Kerry Cohen is the author of six books, including two memoirs – Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity and Seeing Ezra (November 2011). Her work has been featured in The New York Times Modern Love Series, The Washington Post, Brevity, McSweeney’s, and many more anthologies and journals. She lives in Portland with her family, including her son Ezra, who is autistic. You can find out more about Kerry on her website.
The Things He Lost
First, he lost words. They slipped from his mind as though through a long, narrowing tunnel. First “cookies,” then “ball” and “plate” and “cup,” and eventually also “mama” and “papa” went away too. Next he stopped turning to look when someone said his name. Then he lost interest in most of his toys, like his ride-on turtle, books, and the little house with the children who slid down the slide. He wanted only to stack his blocks, and only the ones with the numbers. Or else he pressed the buttons on the bear that lit up and played songs, and he did this again and again.
His parents were frightened. They got down on their hands and knees, saying his name. They picked him up and held his face close to theirs and spoke softly.
My baby, they said. My Lucas. My sweet son.
He smiled back. He pressed against their kisses and giggled. Mary, his mother, took him in to the pediatrician. She didn’t know what was happening, what to do, how to cope, and he gave her a phone number to call. When they answered – Center for Children with Disabilities – she had to clear her throat before she could speak. Two weeks later she took him to the center. The doctor was very nice, young and handsome. She found herself flirting, laughing when she shouldn’t, and also she found herself embarrassed when Lucas would not look at the doctor no matter how many times he called his name. And then she found herself ashamed at her embarrassment, at wanting this man’s approval when something she didn’t understand was going on with her son. The doctor asked about her pregnancy, and she told him the story, remembering how badly she had wanted a child. She had imagined her life during that time in a particular way, with a particular feeling attached to it. Isn’t that what all women believe? What they are told? That when they have a family – a husband and child – they will finally be happy. They will finally be fulfilled. She did not envision this, being in a small room with a handsome doctor, seeing him nod his head with pity, with sorrow, her strange son hiding behind her chair. And in this way, she began to lose things too. Something began to shrink inside her. Her heart, perhaps. Or her soul. Over the next few years the list of what she would lose would increase: endless hours to the computer, to researching therapies and supplements and parental testimonies, and thousands of dollars to each of them. She would lose her understanding of who she was, what she was supposed to be doing, how to be a mother at all. She would lose her grounding, her husband, her faith in what she thought she knew.
Mary argued with Tim continually, always the same argument. He claimed she was overreacting, that Lucas was fine, he was a boy, boys needed more time to grow. The more Mary pushed it, the more she pressed him, the more Tim backed away. He left for work early and stayed late. When he came home he smiled stiffly but he no longer kissed her. When she had been pregnant with Lucas they had taken long walks, holding hands, so that Mary could stay fit. They had talked about their future, about who the baby would resemble, where he might go to school. They discussed money and the nursery and food. They talked, Mary knew now, about useless things. Things that meant nothing in the end.
Mary took Lucas to the grocery store. He was a good toddler, quiet. Old ladies smiled at her. What a darling baby, they said. What a blessing. She smiled back, acting as though everything were normal. And then she berated herself for feeling as though they weren’t. She piled up the cart, lingering too long over the fleshy oranges, the cereal choices, always buying more than she should. At the check stand she added magazines she didn’t need that had bright covers with pretty colors and straight lines, magazines that when she got home were disappointing in that they made her feel little. She bought gum and toe clippers and Blistex, throwing them on to the moving belt in those last moments, savoring every last minute of the time she was out in the world, not yet home again, where it was just her and Lucas.
When they reached the check out line, Lucas always leaned to feel the belt moving under his small palm. His eyes lit up as the black surface began to move and then disappeared underneath, to somewhere unknown. Sometimes, after she paid, he would scream with anger that he couldn’t stay, couldn’t keep his hand on the moving belt, couldn’t get out of the cart and go look to see where the belt went as it vanished beneath the counter. The salesgirls said things like, Someone needs a nap, or, he doesn’t want to leave us, or they just smiled compassionately at Mary as she rushed him out of the store.
When Tim came home later, Mary let out her breath, rarely aware she had been holding her core so still throughout the day. She followed him to the playroom and leaned against the doorjamb as Tim threw Lucas into the air while Lucas squealed. She watched, trying to think of something to say, something that wouldn’t set Tim off in anger, that would make him see her, really see her there in the doorway. More often than not, she said nothing and went instead to the kitchen where she opened the cupboards and tried to find something to make for dinner. How had she bought so much each day, and yet there was never anything to eat?
At night they lay in bed, turned away from one another, both with eyes wide, thinking the exact same things: what would happen to Lucas? What would happen to them? How would they find their way?
Lucas, now three and a half, no longer played with blocks or the buttons on the bear. Now he liked towels, pillowcases, anything he could wrap around the couch’s seat cushion, always the same one. When Mary did laundry, he came to get more towels. He liked a range of colors – red, yellow, green, and striped. And he carried them in a pile to his seat cushion where, one at a time, he carefully and thoroughly pressed each over it, as though making his own slipcovers. He began to use words again, one at a time, hard-won, and Mary savored each one. She loved his voice. Sometimes she felt like she would have given away everything she owned just to hear him use those few words. First he said, “store.” Then he spoke the names of all the colors. He began to point, but almost only at words, and he said each one, reading them.
See? Tim said. There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s a genius is what he is.
Mary didn’t disagree. She didn’t think there was anything wrong with him. That wasn’t the right word: wrong. She knew Tim misunderstood this in her, that there was no explaining what she really felt, which she wasn’t sure she knew how to explain anyway. There were no words for where she was, just like how for Lucas there were so often no words.
One day, when Mary and Lucas were at the store, she saw him for the first time. He was there alone, picking through the Fuji apples and placing them in a bag. He had dark hair and tea-colored skin. He glanced up and they met eyes. At the check stand, she let Lucas down to inspect the belt. He ran his fingers along the place where the belt met the counter, where it went away, that place where two things happened at once, where there was movement and disappearance and meaning. He bent down to look under the counter, silently investigating, trying to see what went on below the surface, in the places he couldn’t see. The man came up behind them.
He said, What are you looking for, little man?
Lucas, of course, didn’t answer, didn’t look up, which didn’t matter because the man was already looking at Mary. They smiled at each other.
He’s always busy, Mary said, answering for Lucas as she always did. She paid and took Lucas’s hand, who no longer cried when they left, and she glanced again at the man.
His name was Gregory. He was a lawyer, married like Mary. He and his wife had been unable to conceive. On days his wife assumed he was at work, and Lucas was at his special needs preschool, Gregory and Mary met at her house and had sex in the bed where Mary and Tim slept together but no longer touched.
In the afternoons, Mary took Lucas to the airport where Lucas could examine the moving sidewalks. He went from one to the other – there were ten in all in the two terminals – and watched the place where the belts disappeared. Often he crouched down to touch them, which Mary allowed unless someone was coming and needed to step there. In the next year, Lucas also liked to stand on the belt and let it carry him along. He laughed as he went, which made the people who were also on the moving sidewalk laugh too. And this made him laugh even more. Mary watched him, always nervous as he slipped away. She went with him, or she raced ahead to meet him at the other side. But as the months passed she began to give him more autonomy, knowing she needed to trust him more, to find inside herself a self like all the mothers she saw around her every day, mothers who seemed carefree and unconcerned, mothers she never felt she could be, considering. So she forced herself to just stand there while Lucas moved along the belt. And Lucas smiled at his mother, watching her grow smaller and smaller, away from him.
Tim was at work all day, of course. He felt guilty about this. Terrible, gnawing guilt. And the guiltier he felt, the more he stayed away. He told his boss he wanted to get more involved, to be sent on assignments around the US. He was an engineer who designed air conditioners. He liked his work okay, but on these trips he acted as though there were nothing he cared more about than those damn air conditioners. He spoke at length with the sales guys about his air conditioner’s unique qualities, how his air conditioner put out more BTUs per square-footage than any other on the market, and still used less energy. In the evenings he stripped down to his boxer shorts and watched ESPN on the hotel’s widescreen. He ordered in room service – eight-dollar cheeseburgers and five-dollar Cokes. He didn’t think about where his life was going, or whether he still loved his wife, or if he was happy. He just did these things until he went home again, where he played with his son who he loved more than life, and then he disappeared again on the next trip.
It dawned on Mary that Lucas had been making a conveyor belt with the towels and the sofa cushion. She took him with her to the hardware store, where she helped him pick out wheels and a sheet of rubber and wire. They took it all home and she watched him try to put it together into a workable structure. She couldn’t stop smiling. Her heart felt so big. With Gregory, with whom she had shared all her feelings, her sorrow and her fears and her confusion, she told him about Lucas’s interest. She said maybe her son would grow up to make conveyor belts.
Is that the worst thing for someone to grow up and do?
They laughed together, and she felt happy for a little while, less weighted. Such precious moments, where it seemed everything would be okay.
As Tim was away more and more, Mary invited Gregory over more too. She was careless, leaving used condoms in the bathroom garbage, holding Gregory’s hand in public places. Lucas began to call him by name. Hi, Gregory, and Gregory, let’s go. Mary knew this was dangerous, that things were spinning out of control, moving and moving, like the sidewalks at the airport.
And then one day, while Gregory was at their house, she couldn’t find Lucas. She had been having sex with Gregory in her bedroom. Obviously, she shouldn’t have. Obviously this was a terribly irresponsible thing to do. She had assumed Lucas was in the playroom, putting together conveyor belts. He had made seven already that he maneuvered with a crank. She had bought him fake groceries to send down the line, but she saw that he didn’t care what went on there. He put all sorts of things – stuffed animals, balls, books, paper. He bent over to watch them fall off the other side, again and again, a look of consternation on his face.
What are you looking for? She asked him, knowing he wouldn’t answer. What are you trying to find?
But this day, he wasn’t in the playroom where she had left him. He wasn’t in his bedroom or the kitchen or the bathroom. She ran from room to room, her heart beating wildly, calling his name. Gregory joined her, calling his name too. She had left the door unlocked and there it was hanging open, wide to the unknown world. She wanted to destroy herself. She couldn’t hate herself more. She ran out there, Gregory behind her.
Lucas! She called Please!
They got in the car and drove along the streets. Inside, she was hollow. She drove to the store. Could he have gone there, to see the moving belts? But he wasn’t there. The airport was too far away for him to walk to.
They went home and she called the police. She was numb, sick with the fear that she had lost him.
He’s autistic, she said.
There was some muffled conversation on the phone, and then the officer came back on. We’ll be right there, he said.
She called Tim, who was in Salt Lake City.
What do you mean he’s missing? Tim yelled. How could you lose our son?
Fuck you! She yelled back. You’ve never been here! You know nothing! You know nothing!
He slammed down the phone but he took a cab to the airport where he got on the first flight home. He went to the airport bar where he ordered a scotch to stay calm, so he wouldn’t explode or start sobbing or something else he could not do, not here, not yet, not when his son was surely fine.
Mary opened the door to the cops.
Is this the boy’s father? They asked.
Mary turned to Gregory. She was so ashamed, so sick. She shook her head.
I better go, Gregory said, and he kissed her on the head as he left.
What time did your son disappear? The policeman asked. He was a huge man, heavy and balding. He sat at her dining room table, taking notes.
I don’t know, she said. Two, I think.
He looked at her. His small eyes crinkled at the corners. You think?
Two. It was two. She held her hands in front of her on the table across from him. She looked at them.
Where were you at this time?
I was here, with him. He’s only five.
The policeman nodded, and she looked again at her hands. She wasn’t with him. She hadn’t been with him.
We’ll start our search in a five-mile radius, the policeman said. Do you have a photograph for us?
Of course I do. She got up to get one from the kitchen. You’ll find him, right? Promise me you’ll find him.
We’ll do our best, ma’am.
She held the door for the policeman, and then she stepped out after him. She could barely breathe, the fear a boa constrictor around her throat. She walked around the side of the house, past the overgrown hydrangea bush she had not tended to since Lucas had been born, past the vegetable garden she hadn’t weeded or thought about in years. She had wasted so much time feeling sorry for herself. She knew without a doubt that if Lucas were really gone she could not continue to live. He was her baby, her sweet son, her everything.
It was in this moment that she heard something. A scuffle. Something moving along the dirt. Her heart sped up and she moved more quickly to the back of the house and the deck. There was a hole in the lattice that hid the area beneath the deck. It had been there since they bought the house eight years ago, something they had always meant to repair. She peered in and there was Lucas. She breathed out, the sound low and animal-like, a sound she didn’t recognize as her own. Lucas did not look up at her. He was too busy moving his hands along the edges of the deck, where it dropped off and the world vanished beneath it. He sat in this netherworld, and she sat on the outside trying to see him in the darkness.
Lucas, she whispered. Come here. Are you hurt? Come here now.
He came slowly, and once he was out she held him close.
Are you hurt? Let me see you.
He smiled. Store, he said, meaning he wanted to go to the store to see the conveyor belts. She hugged him again, everything inside her unraveling. In the house she called the police station and apologized. She knew it was too late to call Tim. She held Lucas on her lap, smelling his warm scent, feeling his solid flesh.
You can’t do that again, she told him. You can’t just disappear.
He said nothing. She couldn’t know what he understood. She couldn’t know anything at all.