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An Innocent Encounter

By Susan Judd

After waiting a few minutes, you are next in line at a bookstore. You become acutely aware of a small presence standing patiently behind you. You turn, and you see the boy.

He is about 6 or 7 years old. He is wearing athletic shorts, a T-shirt and sandals, the unofficial uniform of boys his age. He is clutching a book with the reverence many of us reserve for priceless heirlooms.

You smile at him, and then at his mother. She is young, you note. You were once the mother of a young boy but you were never a young mother. She returns your smile.

The boy looks up at you, and you note that is indeed how typical children engage with a stranger. He has beautiful eyes and long eyelashes just like your son. Then one of the cashiers calls, “I can help whoever is next” and you reluctantly turn forward, presenting your books. You banter with the clerk, hand her your membership card. She happily informs you that your purchase entitles you to a free cookie if you buy one at the coffee shop conveniently located at the front of the store.

What could be better than summer reading material and a free cookie? You are sold.

You walk carefully over to the coffee shop, observing a group of teens drinking fancy caffeine concoctions and playing with their phones. You look at the two women who are clearly having an intense conversation, and at the man sitting alone by the window, engrossed in a current best seller.

You stand in line as the woman in front of you finally selects her tea. Once again, you become aware of a small person at your heels. You turn, and there is the boy and his mother. You smile again, and the boy shares that he has bought the latest book in a mystery series that he enjoys. He holds up the book so you can see the cover. You tell him that you love a good mystery, too. He is excited about buying a cookie for himself and his mother. He tells you that he doesn’t like chocolate. You tell him that there are many kinds of cookies from which to choose. His little face is rapt with joy as he peers through the glass case holding myriad offerings of mouth-watering sandwiches, cheesecake, and yes, cookies.

His mother is observing this encounter, and when he gets a little too close, she admonishes him to give this “nice lady” some space. He politely steps back. You say that it is wonderful that he likes to read. His mother is clearly proud of him, and she gently places her arm on his shoulder.

You praise her for encouraging his interest in books. You bend over and tell the boy to keep reading. You wish them both a good day. You take your double chocolate chip chunk and sugar cookies and your books to the car. You realize that tears are streaming down your face and you are thankful for sunglasses.

The boy is the child or the grandchild you thought you would have, and never will. Always an avid reader, you had assumed your own boy would share your passion for the written word. Although he was identifying letters at age 2 and fascinated by the shape of words, being able to comprehend language was a skill that would elude him long past his elementary school years. Oh, he was willing to read aloud when you asked him. But he never approached a bookstore or library like it was a sanctuary, the way that you do. When he was young, you couldn’t — or wouldn’t — even take him to a bookstore for fear of a meltdown.

Your son is nothing like you. You love words, reading, writing, and long conversations. If family lore holds true, you came out of the womb yelling “Party!” and haven’t stopped talking since. Your son responds to your questions with one-word answers, if he responds at all. He prefers computers to people. He has autism, a condition that affects his ability to communicate, socialize and perceive the world. He is amazing in his own right. You try hard to understand him, to find common ground. Some days you succeed, and some days you drown in a sea of your own frustration. And some days you are painfully reminded of something you will never have.

You dry your eyes and start the car, glancing at the clock. It is time to pick up your son. You drive away, the books and cookies by your side, the brief encounter with the young reader firmly etched in your mind.

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