A few months into the school year, I got a phone call from my aunt.
“Matthew’s standing at the door,” she said. “He has his shoes and coat on. Listen to what he’s saying.” I heard the static as she moved the phone from her face to his.
“We’re going on the Staten Island Ferry!” he said.
“He just saw your note,” my aunt continued. “It must have been from early August. Now it’s eight o’clock at night, and he thinks we’re going to Staten Island.”
The only thing was, we had already ridden the Staten Island Ferry. It was now October, three months too late.
I pictured him standing at the door: round little body topped with brown mushroom cut—eager, excited, ready to go. He always had a facility with letters and would sit on the floor for hours if I let him, making words. Couldn’t engage me in conversation much, but could find and respond perfectly to the note.
I wore belly tops all last summer, stomped around Manhattan in Timberlands, rode trains across the city in search of Indian pastries, Ecuadorian karaoke, pig intestines, daal. The summer was hot; I was hungry. I was 18. But my peregrinations ended each day around three o’clock on West 23rd between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, where I picked Matthew up. I had come from the distant land of New Jersey to spend the summer in my aunt’s Manhattan apartment and to watch her son.
My cousin Matthew was six years old, the happiest person I’ve ever met, and autistic. His autism meant that he remembered phone numbers with uncanny ease and spelled nearly everything with phonetic precision. At the beach, he liked to write long words in the wet sand. But Matthew’s autism also meant that we rarely had normal conversations: It was a victory when he said, after coaxing, that he wanted to eat chicken nuggets or go to the pool. When he addressed me directly I felt like I had been given a present, like the couple of times he said “I love you, Reina” as I kissed his cheek, or the one day he told me that he had colored at school.
On those hot July afternoons, he’d grin up at me from the tiled floor of an old school building in Chelsea. “Today Matthew played with blocks,” that day’s teacher would say. Or, “Today we went to the park, and Matthew ate nearly all of his blueberries.”
“Hi, Matthew!” I would exclaim, and he would say, “Hi, Reina!” and we’d start singing Beatles songs, hands swinging between us, walking down the street. He always combined “I Wanna Hold your Hand” with “Martha, My Dear”: “Hold your hand, you silly girl—look what you’ve done,” he’d sing, and I would kiss his face.
There were always urgent matters at hand: cool museum interiors through which Matthew could walk, running everything under his hands; ice cream to drench the little polo shirts his Upper East Side grandmother insisted on buying; buses to ride toward obscure or nonexistent destinations up and down the island of Manhattan as Matthew touched strangers’ hair and I fumbled with the map and we missed our stop nearly every time.
No matter how fun they initially seem, adventures with six-year-olds in the summer somehow always end in ten-block piggyback rides and the same querulous complaint: “When are we going home?” But Matthew was different—he hardly ever cried. Unexpected detours never fazed him: the day I got a parking ticket and brought him downtown with me to court; the time we couldn’t quite find Battery Park; rush hour on the subway.
On the weekends we went to the beach. Our trips proceeded with the normal confusion of complicatedly-divorced people: Matthew and I stayed at his father’s house, my aunt’s ex-husband, a well-meaning man who was sweet with Matthew but who had never been good with kids. I stayed weekends with him and Matthew in the lemon-colored beach house, dodging the arrows of divorcé conversations while doing laundry, riding scooters, and cutting farm stand tomatoes at the sink. There was an unoccupied queen-sized bed in the next room, but I always ended up—at Matthew’s behest—in his Elmo-decorated twin. Some nights, he started crying. Mommy was what he wanted, wandering around downstairs in tears, trying to force the front door open as his father looked helplessly on. It calmed Matthew to ride on my back, to recite telephone numbers, to spell arcane words. At the end of the crying spells he’d fall asleep again next to me and I’d kiss his baby-smell and spit-sticky face.
On the Fourth of July we watched the fireworks from the cramped harbored deck of a boat belonging to some friends of Matthew’s father. I held the sleeping child against the pops and sizzles while bay salt and alcohol and the sulfured sting of firecrackers tinged the air. He woke enough to giggle at the pops, shrieking with pleasure, but when the display was over, he fell back to sleep.
We rode a small motorboat back across the water. On the swaying craft, I held the breath-swell of his warm weight. I wanted to write things to him, give him something. I wanted to make good of words—to string them together precise enough for him to comprehend.
Instead, I clutched his body against the breeze and salt water as we headed for the dock. I was writing him a poem in a language he could understand, in zeroes and ones, in the binary of his breath.