Leaving is hard. Alma’s daughter is 34 years old but still—leaving her is hard. Nearly two decades earlier, Becca was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. It’s an odd disability. Becca looks fine. She reads college-level books. Only something is slightly off-kilter. Her mind is a computer that uploads thousands of disconnected links. And no matter how many birthdays have passed or how adultlike she looks, there is a part of Becca that remains childlike and dependent. She will always need her mother’s help.
Alma and Rick can’t remember the last time they traveled alone. It’s never the two of them. Their vacation is in the Rockies, thousands of miles away from their hometown. The Tetons ring the hotel. Even though it’s July, the air smells like Christmas. They open drawers and closet doors as if something is missing. Perhaps the altitude has affected them. It’s a little hard to breathe.
Rick, a lawyer, tackles relaxation like a work project. He makes lists, weighs options, pushes through.
“How about hiking Cascade Canyon?” Trail maps are sprawled on the bed. “Let’s try fly fishing,” he offers. “How about the county fair?”
He holds out a brochure. A pig is squirming in a wooden barrel, trying to fight its way out. “There’s a rodeo, livestock competition, demolition derby, pig wrestling.” Rick wears Italian suits to work and hundred-dollar ties. But drop him in the mountains, and suddenly he’s the Marlboro man. Muddied. Unkempt. As happy as that pig before it saw the barrel.
Their daughter calls. The cell phone never leaves Alma’s pocket. It tethers them like an umbilical cord 24 hours a day. Becca is weeping. She has all the signs of a bladder infection, but it’s the weekend. Alma speaks slowly, calmly. Like Siri, the disembodied voice.
“Phone Dr. Grossman,” Alma tells her. The doctor who delivered Becca knows her. Even though it’s the weekend, he will return the call. “The answering service will take a message, and he’ll call you back. Give him the number of your pharmacy. Remember. Call him. As soon as we hang up.”
Like most people on the autism spectrum, Becca has an unusual tolerance for pain. Her mother knows that if she’s complaining, she must feel awful. Only Alma forgets to tell her to wait at home for the doctor’s call. Or to give the answering service her cell phone number.
A hallmark of autism is the inability to think on your feet. To adjust to circumstance. It requires a kind of flexibility Becca is incapable of. Instead, she leaves the house and goes grocery shopping. When Alma calls her daughter that evening, Becca has just gotten home. Three messages are on the landline machine. All from Dr. Grossman.
Keeping busy keeps them distracted. Rick’s always on the move, afraid to sit still. When he sits still, he thinks of depositions and hearings and aggravating clients. Alma thinks about Becca.
They loop a lake. Families are canoeing, swimming, fishing. Alma is ducking branches, watching her footing, listening for bears. Then she sees her, about five yards away. The child is about eight years old, walking with her family, sandwiched between two siblings. The trail’s narrow and winding and all she catches are glimpses between the leaves and shadows. But one thing is certain. The child is bald. Her skin’s pebble gray and circles raccoon her eyes.
She’s a cosmic blunder. A tropical dolphin arcing a glacial lake. They’re hiking in God’s playground where the weather’s perfect and the scenery takes away your breath. What could be more out of place, more disconcerting than a sick child? Alma’s pulled back home like a fish on filament. She thinks about Becca. How far away she is. How she’s not there to help.
That night, Rick and Alma are ambushed at dinner. They’re sitting in the fanciest restaurant in town, treating themselves to a $200 meal. Wine. Steak. Candles. Across from them, maybe four feet away, is a family. Mom. Dad. A teenage son. A girl who looks around 12.
But it’s hard to tell. She’s one of those kids who can’t be boxed, who defy description. Thin, long-limbed, birdlike. Her brown hair is a thatch of tufts. Sitting on the floor by her side is a pile of stuffed animals, notebooks, an iPad. While the rest of her family is engaged in conversation, she’s stenciling and coloring. Her mother is handing her the objects stashed on the floor without even looking. Up down. Up down.
In between the coloring, the child flaps. The girl shakes her hands so hard it’s a wonder her wrists don’t break. While she’s coloring, her brow is knitted, her mouth straight. But flapping provides an instant release. She smiles, mumbles to herself, laughs.
Alma knows this child. Twenty years ago this child was her daughter. Like Becca, she lives in a force field where the slightest touch startles her. Sure enough, when her mother inches over to whisper in her ear, the child pulls away. Alma knows this child. A hug or a kiss would make her flinch. Alma and her husband hold their forks like scepters. They can’t eat. They can’t drink. The child glances at them, flaps.
By the next morning, Becca has spoken with the doctor. She’s gotten a ride to the pharmacy. Alma mentally shelves this minor disaster and braces herself for the next. Meanwhile, she and Rick head to the county fair. He’s wearing his Levis and cowboy hat. He hasn’t shaved in days.
It’s a 20-ring circus. One tent boasts a fiddling contest. In another are hens, pigs, sheep. Dozens of carnie booths hawk their prizes, while every kind of junk food’s on the grill. Alma is drawn to a corral off to the side of the fairground. A small crowd is leaning on the fence. Young girls on their horses are lined up waiting for their turn.
They are just a few feet away from the gate. Workmen rake the dirt, putting downed poles back in place. It looks like some sort of obstacle course. Meanwhile, the next competitor is getting ready. Alma’s not sure how old she is because someone has applied a mask of makeup. A blond French braid sits on her neck. A sequined cowgirl shirt sparkles. Even though her posture is ramrod straight, there’s no hiding the little girl belly that sits on her saddle. Alma’s guessing the child is around ten, maybe eleven.
Her chin tilts towards the sun, her parents give her a final pep talk, then she starts crying like an opened sluice. The girl is clearly too petrified to enter the ring. Her chin quivers, her chipmunk cheeks are soaked with tears. When Rick says, “I feel like some fried dough, let’s go let’s go, I believe there is a pop-a-shot, too,” Alma waves him off. She can’t leave. Her fingers wrap themselves around the fence, coiled like barbed wire. A wrangler walks over and says loud enough for everyone to hear, “You can do this, Carly. Once you start, you can do this. I know you can, Carly. Just START!”
The child is sobbing so hard her shoulders shake, her feet in the stirrups jerk in all directions. Somehow she holds the reins, does a figure eight around the posts, takes a letter out of one mailbox and sticks it in another. There’s a jacket on a fence that she grabs and dumps into a barrel. When her horse panics, when it refuses to step on a blue plastic tarp that’s thrown across the ground, the wrangler mercifully walks over, takes the horse by the bridle, and leads it along.
The other competitors finish the course in around ten minutes, but it takes the chubby girl almost a half hour. Alma is still clutching the fence, her mouth dry, her eyes wet, her fingers numb. Rick has reappeared. He is staring at Alma with his worried face, a candied apple in one hand, a hot dog in another.
“Wow,” he says. “That same kid with the sequined shirt. Wow.”
Alma watches her exit the ring. The child’s mascara has streaked, her lipstick is long gone. When she raises her cowboy hat, her plaited hair is matted. Nevertheless, she is triumphant. Her parents high-five her. Strangers clap. Alma walks over to her horse’s flank and looks up. There’s a guy announcing the calf roping results and dogs barking and cows mooing so she shouts. “You looked great,” she says. “You’re so brave,” she says. “I wish I could be so brave.”
Poised like a queen, the child looks down. When she speaks, her voice is surprisingly low, as steady as her horse. “Thank you very much,” she says. Then she faces the crowd, holds up her hand, and rotates her wrist, waving to her admirers.
That night, for the first time in 34 years, Alma doesn’t speak to her daughter. There’s no recap of the day’s activities. No good night rituals. Instead, she stashes her cell phone in a hotel drawer and turns the TV volume on high. The effort is exhausting. Dizzying. She feels like she’s falling through space. Sometimes, thinks Alma, there’s so little to hold onto while the ride feels so desperately long.
This story was originally published in Steam Ticket volume 18 in a slightly different form.