It wasn’t hard to be Jaya’s friend. She was an amazing woman who worked as an attorney’s assistant during the day and three nights of the week, worked at the local bar. She had excellent cooking skills and she loved bringing food over for Joshua and Cassie. She also was an autism mom. Arya had autism.
Cassie felt that the connection she felt with Jaya was largely due to an explained attraction that she had for her but soon this connection became a lot about autism. Jaya and Cassie talked about autism and therapies most of the time. Arya had had very similar struggles that Joshua was having now and Jaya’s insights were always helpful. Cassie couldn’t believe that the stars had sent her Jaya and Arya. They took the edge off of her loneliness.
Jaya spent most evenings at Cassie’s. Arya was 12 and she was a very easygoing kid. Cassie was amazed at Arya’s verbal prowess and couldn’t believe that she had been nonverbal for the first eight years of her life. She was very gentle with Joshua and even though Joshua didn’t notice much around him, Arya would run to him if he ever seemed like needing something. Jaya remarked one day that she hadn’t seen Arya like that with anyone.
Cassie felt it was stupid of her to feel attracted to Jaya. She had never been attracted to women. She had never had many close friendships and she chalked it all up to Jaya’s and her own life being so similar. Jaya, on the other hand, seemed oblivious to Cassie’s feelings.
Jaya introduced Cassie to the “college kid therapist”. Jaya told Cassie to hire kids who were taking special education or speech therapy courses at the NYU, Columbia or Cornell. She had done that for Arya and these kids always proved to be an amazing resource in terms of their dedication to special needs kids. They helped carry out therapy programs and saw it as extra credit. Cassie went to put an advertisement outside Columbia one day with Joshua.
The next day she got a call from Helen Sardar, a Punjabi-American girl who was multilingual by virtue of knowing three Indian languages , even though had spent her entire life in the USA, and who was currently a student of speech therapy for developmentally delayed kids at Columbia.
Helen proved to be a godsend.
Cassie was surprised to see Helen adopt a completely different method to teach speech. She didn’t force Joshua. She just played with him. She never tried to engage Joshua forcibly either. She could tell that Joshua avoided social interaction and was usually overwhelmed by it so she’d just play parallel to Joshua and surprisingly, he would always join her.
Cassie waited every week for Helen’s lessons. They were fun and educational. Helen knew a lot about child psychology and constantly unloaded her knowledge on Cassie for which Cassie was very grateful.
What affected Cassie the most about Helen was her compassionate nature. She never treated Joshua like someone with limited verbal skills. She talked to Joshua with inflection and emoted her thoughts appropriately for him. Cassie knew that Joshua didn’t get half of it but it engaged him and made him respond fifty percent of the time which was more success than the ABA team was having.
Cassie gradually started to implement Helen’s principles in general life. She engaged Joshua by being in his face, on the floor, at eye level with him. She played with him, even when he seemed disinterested and made it fun. She became a rambunctious, loud and fun parent. She felt Joshua changing too. He started to hold her hand and bring her to objects that he wanted. This was the first time she had noticed him noticing his environment.
Playing with Joshua wasn’t an immediately rewarding process like it is with typical kids. Because of his inherent struggles with pragmatic language and imaginative play, Joshua didn’t play with toys conventionally. Cassie learned soon enough that investing loads of money into books and toys that he wasn’t easily attracted to wasn’t the answer. The answer was to expand his imagination by using toys that were simple, cause and effect, and had some functionality. She realized that the best toy was a ball.
Helen showed Cassie how to engage Joshua. She told Cassie to be her natural self with Joshua and engage him with emotion and emotion-based reward system. When Joshua tossed the ball back, Cassie would shower him with kisses and hugs. Soon Joshua started enjoying playing ball and reciprocating Cassie’s affection.
Cassie started looking for ways to be more creative with imaginative play and engaging Joshua.
This was when Helen introduced her to a particular behavioral model called “Floortime”.
Cassie was on it and signed up for the online course. She had finally found the key to opening the big locked door to her son’s mind.
Cassie was learning Floortime fast. She loved Dr. Greenspan who had devised this particular strategy and she loved how intuitive it was. What she especially found attractive was that she could do it all the time and felt that it would be a good way to do academics with Joshua too.
Jaya and Arya were now staying most nights with them. Cassie found it hard to believe that Jaya wasn’t aware of her feelings towards her. She felt that it was dishonest of her to continue being friends with Jaya and not disclose her feelings to her. She was also afraid of Jaya’s reaction to her confession. She felt like a fraud. She found herself thinking about Jaya all the time.
One night as Jaya and Arya were leaving, Joshua wanted to play some more with Arya. Arya obliged and sat down to play with him some more. It was an endearing sight. Arya spent most of her time by herself, reading a book and Cassie suspected that she didn’t have many friends.
“They really love each other”, Jaya remarked, looking at the kids fondly.
Cassie thought about what she was going to say and was still struggling to say the right words when Jaya interrupted her thoughts,
“You look preoccupied. Everything okay?”
No, Cassie thought.
“Yes”, Cassie smiled.
“Arya’s father wants to reconcile”, Jaya said softly.
Cassie’s head jerked up.
“Yes! He called me last week with the proposal. We’ve been talking for a year. I feel he’s really sincere in his apologies”.
“So what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been burned pretty badly by him, Cassie! So I don’t know”.
Cassie stared at her.
She knew Jaya’s husband had cheated on her and when Jaya objected had kicked her and Arya out. Jaya had been divorced for eight years. She couldn’t understand why Jaya would even be listening to him or talking to him. Jaya had gone through very bad times as a single mother. Her ex had delayed paying child support on more than one occasion and Jaya had had to ask her parents for money for outstanding bills. Cassie wondered if she would take Andrew back if he asked her to come back.
“Andrew is married to someone else, Cassie”, said the little voice inside her. She felt cold.
“But Arya needs a father”, Jaya continued. “She needs a man in her life. What will happen to her if I’m not there to care for her tomorrow? She needs another parent. I’m not doing this for me but I can’t be selfish when it comes to Arya. I have to think about it like a mother would. I know that as a woman it kills me to even consider it but I’ll give him another chance”.
Cassie kept nodding her head.
“But doesn’t he live in Boston?”
“Yes! If things work out, we will move”.
“Are you sure, Jaya? You have your work here. Would that be a wise thing to do?”
Jaya laughed sardonically.
“Cassie! When you have a child who has an uncertain future, sometimes you live in the moment. Sometimes you make decisions that won’t make sense to anyone else. Sometimes explaining ourselves isn’t easy. You know that, right?”
Jaya looked at Cassie with her big, black eyes.
“I don’t know. You have me. We can raise our kids together.”
Jaya smiled sadly.
“In another world, may be, we could raise our children together. But in this world and in this time? My parents are very excited at the prospect of me reconciling with my ex-husband. Arya is happy to know that her father hasn’t abandoned her and is thinking of her. In this world, right at this moment, nothing I want is important. Life wants me to give myself up for another promise and I’m willing to give myself up again”.
It was a cool, sunny morning when they entered Penn Station to say goodbye to Jaya and Arya. Jaya stood there beaming and Arya looked unsure but happy to be traveling by the train. Jaya’s husband was going to be there soon to pick them up and accompany them to Boston. He certainly was making an effort.
Jaya was wearing one of her tunics with her signature leggings. She had hoop earrings on and lots of kohl in her eyes. She never used lipstick and stained her lips very lightly with an Indian gloss that her mom got from India regularly. Today she was wearing lipstick and Cassie was struck by how American she looked today. Usually she looked more Indian and exotic. Cassie watched Jaya playing with Joshua effortlessly. In Cassie and Joshua’s loneliness, Jaya and Arya had been their only friends for the last six months.
Suddenly Arya spotted a tall man coming towards them. She ran to him and he hugged her. His eyes held Jaya’s for a bit before they moved to Cassie. He said hi to her. They shook hands.
Jaya’s husband was a tall, good looking man. He looked every bit like the playboy that Jaya had described him as. A repeat infidelity was written all over this reconciliation.
“Stop it,” she told herself.
Jaya walked up to him and they briefly kissed and he started to pick up their limited luggage. Most of Jaya’s things had already made their way to Boston. She wasn’t carrying much with her.
Cassie couldn’t believe she was saying goodbye to Jaya for ever.
“Harish! Can I talk to Cassie for a bit? Can you watch Joshua and Arya please?”
Harish smiled easily and went with the kids to the nearby coffee shop.
“I’ll miss you,” Jaya said softly.
“Don’t go, Jaya”.
“I have to, Cassie. He’s the promise of the only safe future for Arya that I can think of right now and may be he has changed”.
“What if he hasn’t?”
“You’re a sweet little ray of sunshine, aren’t you?”, Jaya joked and punched Cassie’s arm.
In spite of herself, Cassie laughed.
Jaya held her hand.
“I have something for you. I had it designed especially for you………..for us”.
Cassie’s heart skipped a beat. Jaya took out a locket on a chain from her bag.
“See it after I’m gone. Something to remember me by”.
“Something to remember you by?” Cassie thought, “How about my whole heart to remember you by?”
Jaya squeezed her hand. Her hand was warm and soft. Her touch was intimate like what two lovers share. Andrew had never held her hand like this. There was an urgency with a tenderness. Like Jaya didn’t want to let go. Cassie felt like Jaya had never touched anyone like she had touched her. She could feel her eyes getting wet. “Why does life take everything from me always?” She thought bitterly.
Cassie looked up and Jaya was smiling through tears. Their eyes locked. Cassie didn’t care if they spent their entire lives standing here, staring into each other’s soul.
“In another time, Cassie, I wouldn’t have left. In another time, Arya and Joshua wouldn’t have autism. In another time, we would’ve found each other before the stars could conspire against us. In another time, Cassie, I would’ve given you more than just this keepsake. In another time…..”
Jaya was crying. Cassie cried too. Harish was at their side.
“It’s time for the train, Jaya”.
Jaya and Arya were leaving. Cassie watched them leave. When they were close to the escalator to take them to the trains, Jaya turned around and blew Cassie a kiss. Cassie caught it and giggled. Jaya laughed too and then she left.
She opened the locket that Jaya had given her. Inside was a small plate engraved with,
“In another time, all I want is to be with you”.
Cassie felt light. She felt dizzy. She felt like a thousand stars couldn’t shine as bright as her eyes in that moment. A thousand seas couldn’t roar as loudly as her heart. A lifetime with anyone couldn’t make her feel like her time with Jaya at the station that day. She felt like she had finally known love and what it was like to be loved. She yearned for Jaya and her hand in her hand. She feared going home as it was sure to look lonely. Then she looked at the locket again and read the engraving,
“In another time, all I want is to be with you”, and she felt her heart soar, her eyes light up brighter and the train to Boston rushing away from underneath them.
For some reason, Cassie missed Jaya with love and happiness instead of sadness. It was an easy habit to make of wearing the locket around her neck all the time. Jaya hadn’t left an address or a phone number and Cassie hadn’t asked for it. She knew that the time she had spent with Jaya was all she was getting with her. She wanted Jaya to start a new life. Sometimes she felt like a bad friend that she wasn’t checking up on Jaya but knew that they both had had the closure they needed and that Jaya could still contact her if she needed her.
Cassie was so lost in her world and addressing Joshua’s needs and coordinating therapies that she didn’t realize that it was her 42nd birthday.
She wouldn’t have realized it if she hadn’t had a surprise visit from her mother.
Emilia showed up with a small cake and a huge cart of toys for Joshua. Cassie was pleasantly surprised.
She screamed and landed in Emilia’s arms. In hindsight she felt that was foolish of her. Her mom wasn’t very expressive and usually avoided any physical contact.
Emilia laughed and hugged her.
“Looks like you missed me!”
“I’ve always missed you, Mom! Wow! You brought a cake? What’s the occasion? Did you score a big movie?”
Cassie asked happily. The smile disappeared from Emilia’s face.
“Don’t you remember it’s your birthday?”
Cassie was momentarily nonplussed. How did she forget her birthday? No one had ever made a big deal about it but she had remembered it usually. Except when she had turned 21 and had spent the whole night out and totally forgotten her 21st birthday party that her parents were throwing for her.
“I forgot, Mom. I’m always so busy”.
“I know, Cassie! I don’t know how you do it”.
I don’t know either, Cassie thought sadly but didn’t say anything. Joshua had come over and was examining the cart.
“Would you like to look at the toys, Joshua?”, Emilia asked.
They went inside the apartment and Cassie put on the kettle. Her mother loved tea in the morning. Cassie warmed up some croissants and brought tea over. Emilia was sitting on the floor, playing with Joshua, her Chanel bag sitting next to them.
“Mom!”, Cassie exclaimed, picked up the Chanel and put it on the mantelpiece reverently.
Emilia laughed. She didn’t care for worldly things much. She was worried for Cassie but didn’t want to say it. She had never loved another human being as she had loved her current lover who was a man twenty years her junior and cheating on her. Emilia knew of his affairs and indiscretion but maintained her silence. She was afraid to be alone. She was afraid to lose him.
But as time was passing and as she was getting older, she had been thinking about Cassie a lot. Her only child. She had been thinking about Cassie’s commitment to Joshua, her madness when it came to having a child, her sheer disregard for her own health and happiness when it came to Joshua. She wondered sometime how Cassie turned out like this when Emilia had never set the example of a perfect home for her. Emilia and Jonathan, Cassie’s father, had had huge differences in their marriage and had gone through an acrimonious divorce. They had never learned about to have a healthy coparenting relationship and the only person who ended up losing on all counts was Cassie. She had to grow up faster than most girls her age and Emilia felt that Cassie decided to marry Andrew because he reminded her of her dad in physicality at least. May be he also reminded her of her dad because of how vanilla he was, Emilia conjectured.
“Eat, Mom! I have some biscuits too. Would you like some?”
Before Emilia could answer, Cassie had run off to get biscuits for her.
“Cassie is 42”, Emilia thought. “Why does she still look like a little girl?”
They had a lovely breakfast. Cassie noticed her mom wearing slacks and a T-shirt. She couldn’t help mentioning it to Emilia.
“I didn’t know you owned any T-shirts, Mom!”
Emilia looked at her with a lot of seriousness in her eyes.
“We don’t know a lot about each other, Cassie”.
Cassie smiled. She loved her mother and had no relationship with her father. She had gone to say hi to him once after she had gotten married and he had been drunk. There was a young woman at home with him who had turned her away, saying he didn’t want anything to do with her. Her father sat there while the woman insulted her, bleary-eyed and puffy in the face.
“I’d like to know you more, Cassandra!”
“Don’t call me by that name, Mom! I used to love my name but when I figured out that that might be the only reason why Andrew and Sandra invited me into their family, it makes me want to vomit”.
“Oh, Cassie! I’m sorry. For everything.”
“It’s okay, Mom! I’m much happier now. I don’t have to fake anything. It’s easier now. I have my family right here. You and Joshua. I don’t need anyone else”.
As she said it a tiny voice inside her said “just may be someone like Jaya is also what I need. I’m lonely, Mom”.
“Let’s make this a weekly thing, Cass! Let’s meet every Saturday or Sunday. Would you like that?”
“I’d like that a lot, Mom!”
Cassie looked at Emilia. In that moment, she loved her mother more than her mother had ever loved her. She knew her mother was lonely too. It was strange how Cassie had always come in handy when people were alone or lonely. She felt bad for herself but then felt good. I like to be there for people, she thought. It’s a good feeling, she smiled.
Emilia looked at her 42 year old daughter and thought ” And just like that my Cassie is a grown woman. She did all the growing up on her own. Where was I? Will she let me hug her? Will she let Joshua love me?”
That day in that apartment, two women thought of their purpose in life. The younger woman felt contentment. The older woman had nothing but regret.
And then it happened. One day in the spring of the following year, when Joshua was going to be three in a few months, he said his first word.
His first word wasn’t Mom, or his bottle or the swing in the park. His first word was “go”.
Cassie laughed and cried and screamed and sobbed in one moment. He said it purposefully too. He wanted to go to the park and hadn’t been able to communicate it. Cassie had stayed up for most of the night and was still sleeping when he got up and wandered aimlessly in the room. He eventually came over to her, grabbed her shoulder, shook her up and said
“Joshua, what, w….w…..what?”
“Go”, he said more forcefully and shook her shoulder again.
Cassie woke up, wide and alert. She couldn’t believe it. She danced and pirouetted and did gymnastic moves while she made breakfast. She happily fed Joshua and went to the park at 8 in the morning. She sang the whole way to the park.
When she got to the park she let Joshua walk around as the swings were wet with dew. After that she turned around and made her way to her familiar bench and then realized that it was occupied by another person.
Feeling particularly friendly and elated, Cassie extended her small hand.
“Hello, I’m Cassie! I’ve never seen you before”.
The man was startled. He then looked at her with an amused expression.
“Anthony. I’ve never seen you before either”.
Cassie was embarrassed at being so forward. The man had piercing blue eyes and a strong jaw. He was very attractive.
He had a red scarf around his neck.
She decided to not let her embarrassment show.
“Okay so now we’ve seen each other”.
Anthony smiled. He looked to be in his mid forties.
“Yes we have”.
“That’s my son, Joshua”. Cassie introduced Joshua as he came closer.
“Hi, Joshua,” Anthony said pleasantly.
Joshua ignored him like he ignored most people. He pulled at Cassie’s hand and made it to the swing. Cassie put him in the swing. Anthony watched.
“Do you live here?”, he asked.
“Not very far from here. I’m right behind that train station”, Cassie pointed.
“That’s not a bad area”, Anthony remarked.
“Yup! We love it”.
“I live on the upper east side”.
“That’s not close to here at all”.
“Yeah. But this park has been my motivation for a long time so I come here often. “
Anthony went back to working on his laptop. Cassie wondered what it would be like to date again. Would a man want me?, she mused.
After about two hours when Joshua was all done with the swing, Cassie put Joshua in his stroller to leave. She hoped Anthony would ask her if she was going home. May be he’ll ask me out, she thought. “Don’t be silly”, she admonished herself. “He’s a stranger”.
But a good looking one, she giggled to herself.
Cassie didn’t know that Anthony’s eyes followed her for a long time after she walked out of the park.
Cassie couldn’t believe how stupidly optimistic she had been when Joshua had said his first word. She had thought that he’d be picking up new words everyday and would be conversational in a few days. But here he was, three months from the first time he had said “go”, and hadn’t said another new word.
For some reason, Helen considered this word a huge breakthrough, even though it hadn’t brought forth any other new words.
Helen’s vigor and zeal for Joshua hadn’t flickered at all. She worked with the same dedication and had actually started seeing Joshua twice a week. Cassie loved Helen and considered her like a younger sister. Helen considered Joshua like a brother. It was a weird relational concept but Cassie and Helen truly worked like Joshua’s family and this was all that Joshua needed.
What about what I need, Cassie sometimes asked herself.
Helen continued to work using the Floortime model with Joshua. He responded to her better than anyone. While with Helen, Joshua learned to identify colors, numbers, alphabet and objects. His receptive language was about 300 words, much higher than many three year olds. He still couldn’t talk.
“His language has exploded”, Helen kept telling Cassie.
Even though Cassie was happy that Joshua was showing progress with receptive language, she ached to hear him say more. What she longed to hear the most was the word “Mommy” or some variation of it.
One morning as Cassie was getting breakfast ready, Joshua came up to her and signed for the swing.
“Let’s eat first Joshua, then we will go to the park and swing”.
Cassie didn’t even notice but Joshua promptly sat down and waited patiently for his newest favorite thing to eat, pancakes.
When she got to the table she noticed Joshua trying to feed himself. He was actually doing a pretty good job.
Cassie kissed him with tears in her eyes. Why did everything come after so much work to Joshua? Why couldn’t he learn like other kids? He deserves to have friends. He deserves to read books with me. This isn’t fair.
As Cassie was leaving for the park, her phone rang. It was a New York number.
“Mrs. Parker! This is Amir Hijazi. Can I come over to talk”?
It had been four weeks since she had met Amir Hijazi. He had come briefly and handed her a hundred thousand dollars.
She found out that Amir was suffering from cardiac amyloidosis and was not in the best health. They had put up Joshua for adoption because he didn’t think he could be a father to another child. While Cassie understood what he said, the pain of abandonment that she shared with Joshua didn’t get any less.
Cassie deposited the money in a savings account and felt relieved that she had a good amount to spend towards some of the more expensive therapies. She was just learning about sensory processing disorder and felt like Joshua fitted the bill for it. She knew that if he was evaluated for it and found to have it, she’d have to invest in occupational therapy lessons which, if it was possible, were even more expensive than speech therapy.
Cassie wondered sometimes if Amir and Nadia were good or bad parents. Then she asked herself if she was a good parent. Then she’d look at Joshua and feel the familiar emotion of having shared the pain of abandonment with him.
Cassie found a great occupational therapist. Helen introduced them. Kendra Rosen was a woman in her sixties and seemed to have a smart head on her shoulders. She was creative and ran one of the occupational therapy clinics in Manhattan . It took Cassie about an hour to reach her clinic but the lessons were so educational, she loved taking the train to Kendra and watching her show what Joshua could do with the right sensory input. She started to show Cassie how to replicate some of her lessons at home and agreed to accompany Cassie to Ikea to collect some home occupational therapy material.
Kendra used a technique that was similar in practice but very different in theory from Floortime. It was called Sonrise. Cassie wasn’t able to tell what the subtle differences were between the two techniques but she soon learned that while Floortime was more child-directed, Sonrise was largely teacher-directed. Cassie started to master some of the concepts of this type of therapy. Soon she was doing it at home as well.
At home, thanks to Kendra, Cassie had converted her living room into an occupational therapy area. There was a swing that hung from the ceiling, a Lycra trap that worked like a swing and gave pressure and vibrational input. She had also bought a dizzy disc that Joshua particularly liked. She had a small, indoor trampoline that Joshua used a lot. She had a crash pad and many sensory toys like small critters that ran across the floor, a zoom ball, a large round exercise ball and many floor peanut balls that she implemented to her own sensory lessons with Joshua. Soon she became a maven at sensory needs that autistics can have and learned to feed Joshua his sensory diet that he had been craving for God knows how long.
There was an explosion in language with this. Cassie couldn’t describe it but he seemed more present and more aware. His morning ABA people commented on it. His tantrums had reduced in intensity and frequency and he had started to show affection. He still didn’t say much but he had learned fifty words in the three months that he had been doing sensory therapy for and Cassie was very grateful. She was also, for the first time, planning a huge birthday party, and planned to invite her apartment complex’s kids and their parents.
She was finally becoming optimistic about it. She was finally seeing the fruit of her labor. Her biggest labor. Her truest labor of pure love.
Joshua’s birthday was a total disaster. Cassie had invited his ABA team, Helen, Kendra and Emilia. She had thought of inviting Jaya and Arya and then had stopped herself. Jaya’s memory was too fresh to pick at it again. She invited all the six families from her apartment building who she had been friends with and had shared many playful moments with when Joshua was an infant. Those kids had grown into 3,4 and some even 5 year olds. Some had new siblings. Cassie watched as the guests started pouring in. There were ten kids with their mothers. A few came with their fathers. Cassie was good friends with all of them. Her mother had spent the entire morning with her setting up the table and then the games area. They had made games and gift bags. Cassie had never had a birthday party of her own until she was in college and she and her friends would spend the evening at a hip restaurant getting beer with fake IDs. She smiled at the thought. Even then she had never drank with her friends because she was always very afraid to break the law.
Emilia seemed to be in rare form. Not only had she insisted on it being a themed party but she had also, completely on her own, picked out the theme. Since Joshua loved the park so much, she had insisted on making an indoor park of sorts and had gotten park-based decorations from one of her friends. Emilia was resourceful.
Cassie loved her mother but couldn’t comprehend why her mother would love her. She had always been a quiet child. She had never really been physically affectionate. She had never spent tons of time with her parents. She felt a ton of gratitude towards her mother. Sometimes she felt like she blamed herself because blaming herself was easier for her failed relationships. She had decided to live in the moment when it came to her mother.
Joshua remained disconnected throughout the limited time of the evening that he spent outside his room. He screamed at the children, threw things around and finally had an epic meltdown. Cassie was frightened by the intensity of his emotions. Finally Kendra was able to take him to the room, a mere fifteen minutes into the party, and didn’t bring him out for the rest of the evening.
Cassie’s heart felt heavy and lonely. Why couldn’t one day go as she had planned? Why couldn’t Joshua enjoy himself? Was it too much to ask?
She laughed a fake laugh and smiled a lot. When people asked where Joshua was she told them that he had tired himself out by running around since the morning. She felt like crying. Many times during the party her eyes met her mother’s and they both held the same pain. Cassie wanted to hug her mother but knew that her mother didn’t like being hugged.
Finally it was time to cut the cake. Cassie went into the kitchen, cut the cake, loaded it on a tray and gave everyone a piece. Children played games and she was sad to see how easy it was for them to enjoy themselves.
“My life sucks,” she thought bitterly.
When all the guests had said goodbye, Emilia and Cassie sat down quietly. Hearing the quiet, Kendra came out of the room.
Cassie offered her dinner because she had been with Joshua who was asleep now. Kendra insisted that Emilia and Cassie eat with her. Cassie didn’t want to eat. She had no appetite. She had tiny little knots her stomach that threatened to open up if she didn’t immediately go to bed. She wanted to cry. She had had enough.
But something about Kendra told Cassie that she was used to having her way so she quietly sat down to eat. The food was catered by one of the best restaurants in Long Island and Emilia had pulled some strings for them to cater to a small party. It was absolutely delicious.
There is a secret ingredient in food. It fixes things. It makes people think clearer and wiser. Cassie felt her brain being less dizzy as soon as she started eating.
“Thanks Kendra for forcing us to eat”, Cassie said, referring to herself and Emilia.
“Not to mention”, Kendra said in a friendly way and signaled for them to eat more.
Cassie ate more. So did Emilia. Finally Cassie asked,
“Kendra! Was it a mistake to have a party? Do you think Joshua wasn’t ready for this intense of a sensory experience?”
Kendra looked up and stared at Cassie thoughtfully . She had dark blue eyes with specks of a lighter blue. They looked like an ocean kicking up a storm. She had very strong features, almost like a man’s, except her eyes. She had the deepest bluest eyes with the wisdom of the world. She had laugh lines around her mouth and her eyes and she looked like she enjoyed every minute of her life. She was about six feet tall and her shoulders could’ve belonged to a quarterback. She was an impressive-looking woman but she was gentle, very gentle in her manners.
“Parents celebrate their kids’ birthdays and kindergarten milestones for their own selves. 3,4 and 5 year olds don’t know what a birthday is or how life is moving forward. You had this party for yourself. You didn’t have it for Joshua. Just like I never had a birthday party for my kids. Did you enjoy planning it?”
“Yes, loads. But I didn’t enjoy being at it”, Cassie laughed in a self-deprecating manner and both Kendra and Emilia laughed together.
“This will have to do for now. We’ve all had these birthdays where our kid threw a tantrum and didn’t enjoy the party. We’ve all had the birthday where other kids enjoyed it more. Cassie! You’re very young so I’ll tell you something! Joshua should be exposed to experiences carefully. His sensory system processes things differently than us. It’s wired differently. Make him like things. When he gets tired, remove him from an experience. When you do that, you make sure that he wants to go into the experience again. If you had insisted on him attending the party until the end, had forced him to blow out the candles and cut the cake, you would’ve caused an unpleasant experience. The party wasn’t a total failure. You enjoyed it. Emilia enjoyed it. You and Emilia enjoyed planning it together. I’m enjoying it right now, eating this wonderfully delicious cake. We all enjoyed it. And if truth be told, Joshua will enjoy it tomorrow too. When he opens up his presents. Am I right, Emilia?”
Emilia looked at her daughter fondly, the little girl who had grown up instantly without any warning. The young woman across from her, borne of her but so different from her. The mother who refused to give up and who fought autism everyday. Emilia held her daughter’s eyes for the longest time and then whispered,
“I don’t enjoy anything except being with Cassie and Joshua now”.
All of a sudden Cassie’s heart became full. The pain of her divorce, the loss of her babies, the humiliation of her husband and best friend’s infidelity, the longing for Jaya and Arya, the hurt over Joshua’s struggles, her bruised ego over her failed party, all disappeared for many minutes. All that remained in her heart was the warmth of the love that she knew she now shared with her mother.
Life changed during summer. Joshua and Cassie started spending a lot of time in the sun, at the park. Anthony and Cassie became good friends. Emilia visited often and stayed over so many nights in a month that Cassie bought a pull-out couch from one of the furniture stores in the Bronx.
Cassie loved her new relationship with her mom. She also liked the fact that she had a male friend, even if the relationship was completely platonic. Anthony Albanese was a prominent investment banker in the NYC corporate scene and was not only an extremely smart man but also was exceptionally wealthy. He also had fallen in love with Cassie.
Cassie couldn’t deny her attraction to Anthony but she had started to have questions about her sexuality. Why did she feel that way about Jaya? She had never been attracted to women. Then where did her love and attraction for Jaya come from? Even though Anthony hadn’t told her how he felt, Cassie knew he liked her more than just friends.
One morning as Cassie and Joshua we’re getting ready to go to the park and Emilia had stayed with them overnight, Emilia got ready too and wanted to come to the park with them. Cassie was happy. Her mom was a world traveler, film actress, entrepreneur and a community worker and always had amazing stories to tell.
As they walked down the road towards the park, heads turned in Emilia direction. She was an attractive woman and a well-known actress. They finally got to the park.
Anthony was there. Cassie introduced them to each other and all of a sudden Emilia said,
“Cassie! Why don’t you two kids go grab a cup of coffee and get one for me too?”
Cassie protested that Emilia wouldn’t be able to handle Joshua alone but Emilia waved her concerns away.
Oh here comes the full name, Cassie thought, amused at how much fear her mother could instill in her just by saying her first name.
Anthony kissed Emilia’s hand. He looked a little star struck but handled it well.
“Mrs. Stevenson! We will see you in about two hours”.
He took Cassie’s hand possessively, tucked it in the crook of his elbow, put his hand on her waist and quietly said,
“I’m stealing you from your mother for today. And if things work out, I’ll never return you to her. You, me and Joshua will make an interesting family”.
Cassie leaned into him. Whatever her sexuality was, right now Anthony was all she needed and wanted.
Cassie and Anthony started dating. Cassie had never been with anyone like Anthony in her life. Helen teased her and said she was tasting love for the first time. Cassie laughed and said she was actually experiencing companionship for the first time.
She told Anthony all about Andrew and her struggles with infertility. Anthony asked why they hadn’t considered a surrogate. Cassie couldn’t answer that. Why many things didn’t happen in her marriage was a question that she had never been able to answer.
Joshua was growing up just too quickly. Soon he started an autism preschool. Cassie couldn’t imagine putting him on a bus and sending him away every morning but somehow they fell in the routine easily. Now that he was going to an ABA school, she didn’t need to keep the ABA agency in the mornings. Helen and Kendra however remained his therapists.
Now that Joshua was in school for the whole day, Monday to Friday, Cassie found herself bored. There were only so many times when she could surprise Anthony at work. There were only so many hours at the gym that she could do. Her mom was directing her first movie and was busy with that. Cassie felt like she had nothing to occupy herself with. Anthony had insisted on her and Joshua moving to Manhattan in his apartment but because Joshua’s therapists were all coming to the Bronx, Cassie wanted to stay put. Anthony knew when to give up. He moved in with Cassie. Cassie was initially not sure but when he moved in, it was like they had been living together for ages.
As Cassie was walking out of Anthony’s office one day after having lunch with him, she heard someone calling her name from behind her.
Cassie froze. That voice could stop her in her tracks still. In a din of chaos she could recognize that voice. That voice had talked to her, comforted her, shared deep dark secrets with her, that voice gave her confidence, that voice also gave her the biggest grief in her life. Even before Cassie turned, she knew it was the friend who had cheated her, the woman who had crushed her heart, her husband’s lover whom Cassie couldn’t hate, the girl who was Cassie’s lifelong support until she wasn’t. Before Cassie could turn and acknowledge her, she felt the woman closing in on her. She felt the woman hugging her from behind. And she heard the most bitter sobs that had ever come out of another human being.
Cassie felt Miriam’s light, long body against her. Her life rushed before her eyes. Miriam and Cassie going to school together, then college, then NYU. Miriam and Cassie laughing hysterically at the foolish boys they met at bars. Miriam and Cassie celebrating Miriam’s successes. Miriam and Cassie crying over Cassie’s miscarriages. Miriam and Cassie talking about Joshua and Miriam telling her to go for it and not be scared to sacrifice her marriage along the way. And then it stood out. The clearest picture of all. The darkest moment of her life. It came out the most vivid. Miriam and Andrew standing at her door, Joshua crying inside, Cassie feeling like a loser, Andrew looking sheepish, Miriam looking victorious. As Cassie thought about that moment, she felt her body inching away from Miriam’s, almost of its own volition. She could see the pain, regret and humiliation in Miriam’s eyes. She briefly saw Andrew in there. Andrew! Her ex-husband, the father of her eight unborn children, the man who broke her into a rubble to stand tall, the man who abandoned her. She looked at Miriam again. She looked haggard and careworn. She looked much older than her years. She had a wild look in her eyes and Cassie knew somehow that this look wasn’t just because she had seen Cassie all of a sudden. She believed that this was the look of bewilderment that she had herself worn once, as Andrew’s wife. She could see the telltale signs on Miriam of being with Andrew. He liked to collect women as trophies and treated them as such. There was the mark of neglect on Miriam, there was the scar of infidelity, that bruise was where Andrew called her names. She could see it all, plainly and honestly, for the first time. She hated Andrew in that moment. What Andrew did to her once vivacious, and lovely friend wasn’t forgivable.
Cassie felt content with her life. Joshua was making slow, meaningful progress and she felt good about it. She loved Anthony like she hadn’t loved another man. They made love almost every night and stayed awake long after. Anthony had legally adopted Joshua and now they were the Albanese family. Cassie loved it.
Cassie thought about her meeting with Miriam often. They didn’t get to say much to each other. Cassie didn’t want to know how she and Andrew had cheated on her or how they were happily living a domestic life. She didn’t care. She wished good things for Miriam but knew that Miriam chose Andrew knowing he couldn’t be a partner. It didn’t look like they had any kids.
Sometimes Cassie thought about Sandra. She wondered if Miriam and Sandra got along. She and Sandra had always had a reserved relationship with some fun moments. Overall, she had a neighborly relationship with Sandra. There was a lot of mutual respect usually but not enough love.
Sometimes her thoughts became about why Andrew had married her when he didn’t like her. She knew Sandra hadn’t liked her but had then agreed. She knew Sandra had known that people called her Cassandra. Sandra’s attachment to her son was sickeningly morbid. She likely approved of Cassie just because Cassie and Sandra were part of the same name.
Despite so many doubts, Cassie knew that Andrew loved her once. She wasn’t sure that he loved Miriam. He was always attracted to new things. He changed cars frequently and if he had enough money, he would have changed homes just as frequently too. Andrew liked newness. Change was attractive to him. Miriam wasn’t someone he loved. Miriam was just different.
Sometimes at night Cassie looked at Anthony how she had looked at Andrew once. Tenderly and lovingly. She felt an ache in her heart for him. Who would’ve thought that he would give her the family she always wanted? He had become her lover, her partner and Joshua’s parent. How did this happen? She would think with mounting giddiness.
One romantic evening when they were at Chuck E. Cheese’s, Joshua’s new favorite place where he went every weekend, Anthony got down on one knee and proposed with a diamond ring. Cassie cried like everyone else in the room. Her mother, Kendra and Helen were there too, she later found out. Anthony had made sure it was a special evening. Afterwards they ate pizza and drank soda. Late that night, Cassie and Anthony lay in each other’s arms, Joshua in the other room, his light snoring audible through the monitor that Cassie kept on at all times when Joshua was in his room. Cassie asked Anthony if he would like a big wedding. Anthony told her they’ll just get their marriage certificate and go on a week long honeymoon. Cassie couldn’t be happier.
“Hey Joshua! Come on, buddy! That isn’t strong enough. Hit it hard”.
Cassie smiled as she looked outside her window at Anthony and Joshua playing baseball in the front lawn of their townhouse in Westchester county.
She busied herself with cooking again. She was an excellent cook and had always wanted to have friends over. Unfortunately she never had the resources to do it in the Bronx but she was slowly making up for lost time.
Joshua was eight now. He was still minimally verbal but his receptive language had taken off with Kendra and Helen. Kendra had officially retired but saw Joshua regularly. Anthony had insisted that Kendra not leave Joshua. He had talked to Cassie in detail and had decided to pursue Kendra in her retirement too. Kendra told Cassie when Anthony had convinced her to continue treating Joshua “Your husband is very forceful, Cassie Albanese”.
Cassie had laughed a genuine laugh. Kendra had smiled fondly. She loved Cassie and Joshua like her own kids.
Emilia remained close with Cassie until many years later. Then one day, soon after the screening of her movie, Emilia passed away in her sleep. Cassie remembered her mother telling her over and over during the final days of her life
“I love you a lot Cassie baby”.
Had she known she wasn’t going to be for long?, Cassie wondered. She was sad that Emilia left her when things were coming together but knew that her mother had had a rough life and alcohol had become her friend, medicine and poison. Cassie couldn’t help her mother get over the many infidelities she had faced in life. Her mother found it the hardest to forgive herself for her negligence towards Cassie but Cassie had no complaints with her mother. She loved Emilia like she loved Joshua.
But overall Cassie was happy that her mother had a peaceful death. The success of Emilia’s movie unfortunately happened after her death. Cassie was the sole beneficiary of Emilia’s money and possessions. She couldn’t believe how much money her mother had.
Sandra and Cassie crossed paths again. In a quiet Queens neighborhood, Astoria, Sandra and Cassie had met again over coffee. Cassie felt sympathetic towards Sandra. She was much older now and had found a mean rival in Miriam. She told Cassie how Miriam and Andrew had forcibly made her leave the neighborhood where she had moved to be close to her only child. Talking to Sandra was like looking at her past through a window. She saw it but didn’t feel connected to it.
Sandra told Cassie that Andrew and Miriam didn’t have a happy marriage either. But they were all they had so they were trying to stick it out together. She asked about Joshua and gave a hand-knitted cardigan for him. Cassie had felt obligated to meet Sandra one last time and close the door on her memory forever. They parted on good terms. Sandra insisted that they make another lunch or coffee date but Cassie politely declined. On her way back home, she threw the cardigan in a roadside dumpster. She had had enough history with Sandra Parker’s vicious ways to trust anything that came from her.
Cassie sat on the train station. The familiarity of this station had become the one constant in her life. She had first sat here, waiting for him, holding her breath. She remembered the light and delicate figure of Sarah Cohen getting off of the train and making her way towards Cassie. She remembered Joshua’s big brown eyes, that had come to resemble Anthony’s in the years with Anthony. She thought of the cloudy fall day when she got Joshua. She remembered the sunlight that made her day bright.
She thought about the fluidity of her own sexuality and her brief contact with Jaya as she twirled the locket between her fingers . She thought of the train to Boston, so similar to the train that was running towards her from Manhattan right this moment, with her favorite person on it. She thought of her marriage to Andrew, the deception, the loss and the many children who lived in her heart. She looked at the face beside her, the man who gave her himself and took nothing from her. He didn’t take love from her for love. He gave and gave until she was ready to give in return. There was no force in Anthony’s love. It was calm and reassuring . She had cried and laughed with him in the last ten years so many times without reserve. She had been open to him and had showed him her wounds. He had held her heart like it was made of glass. She had become a new person with him, almost reincarnated from the Cassie who was timid and meek. Now she was Mrs. Anthony Albanese and respected herself. She sometimes wondered if she needed a strong man to feel strong and then she rejected this idea herself. Joshua’s autism had made her strong many years before she met Anthony. Anthony gave her love and his love made her even stronger.
And now the train was stopping and there were people jumping off and getting on. Cassie’s eyes scanned the station frantically and didn’t see him. She wondered if he had missed the train. She knew that he was aware of his struggles most of all. She had called him twice last night to tell him to set two different alarms. This morning she hadn’t spoken to him because she knew he’d be busy. She was sure he hadn’t missed the train but then where was he?
And then it emerged from the crowd of different colors . The face with a thousand suns shining in it. The face that Cassie could feel and tell was her son’s. The face that twitched and grimaced at unpleasant tactile sensations. The face that showed love in a way that only Cassie could get. The face that usually looked grumpy but broke into a grin as soon as it saw Cassie.
Walking towards Cassie was the only man she had ever loved with every grain of her soul. The man who was her son but wasn’t borne of her womb. The man who made everyone else pale in comparison, even Anthony. The child whom Cassie loved more than any other child that she had ever hoped to have. The child who had become her reason to live.
This person right here, Cassie thought, showed me how to be a mother. How to fight for us. How to accept nothing less than perfect. How can I ever pay Joshua back for giving me to me?
As Joshua took long strides towards his parents, as she heard his awkward squeal of a laugh, as she saw Anthony rushing forward and hugging him, Cassie looked at Joshua with eyes that were like two big, green orbs. Like two universes with ancient secrets in them. Joshua hugged Anthony and looked over his father’s shoulder at his mother, the woman who refused to back down in the face of autism, who accepted him as he was, who celebrated his autism when people were scared of it, who raised him as her own, who found words in his silence. He looked at his mother’s sea-green eyes and felt like she carried her heart in them for they mirrored her feelings so well and then he saw his soul in her heart. He looked at his mother, his eyes such a stark contrast to hers, brown with deep black centers and blew her a kiss.
Cassie caught it and ran towards him thinking of another dear person who had blown her a kiss on a train station once. She laughed as she closed the distance between them. When she reached them, Anthony grabbed her and they embraced in a huddle. And Joshua whispered,
“I missed you too, Mom”.