Over a Margarita pizza she tells me all
the popular kids drink and have sex.
Gross, she says, scrunching her nose like she’s four again.
Behind her, my face sees itself in the mirrored wall,
blotchy skin, baby beaver jowls, the bud of a double chin.
Zach, our surfer waiter, drops off her iced tea.
Sweat drips from the glass onto her lap as he slides
salads across the table, checking out her breasts.
My girl is hungry, stabs each bite and shovels it in,
chilled pear and crushed pecans, the softest cheese.
Even if a kid’s too drunk to drive, they just lie and say they’re sleeping over.
“Any room for dessert?” Zach wants to know.
Not yet...later, for sure, she smiles, glossing her lips.
Mom, you know you have nothing to worry about, right?
She is savoring the last pecan, behind her the picture
of a chocolate hot caramel sundae. I watch Zach
walk through the swinging doors of the kitchen
And I flash on my first boyfriend, the two of us
naked in his parents’ sauna, his fingers moving
up my tanned thigh, every inch of me
opening to that rush.
There are days when
I need you to stop staring at the ceiling
perseverating on a bazillion dots,
days when I need your blank stare
to blink into an intelligent eye gaze,
when I need Thomas the Train and his buddies
to derail off your lips—Days, sweet boy
when I need your Asperger’s to lighten the hell up.
But then, when you burst through the door
swinging your red backpack
dancing that quirky little jig of yours,
your brain flying off its tracks, rattling off
Sponge Bob quotes, laughing at nothing,
tickling my arm, stunning me with your obsessive alien monologues—
And dragging your chair closer so we’re touching
you take my face in your hands and ask: “Are you O.K., Deborah?”
And I think there is nothing more, Matthew,
nothing that I could ever need.
I couldn’t help it, I fell in love that first day
of school as she sat on her mom’s lap
in that white sundress, her dark hair falling in her eyes
as she played with the dollhouse, not really
playing but clutching a tiny figure in each hand
and shrieking those staccato notes.
After I’d introduced myself as the Speech Pathologist,
Faith’s mom, not one for small talk, said brusquely:
“You teach my girl to talk this year, O.K.?”
Knowing I couldn’t promise I went into my
“Nonverbal kids on the spectrum
don’t always acquire verbal language” spiel
and asked if Faith knew any signs.
Mrs. Madrid shook her head “No” then snapping
Faith’s bangs into a pink barrette, she kissed
her daughter’s forehead and left.
In therapy Faith walked the perimeter of my office
in circles, talking gibberish, flailing her arms
but by winter was turning the pages of songs,
smiling and clapping, gazing at me in the mirror
her little mouth trying to mimic “oo” or “ah.”
For nights I had recurring dreams
of a tiny Faith freakishly curled in my palm, delicate
as a figurine, talking to me like any other kid.
After Christmas Faith began using the sign for “more,”
swinging her patent leathers to the beat of my silly songs.
Mrs. Madrid stopped by one day, watched Faith
tapping a drum, matching farm animals—Woof woof, moo...
but she slid down her chair like a ragdoll,
and crawled under the table. I ended the session
with Ring Around the Rosie
held my hand out to Mrs. Madrid who
hesitated then joined in as we pulled Faith
to the floor for “all fall down.”
Eventually Faith began imitating oral movements:
sticking out her tongue...showing me a smile...
those prerequisite skills for sounds and words.
In June I shared progress with her mom,
my voice shaky as I told her how Faith had grown,
how even though she wasn’t talking, she was interacting more,
taking my hands after I’d sung the goodbye song,
pushing me back in my chair, wanting to do more.
Suddenly Mrs. Madrid slammed her palm on the table
pointed at me and said “You’re only one that gets it.
When you work with her, I see your passion.”
Her words hung between us, releasing my breath
exposing my love as I told her about the dreams
where her daughter speaks, nights when
I begged God to make it so—
how when I spin Faith around with my arms
I imagine her flying into a starry night
like a baby egret, eyes wide open, her little wings
ruffled in their fever to reach the sea,
calling out to us, her mouth full of sounds.
poems have appeared in Autism Digest, Stand Up Poetry, The Unmade Bed, In the Palm
of Your Hand, The Antioch Review, The New York Quarterly, and many other
journals and anthologies. She works as a speech pathologist for the Poway Unified