Eric wanders away. He is harmless, but he sometimes frightens people with his strange chatter. All about planets, moons, comets and asteroids. If they respond belligerently, he panics. When Eric is frightened, he falls to the floor, thrashes and screams.
Eric cannot go outside without me. I installed a lock on the inside of our front door which can only be opened by a key I keep around my neck. It is somewhat dangerous in the event of a fire, but Eric is never in the house without me. If there were an emergency, I would let him out or we would smash a window upstairs and go out on the roof.
I should do the same thing with the back door, now that he is fifteen and has become so big. I used to be able to allow him in the backyard by himself without any problem. It is fenced in on all sides, and I put a padlock on the gate at the side. He would lie in the grass, or dig little holes in the flowerbed, or sit in his old swing. Now that he is so tall and strong, he has climbed the gate twice in the last three months. One more thing I could count on which is no longer true. Now I have to watch him every minute when he is in the yard.
I get up, put my housecoat on, and go downstairs. The back door is open; Eric is on the steps. He seems very calm. I think I can tell when he is about to climb the fence; the other times he was very agitated beforehand.
We talk for a few moments. He says that I am a lost satellite in his other world. Then I make a mistake; I try to tell him, as I so often have, that it is all his imagination. Eric begins to make the little hooting noises that preface a screaming fit. I put my arms around him and calm him down.
He quiets and I ask him if it is OK to shower. He promises he will sit calmly on the porch until I return.
Before showering, I look at my naked body in the mirror. I am still a beautiful woman, or would be if I didn't have these circles under my eyes. I look into the future, searching for a man, but no one will come near me because of Eric. He was too much for Carlo and is almost too heavy a load for me. If he gets any bigger and stronger, if his hormones begin to rage, I may become unable to handle him. What then?
When Eric was three, he was already talking nonstop about planets and rockets, but no-one thought this was unusual. We didn't know he was strange until first grade, when Mrs. Elodie Newmark, his teacher (a colleague of mine at P.S. 193) called us in to say that Eric wouldn't let go of it. Of course we'd known that every conversation at home involved his other world, but we were living in a sort of happy, distracted cloud, and we assumed he would put the fantasy aside for school. We had him evaluated and the report came back our child was schizophrenic.
Of course, everyone--Carlo's parents and mine--looked at us as if we must be negligent, uncaring parents, never even to have noticed our child was crazy. And what had we done to make him that way? It is a question I have asked myself every day since: what did I do to Eric?
I had waited until Eric was in first grade to return to work, teaching the sixth grade. We lost half a year to denial, contesting the psychological evaluations, medicating Eric, trying to keep him in P.S. 193, then in a school for "special" students. The next year, I came home again. Six months later, it was evident that we had a boy who would never complete school, who would not be normal, who could never be left alone. Carlo decided we would institutionalize him.
We took Eric to visit some places, and some of them were not too unpleasant. One was a sort of bungalow colony in the country. Carlo was in the administrative office and I started talking to a man in a blazer. He had a pleasant, professional air, and seemed interested to know if there were any unusual factors when I gave birth to Eric. We hit on the fact that Carlo is an electrical engineer and that we toured power plants while I was pregnant. The man told me that there is a theory that power lines exert an aura which can affect unborn babies in the womb. I began to feel guilty that I ran about, careless and carefree, with my baby in my belly. A man came out of the office and then I discovered that the one I was talking to was an inmate, not a doctor.
We asked Eric how he would feel about visting the place for a while and he began to scream. It was the first time I heard his hooting noise. It is very eerie. I felt as if I were torturing and killing my son. By that night, I had decided I would keep Eric with me. Carlo had already decided Eric would go. The consequence of my decision was that Carlo left. He is out West somewhere now. The West is very large. A check comes through Carlo's lawyer, once a month, and I have the house.
When I turn the water off the phone is ringing, and I answer it dripping wet. It is Belle Chalfin from across the street. Eric has jumped the fence again and is sitting in her kitchen. As he did twice before. I apologize---I am very ashamed that she has now had to deal with Eric three times--and she assures me she doesn't mind. I know she is telling the truth, as she seemed to enjoy entertaining him before. I tell her I will be over within a half hour to get him, and I go back to my preparations.
When Belle and her husband Charlie , the politician, moved in, I hated her. She was young and pretty and I thought she had her nose up in the air. I was busy feeling sorry for myself, with my entire life revolving around Eric. I couldn't go back to work, ever, or even leave him in the house or with a friend for an hour. It was like being chained to Eric at the wrist. Belle had everything: a famous husband, a big car, a nicer house than mine, no kids. She had an exotic face, a French accent, and a beautiful smile. I thought she was terribly insincere. It wasn't until the first time she invited Eric into her kitchen that I discovered she is really a very nice person. It is still hard not to feel jealous of her, but I work at it, because these things are important to me.
I don't really feel as if I know her, though, because the facts don't add up. The more you know about her life, the less credible it seems, after all, that Belle should be happy. Charlie is never around. The rumor in the neighborhood is that Charlie isn't even faithful. Does Belle not know this? Certainly, I have seen women be deceived, and deceive themselves, for years on end. As my mother did. Sometimes I want to tell her what I have heard, but I bite my tongue because I know that it is the malice in me that wishes to speak, and not the kindness. It would be no kindness.
Belle and Charlie have been married nine years but are childless. Belle told me once that they only started trying to have children three years ago, when she was twenty-six. She says she does not know if the problem is with him or her. Just at the moment when most couples would be anxious, hysterical, running to doctors, Belle is serene. Why? Does she not really care? Or is she content to trust in God? And why doesn't it matter more to Charlie?
Is Belle's demeanor an act? I don't mean that she is insincere; sometimes a kind sweet manner can conceal an ocean of pain underneath. Like my own, at least when I was still kind and sweet.
Belle gardens in the front yard, in shorts and a sleeveless top, wearing a big straw hat. She goes to market. Sometimes she sits on her porch, visiting with one or another of the women on the block. Or goes to their porches. When someone is sick, Belle helps. In a conventional way. She's not a born nurse; she doesn't roll up her sleeves and clean up vomit. She brings groceries, runs errands, sits and talks.
She works at her typewriter on the kitchen table. Sometimes late at night I hear it faintly clacking as we take the dog for a walk under the streetlamps.
I have no idea who she is. If there are a hundred things to know about her, I know three. They are important ones, though.
I am done with my shower, my sponges and creams. The daily attack on the circles and oncoming wrinkles. That bastard hope, that won't die even when there is nothing to feed him. Nothing ahead but a life of burden. Carrying Eric. Holding his hand. Calming him down when he hoots. Retrieving him from the street.
I have no choice, though everyone told me I did. I went to Church and I prayed. I spoke to Father Anthony. He too was conventional--where you don't expect it. He said that God hands us no burden too heavy for us to carry. At first I thought he meant that keeping Eric would not be too hard. Then a moment later, I understood: if Eric was too great a responsibility, God would forgive me for sending him away. I wouldn't, I said. I didn't want to be that person I would see in the mirror every morning: the mother who sent away her son. No matter how hard it was.
Of course, I didn't know Carlo would leave. I could still have changed my mind. He didn't just pack up and go like some men. He gave me an ultimatum: send Eric away or lose him. I knew what I was doing, because I still couldn't be that woman. I said to Carlo, I didn't hear that part in the marriage service about 'for as long as the easy times last.' It didn't matter.
The man does not exist who would take on Eric. Why should he? And if he did, how would I meet him? There are times when I have wished for the death of my son. Not for more than an instant. But the second time he went to Belle's and I couldn't find him in the house, for just a moment I imagined Eric had gone around the corner to Ocean Avenue. In a few minutes the doorbell would ring: a police officer to tell me he had been run down by a bus. I saw myself wearing mourning, a young woman still, who had done everything she could. And been let off the hook.
I was so ashamed I went to confession. It is very hard to manage. I can take Eric to church on Sundays and he will sit quietly, but if I leave him to enter the confessional he may wander away. I found an altar boy to watch him for a few minutes. I confessed my terrible thoughts expecting to be judged severely and punished. Instead, I was treated to a speech about how thoughts are not actions. They are a much more minor sin. I knew that if I was confessing thoughts of lust, I would not be let off so easily. Why then? I understood: because everyone who knows me, and especially the priests, feels so sorry for me.
I put my housecoat on and walk across the street to Belle's. Eric looks very happy; I almost wonder if I can leave him there another hour, or prolong our visit. But I am still not dressed, and besides, it wouldn't be fair to Belle. She says she has an idea and I draw her down the steps, in case it is a suggestion Eric shouldn't hear. When we are safely away from him, Belle offers to take him to the beach. For a moment I love her; I adore Belle as if she were mother Mary. But reality floods back. I don't think you could manage him if there was a problem, I say. She suggests I come too; it would be a welcome change, I think, from spending another day in the backyard. But I know Eric couldn't handle the beach. You can't take him in crowds, in large public places.
I remember how last time we went out in Belle's backyard. Eric watched a bird and a squirrel in the bushes while we spoke, woman to woman. I did not like myself very much at that moment, because I started whining to her. I will complain to anyone who will listen, but there are few who do. Despite the fact they all feel sorry for me.
When I talked of the impossibility of meeting another man, Belle asked, What about Joe Charlton ? He is our grocer, owner of the Whole Foods around the corner. He is about fifty, dark bristly short hair turning gray, handsome but mysteriously sad and tired. Lives with his twin brother Jeff, who everyone thinks is a little simple-minded. I find Mr. Charlton very attractive, I said, but they say he never married so he could better take care of his brother.
So? You could help him.
How can I help anybody, when I have Eric on my hands?
Eric and Jeff might look after each other.
The thought is very appealing. Jeff isn't crazy, but he is very gentle, like Eric. It would be as if Eric suddenly had an older brother. That probably would quiet Eric down. And maybe Mr. Charlton wouldn't have to give Jeff so much of his time if Jeff had Eric. We could all aid one another.
That was it: one little flash of hope. I don't let myself hold on because I don't want to be a fool. I said, How could such a thing even happen when he never looks at me?
Belle made a face, a very French face, while she was thinking. Then she said, Why don't you go in and ask his advice as if you were cooking dinner for a man? What cut of meat. How to season it. What men like. When he says, So you have company, Mrs. Menotti?, you say, I will if you'll come for dinner tonight.
I was laughing fit to burst. Partly from embarrassment. Oh, I couldn't. Anyway, what if he didn't ask that?
You could still say, Now that you've helped me figure out what to cook, Mr. Charlton, how about coming over and helping me to eat it?
I couldn't, I couldn't. Belle, tell me the truth: have you ever done anything like that?
No, says Belle, not embarrassed, with her beautiful smile. Belle never had to.
Now, every time I go into the grocery, I look for Mr. Charlton, and wait for him to notice me.
That was last time. This time, I thank Belle, and walk back across the street, holding the hand of my fifteen year old son. The front door shuts on us and I double-lock it from inside, with the key I keep around my neck. We go into the kitchen and Eric sits at his usual spot at the head of the table. Where Carlo used to.
Belle let me draw, Eric says.
You can draw if you want to. Just don't draw me.
OK, he says. I bring him paper and pencil and he gets busy. He is quiet and happy and for a moment, I am calm. Not happy. I look at him and he is beautiful to me. My beautiful, broken son. What did I do to you?
The most frightening moments are the ones when I realize that I speak his language. After fifteen years, I understand the bad planet, the asteroids and comets. I know what events in our world are presaged by occurrences in his. When he speaks of the bad planet, fasten your seat belts.
I should let it alone. This is my failing, that I cannot. I pause for a moment on the verge, knowing I should not but that I will dive in. Out of anxiety, because I don't remember.
Yes, ma? For an instant, he is that perfectly normal boy.
Didn't you say something about the bad planet this morning?
I did, ma, but it doesn't matter.
Why is that, Eric?
Because of the moon.
He is happy, drawing, and that is all the answer I will have.