The slow, even cadence of his respiration filled the room with its rhythmic music. Francisca listened to her son’s breathing, embracing and cuddling the sounds like soft, dimensional objects. The blanket of darkness in the room provided her with a different kind of intimacy from the daily sessions. Although Robertito slept in another bed, three feet from her, she experienced an intuitive touching as if the night linked them together as solidly as a chain. They had gone through the “good night” ritual, mentioning everyone’s name before separating. Robertito had fallen asleep quickly, but she had remained awake with her thoughts. Roby had been gone almost three months and, although Suzi and I and the others in the program had bolstered her at every turn, she felt incomplete. Despite her desire to have her husband next to her in bed, in this very bed at this very moment, the image most prevalent in her mind was a living portrait of Roby running and laughing with his son. Rather than finding the phone calls and letters unsettling, she held onto those moments tightly, sensing a peace and comfort in her husband as she described each event and milestone in the program. If it had been her, if they had traded places and she had I returned to Mexico alone, she didn’t think she could have survived with only the mail and a thin telephone wire to connect her with everything she loved. The three thousand miles which separated them seemed unthinkable.
Little-boy laughter interrupted the somber mood of her thoughts and drew her attention. Robertito cackled and giggled in his sleep. Francisca smiled and found herself giggling quietly with him. Her son laughed in his sleep often. When the merry burst of sounds subsided, his breathing dominated. Then the room became quiet. Francisca strained to hear him. Instead, she heard only her own pulse and respiration. She turned toward her son’s prostrate form, ready to spring from her bed. At that moment, she heard him whimper. He turned and twisted, pushing himself against his pillow. Francisca speculated that he might be having an unsettling dream, a rarity for Robertito. The restlessness and guttural sounds escalated. Rather than wake him and possibly startle him as she once had, she decided to let him pass through the dream in his sleep.
Robertito cried out, then bolted upright in the bed. Wide-eyed and panting, he scanned the darkness, alert like a frightened animal, holding himself in a primitive state of readiness. He rolled to the edge of the mattress and dropped his feet to the floor. Robertito crossed the short expanse and climbed into his mother’s bed. Francisca heard him inch across the mattress toward her. Did he want her? Her son had never solicited comfort from her or any other person in the face of fear or pain. When his body touched hers, she felt his arm slip around her torso. His breathing relaxed immediately. Within seconds, the child fell asleep. Francisca touched his hand, trying to quiet the trembling in her own body. Was it possible? Robertito, frightened in a dream, had reached through the darkness to find his mother. He had turned to her instead of curling into a fetal position and seeking safety inside of himself. “Yes, I am your mama,” she said in a hushed voice to the sleeping form. “I am Mama.” This time she had no doubts that he understood their relationship. She had been here for him in this way for over six years and now, for the first time, he latched onto her, squeezing his arm tightly around her body. Francisca continued to pat his hand as her eyelids closed and she settled into a deep sleep, an umbrella under which she took another kind of journey with her young son.
The street glistened. The wetness on the boulevard reflected the lanterns and neon signs of the stores. Francisca walked proudly beside Robertito, holding his hand. Her eyes feasted on the various window displays in her first little excursion in months. As she paused to admire a long dress, Robertito pulled his hand from hers. When she turned to him, he stood on a level about three feet above the sidewalk. He placed one foot in front of the other as if grounded on something solid. He took the initiative, indicating his intention to continue their stroll.
“C’mon, Robertito, walk … ah, walk beside me,” she said, awed at her own lack of amazement.
Her son glanced at her, smiled, then proceeded with his elevated promenade. Rather than force him to do something he obviously did not want to do, she tried to maintain a casual attitude as they paraded down the boulevard. The next time she looked away for a fraction of a second, his position changed radically again. Now his portion of the sidewalk appeared recessed. He walked on a level below hers. Robertito laughed as he watched his own feet.
“Robertito,” she exclaimed, registering her surprise. “What are you doing?” He peered up at her and said matter-of-factly: “I am walking.”
His simple, direct answer forced a smile on her face. Certainly she had a far more complex, disjointed and confused response to what she witnessed. Okay, she thought, if he’s walking, he ‘s walking. On the next street, the levels of cement rejoined, but Robertito now appeared slightly taller than usual. When Francisca scrutinized his body, she realized he glided about five inches off the ground. He seemed to have the ability to choose any path he wanted , no longer confined by the rules and realities which dictated her own limits. As they approached an antique store, with two bureaus and several chairs set in front of the shop, she began to walk to the left, instinctively detouring around the furniture. Robertito paraded straight ahead.
“This way, my love.” No response. Robertito” she bellowed urgently. Francisca tried to grab his hand, but missed it, unable to prevent his collision with the huge oak cabinet. She gasped as her son walked through the structure, his body penetrating one side of the wood and reappearing on the other. What’s happening? Is this a dream? Yet her experience seemed solid, reliable, indisputable. They proceeded in silence. She stared at the smooth skin stretched across her son’s face. There were no scratches… no bruises. Even the cabinet appeared untouched. Francisca experienced neither fear nor repulsion … only awe. She had learned to trust Robertito, even in her dream. As she watched his small form, she confirmed that awareness.
At the end of the row of shops, they passed an empty lot, then walked in front of a separate building housing a huge hardware store. Robertito made a right turn abruptly. Before Francisca could catch him, he walked into a Gargantuan display window. Instead of breaking it, he walked through it, leaving a distinct imprint of his body in the plate glass. Francisca shouted to her son, but he didn’t respond as he disappeared in the darkened store. She ran to the door. Locked. She kept jiggling the handle, hoping to free the latch magically. She had to get her son. Francisca banged heavily on the metal frame. The noise ricocheted through the street. A surly man descended the exterior metal stairs from the apartment above the store.
“Yes, what is it?”
“You have to open the door,” she begged him, pointing to the shop. “Please help me. My son’s inside. He’s only a little boy.”
“Listen, lady,” the man barked, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I locked up over an hour ago and I can assure you, no one, except a very mean dog, is in that store.
The panic made her dizzy. A dog! She hadn’t heard a dog. As the man turned from her, Francisca grabbed his sleeve. “Please, senor. You must help me get my son.”
He pulled away from her. “Try the police station, lady.”
She pursued him halfway up the stairs to the second floor. She cornered him against the railing and clutched his arm. “He’s only a child. You can’t turn your back on a child.”
The man peered into her frantic eyes and, for reasons he himself did not understand, he followed her back down the stairs. As he turned off the alarm and unlatched the locks, he listened for his dog.
“Hurry,” Francisca pressed.
“I’m going as fast as I can.” He struggled with the last mechanism. “Where’s the damn dog?” he muttered.
Once they entered, the owner threw the master switch, illuminating the entire two floors. “Robertito,” Francisca called as she raced down the aisles.
“Jesus, lady. Wait for me. You want to get hurt? There’s a guard dog in here,” he yelled, running after her.
But Francisca ignored the warning. She searched behind every counter before she climbed up a flight of stairs to the balcony. There she saw her son gazing casually at the array of tools. “Oh, Robertito, thank God.” She approached him, then stopped short as the low, foreboding rumble of a growling dog reached her ears. Robertito turned to the massive animal innocently and petted it. The dog relaxed immediately. Francisca took another step toward her child. Sensing no opposition, she grabbed his hand and turned to leave. The man watched them from the top of the stairs. He couldn’t imagine how the child had gotten into the store. He also could not understand why his guard dog actually appeared docile with this child and, now, with its mother.
Robertito smiled warmly at the shopkeeper. Against every natural impulse to express outrage and anger at the youngster, the store owner just stared at the little boy. The muscles in his face eased as he, too, smiled.
Francisca ushered her son out the door quickly. When she looked back, she saw the imprint of Robertito’s body still molded in the display window. Suddenly, everything, absolutely everything, seemed possible to her. Rather than scold her son, she began to laugh.
The cackling in her throat reached her ears, awakening her. Her son’s arm still kept its firm grip around her. A wave of warmth flooded her body as she reviewed her dream, which confirmed her own belief that Robertito, indeed, could do whatever he wanted to do. Yet she still envisioned her own powers as severely limited. Francisca remembered the question I had asked her in a dialogue session earlier in the day. Could she handle the program with Roby? Could she do it without us? Her hesitant response still echoed in her head. “Not yet, Bears, but I’m getting closer to knowing I could.” Francisca knew she had been afraid to say yes. But if Robertito could do anything he wanted to do, why couldn’t she? She knew she had not been ready before the past summer, but said she was as part of a pose of confidence. This time she wanted to be sure … she had to be sure. No more role playing. To hell with the appearance of strength. The surface of dignity she had valued all her life did not bring her through those frightening weeks. She had lied to herself and, now, she refused to do it again.
Francisca kissed the top of her son’s head. “Will I ever be good enough?” she whispered. “Will I ever really know?”
Suzi held Robertito’s hand and I held Raun’s as we all crossed the street and entered the park. Over my left shoulder, I carried Robertito’s two-wheel bike, equipped with training wheels. As I watched our little friend, he looked like any other six-year-old in the playground. He “ismed” occasionally and for relatively short periods. Today, he had the appearance of having his two feet planted in our world. Rather than this being a reflection of his total presence, it only told us about this moment, here and now.
Robertito still vacillated between his internal universe and the one outside of himself. He responded inconsistently, though his learning process rocketed forward on a steep inclined curve. His comprehension of generalized concepts, such as separate versus apart, yes versus no, opened versus closed, big-small, vertical-horizontal, same-different, was awesome most of the time. Nevertheless, we still came upon isolated hours or days where he had the appearance of not knowing or remembering what we knew he had once learned. Then, during the next session, he would demonstrate a sharp and decisive comprehension of these notions. When Lisa visited after a three-month absence, he called her name, hugged and wrestled with her in the special way which had been a distinct part of their sessions together. In Chella’s presence, he chased a fly around the room. Previously, an insect could land on his nose and he would remain passive. We catalogued the growing frequency of two-word answers and responses: “More, Carol,” “Hola!, Bears,” “Want water.” As part of an over-all design to elevate his cognitive abilities further, we instituted more sophisticated questions. “What color are your eyes?” “How many chairs in the room?” “What do you do when you’re hungry?” His answer to the last question: “I eat.” His receptive and expressive language capability soared.
Suzi and I lifted both boys onto the swings. They eyed each other.
“Push, Daddy,” Raun instructed. “Robertito, we’re going up-up,” he said in English. Then he shrugged his shoulders and made a goofy expression, not unlike his mother. I whispered a Spanish equivalent to him. “I mean, uh … arriba,” he shouted.
“Quiero arriba,” Robertito grunted, confirming his own desire to go up.
With an even thrust, we sent them both gliding through the air. Raun laughed, shouting, “Higher! Higher!” as he pumped with his legs, Robertito, his feet dangling, stared at the open field in front of him.
“Where’s Raun?” Suzi asked her student in Spanish.
Robertito pointed emphatically and said: “Aqui!”
“That’s right, Robertito. Fantastic. Wonderful. Now, can you look at him?” Robertito’s eyes remained fixed.
“Aw, c’mon, Robertito,” Raun chimed. “I’m your friend. Look at me.”
The little boy turned to his smiling counterpart. He noticed Raun’s legs with great interest, then, spontaneously, began the same movement with his own limbs. “Look, look…” Raun screamed in delight. “He’s doing it … see, I told you guys he was smart.”
Later, Raun guided Robertito down the slide. He held the other boy’s chubby hand with his long, delicate fingers and led him to the monkey bars. Robertito tugged on Raun’s arm, pulling him back to the slide. Raun giggled. “Well, why didn’t you say so?” Robertito flapped his free hand, almost as if his “ism” was a response to the question. Raun imitated his friend’s motion.
Suzi and I maintained a low profile. Our son had become more accomplished as a teacher and therapist. Perhaps, most significantly, we did not want to interfere or divert their attention from each other. We tried not to dilute their special connection with our presence.
They ran together through the fields holding hands until they were exhausted. Raun handed Robertito pieces of bread to feed the ducks, but his little friend shoved the food directly into his own mouth. Raun tapped Robertito. “Watch me, he said, throwing a piece into the water. “Watch me again.” After completing his second illustration, Raun handed his young charge another piece. Robertito stuffed it quickly into his mouth. “Hey, that’s not fair,” Raun protested, then he burst out laughing, patting Robertito on the shoulder as he smiled back at us. “I like feeding him more than the ducks.”
Five minutes later, after his own stomach had been adequately filled, Robertito threw his first piece of bread to the ducks. Raun jumped up and down, applauding. Robertito turned to our son and applauded back.
A plane passed overhead. Robertito Soto looked up I and said correctly: “Avion.”
“Raunch,” Suzi called. “Want to try the bicycle?” Our son nodded, took his friend’s hand once again and brought him back to us.
“Maybe you can show him first,” I said.
“Robertito. Look at me. C’mon, look at me.” He hopped onto the bike and rode it in a circle. Robertito watched for several seconds, then looked away, twirling his fingers beside his head. “He’s not watching.”
“Call him,” Suzi suggested, “and say mira, which means look. You remember, don’t you?”
Raun nodded. “Robertito. Mira. Here I am. Mira, Robertito.” The boy stopped his “ism” and watched again.
When they traded places, Robertito appeared confused on the bicycle. Raun and I pushed him for a while, hoping that the moving pedals would aid him in understanding the process. Each time we stopped, Robertito just sat there, waiting.
“Use your feet,” Suzi said. “Like Raunchy did … you can do it, sweet boy.”
“Yeah, sweet boy,” Raun chimed innocently. “You can do it. I know you can.”
We both looked at our son and laughed.
“Maybe you can show him again,” I suggested. Raun whizzed around in circles, then made figure eights. When he delivered the bike back to Robertito, he stared into the other child’s eyes. I helped our little friend climb back on the seat. Raun held the handle bars tightly and smiled. Robertito watched him, then picked up our son’s hand and kissed it. Raun’s face registered shock, then surprise. He appeared flattered and bewildered at the same time. Without further hesitation, he picked up Robertito’s little hand and kissed him back.
“You’re going to do it now, aren’t you?” Raun said softly as he began to pull on the handle bars, propelling the bike forward. Still, Robertito did not push on the pedals. Raun persisted, then suddenly let go. The bike kept moving. Raun started to jog backward and Robertito followed, slowly propelling the bicycle forward. After about twenty feet, he put considerably more energy into his effort. As the bike moved faster, Raun turned around and started a slow trot. He waved to his friend, coaxing him to follow. For the next ten minutes, Raun, like the pied piper, ran around the playground with smiling Robertito Soto in hot pursuit on his little bicycle.
The old buses, painted in garish greens, yellows and reds, whizzed by. The dust whipped up from the street like miniature tornadoes and assaulted his nostrils. Motors sputtered; the incomplete combustion belched fumes into the narrow corridors between stores. Roby tried to hold his breath as he zigzagged across a major intersection. Since the sidewalks were cluttered with people marching home at the end of a workday, he walked his own path next to the curb. Roby waved to familiar faces, nodding a soft hello. Instead of his usual stop at a small diner, he decided to go directly home, wanting to be closer to his family.
He swung the door closed briskly behind him, then stopped, closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. In the darkness, Roby fumbled for the light switch, finally flipping it and illuminating both the dining room and the kitchen. He placed his wallet and coins in a small metal dish, a present from Francisca. He checked his watch against the electric clock on the counter. No matter how many times he performed these familiar rituals after work, he always had a three-second fantasy that the house would be filled with people … Francisca Robertito, Alicia, perhaps Francisca’s mother, her cousin Jose, their little niece Chella. Each face came to him as vividly as if the person stood before him. He reached out to his wife’s and son’s images, but they disappeared before he could touch them. Roby Soto thanked the universe for the momentary illusion.
He gazed at the photograph of his son centered on the living room wall. He waved to the little face. “Hola!, Robertito,” he whispered in the empty house. He proceeded to make the same gesture in front of his wife’s portrait.
The cold, stagnant air in the house chilled him. He reached for one of Francisca’s shawls in the closet. In an effort to economize so that he could send the needed funds to New York, Roby had had the gas line shut off. He had survived the lack of heat since the temperature outside had not dropped below forty-five, but he shivered each night when he forced himself to take a cold shower.
In the kitchen, he scanned the clean counters. Seven months ago, they might have been filled with fruits and vegetables as well as hot dishes awaiting his arrival. When he coughed, he heard his own echo in the room. He opened the refrigerator and surveyed the limited selection of items. Three gallons of mineral water, half a loaf of semi-stale whole wheat bread, a small piece of cheese and ajar of jam occupied the otherwise empty shelves. Since he had to work oftentimes in the days and evenings, he had little opportunity to shop at the market.
Roby removed a glass from the cabinet and filled it with water. He made himself a rather anemic cheese and jam sandwich, then inserted a cassette into a small tape recorder on the table. His teeth chewed mechanically as his eyes fixed on the moving spools in the machine. A smile exploded on his face the moment he heard Francisca’s voice. He mouthed every word and knew exactly when to pause.
He had recorded every telephone conversation with his wife in an effort to extend their time together. In order to be close to her and, in turn, his son, he played the tapes back each night, sometimes listening to them three and four times an evening. This particular one contained Robertito answering simple questions and singing a short Spanish lullaby. With his mouth partially filled, Roby stopped chewing and hummed along with his son.
After dinner, he retreated to his workshop behind the garage. To match Robertito’s burgeoning vocabulary, Roby fashioned another series of books to supplement our supply in New York. He sat at the workbench for hours, cutting out photographs from the huge pile of magazines in front of him. The tape recorder filled the room with Francisca’s voice. Working diligently, Roby pasted the pieces neatly, pressing the edges and holding them until they became fixed. He did not want the corners to lift. This book was for his son, for Robertito.
By eleven o’clock, he had finished ten pages. His eyelids began to fall. Roby rubbed his hands together as he rose from the chair. The cold had begun to settle in his bones, The tiny wall thermometer read fifty-seven degrees. Roby jogged in place for about five minutes until the rush of circulation warmed his hands.
He entered the bedroom hesitantly. For Roby, this was the loneliest room in the house. He lifted his son’s overalls from the chair and smelled them. He touched the glass covering his wife’s portrait, trying to re-create the sensation of her skin beneath his finger tips. Roby slipped into a pair of jeans and a sweat shirt, shivering from the cold again. Once in bed on his back, he pulled the blankets to his chin. A vivid image of Francisca working with Robertito in that second floor room in New York flashed in front of him. Roby Soto thought he had to be one of the luckiest men in the world.