I had originally posted this on June 1, 2015, here. It was published in a literary magazine, and edited to read much more smoothly. This is the revised version.
Casey had Down Syndrome. His tongue was just a little extra long, his forehead just a little to broad, and his smile much too genuine. 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. He made loud busting shots of consonants, gleefully chanting “BAH! BAH!” at his tin lunch box with superheroes. His hand would bang along the table, chasing the grapes that shuddered away from the impact. Each time a grape fell off the table, he would grin at me, a wide smile, short little teeth spaced far apart. His eyes crinkled at the corners and I stared in fascination. My whole body felt warm when I was around him, and my hands seemed less clumsy. I didn’t stutter like I did with the other kids. 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.
This was the first grade, so I was six–too young to quite get that the sun 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, Casey was my first love. I knew for certain by the third month of school.
I had always been the the first grade and would always be in the first grade. Childhood was both elastic and solid. Minutes stretched on for hours and even two days in the future was seventy years off. Lunchtimes lasted for ever. I was with Casey for infinity during those lunches, swapping apple slices and peeling the crusts off bread. I would prattle on about this or that, and Casey would pay no attention. He was busy arranging his fingers into complex shapes, swooping hi hands though the air, utterly engrossed. His brow furrowed as he worked to find the perfect angle to set his juice box beside the painted superheroes. All crumbs were swept in to 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 at me, right into me, and flap his palms in the air, joyfully shrieking. I was free to talk talk talk because Casey didn’t care. All he wanted was someone to bump shoulders with when he pointed out the tessellation he created with blocks.
Casey and I didn’t often see each other during class. He had his own tutor, and I was in the advanced reading group. 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, mischievous as as always. He helped me through group projects as I breathed through my nose and held back tears. I could always 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 on the gray-blue carpet next to the tutor. I was scooping up blocks in to my shirt, bulging outward with my already heavy collection and then dumping them into the big bucket. 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. I walked over to show her how it was done.
“You do it like this,” I said. I put emphatic handfuls of blocks into my shirt and dumped them. She smiled tightly, but it was more a look of disgust.
“Thanks.” She picked up one block with her fingertips and put it in my shirt.
I frowned. There were still more blocks, and she wasn’t helping. But 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 they wouldn’t laugh. Instead, I squeezed a block really hard and focused on how the bubbled blue-gray carpet felt on my knees. It hurt and it made my 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. It wasn’t a big deal. It was just fact. We were going to get married and have lunch together forever. And I would trade my purple grapes for his green ones.
The tutor’s face went funny. “Oh, no. No, Carmina. You can’t marry Casey.”
“Why not?” I asked. What did she know? Casey and I were going to get married. He could live at my place. I would show him where the alfalfa sprouts lived, in the Mason jar on top of the windowsill. We could unscrew 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, “Because… Casey is special.”
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 face.
She took a long breath to continue: “Casey had 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 made a round little hole, gasping for breath. 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. She’d know it too if she only looked. He had a way of getting louder and hitting the table. She should know that when she said, “Shh! Shh!” and do the problems for him, she’d been outsmarted. Casey would look at me a smirk.
I gasped a little more and struggled for something to say. The tutor looked at me with pity. “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 no!” I hated yelling. I hated it so much. It made me curl up and grab my little purple turtle, rubbing my thumb along its ridged belly until I could breathe again.
“Well,” she said. “You can’t get married. He’s mentally handicapped, and you’re not. It wouldn’t be real.” She got up and walked away.
I repressed my memories of Casey, and of what I did after that confrontation with the tutor. I don’t even remember whether I kept eating lunch with him. He vanished into a mist.
It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I recalled him. Now I was in high school. 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 vehicle. 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 ride.
Then I heard a noise.
“P-p-p-PAH PAH PAH! P-p-p-bus!”
I almost fell over. That sound was achingly familiar, and comforting. I couldn’t remember where I ‘d heard that sound before or why it made me feel so fluttery. I tossed my backpack into a seat and sat down quickly to steady myself. I put a hand to my chest. I breathed deeply, uncertain why I felt such powerful emotion.
I whipped my head toward the seat beside mine. There sat a bony young man with angular elbows, flapping his palms beside his head and bobbing up and down. He smiled at me, and I stared at him. His thin arms stretched out and then snapped back. He smiled bigger, and I smiled back. My smile was so big it took me by surprise.
He drooped his head in my direction, his shoulders rising with his voice, “P-p-p-pah.”
“Hello,” I said, and nodded back at him, like a cartoon. He smiled and shuffled toward 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, wrist flopping a little with the motion. His skin was powdery and soft like a baby’s. It stretched tightly across his bones, and I could feel the fibers of his muscle. He gave no sign of letting go, and I did not pull back my hand. There was no harm in letting him hold it, and it would only distress him if I moved. I grinned at him again. His wide mouth stretched across dimpled cheeks.
I sat 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. I was excited to have a new friend, delighted at this young man who was so happy to see me.
We held hands the entire way to my stop. The bus rumbled along the street, and his hand 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 in his, and he looked down, surprised that we were still joined at the hand. He grinned and I gently shook my hand again. “This is where I get off. I’ll see you later.”
He nodded, solemn, and 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 carefully kissed the back of my hand. His lips weren’t firm and his mouth was slightly open. I felt the inside of his lips, the wet fleshy part close to the teeth. He held me there for the shortest moment and then released my hand and smiled more. He waved goodbye and flopped back into his seat.
“Ewww,” said the girl behind him. “Gross. Are you okay?”
I jerked my head around to look at her.
“Yeah?” I said, a little breathless. He had been so sweet, and she was so abrupt, like cold water splashed on my face.
“Did he touch you in any private parts?”
“No,” I muttered. Of course he hadn’t. He had known me for five minutes and had been kinder than most people I knew. I stumbled off the bus, forgetting to say ‘thank you’ to the driver and almost forgetting to snag my backpack and sling it over my shoulder. The bus drove away, spitting gravel, and I stood there on the side of the road, staring at it.
Did he touch you in any private parts?
The girl had watched him and me through the whole ride. She knew he hadn’t. Why had she asked that awful question?
“He’s Mentally Handicapped. And you’re not.”
The old words of Casey’s tutor resurfaced. I stood, shocked. Had I provoked the kiss?
You’re smart enough to know better. It would be like forcing him.
I stood on the side of that road for a long time. A car honked as it sped past. I crossed the street, plodding down the sidewalk. I could still feel the wet imprint of his mouth on the back of my hand, drying as I walked the windy way home.
I find I can’t face him again. Now I sit four rows behind him and to the left. That way when I sit close to the window, I can’t see him, and he can’t see me.
He probably doesn’t even remember.