noting the splashing plumes that crested over the car's roof and dribbled mud and more onto my car.
"Let's get the car washed," I said as Charlie called out "buckle up!". I pulled the Autism Awareness magnet off the side of the car and it came off in four pieces, the words "Autism" and "Awareness" breaking apart. A shadowy imprint of the ribbon remained on the black paint and I remembered a hot day this past June when I had driven into Philadelphia with Charlie in the back seat--with Charlie thrashing and hollering with such force that the man in the next car over stared at us in horror and fear.
At that moment, all I could think was, I need an autism magnet on that side of the car too. Jim had been driving the green car ahead of us (we had to attend a friend's wedding and we were supposed to meet up with two other friends). "Don't worry about what some guy in the next car thinks," Jim said to me later. "The look on his face," I said. At least if he could have seen something about "autism" on our car-----
How do you tell the stranger in the next car over in the city center of Philadelphia that your child is not "being bad"? How do you say "it's autism" only through the movement of your lips through a car window before the light turns green?
It was cold and growing colder this afternoon as I pulled off the puzzle ribbon magnet and put the pieces on the passenger seat. We drove to the car wash and my mom and I watched Charlie clutching his green rabbit as the windows were whited out by soap suds.
"That's just what you girls used to do," my mom said. "You'd fill the back seat up with all of your stuffed animals and then you'd hold them up so they could see." The monster squid-looking wiper thing was sliding over the car's front window. Charlie took off his seatbelt, pushed the button that opens the secret cupholder, and pulled out a menu for Tex-Mex food. He spread it out over his knees and looked up at the white foam slipping down the windows. He looked at the menu. "Sprinkles." I realized that was what he thought the salsa-tomato-cheese-green pepper toppings on the quesadillas in the pictures kind of looked like. "I want sprinkles!"
"It's not time for sprinkles," I said as the car went through the drying area and the huge spinning brushes. "But we could go to Target and get a clear drink."
"No," said Charlie.
"We could get a soda. A Sprite!" said my mom.
"Tar-gett," said Charlie.
It was a very successful shopping trip in which my mom and I were incredibly pleased to find several pairs of size medium sweatpants for $7.99 each, Target brand sandwich bags to pack up Charlie's lunch and reinforcer items come Sunday evening, a new notebook to serve as his communication book. "Where's your car?" my mom asked as we walked towards the parking lot, Charlie swinging his diet Sprite left and right.
I looked for the multicolored Autism Awareness puzzle magnet and could not find it because I had taken it off; because it was broken. Was Autism Awareness the only thing I had been looking for these many months? How constant had been my worry to defend, to protect, to explain, to help, to assist, to be the everything for Charlie, that I had not been able to detect one more thing in that unknown Philadelphia driver's face: Concern. Sympathy. Sheer sadness to witness suffering and not be able to do one thing about it. Sometimes a word can only explain so much, and certainly only a fraction of what the actual boy with his tears and sweat can.
I found the car by the shape of its roof and front window and was careful to open Charlie's soda in the parking lot, where it fizzed and sputtered like a mini-volcano. "I want drink!" he called out with a laughing smile. Charlie cradled the soda bottle in one hand and the green rabbit in the other and looked intently out the window at the cars and people and the whole wide world looking back at him.