Authors: Cammie McGovern
The Art of Seeing
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in 2006 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright Â© Cammie McGovern, 2006
All rights reserved
: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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For the boys I love so much:
Mike, Ethan, Charlie, and Henry
EVIN IS FINE
,” Miss Lattimore, their fifth-grade teacher told them. “Just
He's had a little bit of brain damage, that's all.” She held up her hand, thumb and forefinger out, so they all saw:
Just an inch of brain damage.
“If he has trouble doing certain things, like talking, for instance, or getting around, remember: inside he's just the same.” She closed her inch-measuring fingers into a fist and thunked her chest. “He has exactly the same feelings you do.”
Cara and Suzette eyed each other. Suzette's father's secretary was Kevin's aunt. They already knew Kevin wasn't fine, that he used a walker and could only operate one side of his face. Drool was a problem, as was the bathroom. Kevin used to be a regular boy no one thought much about until last summer when he rode his bike helmetless down the long hill of Brewster Boulevard into the side of a Pepperidge Farm bread truck and for two days lay in a coma with a missing kidney and bleeding on the brain. Now he was more interesting.
When he appeared in the doorway for his first day back at school, Cara was ready, hands clasped in front of her, a frozen smile of welcome on her face. Weeks ago, she had decided that she would befriend Kevin upon his returnâhelp him with his tray at lunch, unzip his backpack, retrieve his pencil case for him if need be. She wasn't afraid of him, the way everyone else so obviously was, watching as he inched his way into the room, silver metal walker first, his motherâwearing bright red lipstick and a scarf tied over pink sponge curlersâbehind. His face was exactly as Suzette had described it: half fine, half fallen like a cake, creasing in on itself, his mouth tilted in a crooked smile that didn't move as he took what felt like the whole morning to get to his seat, one row behind Cara. Miss Lattimore's fist returned to her chest: “We're just happy to have you here, Kevin. Very, very happy.”
The coughing and paper shuffling around the room spoke volumes of denial. No one was happy to have Kevin here. He was a cautionary tale, the name all parents now used when their children headed off anywhere on a bicycle. As he moved closer, even Cara, with her Florence Nightingale dreams of rescue, was so stunned by the sight of him, and the terrible decimation one moment of bad judgment could wreak, that when he slid his squeaky walker past her, she did what she promised herself she wouldn't: lowered her eyes to the hem of her minidress, took in her good legs and working hands, tested her face by raising both eyebrows. When he finally took his seat, leaving his walker to block the aisle, Miss Lattimore returned to the lesson and a room full of children so eager to attend to anything besides Kevin that it was possible no one, except Cara, heard a kind of throat clearing that became words, garbled, full of saliva, uttered through half a mouth: “I can see your panties.”
Later, Suzette told her there was something wrong with her, to love a boy who would say something like that. “I can't help it,” Cara said. “There's something about him.”
She and Suzette had been having these conversations since the second grade, when they first met and became friends. If Cara was the romantic, Suzette was the practical soul, the seer of truths, the one who eschewed popularity and all that it required. Currently, the popular-girl trend at lunchtime was weaving lanyards out of long, narrow plastic ribbons of red and black. “Whore colors,” one girl explained, and Cara made the mistake of rushing out to buy her own materials. She didn't understand the basic tenet of popularity: that you had to be
invited into it. You didn't just sit down, your brown bag of materials on the table in front of you. For years, she didn't understand the rules of social discourse; then, in a single exchange, she did: “We sort of sit here,” Patty Sweet told her. “Like with our friends.”
“Oh,” Cara said, pulling her bag into her lap, scooting down the bench.
Afterward, Suzette rolled her eyes. “Like those girls are so great. Please. They have nothing going for them, except they're all skinny and have good hair.” Suzette had no use for the popular girls at their school, or anyone else for that matter. She wanted to work with animals someday. “Like in Africa,” she said. “Animals are honest. They want food, they eat you.”
Though Suzette wouldn't have understood this distinction, Cara didn't long for popularity so much as an ease with people, a way to move more smoothly through the world and be like her fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Simon, who once taught a whole morning with her fly down and laughed afterward when she realized. “So who heard a word I said?” she joked. For Cara, a mistake like that would have clung to her for days, become an explanation for the conversations that piled up in her head, the words she never spoke to the people she spent all day watching.
In Kevin's first week back, Cara watched him as much as she could. Every time she turned around on some fabricated excuse in her mindâshe needed to remember where the pencil sharpener was, needed to glance at the clouds out the windowsâhe was staring at her, his broken face wearing the same half smile. Privately, she began to doubt the business about brain damage. When she looked into his eyes, she saw depth there, intelligence, a perfectly fine brain trapped in a half-collapsed body.
At the start of the second week, Miss Lattimore began class by whispering, “I need to ask one of you to be Kevin's helper this week.” Though Kevin wasn't there (he still arrived at school an hour late every day), she leaned toward the class as if this were a collective secret, something they shouldn't speak of outside their room. Cara's hand shot up, a lone pillar in a sea of uncertainty. To date, Cara had made no mark in this class, had distinguished herself as nothing beyond being the one person with clean fingernails the day Miss Lattimore discussed hand-to-mouth transmission of cold germs. (“I'm not afraid to shake hands with Cara,” she'd said. “The rest of you, I'm less sure of.”) Now that would change. Miss Lattimore called her up for a private conference at the teacher's desk. “Try to think about things he might need, and help him before he has to ask. I think that's the nicest way.” Cara nodded and planned to be the best Kevin-helper ever, so good that no one else would need to apply for the job, it would be hers for the rest of the year.
As it turned out, though, Kevin didn't need much help and hardly ever asked for anything; in fact, he hardly seemed to talk at all. Twice Miss Lattimore called on him in class, and both times everyone watched the concentrated effort that talking required. Both times he failed to get any words out, and Miss Lattimore said, “It's okay, Kevin. Thanks for trying. Maybe next time.” They ate lunch together as Miss Lattimore had told them to do, and Cara kept up a steady stream of chatter she'd planned ahead of time to fill what would otherwise be a silent meal. She told him everything she'd been thinking about recently: That she wasn't interested in having tons of friends, that she'd rather be
and sometimes, she'd learned, you can't be both. To her surprise, in Kevin's silent presence, words came easily, opinions, thoughts; suddenly, she had lots of them. She sounded like Suzette, who everyone knew was the smarter of the two of them. She told Kevin she was thinking about being a nurse when she grew up, or a marine biologist, based on visiting tide pools last summer and surprising everyone with the fearless way she reached in to touch the textures that couldn't be predicted ahead of time. “Some anemones look squishy, and then you touch them and they're hard as a bone. Like touching a skull, which would be weird. Who'd want to do that?”
His wandering eyes flicked to hers.
Oh my God,
His skull has been touched, by many hands probably.
Her heart sped up and she feared some kind of internal combustion, death from embarrassment, a heart attack of stupidity.
Later Miss Lattimore told Cara she did a fine job but she was going to assign a boy from now on. “In case Kevin needs any help in the restroom. It'll be easier this way, less embarrassing to him if he has to ask.” Cara stood beside Miss Lattimore's desk, in the second and last private audience she would have with this teacher for the rest of the year, and saw, in a flash of the terrifying insight children sometimes have and then shake off, confused by their own capacity for truth, that she was not alone in loving Kevin for inexplicable reasons: his needs, his silence, the bad hand he had to place with the other on top of his desk. Miss Lattimore loved him, too, and thought about him at night, far more than she should. They each believed their version of the truth about Kevin: to Cara, he was fine, or even better than fineâa brush with death had aged him prematurely and placed an adult in their midst, trapped inside a broken child's body; to Miss Lattimore, he would forever stay the child who climbed on a bicycle and rode for three minutes, his arms outstretched. Perhaps they both hoped for similar things: to erase injury with ministrations, to find a hole, a vacuum to pour their liquid love into, or maybe it was slightly darker, what Suzette had implied in her annoyance at Cara's refusal to eat lunch with her all week. “You just want everyone to notice
Suzette had been her best friend for three years now. They'd suffered through seven months of Girl Scouts, had jointly quit when denied their artistic creativity badges because the Shrinky Dinks stained-glass project Suzette dreamed up, incorporating bird feathers and aluminum foil pieces, fit no definition of art the leader had read. They had learned to ride bikes together, to swim, to make God's eye yarn stars they hung above their beds. Suzette knew everything about Cara, and had spoken a certain degree of the truth: Cara
want to be noticed. Against the hard, plain truth of all Kevin's needs, she saw herself for the first time during those lunches, heard her own voice, felt herself become the person she might one day turn into.
Years down the line, Cara would come to realize she wasn't wrong about Miss Lattimore, either. She would learn firsthand that there are many responses to a child who has “special needs” (as they weren't commonly called then but would be soon), that people seem to feel, in equal measure, compassion, disdain, terror, and pity, yet also thisâan equation of possibility:
Here you have this need. Come, sit beside me. Let me fill it.
Now, at age thirty, Cara sits in the office of her old elementary school, waiting for Margot Tesler, the principal, to return and tell her what's going on with her son, who has been missing long enough for her to be called down here. Most of the time Cara forgets she went to this school some twenty years ago, that if walls could talk, these corridors could speak to a long history of her failures and successes. It only occurs to her in odd moments: kneeling beside a coat cubby as Adam negotiates his way out of snow pants, she'll see a heating vent and remember her and Suzette, bored, decorating the slats in tiny ballpoint-pen
s, and she'll lean over to see if coats of beige paint might not have erased evidence of her old, now dead friendship.
Though Cara never came to the principal's office as a child, she knows this office well now, with its wall-to-wall bookshelves and conference table big enough to accommodate Adam's yearly education plan review, which sometimes involves eight people hammering out goals, benchmarks, the accommodations necessary as the curriculum grows more demanding with each year. Strangely, Cara has happy associations with being in this room. She isn't friends with any of these people, but she also isn't adversarial, as she suspects some parents of special-needs kids are, with a bottomless list of requests and demands. Cara takes the opposite approach, baking cookies for all her meetings, distributing fudge every Christmas, writing elaborate yearly thank-you notes to everyone on staff, because she's always believed what her mother taught herâthat kindness breeds kindnessâand if she thanks people, and thanks them again, Adam's world will be cushioned by a bit of remembered gratitude. So far, Cara would argue, her approach has worked. Even when she walked in here, Shirley, the principal's secretary, caught her eye and said, “We love Adam, sweetheart, and we're all going out of our minds. He'll turn up in a minute.” Cara nodded and mouthed,
loved, by the adults of the school anyway, who always talk about his big smile, the dancing joy on his face when he comes in from recess. Though he's still, at age nine, capable of the occasional inexplicable tantrum that embarrasses everyone, he can also be magically uncomplicated: offered the promise of a gumdrop or a chance to listen in on afternoon band practice, he nearly explodes with delight. “No,
” he'll say, a new favorite expression. “No really? A gumdrop?” In the middle of an elementary school full of children aging too rapidly, dressing like pop stars, carrying cell phones, Adam is, for some of these grandmotherly types, the perfect eternal childâhappy with the mundane, a pile of wood chips, a tuft of dryer lint, nothing really. One year, even the principal, sensible Margot, with her boxy orthopedic shoes and terrible crocheted vests, ended an IEP meeting by saying, “Adam is a jewel, Cara, and we all love him. I just wanted to say that.”
Cara has always taken such comments as hopeful beacons for the future. Adults love him, and one day he'll be an adult, too! The implication, in her hopeful heart's logic: loved then, too! Appreciated by people who are his age, not thirty years older!