Three young women, dressed in black tights, puckered their ruby-red-lipstick lips while they sang tunes from the thirties and tap-danced on a plywood plank set in the middle of the sidewalk. Across the street, where Seventh Avenue meets West Fourth Street, a sixty-year-old woman sang opera without the benefit of accompaniment. Street vendors hawked “no-nuke” T-shirts, leather belts and African bead necklaces. A couple, complete with green knee guards and headbands, roller-skated around the strollers, expertly avoiding body contact.
Francisca and Roby kept turning their heads, distracted and delighted by the intense activity. They gaped wide-eyed, like infants, at the circus of humanity around them. This marked our fourth stop in a walking excursion through lower Manhattan. Not only did Suzi and I want to share the city with them, we wanted to expose them to other experiences away from the workroom and the house on Thelma Street. This departure from the schedule had the same value and significance as any other ingredient in Robertito’s program. We did not want to over-orchestrate their lives; we wanted to love them by helping them understand the importance of their whole universe as a connected circuit, that caring for themselves was a direct and vital way of caring for their son.
We introduced Francisca and Roby to “dun-tahs” in Chinatown, to smooth cappuccinos in Little Italy and to avocado-tofu salads in Soho. After we completed our stroll through the Village, we hailed a taxi to the Whitney Museum on Madison.
In the lobby, Francisca bumped into a guard and quickly excused herself. The man’s stone-like disinterest startled her. Francisca stared at him, squinting her eyes and rubbing the back of her head.
“Hey, Bears, what’s wrong with him?” she said, speaking very slowly.
“Perhaps, he’s sleepy,” I responded simplistically, confined by my limited Spanish vocabulary.
“No, Bears,” she insisted. “Look, he doesn’t move.”
Suzi and I trudged over to the officer, who stood sentry in front of a locked door.
“Francisca, at least he breathes,” I assured her.
Roby hid his smirk from his wife. Francisca inched closer. Her eyes scrutinized the man’s chest. At that moment, a number of people joined her to inspect the guard. They pointed to his mustache, his eyelids and the shadow of stubble just visible on his chin. He held his position in total disregard of the observers. His downcast eyes avoided any direct confrontation. Suddenly, Francisca burst out laughing and hugged her husband in embarrassment. She had been duped by a piece of sculpture, one of many on display in the museum which presented the uncanny illusion of actual biological life.
Our arrival at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts highlighted the day. A friend had given me courtesy tickets to the American Ballet Theater’s performance of Swan Lake at the Metropolitan Opera House. The complex buildings, with their facades of glass, aluminum and marble, hypnotized the Sotos. Roby gaped at the patterns of floating people visible through three stories of windows as they glided between floors on silver escalators.
Francisca put her hand over her mouth as we entered the opera house. Her eyes could barely absorb the beauty of the endless rows of chandeliers which dotted the interior of the theater. Roby’s mouth dropped open unconsciously as he observed the collage of humanity, people draped in tuxedos and gowns standing beside others in jeans and worn overalls.
Even as we were ushered to our seats, Roby stretched his neck to view the various balconies which ringed the huge hall. Francisca stared at the diamond-like formation of lights suspended from the ceiling.
The overture filled the darkness. Suzi pulled herself close to me. Francisca and Roby focused on the curtains, waiting to see their first ballet.
“I’m so happy for them,” Suzi whispered. We both watched our dear friends, silently sharing their involvement. Panic no longer quivered by their lips. Their son and their situation had become more comprehensible and joyful to them. In their search to touch Robertito, they had begun to touch themselves.
The music swept through the audience like waves of warm water. I had always felt a certain aloofness to ballet. This night, the choreographed allegory swept me beyond the confines of my seat. Maybe the presence of Roby and Francisca had made a difference. Maybe I had opened another doorway and made myself more available to the experience. The dancers’ world became my world. Their story became the only story. A complete absorption. The stage floor began to ripple like the surface of a small lake. Had my retina and mind conspired to give me the illusion and added depth of an actual Swan Lake? I closed my eyes and reopened them only to discover the water on the black floor had become even more vivid, I turned away, then looked back. Occasional ripples fluttered beneath the dancer’s feet. I closed my eyes once more.
“Anything wrong?” Suzi said in a hushed voice.
“Just experimenting,” I said nonchalantly. She smiled at me in the same motherly way she smiled at Raun. Suzi locked her arm tightly around mine and gave her full attention back to the ballet.
The darkness became heavy like thick pea soup. The music and moving figures retreated into the dense fog as my awareness focused solely on the floor of the stage. I did not see water the way I saw the chair or the walls in the theater. I sensed the water so vividly that I experienced its presence without seeing it. No vision. No three-dimensional hallucination. Only the lingering knowledge of water … more dominant in my mind than all the activity in the theater. I negotiated with myself to accept this peculiar distraction.
In the midst of my internal dialogue, I felt the presence of someone else on the stage, someone who did not belong. I strained my eyes, searching among the dancers. Then, in center stage, away from the activity of the plot which the performers enacted on the left portion of the stage, I sensed the form of a small boy. He was there, yet I knew he was not there. My eyes riveted on his illusive form, too small and too vague to identify. Who was he? What was he doing on stage? No, not on stage … what was he doing in my mind? The ripples marred the flat surface of the dance floor again. The child began to sink… to drown. His arms grabbed wildly for some support. Even as the applause filled the theater and the performers took their bows, I saw only the trauma behind the dancers. Francisca and Roby bubbled with their enthusiasm to Suzi. I remained apart. Though the curtain had fallen, my eyes still perceived the stage, the water and the child, whose form continued to recede beneath the threatening liquid. Then, like a shockwave, my body became rigid in response to a voice, my own voice, which screamed Raun’s name somewhere deep inside.
“Wait here!” I said abruptly to Suzi and I bolted from the seat. Adrenaline flooded my arteries, throwing my nervous system into high gear. Everything around me seemed to move in slow motion. Pushing past the people promenading leisurely up the aisle during intermission became a profoundly difficult task, “Excuse me. Excuse me. Thanks. Just let me pass, please; I have to pass,” I clamored, weaving through the murky chatter and bulky bodies. Interlocked arms stretched across the entrance to the lobby like a tight scrimmage line. The obstacle course continued even as I approached the escalator and the long column of people poised in front of it. Turning away, I grabbed the railing of a staircase and lunged downward. “Raun. Not Raun. Please, not Raun,” I cried breathlessly to myself. The imagery of the stage floor propelled me across the bottom step with such force that I lost my balance in an attempt to avoid a young woman crossing my path. I stumbled, using my hands against the floor to stabilize my body. Eyes peered at me quizzically, curiously, reflecting an ironic tolerance for my irregular behavior.
“Where are the phones?” I asked an usher. Though he stood within two feet of me, the time required for the sound of my voice to reach him felt like a hundred years. His half-smile slowly disappeared from his cheeks. His head dipped in fractional movements, an instant replay energized by fading batteries. I knew to watch his hand, which rose lethargically from his side of his body to a point over the heads of the other patrons. His index finger aimed at a telephone sign on the other side of the corridor. Before his words reached my ears, my legs had lifted me off the carpet into a half-turn and propelled me toward my destination.
An older man collided with me twenty feet from the telephones. We exchanged quick apologies and continued on our separate journeys. All the booths were occupied. I waited two seconds, then tapped insistently on the first window. “An emergency. It’s an emergency,” I said. The woman shook her finger at me like a scolding mother. She smiled pleasantly, refusing to believe me or separate from her call. The man in the next booth claimed his call also ranked as an emergency.
At the window of the third booth, I displayed a ten-dollar bill. “Ten bucks for the phone this instant.”
“Are you kidding, mister?” the young man questioned suspiciously. Our eyes locked. He belched a quick good-by into the receiver, shook his head and departed without taking the money.
I rumbled through my pants’ pocket. When I jerked my hand free, a barrage of coins exploded to all parts of the booth. Ten cents. Ten cents. I grabbed the first dime and dumped it into the slot. After depositing an additional twenty-five cents, the line connected.
“Hello,” Denise, our baby-sitter, answered in a relaxed voice.
“This is Bears. Don’t ask why … just run upstairs right now and check Raun … then check the girls. Now. Hurry. Go.” I heard the phone receiver drop against the wall. The sweat poured from my forehead. The wetness under my shirt surfaced near my neck. C’mon, Denise, c’mon, I cheered in my mind. Only the banging ear-piece against the wall greeted my urgency. I kept breathing for Raun, filling his lungs with oxygen. Where are you, Denise? I could feel my pulse beat in my gums. Then, I heard footsteps coming toward the other end of the phone. My mind went absolutely blank as if everything I thought or imagined had been completely erased.
“Bears,” the breathless voice began, “they’re okay. Raun and Thea are playing checkers. And Bryn’s reading.”
I moaned my release.
“What’s going on?” Denise asked. “You scared me half to death.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s such a strange story. I had this incredibly, ah, compelling … feeling. I had to make sure Raun and the girls were okay.” I sighed. “Thanks, honey.”
As I climbed the wide staircase to the second floor, I felt light-headed. People had begun to return to their seats for the next portion of the performance. When I entered the theater, I looked toward the stage. The curtain still appeared transparent; the child still sinking in the water. “Oh no,” I groaned aloud. “It’s not Raun; it’s Robertito. Oh, God, it’s Robertito.” I turned in my tracks and raced across the second floor lobby, jumped down the stairs and ran for the phones again.
I dialed the Sotos’ number quickly and got a busy signal. I re-dialed it and re-dialed it and re-dialed it. How could Charlotte be on the phone when she was supposed to be working with Robertito? After twenty additional attempts, I thought of Laura, who lived nearby.
“Hiya,” the voice bellowed into the receiver playfully.
“Rha,” I said.
“Hiya, Bears,” she replied, instantly recognizing my voice.
“I hate to ask you, but you’re the only one who can help.”
“Sure, what is it?” Laura said with concern.
“Right now, go over to the Soto house. I cast get through. The phone’s busy. Just go there and check everything for me. Okay? Could you do that right now?”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said.
“You have to go straight there, okay? No stops. Just straight there. I’ll explain everything later. Listen, I may not sound coherent, but I am.”
Laura hung up the receiver, ran down the stairs and jumped into her Volkswagen. She drove the bug across part of her lawn and bounced over the curb into the street. The urgency disturbed her. A line-up of cars stalled traffic for almost half a mile. Steering her car on the gravel, she whizzed past the log jam, then re-entered the road. Nervousness merged with embarrassment. She felt uncomfortable intruding on Charlotte, checking on her like a nursemaid. But her fleeting self-consciousness disappeared when she thought about her little enigmatic Mexican friend.
The lock yielded easily to the turn of her key. Laura whistled loudly as she entered.
“Charlotte,” she called.
“Who’s there?” came the reply.
“It’s me. Rha. I, uh, left my box of saxophone reeds here. I’m just going to look for it.” Laura paused, counted to three and said: “Everything okay?”
“Honky-dory,” Charlotte sang.
Relieved, Laura began her mock-search in the living room and kitchen. Several seconds later, Charlotte, her hair half-set in curlers, bounced down the stairs.
“I’ll help,” she said. “It’s one of the blue boxes, right?”
Laura nodded sheepishly. “How’s it going?” she asked, intending to inquire about Charlotte’s session with Robertito.
“Tomorrow morning Brad’s taking me to breakfast. Isn’t that neat?” she bubbled. “And Sunday night, it’s time for other friend.”
“You must mean Nick,” Laura said. Charlotte winked. Then, as Laura lifted the pillow from the couch, she realized the ramifications of Charlotte’s presence. We had all agreed not to break a session unless there was an emergency. Certainly her fictitious box of lost reeds did not qualify as an emergency.
“Where’s Robertito?” Laura asked.
“Upstairs,” Charlotte chimed.
“Maybe you’d better get back up, okay?” Laura counseled.
Charlotte smiled. “No rush. He was real hyper tonight, so I stuck him in a bath.”
Laura whipped around. “A bath! Is he in the bath now?” Charlotte nodded casually. “Jesus,” Laura mumbled, pushing past the other woman and running up the stairs.
“What’s the big deal?” Charlotte called, shaking her head as she followed.
Frightened by her own imagination, Laura fought an impulse to scream. How long had they been downstairs together? Two minutes? Three? Was that enough time for a life to be extinguished? Laura tripped up the stairs and charged into the bathroom. “Robertito,” she hollered, catching her first glimpse of the little boy slouched in the corner of the tub. The water level covered his chin completely and rippled around his lips. He babbled incessantly as his face and hands quivered in the cool water. As she reached for him, he began to sink beneath the water. She grabbed him under his arms and pulled him out. The shiver in her own body mirrored his. Laura hugged his nude, wet form. “It’s okay, Tito. You’re okay now.” A tenderness oozed from her body as she tightened her embrace. She thanked the universe for his life. The dam had burst. She knew she loved him with the same intensity as she loved Raun. Laura felt protective, involved, soft and distinctly feminine. In experiencing her caring for Robertito, she knew clearly, for the first time, that she could love any child and every child.
“See, he’s fine!” Charlotte grinned as she casually entered the room.
“What the hell’s the matter with you? He’s not fine. He’s shaking,” Laura barked, surprised at her own voice, as she wrapped him in a towel. “The damn water is freezing.” She paused and inhaled deeply. “Do you realize how dangerous it is to leave him alone, especially in water? He doesn’t have the same responses we do. He could have slid under and drowned.”
“Oh, c’mon,” Charlotte said, now visibly uncomfortable. “He’d be okay.”
“How do you know?” Laura shouted. “He’s not an Olympic swimmer or even a normal six-year-old. He can’t take care of himself. Besides, Charlotte, you’re supposed to be working with him.” The insistent ringing of the phone intruded. As Charlotte went downstairs to answer it, Laura gaped at the other woman. “Wait,” she ordered. “I’ll get it.” Still holding the little boy, she went downstairs and picked up the receiver.
“Hello, Rha … is that you?” I asked.
“Oh, Bears, thank God for your strange feelings,” Laura said.
“Is he okay?” I asked, having dialed the number over one hundred times before getting through.
“Yes. I’ll call you later when you get home,” she said. “I’m going to help put him to sleep.” Laura hung up the phone and stared at Robertito’s trembling lips. He seemed disoriented and lost. His gentle expression matched by his extreme vulnerability overwhelmed her. When she returned to the bathroom, she noticed the hair blower and curlers on the sink. Obviously, with Robertito immersed in the water, Charlotte had decided to set her hair and then apparently abandoned the little boy to go downstairs. In utter disbelief, Laura avoided looking directly at the other woman. She gently wiped the child’s body while he flapped with one hand and said: “Eee-o, eee-o.”
“I’ll do that,” Charlotte declared, toweling his back. “I mean you don’t have to be so upset,” she said, noticing the tension in Laura’s face. “Nothing happened. After all, nothing happened.”
Our telephone rang at five in the morning. Laura, relieved and irrevocably changed by the previous night’s incident, described in detail her experience with Charlotte. Suzi and I listened intently, trying to extract the lesson from what had occurred.
As we drove to the Soto house the following day, I turned to Suzi, “I know Francisca has known for a long time that Charlotte doesn’t belong here. She’s been taking care of her fears, not her wants. If she had trusted herself, last night would not have occurred.”
“Maybe once she and Roby know about it, they’ll decide differently.”
“‘I’m not sure I want to tell them.”
“What?” Suzi exclaimed. “Why not?”
“It’s important to get Francisca and Roby out of the house once in a while. They have never let that child out of their sight in almost six years. Now, tell them this, and they’ll be cemented to him.”
When we arrived, Laura had begun her session with Robertito. Roby and Francisca sat at the kitchen table with an unmistakable expression of excitement and fatigue.
“We want to tell you something,” Francisca announced, talking in a simplified Spanish. “Come. Sit. Coffee? Tea?” After serving us, she continued. “After you dropped us off last night…”
Roby touched his wife’s shoulder. “We want you both to know how grateful we are for everything. We will always remember yesterday. For Robertito, there are no words.”
Had Laura told them despite my suggestion to shelve the incident for the moment?
“All aspects of yesterday were important,” I said.
“Leaving Robertito for a day,” Suzi interjected, “gave you an opportunity to return and see with different eyes.”
“In many ways, that’s true,” Roby concurred. “Mommy, you tell them.”
“Roby and I talked till four in the morning,” she said proudly. “We did, well, sort of an Option session. We asked each other questions like you do, Bears. We discussed the past weeks with Charlotte. I see my own anger and blindness now. So we have decided to ask her to leave, today, this morning. We are not angry with her. We think it would be best for our son and for her. She’s not happy here.” Francisca leaned over and hugged her husband. Suzi and I glanced at each other in awe. Laura, in fact, had not spoken to them about the previous night.
“Maybe, one day, Bears, I will teach Option to Spanish people,” Roby added.
“Charlotte goes,” Francisca reasserted without malice. She and Roby nodded,
“Okay,” I said. “Suzi and I will try to locate another interpreter for tomorrow night. We’ll try. We’ll see.” I smiled and touched their hands. “If we don’t get one, we’ll just keep talking to each other until everyone understands.” We need the fluency and the exacting details of language an interpreter could provide, especially during our Wednesday night meetings.
When we left, I turned to Suzi. “Hey, sweet lady, how come you didn’t tell them?”
“It didn’t seem necessary, at least not now,” she replied. “They explored the problem and found their own answer without even knowing about last night.
That’s really exciting. Really.”
Though Francisca and Roby offered Charlotte the opportunity to continue living with them until she found another job or decided to return home, she departed immediately.
Rita, a gatherer of talented and caring volunteers, filled the translator spot within hours. She introduced Amalia, a gentle and elegant woman who had fled Europe with her family before the onset of the Second World War. Unable to obtain visas to enter the United States, they lived for years in Cuba. Amalia’s general ease with Spanish and her familiarity with our approach through one of Rita’s therapy groups, provided us with a woman who not only translated but further enriched the group with her delicate caring and affection.
The other gap resulting from Charlotte’s exit appeared more difficult to bridge. In the interim, her sessions with Robertito had been distributed among all of us. Suzi and I reviewed the recent letters we received from the piles of hundreds mailed to us each month. We had volunteers from San Diego, Chicago, Des Moines, Portland, Washington, D.C., and countless other cities. We separated those from people who lived within the New York area. We reviewed notes from all the recent telephone calls. And then, ignoring hours of research, Suzi jumped to her feet and declared: “I’ve got it, but it’s not in any of these piles. Remember that girl … when you spoke at the college?”
Suzi smiled. “Not only can’t I remember her name, but I don’t recall the name of the school either.” She kissed me on the forehead. “Don’t go away. I’ll find it.”
Then, as I flipped through more letters, I recalled one particular girl. I had been the guest speaker at her college for a special conference. Following the talk, she attached herself to both Suzi and me. In twenty quick minutes, she flooded Suzi with intimate details of her life story. She had read Son-Rise for a course she had taken the previous semester. She felt as if she had actually worked with Raun, touched his hands, smiled his smiles. The familiarity of incidents recorded on each page haunted her. A door had opened and she refused to let go. Carol. That’s it, I thought. Her name is Carol.
“Here it is,” Suzi boasted. “Your Suzi found it.”
I put my index finger to the center of my forehead like a fortune-teller. “The person is Carol.”
“Hey, that’s not fair,” Suzi clamored, putting on her sad clown face. “Ah-hah,” she beamed. “What you might not know is that the person called me several times since your talk. A super-persistent lady.”
“Feels right,” I concluded. “You know how people always ask how we decide who to work with. Somehow the most persistent person gives you the clearest message. Well, let’s get this Carol person over here.”
She entered our home rather formally attired in a skirt and low heels. Carol’s long hair covered half her back. Her sharp features, the square chin, the cleft, the dark blue eyes, accented a definite determination. When I hugged her, she stiffened without returning the greeting. Nevertheless, her nervousness did not abort her warmth and intensity.
“I can’t tell you what this means to me,” Carol said. “I want to learn to work with people the way you do. Here,” she declared, showing us a Spanish-English dictionary. “I’ve already started learning Spanish. I have two other texts and a third on order.”
Carol Bell had left college and worked in a bank unhappily for five years full time. When she returned to her studies in order to major in special education, she developed a ferocious appetite to learn. Carol was not just another person completing the expected routine from crib to college. She cared about school with an abiding passion. Every course and every text meant something special … an alternative, an opportunity.
We explained the elements of Robertito’s program and the importance of the attitude and our own personal happiness. Her head bobbed up and down excitedly. I purposely described the less attractive details. I gave her a blunt commentary on the experience of changing the diaper of an old boy nearing his sixth birthday. I talked about his possible lack of response for hours … for days. No matter what I presented, how oddly or graphically I portrayed it, Carol kept her head moving. “Yes, yes,” she whispered many times. “If you told me I’d have to assist in open-heart surgery, I’d do it,” she insisted.
Her power and her directness supported her intentions. Only her frequent tendency to speak in a monotone voice and her lack of facial expressiveness concerned me. Carol withheld portions of herself.
“One of the most important things with Robertito is expressiveness,” Suzi said, mind-reading again. “We really cheer him and smile and laugh and kiss him. I mean like this.” Suzi shouted, cheered and applauded an imaginary friend beside her. Then she pantomimed an embrace and finished the monologue with a deep laugh.
Carol smiled easily for the first time. “I’m just a little nervous… but with a kid, it’s different. I can do that. I’ll be fine.”
“Can you start observing right away?” I asked. “I mean like today, this afternoon.” She indicated her affirmation with a slight tilt of her head.
Suzi kissed her, though Carol resisted. “I’m glad you’re with us,” she said. “And one thing we’re going to work on is your hug.” Carol turned red. “Hey, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Most of us were taught to hide behind walls all of our lives.”
“If you don’t want to be hugged, that’s not a prerequisite,” I added, “That’s just the way we tell each other we care.” I paused and peered at her eager face. “I think everybody wants to be hugged … including you.”
Carol allowed a tiny grin to crease her face. “There’s something else you should know. Maybe it will affect your decision.” She stared at the table for several seconds, bit her lip, then blurted: “I’m an epileptic.”
“And I’m six feet three inches tall,” I volunteered.
A second full smile flooded her face. Carol initiated the hugs this time. Though her body felt tight and her eyelids quivered, she grabbed each of us strongly. “I’ll be back at two,” she promised, and left.
Carol lingered in the car outside the house for over ten minutes. She did not want to break the spell. Her thoughts drifted inevitably to her father, who had died just after her fifteenth birthday. She did not just remember him; she pulled his presence close to her, back across ten years of time. The memory of his frail and withered form during those last two years receded against the more powerful image of a younger man. The beautiful eyes. The solid, firm body, The strong facial features. The handsome cleft in his chin, which she, too, had inherited. “Frank would approve,” she thought, mouthing her father’s first name as she turned the ignition and heard his words. “It’s beautiful for a man to cry.”
Instead of going home, Carol drove to her favorite spot, a narrow, rocky jetty which extended out into the Atlantic. She jumped from boulder to boulder until she arrived at the spot where the ocean dove between and under the rocks. A calmness swept through her.
If Robertito, like Raun, can get better, she thought, then maybe I can. Carol knew she had no logical reason to make such a connection, but she did. Her neurologist, aware of her interview with us, asked her with mild sarcasm why she would choose to work with an autistic child … had she expected to cure the incurable? That very word had also been applied to her illness. Incurable! Robertito had to get better, he had to! She placed the first hope she dared to have for herself in the journey of a little boy she had not yet met.
Carol returned in the afternoon and met Francisca, Roby and Laura. I scheduled a dialogue session for her later in the week. Carol would begin with Carol, exploring her own unhappiness, beliefs and judgments. Observing others would lead to tandem teaching. Finally, when she assessed herself as ready, she would begin solo sessions with our young friend. We discussed these components as Suzi worked with Robertito upstairs.
The little boy grabbed Suzi’s hand and placed it in front of her face. They twirled their fingers in front of their eyes simultaneously.
“Can you touch your nose, Robertito?” she asked. “Touch your nose.”
Very slowly, he stopped his “ism” and tapped the palm of his hand to the tip of his nose.
“Fantastico,” Suzi shouted, lavishing him with hugs and kisses. When his body stiffened, she moved away. She had him locate the other features of his face. He pointed to each one, but seemed confused about the location of his ears. Intermittently, Suzi fed him small portions of food.
They worked with a puzzle together, then the pegboard, then the insertion box. She tried again to teach him how to roll a ball. He pushed it awkwardly with the front of his hand, the back of his hand and his wrist. When he paced in a circle, Suzi followed him, babbling as he babbled. Then, experimenting, she turned around and went in the opposite direction. To her surprise, Robertito stopped, side-glanced at her and finally turned around and followed her. She laughed and sang her support as she led the activity.
Later, Robertito sat by himself in the middle of the room while Suzi massaged his hands. Instead of his traditional “eee-o” or “boy-o,” Suzi heard a different combination of sounds. “Ca-a-o,” he said. “Ca-a-o. Ca-a-o.” He slurred the letters into each other, but Suzi tried to decipher them. Then it struck her. “It can’t be,” she blurted in English.
“Caballo? Is that what you’re saying?” she said. “Caballo.” Without delay, she assumed the horseback-ride position. Robertito flopped immediately onto her back. She made some appropriate sounds and then crawled around the room with her rider. “Caballo,” she repeated every couple of seconds. Roby had often used the word horse to describe the rides he gave his son. As she worked with him, hitting the xylophone, he mumbled those same letters again. Suzi called to Francisca to listen. For the next hour Robertito remained characteristically mute. Only the babbling and cooing broke the silence.
Carol replaced Francisca on the sidelines and watched the continuing session. When the little boy held Suzi’s thighs and danced with her, Carol fought back the tears which filled her eyes. She turned away to hide her face, but changed her mind, allowing more of who she was to penetrate the outer walls; for she, too, felt the same comfort and security in the room that she imagined this wonderful, alluring child felt.
After Carol’s departure, I returned home to pick up both Thea and Raun for their sessions with Robertito. “I’ve been thinking,” Raun said in the truck. “Robertito is going to get bigger than me faster than he’s going to get older than me. That’s because he can’t have a birthday every day, but he sure can eat every day.”
Oh, Raunchy,” Thea giggled, patting her brother on the head.
At the Soto house, Roby played catch with Raun while Thea taught in tandem with her mother. They ran and jumped and danced together. Though Thea was three years older than Robertito, her thin and delicate figure appeared miniaturized against his soft yet solid hulk. She laughed in a tiny, high voice each time he imitated her, although the majority of the action followed his lead. Thea tried to teach Robertito how to sniff with his nose, scratching the indicated areas of a “Smell” book filled with the scents of chocolate, rose, banana, lilac, lemon and orange.
Suzi and I accompanied Raun during his portion of the session. The four of us clapped and rocked together. Then we presented Raun with his first opportunity to feed Robertito.
“Really? Can I?” He shook the upper portion of his torso in delight. With the expertise of a seasoned teacher, he delivered spoonful after spoonful. He stroked his friend gently under the chin as he chewed. After the meal, Robertito kept touching Raun. At one point, feeling the larger boy’s pressure, Raun faked a fall and whispered: “I did it so Robertito would feel strong.”
Our little friend did his whole repertoire of “isms.” He watched Raun carefully from the corner of his eye in order to, perhaps, monitor Raun’s responses. Sometimes, Robertito peered directly into our son’s face, but only for seconds at a time. When Robertito rolled on the floor, Raun followed. Then Raun put his arm around his friend, spontaneously expressing his affection. To our surprise, Robertito responded in kind by placing his arm limply on Raun’s shoulder. When Suzi asked “Where’s Raun?” the child pointed to our son. We clapped and shouted our excitement. Robertito smiled at the wall. I turned the music on and guided the two children in a dance together. With their arms around each other, they rocked in a simple side-to-side two-step. Finally, Robertito broke away and began to increase his focus on his self-stimulating rituals.
“Go ahead, Raunchy, sit in front of him in the exact position he’s in,” I counseled.
“Okay,” he replied, half-skipping across the room and assuming the same Buddha-like pose as his friend. Robertito hand-flapped. Our son stared at him curiously.
“You remember, sweet boy, do what he does,” Suzi said.
Raun flapped his hand in perfect cadence. Robertito stopped abruptly. Raun stopped. Robertito turned his head and faced his young mentor. Very purposefully, he stared directly into Raun’s eyes. Our son smiled several times. Four seconds became ten seconds. Robertito did not turn away. Twenty incredible seconds had elapsed with their eyes locked together. Astounded, I clocked the first half a minute of sustained, direct eye contact Robertito had ever bestowed on anyone without interruption. Suzi and I held our breath. We dared not move. We had never seen Robertito do this before. Never!
As the two boys explored each other visually, Raun angled his head toward us. A huge, old-man smile embraced his face. In a soft and rich voice, Raun said: “We’re telling the truth to each other … we do it with our eyes.”