MEET ME HERE - Cheryl Jacobson
The playroom is the most organized part of the house. It is filled with well-intentioned toys. They cover a random spectrum of age-level and interest. It would be difficult to detect an obvious parenting philosophy. There are matchbox cars, a fully equipped play kitchen, water guns, still shrink-wrapped wooden puzzles, the plush casts of animated films, noisy, flashy storybooks rendered harmless by the removal of batteries, a box of plastic animals, things claiming to be learning toys, and many unplayed games with rule booklets for 2-4 players. The room appears well-maintained for a place with so much stock, though a thin layer of dust sits on much of the cardboard, molded plastic and die-cast metal. One notable exception is a set of colorful wooden trains, kept separate from their adult-assembled track and lined up on the window pane, today in order of engine number. A faded and flattened globe bean bag sits in the corner.
David stares out the window of the car, thinking about Aunt Lulu’s playroom. He wonders if there will be anything new this time. He has been hoping for a football goal for the back garden but thinks this is unlikely. And anyway, his mother won’t let him bring his ball anymore.
Lulu manages to get to the door just after the third ring. She greets David and Rose with a tired smile while sweeping her unwashed hair back in a loose scrunchie. David gives her a quick hug and runs into the playroom to take inventory. Rose leans in to give Lulu a peck on each cheek while handing her sister a canvas bag of books and offering up individual blurbs for each one. Rose continues with her commentary as she proceeds to the kitchen to put on the kettle and pop the apricot kasha muffins she has perfected into the oven. On the table, the package of chocolate digestives Lulu had been so relieved to find that morning in the back of the cupboard sits unopened atop the plate she hadn’t completely dried by the second ring. She discreetly wipes the plate and uses the slightly damp tea towel to rub off the superficial tea stains on one of the mugs she put out while trying to focus on what Rose is saying about the muffins and the books over the steadily steaming kettle.
David is disappointed to discover that there are no new toys in the playroom, although that isn’t quite true because some of the old toys are still in their packaging so, basically, they are new, but David’s mum told him that it is not right to open something that isn’t already open because it is not his. As David heads towards a bag of dinosaurs he notices that there is something different about the playroom. There are signs everywhere–labeled, laminated cards with photos of some of the items on the shelves and in the bins around the room: RED CAR, TIGER, FLAG PUZZLE. The Thomas the Tank Engine set that his Aunt Lulu once gently asked him not to play with as a favor to her, after assuring him he could play with anything else, has labels on each train: THOMAS, HENRY, GORDON. Today JAMES is missing. He also notices three signs on the door, all with accompanying photos: DOOR, OPEN, CLOSED.
Rose pours the tea and observes with approval the new signs Lulu is using in the kitchen and asks if the communication system recommended by the speech therapist is working and, has she noticed any progress with Tom. She makes a mental note that Lulu has apparently used Times New Roman when Rose distinctly remembers reading somewhere that Comic Sans is the best font for signs like these but, in a rare moment of self-censorship, she doesn’t mention it. Rare, but becoming less so, Rose thinks to herself. She has to suppress many of her thoughts these days as Lulu seems to be letting things slide. Still, the presence of the digestives really has to be mentioned, especially after the article Rose sent Lulu about the dangers of gluten, casein, and of course, sugar. Sometimes she wonders if Lulu even reads the articles.
Tom is jumping on the new jumping thing in the garden. It is a red day (red for Aunt Rose) so James, the red engine, is his companion, tight in his grip. Jumping can happen inside or outside. This Sunday, the sky is blue and the sun is shining so, outside. Next Sunday, if it rains, his mum says he can take the mattress off of his bed and put it on the floor and jump, but only if Aunt Rose is not around.
Lulu realizes that she had stopped listening to her sister a few minutes ago and that there is a pause which probably means that she has been asked a question. She decides that the best course of action is to ask Rose about where she got the recipe for the muffins--the weird, tasteless, dry muffins that she felt obligated to try and then would have to offer to Tom if he comes in from jumping on his new trampoline, the anticipation of which prompted her inattention in the first place. That and the fact that she stayed up late last night making those signs. She plans to really give the communication system a go next week. In the meantime, she hopes that Tom does not come in and that she can just talk to Rose about Tom and let those updates speak for themselves, without being tested.
David thinks that the new signs are strange and unnecessary. Everyone knows what the door is. He wonders whether the signs have something to do with the fact that Tom doesn’t speak.
The playroom, despite all that it has to offer, has never been something that could hold David’s attention for long, so he wanders over to the kitchen to ask if he can go outside. His mum made it very clear in the car on the way over that David was to model his best manners while at Aunt Lulu’s because there are no excuses for bad behaviour, and it would be best if he played quietly inside this time. David hopes that she will let him go outside anyway because he has been good on this visit so far. In the kitchen, his mum asks if he’d like to stay and tell Aunt Lulu about the new chapter-book he’s reading on the Ancient Egyptians. He would have done this, reluctantly, but Aunt Lulu said it is a shame to stay inside while it is so nice, so why doesn’t he head out to the garden and that there is a new trampoline and that Tom is out there.
Rose watches David as he carefully pleads with her for permission to go outside. His eyes stay focused on her face, only breaking the line for a quick side glance at Lulu. Rose makes no attempt in her facial expression to hide her reservations about the trampoline. She makes a few coded suggestions to David, using keywords and subtle intonations that she hopes might remind him of the talk they had earlier in the car, but he is either not picking up on these hints or willfully ignoring them. Either way, she finds his earnest, mannerly responses annoying. His refusal to accept one of her alternative indoor suggestions will be dealt with in the car on the way home. She is fairly certain that Lulu is oblivious to this demonstration of defiance, and this provides some consolation to Rose.
Lulu assures Rose several times that professionals installed the trampoline and that the safety net is secure. She hopes that David and Tom will finally play together today and that there will not be a repeat of the last visit when her sister tried to facilitate a game of football between the two boys.
Tom knows that David is outside. He thinks that David doesn’t have a ball which is a relief because it is so hard to know which way the ball is going when he kicks it and not being able to predict the way the ball is going makes Tom very nervous. Aunt Rose is still in the kitchen with his mum which is an even bigger relief but it also makes him nervous.
David wishes that his cousin liked football. Aunt Lulu’s garden is a long rectangle which is perfect for a home pitch. If Tom liked football, things would be easier. But you can’t force someone to like something—he learned that last week. David remembers it differently from the way his mother reported it to his dad when they got home last Sunday. She said things like ‘body awareness’, ‘spoiled’, ’gross motor skills’ and ‘poor Lulu.’ The last of these confused David because nothing happened to Aunt Lulu that day. David wishes Tom liked football, or reading, or dinosaurs, partly because he himself likes those things but there is another reason. It is just a feeling, but he thinks that if Tom liked one of those things, then his mum might leave Tom alone. And maybe Aunt Lulu wouldn’t cry sometimes when he and his mum came over. Maybe that’s what she means by poor Lulu.
Rose is nearly finished with the kitchen. It looks like it hadn’t been properly cleaned since last Sunday. The milk chocolate digestives are open. Lulu just cannot help herself. You can lead a horse to water, thinks Rose. She puts away the package and thinks she might slip it into the bin before she leaves but then stops herself. That would be too harsh and honestly what is the point. Rose loves Lulu, carefree, absentminded Lulu. She knows Lulu loves Tom, but love is not enough. Special diets, cutting edge programs, any interventions that might cure Tom should be considered (‘cure’ is Rose’s word when she talks about this situation to others–she uses the word ‘benefit’ with Lulu). Rose has never understood her sister’s way of dealing with a crisis. Rose thinks if Tom were her son, he would be talking, behaving, and fitting in and has said as much to her friends, at least the ones who don’t know Lulu. As it is, without the consistency, without the commitment, without the discipline, Tom will always be different. And poor David, with his understandable expectations of a cousin his age—where is the playmate he deserves? Life can be unfair sometimes.
And she must remember to find that article about fonts for those signs.
Tom would like to be a train but his mum calls him her mountain goat. She says this is because a) he likes to jump, as he is doing right now; b) he is her kid, which is a name for a baby goat; and c) he can see what’s going on around him very well, scanning for danger with half-moon eyes. Tom’s special side-to-side vision is a strong force, mostly for better but sometimes for worse. For better, when it provides an enjoyable distraction, like when he is walking past a chain link fence on a bright day and the wire diamonds and sunlight create a dazzling pattern to get lost in. For worse, when those distractions make an adult cross, and he gets confused because the adult keeps saying his name and other words, over and over, louder and faster, until he stops and the spell is broken.
For better, when it is just like a mountain goat, letting him know that something is coming so that he can be ready. He is always trying to be ready. It takes all of his energy. It is hard to know what being ready means because every day, and every person, is different.
David approaches the trampoline then stops. Tom is jumping with his back to the house. He is flapping his arms, with something in his right hand, and David can tell even from the back that Tom is happy. As he moves closer, he can hear the thump-squeak of the springs, and something else. Tom is making noise. No, Tom is talking. Saying something in rhythm. David cannot quite make it out. It is a list. It sounds familiar. He’d like to get on the trampoline but he’s not sure. This is a different Tom. A Tom that speaks or maybe sings. Aunt Lulu has said that Tom is a ‘very happy boy’ to his mum. David could imagine someone looking at Tom right now and having no choice but to shout those words at the top of their lungs because it’s the only thing to say. A VERY HAPPY BOY! David wonders if anyone has ever thought that when they looked at him.
Lulu thanks Rose for the books, the muffins, website recommendations, and for cleaning the kitchen. Her kitchen always looks great after Rose comes to visit, and of the many things Rose comes to offer on Sundays, it is by far the most appreciated. It really helps. She will try some of the recipes in the cookbook, she promises, and who knows, maybe Rose and David could come for an actual meal and stay longer. Rose seems to think that could happen one day but tells Lulu that she should concentrate on making good meals for herself and Tom first and that she has her hands full without worrying about entertaining. Lulu would not have used the word ‘entertaining’ but nods in agreement all the same because it was easier and besides Rose would be leaving soon.
The two sisters go out to the garden to get the boys.
Tom is jumping with David. Tom is not entirely sure how this new situation came about but he finds it incredibly satisfying. He remembers watching David approach the trampoline. After triple-checking out of the corner of his eye, Tom was certain that David did not have a ball so he carried on jumping and naming World Cup winners which he had memorised from the almanac that Aunt Rose had given him for his birthday, or more precisely the pull-out poster that came with it. Tom was not interested in the book at first, or football, but his mum hung the poster with the list of all of the winners since 1930 on the wall next to his bed.
One night, after a perfect day, his mum sat next to him and pointed to each flag on the poster, one by one, and said the country names in a very pleasing rhythm: Uruguay, Italy, Italy, Uruguay, West Germany… until he fell asleep. She did this every night for a week until one time his mum fell asleep on the sofa before bedtime and didn’t come in so he whispered the countries to himself as he looked at the flags on the poster. This, finally, seemed like a good reason to use his voice.
Now Tom chants the list when he wants to feel calm. He chants it when something doesn’t happen the way he expects it to. The list is knowable and comforting and he never gets it wrong and that is a good place to be.
And now he is jumping with David who is also chanting which is very pleasurable indeed.
The sun is low in the sky and so blinding that when the sisters step outside, they instinctively stop talking and shield their unprepared eyes. The pause in conversation allows the new sounds at the far end of the garden to make their way to the unsuspecting ears of the mothers as they walk towards the circular shadow of the trampoline. Their watering eyes adjust to see two child-shaped, connected silhouettes come into view: individuals, as familiar as their own heartbeats; together, as hopeful as a blazing, beautiful dawn.