What You Need (1st Prize)
by Joel Yanofsky
“What’s our motto? Use your words: ‘You can’t always get what you want,’” my wife says. She’s talking to our seven-year-old son, J., who’s having a meltdown in the back of the car. We’re thirty minutes from home, which seems, under the circumstances, like an unbearably long time.
My son’s tantrum started when he asked for a chocolate ice-cream cone and my wife said he’d have to wait until after dinner. It escalated from there. Now, there’s no telling what will set him off, what will bring on the tears and screaming, the kicking and whining. The whining is the worst; it’s so unrelenting I catch myself in awe of the sheer force of will required to sustain it. “I’m mad; I’m not mad. I am; I’m not,” my son says, launching into a self-contradictory soliloquy, during which he’ll agree to nothing, not even how he feels.
J. is also autistic, though I’m never sure if I’m supposed to mention this--use it as an excuse for his behaviour. This may be one of those instances when he’s acting like any kid would who’s not getting his way. Sometimes, it’s hard to distinguish. Other times, not. At least, it no longer is for us.
Four years ago, when my son was diagnosed with autism, I looked up the word in the dictionary. “A mental disorder ... characterized by self-absorption,” it said, and I remember thinking, for an instant, that sounds like me. Then: That sounds like everyone. I know better now. I know the look in my son’s eye, the sound of his voice when he’s gone somewhere else, somewhere deep and secure inside himself. I know why his tantrums have become, in the last year, so fierce, his frustration so unfathomable. Because he wants to get back there and we won’t let him. Everything we do is designed to prevent him from doing what he most wants to.
On the broad spectrum of autistic disorders, J. is high-functioning. The first psychiatrist to evaluate him concluded he had “a whiff of autism.” I nearly hugged her; the phrase sounded so quaint.
A whiff? What’s a whiff? Nothing. Barely noticeable. Like a mole, a lisp. Like being left-handed.
It would take a while to realize she was just doing what experts invariably do when they’re trying to explain a disorder as enigmatic, as unpredictable as autism; they tell you what you want to hear and hustle you out the door. Any parent of an autistic child knows there’s no such thing as “a whiff of autism.” While it’s true there are kids worse off than J., that does not make the gulf between my son and the world he has to work so hard to engage with any narrower. It does not keep that gulf from growing wider every day.
“Motto?” my wife continues, holding up Forty Licks, a compilation of Rolling Stones hits we keep in the car. My son, who’s finally catching his breath, uses his words. “Number six,” he says, “‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want.’” J. is not a child for whom logic will ever be simple, but somehow the simple logic of Mick Jagger’s line appeals to him. That’s why we need to be careful not to overuse it, my wife says. It’s a feature of autism that anything that begins as if it’s going to be a good thing--like an interest in music--is bound to turn bad.
So she saves the song for moments of crisis or those moments of crisis we can no longer deal with. Another thing I’ve learned about having an autistic child: everything is a crisis.
My wife and I both avoid using the A-word, though we refrain for different reasons. My wife because she believes, down deep, that, with hours and hours of behavioural therapy, luck, dedication, determination, and a positive attitude, autism is something J. will overcome or at least battle to some kind of uneasy but workable truce. That’s why she prefers I not use his name here: because she believes that J.--a mostly sweet, affectionate boy, who makes eye contact, talks, reads, writes, and, with a shadow, goes to a regular school--will one day be indistinguishable from any ordinary kid.
I don’t use the A-word because I believe, down deep, that this will not happen. I’m afraid that whatever progress my son makes is not going to be enough. By which I mean--and am deeply ashamed to admit--enough for me. When our son was diagnosed, my wife dealt with the devastating news by springing into action, developing a game plan, networking, badgering government agencies, hiring help, borrowing and begging money, holding out hope. To-do lists still litter the house: under fridge magnets, on Post-it Notes, and pads by the telephone.
My plan of action, when I learned about our son’s autism, was to sulk. I spend what’s left of my time debilitated by envy--watching family, friends, strangers interact with their children. And, oh yes, I sigh often, not loudly--just loud enough for my wife to hear.
Usually, she ignores me, which is, as she knows, the best strategy for dealing with J. or me, when all we really seek is attention. But this time, perhaps because I’m driving and sighing at the same time, because she knows how easily my mind wanders to dark places, she pats me on the back and says, “One in five.” The reference is to a statistic she read recently in a newsletter for the parents of autistic children. Evidently, eighty percent of husbands with an autistic child leave--walk out on their marriage and family. This is her way of reinforcing my good behaviour, of telling me what I want to hear. That, under the circumstances, I’m doing well. Better than most.
My wife never completes the chorus to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” She never goes on to the lyric about how “if you try, you get what you need.” She knows J. wouldn’t understand, though come to think of it, who would? Who ever does? Want is easy, after all. Want is unambiguous. It knows no reason; accepts no excuses. It wants what it wants. Want is ice cream before dinner. Want is everything the way you expected it. It’s your son ordinary, just ordinary. Our family motto, it turns out, doesn’t suit either my son or me. What do we want? We want precisely what we are not permitted to have.
Need is something else entirely; need is trickier. It’s about coping, making do. What can I get by with? What bargain can I strike? What do I need? The minimum? I need to grow up.
“Please, Daddy, number three?” J. says, holding up Forty Licks, making a calm request from the back seat. “We’re almost home,” my wife says, but she relents, tired, finally, of being the only adult in the car. Number three is “Satisfaction”: more tantrum than tune, Jagger in a rawer mood, less mature, more demanding. I glance at my son’s happy face in the rear-view mirror as he sings along, and, before “Satisfaction” comes to an end, we’re home.
The Mistake (2nd Prize)
“We’re from New Brunswick,” said a woman, who did not carry a trace of the Maritimes with her.
“We got here two weeks ago. From Ontario, near Ottawa,” said another lady.
“We’re here for only six months,” said a woman with gold nails, and hair to match. “Then we go back to New Zealand.”
“That’s what our co-coordinator said. Two years ago. They’re from Australia.” Alison waved her arms in the general direction of a tall woman.
“We came from New York City. We love it here.” This woman looked like a New Yorker out of a magazine, or direct from NBC.
I see my son, running, climbing, laughing. “Who’s yours?” I ask the woman from New Zealand. “There,” she points, with a long finger. “She’s four. We’re trying for our second. You?”
My son stops, realizes I am not with him, and starts looking for me. He knows I should be seated with the other mothers at the tables, and I am. He sees me, and comes over, arms outstretched.
“Where are you from?” she asks me.
I remember myself, as a young adult, walking to work. Proud, flaunting myself in a halter top and faux-leather pants. My shoes snap, my red lips smack, and I flounce my ponytail. I reach for the pouch hanging on my hips. It’s filled with bills, change, cigarettes, lipstick, and keys. I go in the side entrance. In a few hours there will be a lineup around the corner. On a good night, we’ll have a turnover of a thousand. Inside, it’s already dark, lights and music pumping. They want us ready.
“Hi Nadine,” Richard calls to me from behind the main bar. My name sounds nice in French and English. That’s why it was chosen. We’re in a bilingual province, my parents often say.
“Am I up on the terrace tonight?” I ask.
“New girl is. You’re down here.”
I smile. “I get to work with you.” The dance floor would soon be packed with sweaty bodies in need of a drink. I light a cigarette. I wait. Suddenly my song comes on. I lift my hand to the DJ, he waves to me. I walk to the empty dance floor, and my body moves. Some music does that to me. It has a life of its own. When the beat ends, it feels like a piece of me was taken. Richard hands me my favourite drink, winks at me. An early bird sits at the long bar. I amble over to him.
“I watched you dance,” he says, without looking at me. “You are beautiful.” He takes a swig from his beer bottle.
“I live with someone.” I don’t usually announce this, but he was intense. I had developed an instinct: it told me which ones to stay clear of.
“A man?” He smiles at me. Wide mouth, big teeth, cutting blue eyes. I swallow, nod. I look for Richard; he’s busy organizing the alcohol.
The early bird stands, and brings his wooden stool closer to where I’m leaning against the bar. He stares at me. I squirm and decide it’s time to go.
“I have to help the bartender,” I mumble. I take a step, my spine tingles, and I want to run. Fingers dig into my arm, pull me back. I am used to this sort of thing, but I make sure Richard is watching. He is. Early bird rolls up his sleeve and shows me his wrist. “Do you know what this is?” he says.
He has a tattoo, blue, like they give in prison. An encircled cross. Not Celtic. “White Power,” I answer.
He looks at me, waiting.
“The man I live with,” I say. “He’s black.”
We all stare at each other. Our children play. That is what playgroup is for. The literature says it’s important for kids to learn to socialize, take orders from adults, be in a school environment. I bring my son here so he can have fun. He is an only child and needs other kids.
My son gives a baby girl a block. She twists it in her pudgy hand. One of the ladies, I know she is British, asks, “Do you think the art teacher is doing enough with them?”
I remember myself further back. “Skinheads. Tough guys.” Two guys say this, drunk, staggering. I wish I could silence them. They do not know whom they are talking to.
“What did you say?” Barry is the one who heard them.
“You heard us. Tough skinheads.”
They look young, younger than I am, and I am only seventeen.
Barry walks to up to the one who spoke and punches him in the head. It was unexpected, brutal. The boy doubles over, and Barry kicks him in the stomach. He falls. Now it is the friend’s turn. Too drunk to react, he watches his buddy get a beating. He realizes he is next.
“Where will you send him to kindergarten?” someone asks me.
This is the magic question, asked by all moms I have ever come in contact with.
“He’s only two,” I answer. They all stare at me. “I don’t know yet.” I’m breaking the rules of the Mommy Club.
One lady rolls her eyes at me. “Don’t you know there are waiting lists?”
I remember not so long ago. My husband, new in Montreal, in Canada, getting on the bus. He had just asked the driver a question. “C’est le Québec, içi. On parle français.” The driver’s mouth is tight, his lips thin, and pursed. My husband turns to me. “What did he say?” I wonder about tourists. My husband sounds like one.
I watch everyone sip their coffee, while their kids eat Goldfish crackers. “They should clean the floors more often,” the Ontario woman says, and everyone nods in agreement.
I remember far, far back. In elementary school. I was one of the only Jewish kids. Where will my child go to school? Lately, they’re all talking about home schooling.
Recently, a teacher of mine, Jewish, whispered to me, “I’m not racist, but I take the bus and metro. I see these black people. How they are.”
“Do you know where I can find a good salon?” The lady next to me examines my hair. “You keep it so long,” she says, “but it looks good.”
“They have great salons here. And restaurants,” someone pipes in.
“That’s why I love Montreal,” says the woman from the Maritimes. “It’s so multicultural.” She smiles triumphantly at everyone. I know this is the trendy thing to say. I wish it wasn’t. Trends come and go.
I look around the large auditorium. I see kids, most of them blond, some with brown hair, and realize that my hair is almost the darkest in the room. The New Yorker has hair the colour of coal; she is Indian. She speaks. “A few days after I got here, I was sitting in my parked car on Ste.-Catherine Street. Someone looked at me, turned back, and broke my headlights. Nothing like that ever happened to me in New York.”
My son’s lips are stained purple from juice. His eyes are big and wondering. Every woman at the table looks tired, bored. It is difficult to belong. To keep up appearances. I wonder how many women think they shouldn’t be here.
Common Gull (2nd Prize)
by Jessica Block
“Why are we hiding behind a garbage can, Sugar?” Andy asked.
They were supposed to be looking for shells; low tide always left the best ones behind. But Sugar didn’t seem as interested in sand dollars and crab holes since she had finished junior high.
Andy eyed the ketchup stains and caramelized soda on the rusted blue metal. She distracted herself by counting the gulls in the sky.
Ants gathered around Andy’s feet. She took a granola bar from her pocket and tossed a piece in the middle of a chain of them. Just as they were gaining a grasp on the treat Andy snatched it away.
“Stick to crumbs your own size.” She partially squished a few with her toes, not enough to kill, only cripple. One lifted its kinked body up, turning its head from side to side.
“Let’s move closer,” Sugar said.
Andy slowly turned and followed Sugar, who was crawling on her knees to a nearby cluster of boulders.
Off in the distance near the water’s edge Andy saw them.
“Don’t say anything,” Sugar pre-empted.
There were six boys. In the dimming light they moved as a wave, skipping ahead, falling back, jumping up and down in rhythm.
“What are they doing?”
A fat boy with shaggy blond hair was the centre of attention. He swung a gull above his head like a lasso.
“Let’s go, Sugar. We don’t want any trouble.”
“Don’t be such a scaredy.”
“We came to look for shells.”
“That bird has to be dead.”
“Mom’s waiting for us.”
“She’s working late tonight. Double shift. She gave me the key.”
The ringleader held the gull above his head as the others took turns reaching up to grab at it. One boy pretended to smash the head with his fist. Nobody was allowed to hold the gull. This privilege seemed reserved for the ringleader. He goaded the shortest boy with curly red hair, dangling the bird by one foot in his face.
That boy flipped the bird’s wing up like the boys at school did to Andy’s skirt. They laughed. He pulled down hard on the wing. Harder still, with a twist. When the wing snapped he looked surprised, but quickly recovered as if he had meant to do that all along.
“What’s wrong with them?” Andy asked. “They’re laughing like it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever done.” Even though the gull was probably dead, Andy didn’t feel it was right to act so cruel. She pictured herself twisting a handful of the leader’s stomach.
“Be patient, Andy.”
“Are you scared?”
“I’m not interested in them.”
The ringleader launched the bird onto the sand. The boys cheered and rushed to encircle its body, getting several kicks in as the champion tied up the legs. As soon as he finished he took off down the beach, arms outstretched, soaring. The group retreated, cackling, running to catch him.
Andy grabbed Sugar’s shoulder as she moved forward.
“It’s just a dirty seagull.”
Andy wasn’t sure what Sugar thought they could do. Neither of them knew anything about birds. Sugar was good in science, though. For days after her first frog dissection she bragged about the gory details: cutting the mouth to enlarge it and flipping green skin to pink. She said nothing was as beautiful as seeing the inside of a creature so clearly.
A couple out for a sunset stroll walked close to the bird’s folded body, glancing back as if they were sneaking a look at the front page of a soggy newspaper.
Before Andy could argue, Sugar marched toward the gull. Soon after, Andy followed.
“We’re gonna get in trouble.”
“Why are you so scared of everything?” Sugar responded and walked faster.
“We should go,” Andy yelled to her sister. “They might come back.”
When she caught up to Sugar, who was crouching over the bird, she felt her gut clench.
The seagull was still alive. Its body was drenched, making even the white look grey. The delicate tail feathers were mangy. Sugar found a large stick and rolled the bird onto its back. One eye was closed. A wing looked like it was fastened on the wrong way.
“Maybe there’s a fish still inside the stomach,” Sugar said.
Sugar rolled the body back and forth coating its wet wings in sand.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m drying the wings.”
As Sugar tried to lift the gull into a standing position it shook, splattering wet sand on her face. The bird defecated. She dropped it.
“Everyone thinks they’re ugly.”
“Maybe because they’re always around garbage,” Andy offered.
“They’re mean, too. Prey on the eggs of other birds.”
“They remind me of the sky.”
“I read that they drill into the skin of whales to eat their blubber.”
Andy suddenly became aware of the other gulls standing, blinking. Now their calls felt ominous. A particularly large one threw back its head to the sky, pumping its throat as if it were swallowing a school of fish.
Sugar dug her stick hard into the white belly. “Now you try.”
“I don’t want to hurt him.” Andy tried to pull her sister away. Sugar parted the tail feathers to reveal the white points patterned on black.
“I doubt it feels anything at this point. Besides, it’s not very often we get to see a bird this close.”
“What do you think the red spot on the beak is for?” Andy asked, trying to distract Sugar.
“Looks like a target.”
Sugar twisted the gull’s head to one side and held the beak shut to look at the red dot. “I wonder if they meant to kill it.”
“They’re just dumb boys showing off,” Andy replied. She was feeling increasingly disturbed as Sugar probed her fingers around the gull’s dark eye.
“Feel. The head is soft.”
“I don’t want to touch him.”
“It’s just a helpless animal.”
Andy wanted to be brave, but she couldn’t. She wished she were more like Sugar.
“Why doesn’t it just die already? I want to go home,” Sugar complained.
“Maybe somebody in one of the pubs can help.”
“They don’t care about a half-dead bird that everyone hates. We have to be the ones to put it out of its misery.”
Before Andy could ask what she meant, Sugar held the bird in place with her foot and with both arms swiftly thrust her stick into its neck. Andy felt her own throat collapse as she watched.
“It was miserable,” Sugar said.
Andy couldn’t feel any words inside her mouth. For the first time since they found the bird she ran her hand along the coarse feathers.
“What do you want to do?” Sugar asked.
Andy smelled like fishy water now. She looked around then began to collect pieces of driftwood strewn along the sand. She built a ring of rocks around the gull. Following her lead, Sugar brought newspaper from a trash can. Andy would go find the matches.