World of Three
The three of them emerge from the subway station at Grand Army Plaza and walk down toward Prospect Park. Stephanie carries the picnic basket. This is one of their special possessions, like their china or their silver coffeepot more precious for being rarely used. No matter how crowded their apartment becomes, the picnic basket is never put into storage. It lives on top of the armoire in the dining room. They bought it for themselves as a wedding present, many years ago at Fortnum & Mason. Although it isn’t heavy, it looks heavy, and Martin feels uneasy watching his wife schlepping it along. He’d like to take it--Stephanie is a delicate-looking woman, nicely dressed, not the hearty type--but he can’t make the offer as he is carrying Thomas, their son. Thomas had sunk down onto the floor of Grand Army Plaza and refused to move any farther. They have no idea why. The ordeal of riding the subway out from Manhattan to Brooklyn? The fact that there was no stroller? Martin would have waited Thomas out until he had had some inkling of what was wrong—be patient, his speech therapist had said, give him time to organize the language and get it out, but Stephanie had been standing behind them, fretting, embarrassed, impatient. So he had picked Thomas up and carried him outside into the sunshine.
“Just a few blocks down here,” Stephanie remarks, walking slightly in front of him. She always does. Even back in the days when they held hands walking everywhere, she had always been out in front, drawing him along. He looks around him as he walks, at the tall apartment buildings to his right, the grassy berm to his left. Seven years in the city and he’s never been in this part of Brooklyn before. It reminds him of the Regent’s Park area of London, the ordinary modern apartment buildings made luxurious by proximity to green space. They cross Flatbush Avenue and enter Prospect Park, down the main path, through a stone archway and out into the open space fringed with trees. They skirt Frisbee players and dog walkers and other families out for the day. They walk on until they find an empty spot at the top of a hill, quite dry, reasonably grassy, and no fresh dog cack (just one desiccated turd Martin manages to flick neatly away). Martin puts Tommy down and their son stands nicely, thumb in his mouth but one can’t have everything, waiting while his mother spreads the plaid picnic blanket and then sitting where directed.
“Good boy, Thomas.”
He’s not a runner; there’s that to be grateful for. Martin knows many of the families in his support group would never be able to do anything like this. Their autistic children are of the non-stop variety: they’d be head-down in the picnic basket or throwing grass bombs or at the top of the nearest tree or halfway across the open field hell-bent on getting back to the heavy traffic on Flatbush. Tommy sits quietly while his mother unpacks the food. There is Thomas’s lunch—cheese and crackers, a straw cup of soy milk, an apple cut into thin slices. And their food. Sandwiches and cut-up carrots, bunches of grapes, set out solemnly onto the china picnic plates. Over the years Stephanie has become a drearily healthy eater and it would never occur to her to provide chips or potato salad. A half-bottle of stringy white wine that Stephanie pours stealthily into their glasses. Martin sips it politely. Nothing worse than cheap white wine. But Stephanie is trying. She’s trying to make this into a festive occasion.
His wife had decided a month ago that it was a shame they didn’t take advantage of the city. After all, this was a great place to live, a great place to raise a family, she’d said, looking at Martin meaningfully. They didn’t have to just sit in the apartment week after week. He got the feeling this was a carefully rehearsed speech. Maybe she had run it by one of her girlfriends first, tried it out in the mirror. He and Tommy had spent too many weekends in Jersey this past winter, at the McCartneys’, Tony and Charlette and their two boys. Stephanie was getting the wind up. Weekends are the best time of the week in New York, she’d said, with all the commuters gone. Why are you spending them out in that dreary suburb? So every weekend for the past month they have done something special. The Staten Island ferry, a concert in Central Park. The Children’s Museum on a wet cold Saturday, filled with frenetic children who had been cooped up all week: complete disaster, that one. Today a picnic in the park and the Botanical Gardens. He’s been a bit worried Charlette would take offense, but she takes it all in stride. You all let me know when you have some time, she had said.
There is traffic noise and someone’s boom box and the shout and chatter of excited children. But on their small patch of plaid blanket, their little world made up of three, it is quiet. Even Tommy’s constant low-pitched murmuring has stopped as he eats his lunch. Stephanie is turned away from them, looking into the green trees and sipping her wine. He studies his wife. Thinking herself unobserved, she’s knit her brow and her mouth is drawn into a hard little line like the coin slot on a piggy bank. When he speaks to her and she knows she is on display, she will automatically straighten her back and curve her lips, lift her chin slightly to tighten away the little swag beginning under her chin. If Stephanie looks in a mirror, the effect is even more pronounced: a slight smile comes to her lips and her eyes grow softer and more inviting. When she comes home from work, weary and discouraged, and glances in the mirror to check her hair, the effect can be quite startling. Ten years drop away and she is once again the pretty girl who could make heads turn in any pub in London.
He finds her vanity endearing; he always has.
“In England, there’s a candy bar called Picnic,” he remarks, and watches her back straighten and head lift. Honestly, it’s like watching one of those big balloons inflate for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
“Really? I never saw that one.”
“Uh. Not as common as they once were.”
“What are they like?”
“Nuts and raisins. They were my favorite.”
They’ve more or less exhausted their usual lines of chitchat. In fact, Martin has come to realize how few innocuous areas are left. In conversation they are stepping from stone to stone across a dangerous rushing stream while they pretend they are strolling across a spring meadow. I’m sorry you don’t like your job. At least it pays decent money, unlike the last one. Tommy’s teacher asked me to come in for another conference. This classroom’s been a real disaster, I told you it wouldn’t work. My period’s late. I want another baby, Martin, I’m not getting any younger. It’s supposed to be sunny tomorrow. Thank God I’ll be able to get Tommy outside, he’s been driving me crazy in this bloody apartment. Tommy has finished his lunch and is now twisting a wax-paper bag, muttering to himself. Martin gathers his son onto his lap, puts his arms around the warm, unresisting bundle and gives Tommy a hard hug, pulling him tight for as long as he can. Eventually one’s arms get tired. Tommy wiggles ecstatically: he loves the deep pressure. Martin waits to see whether his son can come up with the right request word, but Tommy is too excited. He turns around, grins, throws himself back against his father. His black curls brush Martin’s cheek, but Martin has learned to keep his chin up and away from his son’s hard head. “Squeeze?” Martin asks him, and Tommy immediately repeats the word. Martin squeezes him again, then waits. Count to ten, the speech therapist had told him. Give him plenty of time to organize his request and get it out. Sure enough, Thomas finally says, “Squeeze.” Martin obliges. “Squeeze,” his son says, giggling now. It would be nice if Stephanie got involved. She could be tickling Tommy for example, and then they could offer him a choice: squeeze or tickle. Tommy is animated, looking around to smile into his father’s face; Martin can’t look away to grab his wife’s attention, Tommy’s focus can slip in a moment. He squeezes his son hard and says, low, “Steph.”
“I think I know that woman,” Stephanie says: Martin follows her gaze to where a woman sits on a blanket, talking on her cell phone and watching a baby lurch back and forth across the grass in front of her.
“Steph, look at Tommy.”
She glances at her son. She does smile to see him so happy, but she doesn’t join in. She gets up instead and strolls across. She was right about the woman: Martin hears “Oh my Gawwwwwwwwwd!” from where he is sitting, and then an embrace, and their laughter carries across. The woman shuts her cell phone, Stephanie sits down beside her, they laugh and chat although Martin can’t make any of it out. Stephanie isn’t having any problems talking now. See how pretty she looks, gesturing freely, how much happier. She needs her friends, needs that daily social contact of phone calls and emails. He understands that, although he feels sometimes that he and Tommy are always left standing by, smiling politely and waiting to be noticed. Oddly, it’s worse nowadays than it used to be when he first came to New York and didn’t know a soul besides his old mate Tony. He thinks back to last Saturday. It had been a beautiful day, not quite as warm as this but not a cloud in the sky. Martin had to go into work, there was a test he needed to run while the system was at low capacity. He had fed Tommy breakfast and helped him get dressed and brushed his teeth while Stephanie sat reading the Times and drinking coffee. She was going to take Tommy to the playground. Martin had left for work, was at the World Trade subway station before realizing he had forgotten his briefcase. Damn, 45 minutes lost, nothing to do but turn around and go back home. He had let himself into the apartment nearly two hours after he had left and there Stephanie sat, another cup of coffee and a bottle of nail polish in front of her, talking on the portable phone. Thomas running back and forth in the living room with a twisty in his hands, completely ignoring the Bob the Builder video playing. He had gone directly to his father, taken Martin’s hand, and led him to the apartment door, saying “Outside, outside.” Tommy asked for another video just after you left, Stephanie had said, I was about to get dressed and take him out but my father called. Martin wonders what he must have looked like, to make his wife stammer out that string of excuses. He had taken the remote control from the table and turned off the video. He had said, “I’ll wait for you then, we’ll all walk down together,” and Stephanie had given him a dirty look. A dirty look.
She’s fussing over her friend’s baby now, making it laugh. Stephanie likes children. He had noticed that quickly about her back in the day; it was one of the sweet things about her. He hadn’t wanted one of those wives who treated their own children as nuisances. Stephanie likes children, he had told his mother, his father. (He’d known his father disapproved of Stephanie for reasons never shared.) And Stephanie still likes children. Stephanie likes typically-developing children.
She is coming back to him now, holding the baby and leading her friend. A comfortable looking woman with short brown hair and big sunglasses. Clad in black from head to toe, the New York uniform. He slips Tommy off his lap and stands up. Introductions are made. My old friend Lila, Stephanie says, we were in high school together and then she went off to the West Coast for college and was out there for years, but now she’s back. Back in the Promised Land, she quips, looking at her friend, and they laugh together. Martin says a few words, Lila smiles and holds his hand just a touch longer than she should when they shake hands hello. Yes, no matter how little money he has, no matter how thin his hair grows or how shabby his coat is, he still has his accent, that golden accessory.
“And this is Ruby,” Stephanie says, bouncing the baby slightly. “Isn’t she precious?”
She’s a perfectly average baby as far as he can tell, chubby, with fair hair clinging to her head and blue eyes set slightly close together. “Hallo, Ruby.” He politely touches Ruby’s plump hand, waits for a moment and, when Stephanie does not introduce their son, says, “And this is Tommy.”
“Hi Tommy,” Lila says, bending down. He does not look at her, he has gotten busy with a few long blades of grass, and Martin reaches down, pulls them out of his hand, and tilts up his face. Tommy glances at his mother’s friend for a split second, then away at the clouds over her shoulder. Lila tries again: “Hi there.”
“Say hi,” Stephanie says.
“Hi,” Tommy mumbles. He coaxes the blade of grass out of his father’s hand and gets busy again. Martin looks at Lila. She has tilted her head, she is onto something, on the trail of a mystery.
“How are you?” she asks Tommy.
Tommy knows the answer to that, if only he can get the words out. He fights his apraxia for a long moment before managing a strangled “I’mfine.”
Martin knows when a stranger figures out there’s something different about Tommy. A little of the customary warmth Americans project toward children goes away, a reserve sets in. Lila glances at Stephanie, who is keeping herself very busy with Ruby, then back toward Martin. He meets her gaze squarely. Yes, we know. If you said something to us, we wouldn’t be surprised. Oh well, that’s all right then. Now Lila is slightly embarrassed. How awful for them. On the other hand, how nice for her that Ruby is perfectly all right. Yes. Thank God it’s them and not me. She reaches out and takes her baby from Stephanie. It was great meeting you, Stephanie has my number, hope to see you again soon. She puts her daughter down and, stooping over to take her hand, leads her back toward their patch of the park.
“Are we ready for the gardens now?” Martin asks his wife.
“There’s a little more wine, do you want to finish it?”
They sit back down and refill their glasses. The wine is warmer now and is even worse. Martin tries to take Tommy on his lap again, but Tommy is fully engaged twiddling the grass stems. If Martin takes them away now, Tommy will only help himself to more. Best to let him carry on with his twiddling and distract him when it’s time for the gardens.
“Did you tell her Tommy was autistic?” Martin asks.
Stephanie raises an eyebrow. “No. Why?”
“I’m assuming you did discuss your children a bit, people usually do. It wouldn’t be the strangest thing to mention.”
“It didn’t come up.”
Stephanie watches Tommy’s twiddling for a moment, then glances across at Lila and Ruby. Martin tilts his glass over and lets the last mouthfuls of wine run out onto the ground.
There was one bitter but sunny Saturday afternoon this January when Char and he and Tommy had bundled up well and gone to the high-school track for a long walk while Tony was making his world-famous lamb curry for supper. Tommy had run ahead, laughing—he loved the long black curve of the track and the fact that there was no one to bump into. “It’s been a while since we saw Stephanie,” Charlette had remarked. “Well, she really needs a break now and then,” Martin had replied. True, although not the whole truth of course. Lately a day, or a weekend, at Tony and Charlette’s really brought out the worst in his wife; she’d spend the whole ride home slanging and criticizing. It was amazing what she could find to complain about. He’d finally suggested that she could stay in the city while he took Tommy out. Get caught up on your manuscripts, luv, take a nap.
Charlette said, “I have a feeling you could use a break now and then too.”
He peered over the top of his scarf at her, but she walked on without glancing in his direction, her hands in her pockets, head bent against the wind. Under a dark-blue navy watch cap, her golden-brown hair fell thickly down her back.
“When I was growing up,” she said through her scarf, “there was a book of Russian fairy tales in our town library. I borrowed it over and over again. No one else ever wanted it. The stories weren’t up to much—I don’t remember them at all—but the illustrations were beautiful.” Of course Charlette would notice the illustrations. She was an artist, Tony had first seen her outside of Pearl Paint down in Chinatown and followed her inside to chat her up. “These fine line drawings, beautifully colored. I copied them over and over again.” Char’s meandering stories always have a point; Martin waited patiently. “You know, you wouldn’t believe how much Stephanie looked like the princesses in that book. When I first met her. Her hair, her face, her hands. Even the colors she likes to wear, they’re the colors in those illustrations. I couldn’t get over how pretty she was. I just loved looking at her.”
Tommy came running back, a green slug of mucus emerging from one nostril; Charlette attended to it with a wad of Kleenex from her coat pocket.
“She looks different now,” Charlette said. She glances over to see how he’s taking it, whether she should leave it there.
Tommy tugged at their hands and sank down, he wanted a swing. They each put a hand under his elbow and swung him out in front of them. “Wheeee,” they sang and Tommy laughed wildly and said, “Whee!” and they swung him again. Christ, the wind had been cold that day; it had gone right through Martin’s thin overcoat. Tommy had landed solidly, bent his knees and launched himself skyward, as high as he could manage. For a moment he looked so normal, like any strong healthy little boy. He ran on ahead again.
“It’s been a long road,” Martin began, and then fell silent, remembering when Tommy first received his diagnosis. The doctor’s reassurances. Tommy was mild, she had told them, she was sure he would make good progress in an appropriate program. Nearly three years ago now. The diagnosis had changed from PDD/NOS to autism and from mild autism to mild/moderate. All kinds of different approaches tried, different types of therapy. The experts all agreeing that Tommy wasn’t where he should be but none of them agreeing on why and none of them agreeing on what to do next. But all the options were bloody expensive. He said to his friend’s wife, “If this were a job, Steph would have resigned by now.”
She nodded slowly. “And how are you? Feeling like a wind-up toy?”
“Me?” Martin laughed. “I’m a walnut in a nutcracker.”
She gave his gloved hand a short hard squeeze. He had barely registered the contact before it was over. Crunch crunch crunch went their feet on the cinders. Things weren’t always easy for her either, Martin knew, with Tony traveling all the time. And the other things he got up to.
He said, “And yourself?”
“The mills of God grind slow but they grind exceedingly small,” Char said.
“It’s from the Bible, one of the Gospels, can’t remember which one now. We had it in high-school Bible study and I couldn’t figure out what the hell it meant. ‘What’s that mean, about the mills of God grinding slow?’ I asked my Granddad, I asked Brother Bob, they all just laughed and shook their heads. You’ll just have to wait and see, I think that’s what Granddad said. Now I’m 41 years old and I know exactly what it means.” Tommy had run back to them, laughing again, and Charlette had stepped forward, put her big strong hands under his armpits and swung him up into the air like a bell.
“. . . they have a wonderful apartment, three bedrooms, a real dining room, just a few blocks from the park. It wasn’t more expensive than our apartment; it really makes you wonder.”
He stares in Stephanie’s direction, then brings himself back to this moment, to this park on a warm day in April. “Is Brooklyn on the short list now?”
His wife flushes. She is embarrassed by the idea of the boroughs. Stephanie is a Manhattan girl. On the other hand, Prospect Heights is a lot better than Jersey or Westchester. “It’s sunnier and greener out here,” she remarks. She has realized that he dislikes the concrete canyons of upper Manhattan that block out the light and air. “And they even have a courtyard with a sandbox, where the kids can play. Lila says that Ruby loves it.” She grows wistful. “She’s such a cutie, isn’t she?”
“Yes, she is,” Martin says, and glances at Tommy, his head down, murmuring as he turns the grass over and over in his hands. Tommy hates sand, or wood chips, or anything that clings to his skin. Put him in a sandbox and he is in a panic until he is allowed to climb out. But Stephanie is deep in her dream, watching Ruby. She sighs. Martin used to believe that those deep sighs were Stephanie’s way of taking the piss, but he’s changed his mind. He thinks they’re totally unconscious. He knows where this is going and wants to head it off. He stacks plates and cups, snaps the lids back on containers, begins loading up the picnic basket.
“Martin,” his wife says.
He waits as long as he can before gruffly replying, “What.”
“Martin, look at her, she’s so adorable. I want another baby.”
“You had a baby,” Martin said, “and you got to enjoy him when he was a baby, and now we’ve got a young son to raise, and Stephanie, our hands are full.”
“I want a baby girl.”
And what if we don’t get one, Martin wonders. What if we got another boy. What if we got another autistic boy.
“The problem with kittens is they grow up into cats.”
A bit of woolgathering idiocy, but at least it snaps Steph out of her maudlin mood. He can’t bear the idea of her crying, especially—God help him—not in public. She says, “I hate my life. Do you know that? I hate my life.”
“I suppose that’s my entire fault, is it?”
The basket is packed. The only thing remaining is the rug that he and his wife sit on, glaring at each other. She hasn’t taken her birth-control pills in months. For fuck’s sake, Tony had said when Martin told him. What are you doing to stop her getting pregnant, then? I’m counting on age, Martin said, she is thirty-nine now. He stops at that. He can’t possibly tell Tony, Tony the Tiger they used to call him, that he and Steph only rarely have sex. Tony would never believe that. And he would never believe that she’s the one who’s after him, nowadays. Martin can always tell when she’s ovulating because she’ll do anything to get him up on a weeknight, practically perform the Dance of the Seven Veils. But he’s usually too tired. Or worried. Or sick, they’ve all been sick constantly since Tommy started kindergarten. If he were any less interested in sex these days, his genitals would have retracted completely into his pelvic cavity.
But that’s not entirely true, Martin, is it. Just last night he was lying awake, absolutely stiff beside his sleeping wife in her pretty nightie. Thinking of Char. That short hard squeeze of his hand, so quick he wonders whether he imagined it. That memory, raising a tent under the marital bedclothes. Charlette, who bites her nails short and forgets to wear deodorant and buys clothes from LLBean. Anyone would say his Stephanie was far more desirable. Martin had been quite surprised upon meeting his friend’s fiancée. Not Tony’s type at all, he would have said. Tony had guessed what he was thinking. “What you want in a wife is different from what you want in a girlfriend.” Martin looks at his own wife, who is staring at him with narrowed glistening eyes, and strains to remember what he saw in her all those years ago. It wasn’t just the sex, there were other things. When had she begun to assume the position in his life normally occupied by a bad-tempered teenage daughter? You take a deep breath, you remind yourself that there’s a lot of water under the bridge, you tell yourself that this too shall pass. You remind yourself that you love this person.
“Come on, let’s go see the gardens,” he says.
“I’ve got half a mind to just turn around and go back to that subway station,” Stephanie says, not budging.
She is doing this more often, the flouncing-off-in-a-huff business. Martin imagines beating her to the punch just once. Get up and walk away. Count on her disinclination for a public scene. Disappear under the archway into Prospect Heights, leave Stephanie to pack up the picnic basket and coax Tommy back down into the subway. Instead, he nudges Tommy up, gives him a hand off the blanket. “Do whatever you want,” he says to his wife. “Just get off the rug, will you, so I can fold it up.”
She gets up sullenly. To his surprise, she grabs her end of the blanket, the bright plaid blanket they bought together so many years ago on such a sunny promising day. For their future celebrations. They swing it up together in the air and bring it down smartly, then snap it so the bits of grass and dirt fly free. They walk toward each other and their hands meet briefly as Martin takes the blanket from Stephanie. He folds the ends together, then doubles the blanket over on itself. He puts it in the picnic basket and pushes it down so it will fit. Then he closes the lid and shuts it away.