AUTISTIC BY ASSOCIATION
One night recently, a small nut tried to kill me.
"I'm hungry." Emily laughed. About to start second grade, her smile pushed up cheeks heavy with baby fat, and she threw back her head, setting her black pigtails swaying like a hypnotist’s watch. We always went through this routine during reading lessons at her house in the Korean countryside. Sunlight poured through the kitchen window behind her, a sunny winter day only slightly dampened by a view of barren brown rice fields. As usual, I pulled over a wicker basket filled with plastic-wrapped pastries, candy, and taffy.
"Eat this." I tossed a piece of taffy onto her reading book where she snatched it from on top of a smiling rainbow illustration. Her short pudgy fingers strained to release the taffy from its green wrapper until she rolled her eyes and tossed it back to me.
"Open." She grinned. Returning her smirk, I opened the wrapper and handed it back. Emily sniffed the white rectangle inside before taking a tentative bite. After a few chews, she frowned and offered me the remaining taffy. A bit hungry myself, I popped the entire snack into my mouth. As I chewed that taffy, I assumed it was filled with some peanuts or beans like the Korean rice cakes I’d grown accustomed to.
Ten minutes later I was in the bathroom throwing up.
Once I had some measure of control, I tried to wash away the deep red infusing my face. My ears were turning into cartoon versions of themselves as if steam were about to blast forth.
When I exited the bathroom, the house was quiet. Emily no longer sat at the kitchen table where we held our tutoring sessions. I called her name, debating whether I could hold it together for the rest of the tutoring session, swaying on my feet while my face ballooned. Emily’s mother crept from the dark bedroom where her one-year-old was napping. I couldn’t have said which of us looked worse. For every hair held back by her ponytail, a stray hair seemed to be jutting out like loose shirt threads. Her grey sweatshirt was splattered with iridescent smeers from drool or snot. Telltale lines on her face told me she’d been napping with her baby, but her eyes were like flashing alarms when she saw me.
“Oh, Teacher. Are you okay?” she asked in Korean.
"I ate taffy. Pistachios. Allergic to pistachios," I explained in simple Korean sentences, switching roles from teacher to student. No matter how much experience I had as a teacher and regardless of any eloquence I could muster while speaking English, when I switched to Korean, I was a little kid looking up at those around me from a place of weakness and vulnerability. Moments like that one helped me understand how my children and young students must have viewed the world.
"Hurry. Go to the hospital," Emily’s mom responded in Korean. “Can you drive?”
“Yeah,” I answered, bracing myself against two walls as I slipped into my shoes. With a half-hearted wave to Emily I lurched to my car and threw myself behind the steering wheel. For the first five minutes of my drive I thought I would make it to the hospital. I had driven myself to the hospital each of the other three times I had this allergic reaction. Each time it had gotten a little worse, but it had always been manageable.
Between one moment and the next, the entire world wobbled like a spinning top. Not caring where I was or whose way I might be in, I pulled onto a narrow road between rice fields and doubled over to vomit in a trash bag filled with gum wrappers, store receipts, and plastic coffee cups.
Each time I thought my stomach empty and my head clear, I continued my drive to the hospital only to pull over a few minutes later. After half an hour of this ritual--accompanied by frantic scratching to calm the army of millipedes tap dancing beneath my skin--I felt whole again. If I visited the hospital, they might see nothing wrong with me except for some dreadful breath. I hated being dismissed and not taken seriously. More than anything, I didn’t want to explain my problem in broken Korean.
Emily’s house was on a large island in Korea’s western sea. As I drove over the bridge connecting to the mainland, I was able to concentrate on the late sunlit afternoon. Two small fishing boats bobbed south of the bridge where empty rice fields ended at the coastline. On the other side mountains began at the water and stretched to the horizon, rising and falling waves in imitation of the sea. An empty corner of North Korea’s coastline shimmered in the hazy distance.
Fifteen minutes later I arrived home, feeling that the worst was over. Stepping out of my car, I started going through the list of chores ahead of me--take out the recycling, clean the dishes, and give my two youngest daughters showers--confident I would manage. Halfway through the yard, my legs wobbled, and my view tilted. I was in elementary school riding a swing with my head thrust backwards, dizzying feelings in my stomach as the world flashed past in reverse.
All my children were home when I lurched through the front door, but my in-laws must have left on an errand. Sherrah was at work until the late evening. Seven-year-old Layla and five-year-old Fay were watching TV and called distracted greetings as I braced against the hallway leading to my bedroom. They still wore their winter coats zipped up to their necks. Grandma had braided pigtails into tight French baguettes which remained intact for once. Cheeks plump with baby fat crowded Fay’s angular eyes and button nose, whereas Layla had sharp angles to her drawn face except for her round eyes. Both girls were a perfect collection of my mixed heritage (mostly Italian and Polish) and Sherrah’s Korean genes.
I didn’t know where twelve-year-old Tiana was nor did I have the energy to search. Thirteen-year-old Caden was playing a computer game in his bedroom.
When we moved in with my in-laws, we took over their master bedroom. Their walk-in closet became Caden’s bedroom after he refused to sleep in his actual bedroom, still clinging to childhood fears of the dark. With three bookshelves, a computer desk, two dressers, and a king-size bed--the walk-in closet became a bedroom larger than his original. A window set high in the wall bathed Caden in light each morning and gave a view of moon and stars at night. That back bedroom connected to mine through a hallway just large enough for the bathroom door on one wall and a makeup table on the other.
We were separated by so little physical space, but my sickness had to compete with his Asperger’s Syndrome. Diagnosed when he was eight, the disease could have been another level of separation between us. Instead, it brought us together. Having an autistic child made me autistic by association. Because Caden was bound by routines, I had to follow those same routines.
Caden only showered at night, only wore sweatpants, and only took his medicine with milk. His sisters had to shower before him, which was easy enough, but I often waited outside the bathroom door after a workout, urging him to hurry. I couldn’t cut his fingernails too short because exposing the sliver of skin hidden beneath his nails overwhelmed his senses. Although seemingly incapable of telling bold-faced lies, he exaggerated or played down his actions. When others lied, he had to expose them even if it didn’t affect him. If I told him to do more than one task at a time, he would crash like an overheated computer complete with a high-pitched whine.
He hated being hugged tightly, allowing me the barest physical contact with him.
Playing a game as he was, I feared he wouldn't have stopped for the end of the world. While comets crashed through the ceiling and set the room around him ablaze, he would have tried to finish one last task in the game. Stubborn and focused, when the grim reaper arrived he would have made the spectre wait with continued promises of “Just one more minute.” In my weakened condition, I needed his help. As long as I kept things simple, I was sure he could manage to escape the computer’s siren call for a few minutes.
“Caden?” I said and collapsed into my bed.
“Daddy?” I didn’t need to see him to picture his slack-jawed expression. “Why?”
“Can you bring me a plastic bag?” He sat around the corner about five paces away, but with my weak voice I might as well have been calling him from the other end of the house.
“Why?” At that point he could still have been frozen in his original position, but I suspected most of his attention had returned to the computer screen.
“I might throw up. Can you hurry?”
“Yes.” His voice oozed with so much reluctance he could have swam through it on his way to the kitchen. He passed through my bedroom in dinosaur-patterned pajamas. His hair was swirled in short maple locks like a pile of wood shavings. In the middle of a growth spurt, his legs and arms looked too long for his squat belly with prominent love handles. I soon heard the familiar clomping of his slippers fading deep into the house until they were echoes of echoes. Too soon, he returned without the accompanying rustle of a plastic bag.
“Daddy, I can’t go in the kitchen. Some strange smell is there.” Another facet of Caden’s autism--he's sensitive to smells. He struggles to eat in his school’s lunch room because of the cleaning products they use. If the wrong person showers before him, he won’t go in until every fruit-scented shampoo aroma has abated. Smells, textures, and sounds are like bits of broken glass that cut his composure.
Eventually Tiana came to my bedside on her own, wondering why I was groaning, shaking, and scratching like an iguana clawing out of its old skin.
"Daddy, are you okay?" Being a parent with four children is like climbing a sand dune. Between giving baths, helping with homework, doing chores, and general discipline--you're never going to reach the top. You're going to fall asleep and slide back down to the bottom, starting all over again the next day. Knowing I could rely on Tiana was like resting on solid ground until I had the energy to start climbing again. After I explained my suffering in a jilted wavering croak, she promised to keep an eye on her siblings, and my body shook like a maraca wielded by a kindergartener on a sugar high as I groaned myself into a stupor.
When my mother-in-law Mi-ae arrived home an hour later, she forced me to go to the hospital with my father-in-law Gwang-song. I was too weak to protest, barely dragging myself to his car before passing out.
Unaware of the pain ripping apart my intestines, Gwang-song drove at top speed whenever possible down roads as empty as my stomach. Every bump in the road combined with centripetal forces, tossing me like a doll in a dryer. When some instinct told me we were almost at the hospital, I cracked swollen eyelids open on a night littered with pulsing red taillights, warm white street lamps, and flickering neon signs.
During my fifteen years in Korea, I'd spent as much time in that hospital as I had in hotels during annual road trips to Korea's eastern sea. At first I’d been hospitalized for intestinal problems. Once a week, I used to treat myself to a glass of beer and a skillet of fire chicken basted with enough spices to threaten my sanity after each bite. As my family grew, I slept beside one child or another in a stiff hospital bed while they recovered from pneumonia or foot-and-mouth disease.
The parking lot maze, plastic waiting room chairs, and sterile hallways had become too familiar for someone like myself who prefered to suffer through ailments rather than seek relief at a hospital. Like all young men, I had always believed myself invincible. Nearing forty but thinking myself still twenty, I believed in that invincibility like a child fascinated by a magician's simplest trick. However, as my father-in-law dropped me off outside the emergency room, the rectangle of bright fluorescent light shining through the automatic doors welcomed me as I welcomed it.
Bleary eyed, I stumbled to the admissions counter and handed over my ID card. “What’s the matter,” he asked, glancing up from his computer screen, perhaps checking whether I had any obvious injuries, such as a knife stuck in my skull.
“A-le-lur-gee.” My tongue twisted around the l’s and r, but his eyes widened a smidge.
“Hurry over there,” he said. Cleaning fluids scrubbed my nostrils with each labored breath, and a news anchor droned in a familiar monotone from the adjoining waiting room TV. Before I could approach the nearest chair, opaque white doors slid open to a quiet emergency room.
“Ma-ee-kul?” The nurse calling my name was wide, seeming to fill most of the space between the electric doors. I stumbled toward her, and she hurried me to the nearest bed. "Shoes and coat off,” she ordered in Korean. “What did you eat?" My shoes slid off easily enough, but my coat held like a straightjacket until I remembered the zipper. I lay down like a collapsing building and spoke with closed eyes.
"Pistachio." Spoken with my admittedly mediocre Korean accent, the four-syllable word stretched a bit like the taffy that had started this debacle. "Pee-seu-ta-shi-o."
"When did you eat it?"
"In the afternoon. Four." That single nurse felt like five. Every word and movement accomplished a task as she seemed to take my blood pressure, listen to my heartbeat, and take my temperature simultaneously. Gwang-song arrived and wedged himself into the conversation.
"He's having an allergic reaction to pistachio nuts." He chuckled, surely finding this situation ludicrous.
"Did you throw up?" the nurse asked. Through my heavy eyes, she was a blurry uniform hovering above me in halos of light.
"Yes, he did." Gwang-song answered for me. With deep wrinkles separating piles of skin beneath his narrow eyes and snowy locks of hair, he should have writhed on that hospital bed. How could I be brought low by a single nut?
"Yes, a lot," I said, filling these few words with enough emphasis to express what my father-in-law hadn't--I had thrown up like it was an Olympic event.
"How's your stomach?" God bless the nurse--she was listening to my father-in-law, but she wasn't deferring to him or talking over me in Korean. People speaking about you, assuming you won't understand, is a common enough event when you're not a native speaker in a foreign country. When my wife and I met parents about tutoring, they often talked over me, reducing me to a child being talked about by adults while I stood uncertain and shy at their feet. My wife had earned that privilege, but Gwang-song had shattered our relationship like a mirror which now cast skewed reflections.
All four kids were asleep in their bedrooms on a chilly fall night a year ago. I was searching online for something to watch before bed when I heard Sherrah and her dad yelling in the kitchen. Before I could get up, she exploded into our room and fell to pieces on the closet floor. Strings of Korean curses fell from her mouth as she shoveled clothes into a large shopping bag.
"What is it? What happened?" I asked, though I suspected the answer. Ever since our wedding, Sherrah and her father's relationship had declined. As a married woman, he expected her to care for her family by staying home, cleaning, and preparing meals. She was devoted to her career. Whenever she went out with friends for a night of drinking and singing at the karaoke, he never missed the chance to chastise her the next day. They had fought repeatedly over the years about their conflicting view of her role in the family, often shouting at each other until he left home for weeks or months, refusing to live in the same house as her.
"That guy is having a go at me because I went out last night. He wants me to stay home and take care of him. His own daughters don't want to see him." Koreans don't make the same familial distinctions that westerners do. Sherrah considered her step-father to be her father, unless she was angry, at which point he became 'that guy,' losing his identity. "His daughter got married, the younger one, and she didn't want him at her wedding. I asked him why I should take care of him when his own daughters don't want to see him. He lost it. I can't stay here with him. Can you take this to my car?"
She handed me her bag and headed to the bathroom for toiletries, but we could hear Mi-ae chastising her husband while he shouted at Sherrah through our locked bedroom door. My mother-in-law had no affect, and her voice rose in desperation. A history of abuse at her birth-father's hands had rendered my wife fiercely protective of her mother. Sherrah rushed toward the door.
"Please don't go out there." My words were scraps of paper lost to the raging inferno inside my wife. A similar rage had already pushed my father-in-law beyond sanity. Sherrah opened the door and thrust herself between her parents, but I didn’t recognize Gwang-song as the timid, laughing man I’d always known. Sure, he could enrage me with his patriarchal nonsense and was often dismissive, but he had transformed into every bully who had called me names or tripped me while looking down through hate-filled eyes.
Gwang-song wasn’t making any threatening gestures toward Mi-ae, but Sherrah wasn’t taking any chances. She shoved him with all her strength, knocking him back a few steps. He took a swing at her, but she was just beyond his reach. Without thinking, I was behind him, locking both his arms behind his back. I was a head taller than him and thirty years younger, but trying to keep his arms stationary took all my strength. I considered taking his legs out from under him, but holding him as I was already felt more violent than I was comfortable with.
"Father, please stop," I urged, speaking formal Korean in a tense quiet voice. Without the use of his arms, he started kicking and headbutting in my wife’s direction until she retreated to the kitchen, driven there by her shouting mother.
“Go,” Mi-ae instructed me, pointing to the kitchen. She planted herself before her husband. With her small stature she should have looked like a child frozen before a charging bull, but her fierce disposition made her seem a castle wall. He would bloody himself trying to get past her, and she would hardly notice. My fear surely made her seem stronger than she was. I feared Gwang-song would turn his aggression toward me, and though I shook with adrenaline, I wasn’t confident enough to do anything with it. I retreated to the kitchen without a second thought.
“Are you okay,” I asked. Sherrah stalked the kitchen, pounding countertops to release her own adrenaline. “Do you have your phone?”
“No.” She didn’t seem scared in the slightest; rather, she reminded me of a boxer psyching herself up before a big fight. Perhaps I shouldn’t have interfered. I think she could have taken him, though she would have walked away bruised and battered.
“Use mine.” I pulled it from my pocket and handed it to her. “You should call the police.”
“Really?” Sherrah’s shock hardened my resolve to involve the police. She had probably never considered calling them for help. Was she so confident in her ability to handle the situation? I shared no such confidence in my own ability. Was embarrassing her parents with a visit from the cops worse than blows from her father’s hands? Did she think any part of this normal?
Gwang-song appeared in the doorway, yelling curses that stuck in his raw throat. Already between him and Sherrah, I struggled to maintain that position as my wife tried to leap past me. More than any other time, I didn’t understand a word of the Korean erupting from my family’s mouths, but the sickening tone and rhythm of it was familiar as they vomited curses. Seemingly empty of threats, Gwang-song retreated toward his bedroom, turning every few steps to renew his onslaught from afar while Sherrah’s mom smacked his arm.
“I really think you should call the police.” I felt sick to my stomach, uncomfortable with the raw violence Gwang-song had wielded at my wife. As Sherrah considered the phone in her hand, the family room quieted, my in-laws retreating to their bedroom. None of the children had ventured forth from their rooms, so I prayed they slept through that horrible night, dreaming of ice cream mountains or their favorite stuffed animals come to life. With the push of a button, Sherrah made her decision by activating my phone. Explaining the situation to the officer on the other end, her voice seethed with anger. I wanted the police there to protect us while she seemed to want them there to punish.
Gwang-song was leaving when the police arrived, a hastily packed bag in one hand and his car keys in the other. Sherrah had already explained the situation to the police, and they had outlined her options. Since he hadn’t harmed anyone, she didn’t have to press charges. Just calling them had diffused the situation, much to my relief. If things escalated in the future, they would take him into their custody for a night.
“Why are you here?” my father-in-law asked as he passed the officers. I didn’t understand their response. Middle-aged Korean men, the two officers had hard faces. Their tone offered no quarter or sympathy for whatever wrongs Gwang-song thought had justified his behavior. He listened in shock, probably amazed that there could be repercussions for his actions, but when the police finished talking, he laughed in their faces.
He was gone for almost a full year, living on Korea’s east coast. A month before my trip to the hospital, he returned to the house. Without a word of apology he appeared one day, and everyone else accepted him, especially the children who had never learned the events of that night. Others were weary at first, a bit skittish around him like they would be with a live electrical wire shooting occasional sparks, but by the time of this story, everyone had relaxed back into familiar roles within the family.
Not me. Not with him.
I never truly forgave him for placing me in a situation where I had to protect my wife from his attempts at physical abuse. For my family's sake, I tolerated his presence. I wish I could have hated him--lost myself in an ugly rage the way he had--but hate and grudges require too much energy. They’re landmines strapped to your chest, ripping you apart with each detonation. Besides, Gwang-song was more than a single night of fury. He deserved to be weighed for all the good as well as the bad.
Still, when he was at home with my wife or mother-in-law, I was never at rest. Every time he raised his voice in the slightest, I was halfway out of my seat, ready to restrain him.
No matter how much pain I suffered, I didn't want him at the hospital. When the nurse ignored him and asked me questions directly, it mattered to me.
"How's your stomach?"
"It hurts a lot," I answered.
By the end of the night, I was weak but healthy, discharged from the hospital after draining an IV bag mixed with some painkillers and anti-inflammatory medicine.
"Thank you," I whispered to my father-in-law as we pulled into our driveway. It was the right thing to say, even if I didn't mean it.
I don't know whether I could have died that night if I hadn't visited the hospital. Maybe it's too scary a thought to entertain. Perhaps it's exactly the kind of thought I should worry over. Lying on that hospital bed with my stomach and intestines churning, my heart racing, and my lungs pulling in too little air--I felt like I was dying.
The next day was comparatively easy. In the early afternoon I met a new student for the second time. He was a middle school student with an intermediate level of English, so we were able to talk easily, helping the time pass quickly. In the evening I taught adults at the Lifelong Learning Center. They were near fluent, so it was a simple class, made easier by the large caramel frappe on my desk.
When I arrived home at night, neither Layla nor Fay ran screaming to greet me as usual. My in-laws were sitting quietly on the sofa watching TV with a fire burning in the fireplace behind them.
“I’m back,” I said in Korean.
“Eat some food,” my mother-in-law responded, turning her eyes from the television to nod toward the kitchen, angling her head. Eighty percent of our conversations revolve around food, alerting each other that a meal is ready or asking if the other has eaten yet. In her early sixties my mother-in-law looked more beautiful with each passing year. Hair fell below her ears in tight waves beginning to thin and turn gray. Her skin stretched tight on an angular face with wrinkles drawn beneath her eyes and around her mouth in a picture of past hardships. Having retired a year before, she filled her freetime with an endless series of events. She hiked, farmed, and studied wild herbs with a youthful enthusiasm that matched her wiry petite frame.
Seated beside her my father-in-law grunted an acknowledgement. His attention sucked into the television, a slack-jawed husk remained, worrying an indent into the soft brown sofa. Instead of burying his ashes when he passes, I'll argue that we should inter his remains in the sofa cushion. During ancestral rites we'll bow to the sofa. We could invite friends for the ceremony and enjoy their confusion.
As I walked into my room and removed my coat, the backdoor of my bedroom opened, and Caden peered cautiously from his bedroom. His eyes were puffy and red from crying. He sniffled in rapid bursts as if trying to catch his breath. The backs of his hands were bleeding.
"What happened?" I asked. The skin had been scraped away from two of his fingers just above the knuckles. Had he broken something in his bedroom, knocked a shelf over, or tripped on his discarded clothes? Was he too scared to seek help, trapped by his guilt or embarrassment? None of it mattered. His pain was my pain.
"Grandma hit me a lot," he whined, making it halfway through before starting to cry. Before my eyes he transformed into a toddler. He didn’t hold back when crying because he felt no need to hide it--every ounce of sadness and betrayal trumpeted for all to hear. Each lilting wail was a lash to my heart.
Before I could learn anymore, my phone vibrated. Sherrah was calling from wherever she was. Still wearing my thick black gloves, I mashed buttons to answer the phone.
"What happened?" she asked, repeating my own words to Caden moments before.
"I don't know. I just got home.” At that moment the front door opened. “Where are you?” A few steps away from Caden afforded me a view of the entryway.
“I met friends at a restaurant.” Glasses clinked on the phone’s other end. Meat sizzled on a grill. “What happened? My mom isn’t answering her phone.”
“Caden just told me your mom was hitting him," I said. My three daughters came spilling into the house with my brother-in-law amid various greetings and shouts. They surrounded me like a pack of wolves.
"Daddy!" Fay shouted.
"Daddy, Caden broke the door!" Layla exclaimed.
"Did you see the glass?" Tiana asked.
While I was still on the phone with my wife, Caden hid behind the bedroom door bleeding, Fae hugged my leg, Layla pulled me to my in-law's bedroom near the front door, and Tiana tried to explain what had happened. Outside the dark interior of my in-law's room, I could see large shards of glass glittering on the floor beyond a black rectangle in their door where that glass should have been fitted. My brother-, mother-, and father-in-law added their voices to the conversation. I paused there in the middle of a storm with eight voices booming around me like peels of thunder.
I breathed deep and closed my eyes. Everyone else was overwhelmed, so I couldn’t afford to be. Nor did I want to be. Raised Catholic, I had attended Sunday school every week and believed knowledge could come after suffering. I endured in silence until the rumbles subsided and translated the thunder into understanding.
In a fit of rage, Caden had kicked the door, knocking a panel of glass loose. Mi-ae had wanted his phone because he wouldn’t eat dinner. When she had tried to take it, he had fought to hold on, pushing her with his larger body. My mother-in-law had scratched Caden's hands.
With my winter gloves still on, I collected the glass into an empty cardboard box near the front door. An anime action figure was printed on all sides of the thin material. I worried it wouldn’t be strong enough to hold the glass, but searching elsewhere would mean herding all the children with me to keep them away from the glass.
“You’ll get hurt,” I crooned. The girls kept getting too close to the nearest shards, curiosity overpowering caution. They paused after my warning, stuck in place as if playing freeze tag.
“Stay back.” I waved my arms because as soon as my attention was on the glass, they unfroze, creeping forward.
“Even a really small piece could cut your feet.” They were trying to skirt the visible glass, not understanding that small unseen dangers could cut worse than big ones.
I ignored my father-in-law as he came to help. He should have already taken care of that mess. Wasn’t he bound by the same responsibilities as me?
Caden lingered in the shadows of my bedroom doorway like a mouse surrounded by lions. He wasn’t ashamed. He was poised, curious but cautious--ready to retreat at the first sign of violent intent.
"Caden," I said, "come help." He shook his head, wide eyes straining to see through the walls for some sign of his grandmother. "I'm not going to let anyone hit you. Just bring me the vacuum, please." When he moved, I dropped another jagged piece of frosted glass into my cardboard box then turned to Tiana. "I'm sorry, Tiana, but can you take your sisters to the bedroom? They don't have to sleep, but I don't want them out wandering around the house."
"Okay," she said, her voice sweet as sugar. In the next breath she was projecting a drill sergeant's authority, ordering her sisters to the bedroom in Korean.
Keeping the girls around Caden at that moment could have provoked further outbursts. He was prone to relieving his own stress by yelling at them, yanking toys from their hands, and giving them little shoves. He had just turned thirteen a few days before and had celebrated his transition into a teenager in spectacular fashion that night. He had struggled for years with anger. It had been a spaghetti-thin garden snake twisting through his furrowed eyebrows and across his pouty mouth. As he had grown, the snake had thickened and elongated into a rattlesnake wrapped around his sagging shoulders, its fangs dripping with aggressive venom.
After collecting all the glass and vacuuming, I set the cardboard box on the family room coffee table. "You need to talk to Grandma." I stared Caden in the eyes until he looked down, giving me all the acknowledgement I needed. "Did you tell her you were sorry for pushing her?"
"He did," my mother-in-law said in Korean, biting each syllable. Thick flames licked the chimney's lowest shadows behind her as she sat in a rolling desk chair. She wore a puffy red coat, which made her only exposed flesh--her head--seem small in the dark family room.
"Then you need to ask her if she's okay. Don't apologize anymore. Listen to how she feels and try to understand what you did wrong." Crossing my arms, I stood between him and the only means of escape.
“Grandma, are you okay?” Yesterday’s reluctance returned, dripping from each word like rotten egg yolks. When my mother-in-law started in on him, the words became blurry like billboards through an icy car window.
"Don't just stand there," I interrupted. She was asking him questions, her voice rising in a familiar way, but he was mumbling half-answers. "Tell her you understand. Speak clearly. Say 네 (yes), 알겠습니다 (I understand), and 맞아요 (That's right)." After the first few affirmations, I backed away. His entire body was slumped like a teddy bear without enough filling, and my mother-in-law's voice was low and measured. I retreated to my bedroom, grabbed a few beige band aids, and returned to the family room.
While I bandaged Caden's fingers, he listened to his grandmother, still responding to whatever lessons she was imparting in Korean.
“She scratched his hand,” Gwang-song said, laughing just as he had at the hospital the night before. Mi-ae, on the other hand, was worrying over Caden’s fingers, regretting the hurt she had inflicted.
Picking up the cardboard box of glass, I faded into the darkness on my way to the kitchen. Dinner's remains waited on the table like an animal’s corpse picked clean by packs of scavengers. A plate of blood-colored juice and red pepper flakes used to be kimchi. All that was left of grilled pork slices was a plate coated with a sheen of oil. Side dishes had been stored in containers with the lids clamped tight, but they had yet to make the short trip to the refrigerator. Chopsticks, spoons, and children's forks sat beside bowls with a few grains of rice still stuck to the bottoms and sides. A thick perfume of grilled pork belly still lingered in the air, and my stomach groaned like an empty garbage disposal waiting for scraps of food to be thrown in.
At the kitchen's far side two sinks overflowed with dishes from afternoon snacks and late lunches. I turned on the water, and while it heated up, I gathered the dinner dishes, stacking similar shapes like Tetris blocks. My phone rang in my pocket, interrupting my chore.
"Hello?" I cradled the phone against my ear with a shoulder, still gathering dishes from the table.
"Hey, it's me." Some part of my wife's brain never made the transition from 20th century phones to 21st century smartphones. She still introduced herself to me at the start of every phone conversation, which always made me smile. "Don't let Caden use the computer or his phone."
"Okay. Is that what set him off?"
"Yeah. I called my mom while you were cleaning the broken glass. Thank you." Between the water running in the sink and the sounds of conversation at the restaurant on her end, I should have been struggling to hear my wife's words. Good thing she had a tendency to talk into her phone as if she were yelling at me from across a busy street. "She said Caden wouldn't come eat because he was talking on the phone and using the computer. When she tried to take his phone, he kicked their bedroom door and broke it."
"I'll take care of it. I made him talk to your mom, so he's doing that right now. Try to enjoy your night out." Should I have asked her to come home? All the fires would have been extinguished before she returned. Besides, I didn’t want her there interrogating Caden or threatening punishments. He needed time to process the night’s events.
"I'm sorry. Thank you." Having updated each other, I set the phone aside and attacked the dishes with an orange sponge. Scrubbing dried milk from plastic cups and pork grease from glass plates returned some degree of normalcy and control to the night. The kitchen was a quiet sanctuary for a time.
As I moved clean dishes to the drying rack, Caden planted himself at the counter's edge.
"You're done talking to Grandma?" I asked, placing thick coffee mugs on the drying rack’s top shelf.
"Yes," he grumbled. "Can I use the computer?"
"Isn't that what got you in trouble?" He opened his mouth to protest, but I kept going. "Your mom just called and told me what happened." His mouth snapped shut. "She doesn't want you using the computer."
"Why?" He truly didn't understand, expressing the same shock he would if he had just been pinched on the bottom for the first time.
"Because you broke that glass.” He transformed into a puppy with its tail between its legs, searching the floor for solace. “I'm not angry that you broke the glass. It’s okay to make mistakes. Do you understand that?”
“No.” At least he was being honest. As a child, I always said what I thought people wanted to hear. I still do.
“It’s okay if you learn from your mistakes. That’s how we all become better people.” My hands swirled soapy water in brown rice bowls, checking for bits of still-clinging rice before stacking them at angles against each other like fallen dominoes. “You broke that glass and scared your grandmother, but if you learn because of it, then it’s okay. It’s also okay to be angry.”
“Being angry is okay, but when you get so angry that you hit people or break things, that’s too much. You can’t be aggressive. You need to stop your anger before it gets to that point.” With only chopsticks, spoons, and other cooking utensils remaining to be rinsed, I turned the water to a high-powered spray before directing it at the pile of metal silverware. I shifted silverware, trying to clear all the soap while rinsing them en masse.
"Unnggghh." Caden’s groan was like an aftershock from the earlier earthquake of destructive anger.
"What is it, Caden?" His Asperger's was such a high-functioning form of autism that I often forgot about it. As a parent looking in, he was a sparkler as opposed to the fireworks of other kids with autism. Until he got angry--then he was a stick of dynamite, the fuse burning toward an explosion.
"I want to use the computer." He was breaking down and breaking my heart.
"You need to just go to sleep tonight. Tomorrow we can sit down and talk about anger management. I'm gonna go online and find ways for you to calm down when you start to get angry. Then, I'll talk to your mom about the computer, but first we need to make sure you never get aggressive like that again."
After I set the final dish in the drying rack, the floor needed my attention. I had forgotten to wash the girls’ lunchboxes, so I rinsed and left them. Caden watched me toss toys haphazardly onto the sofa as I duck-walked across the floor. Near the end, he helped pick up some wooden blocks and a stuffed shark. Whether motivated by empathy or his desire to use the computer, I never learned. Perhaps I didn't want to know. I chose to believe in empathy.
We left the kitchen together. Becoming a puppy again yearning for attention, he trailed behind me. Entering my bedroom, I took off my dress shirt, black pants, and tie. Shrugging my shoulders and rolling my head, I tossed them in a corner. Breathing deeply through my nose, I yawned and groaned notes fit for an opera singer as Caden climbed into his own bed in the other room to a chorus of shuffling sheets.
The night before, a small nut had tried to kill me. A twist of Caden’s genes had given him autism. Miniscule bits of coding passed down from our parents determined our fates. Perhaps my parents had each carried a part of pistachio allergy--puzzle pieces finding a perfect fit in me. Could I say the same about Caden’s autism? I’d never spoken the words aloud, afraid they would seem silly or naive, but I believed myself responsible for my son’s condition. Loud noises overwhelm me as surely as they do him. We share a shyness, and his explosive temper is a familiar tightness in my own chest. Even the silliest computer game pulled me deep under its spell until it seemed the most important undertaking in the world. The similarities continued, and I accepted each one. What else should I have done? I had long ago accepted my personality, knew what I was passionate about, and would never pretend to be other than what I was. Should I have been one of those angry cowards blaming vaccines for their children’s autism--a dog barking at the moon because he didn’t understand it?
Wherever his autism originated, Caden never felt different because of his Asperger's. He had friends and fit in well enough. He was a bit shy, but he didn’t care. He knew what he liked and what he didn’t. He knew exactly who he was and what he was capable of.
How could I have ever imagined a more perfect son than the one I had?