Casey had down syndrome. His tongue was just a little extra long, his forehead just a little too broad, and his smile much too genuine. When I met him I thought he was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen. He was in the same class as me, and we ate lunch together often. He had the loud, bursting shouts of consonants that excited people do, and would often gleefully chant “BAH! BAH!” at his tin lunch box with superheroes on it. His hand would bang along the table, chasing the grapes that shuddered away from the impact. When he finally got the grape to fall off the table, he would grin at me, a wide smile with short little teeth spaced very far apart. His eyes would crinkle at the corners, and I would stare at the wrinkles in fascination. My whole body felt warm when I was around him, and my hands seemed much less clumsy. I didn’t stutter like I did with other kids, because he rarely talked. I didn’t fidget with the purple plastic turtle I kept in my pocket to keep me calm- Casey kept me calm. He was a beautiful person, and I loved to be around him.
This was the first grade, so I was maybe seven. Possibly six, I’m not certain. I was very young. Too young to quite understand that the universe didn’t revolve around me, and that people didn’t drop off the face of the earth when I lost sight of them.
Even so, I would say that Casey was my first love.
I knew that, for certain, by the third month of school. By that time I had always been in the first grade, and would always be in the first grade. Time had the elasticity and solidity of childhood, where minutes stretched on for hours and even two days in the future was 70 years off. Lunchtimes lasted forever. I was with Casey for an infinite amount of time during those lunches, swapping apple slices and peeling the crusts off of bread. I would talk, prattle on about this or that, and Casey would pay no attention. He would be arranging his fingers into complex shapes, swooping his hands through the air, utterly engrossed in his own mind. His brow would furrow while he worked to find the perfect angle to set his juice box, at the side of his tin lunch box. All crumbs were swept into neat little piles, cookie crumbs and bread crumbs painstakingly separated onto different sides of the table. Then he would smash his hands against the table, guffawing when the crumb piles shattered and bounced. He’d look right at me, right into me, and flap his palms in the air while shrieking with joy. And I was free to talk and talk and talk, because Casey didn’t care. All he wanted was someone to bump shoulders with when he pointed out the tessellation he created with his blocks.
And that was absolutely perfect.
Casey and I didn’t often see each other during class. He had his own tutor, and I was in the advanced reading group. So he would sit at the large desk in the back of the class, right next to the time-out booth, and whisper with his tutor while rapping his pencil on the leg of his metal chair. “Shh, shh,” the Tutor would say, and I’d know that Casey was right behind me, being mischievous as always. It helped me through group projects, where I would breath through my nose and hold back tears, but could hear Casey and the Tutor. “Shh, shh.” “Bah BAH BAH!”
One day, as we were picking up blocks after a particularly exciting day of construction, I was on my knees in the gray-blue carpet next to the Tutor. I was scooping up blocks into my shirt, bulging outward with my already heavy collection, and then dumping them into the big bucket where they belonged. She was on her knees too, bent over and picking up blocks one at a time with the tips of her fingers. She would frown at the block like it had done her some personal wrong, and then plunk it into the bucket and pick up another. I sighed and rolled my eyes, and walked over to show her how it was done.
“You do it like this,” I said, and slowly emphasized putting handfuls of blocks into my shirt, and dumping them. She smiled, tightly, but it was more a look of disgust.
“Thanks.” she picked up one block with the tips of her fingers and put it in my shirt. “There you go.”
I frowned. There were still more blocks to be cleaned, and she wasn’t helping. Whatever. I couldn’t think about it too hard, or I’d get upset and have to go calm down. I did that a lot, and the other kids noticed. I wanted to do it as little as possible so I wouldn’t get laughed at. So, instead, I squeezed a block really hard, and focused on how the bubbled blue-gray carpet felt on my knees. It hurt a little, and it made me focus. I decided to ask an easy question, so the Tutor wouldn’t feel bad about picking up the blocks wrong.
“Oh, he’s fine.”
“Did he build blocks good?”
I fell silent. She didn’t seem to know if he’d built the blocks good or not, which meant she must not have watched him. Casey always built the blocks good. His towers were always the tallest. He’d stomp around them with the proudest look on his face, and then knock them down and laugh.
“We’re gonna get married someday,” I told her, offhandedly. It wasn’t a big deal, It was just fact. We were gonna get married and have lunch together forever. And I would trade my purple grapes for his green ones.
The Tutor’s face went all funny. “Oh, no. No, Carmina. You can’t marry Casey.”
“Why not??” I was genuinely affronted. What did she know? Casey and I were going to get married. And then we would have lunch together forever. He could live at my place. I would show him where the alfalfa sprouts lived, in the mason jar on top of the window sill. We could unscrew the the little filter in the tap and laugh as mom tried to fish it back out again. He could slap his hands on all the tables he wanted.
“You can’t,” she said again, “Because… Casey is special.”
I knew that. I knew that better than anyone. Casey was the best. I folded my arms over the stretched-out belly of my shirt, now empty of blocks. She saw my angry little face, and continued.
“Casey has down syndrome. And that means he has a hard time learning. He has a hard time doing anything. He’s slow, and will never be quite right. You can’t marry him, it would be wrong.”
My mouth gaped, a round little hole, gasping for breath as I struggled to understand. Wrong?
“You see, he isn’t like you or me. If you married him, it would be like- like-” her face went dark and a little scary. “He wouldn’t be able to- he’s not smart enough to understand.”
I squeaked, a little injured noise. Casey was smarter than most. I knew he would play dumb so the Tutor would do his homework for him. She’d know it too, if she only looked. He’d get louder, and hit the table, until she’d hastily say: “Shh! Shh!” and do the problems for him. Then he’d look at me and smirk. I gasped a little more and struggled for something to say. She looked at me with pity and continued.
“You’re smart enough to know better. It wouldn’t be real. You’d always be the one taking care of him, and he wouldn’t do anything. You couldn’t possibly want to be around him forever. It would be like- like forcing him. He wouldn’t like it. And you’d get mad and yell.”
“I would not!” I hated yelling. I hated it so much. It made me curl up and grab my little purple turtle, rubbing my thumb along it’s ridged belly until I could breath again.
“Well,” she said. “You can’t get married. He’s Mentally Handicapped. And you’re not. It wouldn’t be real,” and she got up and left and walked away like she hadn’t just punched a hole right through my chest.
I don’t remember what happened with Casey. What I did, after that confrontation with the Tutor. I can’t remember if I kept eating lunch with him, eventually forgetting the moment until just recently, or if I avoided him and stopped taking lunch with him. I honestly have no idea. I have racked my brains, these past few days, to dig up the memories and try to make sense of the fog. But I can’t.
It was only until a couple of weeks ago that I remembered the incident at all.
The bell had just rung, and I was swept along in a sea of my classmates as everyone clamored to get to the bus. I trudged over the lawn, across the sidewalk and up the steps of the bus. I was plugging my earbuds into my phone, ready to drown out the noise of the school bus and sink into my head for the duration of the ride.
Then I heard a noise.
“P-p-p-PAH PAH PAH! P-p-p-p-bus!”
I almost fell over. That sound was so achingly familiar, and comforting in a way I can’t describe. I couldn’t remember where I’d heard that sound before, or why it made me feel so fluttery inside. I tossed my backpack into a seat and sat down quickly to steady myself and put a hand to my chest. I breathed deeply for a few moments, uncertain why I suddenly felt such a powerful emotion.
I whipped my head to the seat beside mine. There sat an bony young man with angular elbows, flapping his palms beside his head and excitedly bobbing up and down. He smiled at me, and I stared at him for a long moment. His thin arms stretched out and then snapped back. He smiled bigger at me, and I smiled back. It was a big smile, that took me by surprise. It was an involuntary reaction to his happy face, so happy to see me.
He drooped his head exaggeratedly in my direction, his whole shoulders rising with the gesture. “P-p-p-pah.”
“Hello,” I said, and nodded exaggeratedly back at him. He smiled, and shuffled towards me in the blue plastic seats. He gulped loudly and extended his hand to me from across the aisle, his eyes big and round.
I giggled and gave him my hand. He shook it, loosely, his wrist flopping a little with the motion. His skin was powdery, and very soft. His skin was stretched very tightly across his bones, and I fancied I could feel the fibers of his muscle. He gave no sign of letting go, and I had no intention of pulling back my hand. There was no harm in letting him keep my hand, and it would only distress him if I moved. I grinned at him again.
He smiled back at me, a wide mouth stretched across dimpled cheeks.
I sat there, a little stunned at how happy I felt. This was an odd reaction to someone I didn’t even know, and not characteristic of my usual dismissal of strangers. But I felt excited to have made a new friend, overly delighted at this young man who was so happy to see me.
We held hands then entire way to my stop. The bus rumbled along the street, and his hand still kept mine over all the bumps and potholes. Just before the bus turned the corner to my street, I told him: “I get off here.” I rustled my hand a little in his, and he looked down, a little surprised that we were still joined at the hand. He grinned at me and I gently shook my hand again. “This is where I get off. I’ll see you later.”
He nodded, solemnly, and then hesitated. His face was caught in between nervousness and guilt. I smiled at him. He smiled back, and lifted my hand to his face.
He kissed the back of my hand, softly, very carefully. His lips weren’t firm, and his mouth was slightly open. I felt the inside of his lips, the fleshy part close to the teeth. The held me there, for just a moment- the shortest moment- then released my hand and smiled at me, calmly and sweetly. He waved goodbye flopped back into his seat.
“Ewww,” said the girl behind him. “Gross. Are you okay?”
I snatched my hand back from the middle of the aisle, jerking my head to look at her.
“Yeah?” I said, a little breathless. He had been so sweet, and she had been so abrupt. It was like getting cold water splashed on my face, or waking from a nice dream to reality.
“Did he touch you in any private parts?”
“No,” I muttered. Of course he hadn’t. It wasn’t in his nature. He had known me for five minutes and had been kinder than most everybody in my whole day was. She saw him. She knew he hadn’t. So why had she asked??
I stumbled off the bus, forgetting to say ‘thank you’ to the bus driver and almost forgetting to snag my backpack and sling it over my shoulder. The bus drove away, spitting gravel in it’s wake, and I just stood there on the side of the road, staring at it.
“Did he touch you in any private parts?”
No. No he hadn’t. I had felt less afraid of him than I do about most of the male student body in my school. She had seen! She had watched him and me through the whole ride there. So why had she felt the need to ask that awful question?
“He’s Mentally Handicapped. And you’re not.” The words echoed in my head, resurfacing after years of no consequence. Was that why? Because he had a learning disability and I didn’t? That was the reason she was so disgusted by his sweet and non-threatening behavior? His mind was like that of a child’s! BECAUSE of his learning disability he couldn’t have had any cruel or lewd intentions. He was just living his life, the way he did, and showed me a little kindness. I stood there, shocked, bowled over with this realization. Had I been the one to provoke the kiss? No! It hadn’t been my fault. It wasn’t even something that needed to assign blame. He had just done it, probably copied it from a movie or something. I suddenly felt horrifically guilty. “You’re smart enough to know better. It would be like forcing him.”
I stood there, on the side of that road, for a long time. A car honked at me as it sped past. I slowly crossed the street, plodding down the sidewalk.
I could still feel the wet imprint of his mouth on the back of my hand, drying slowly as I walked the windy way back to my house.
I find I can’t face him again. He was so kind to me, and I feel as though I forced him to do something dirty. His mind isn’t like mine, and that’s okay. My mind isn’t like anybody elses, and that’s okay too. But he is Mentally Handicapped, and that makes me Smart Enough to Know Better. I have no idea what that means. So I just avoid him.
Now I sit four rows behind him, and to the left. That way when I sit close to the window and slump, I can’t see him. I am ashamed of myself. He probably doesn’t even remember me. But I will never forget him, or Casey. They are beautiful people, and the kindest I have ever met. Perhaps someday I will have the courage to face up to the differences that come of a few chromosomes.