Look at my left ear, Dr. Wide the optometrist said to Arnold who was squirming in a chair too large for his seven-year-old body. Arnold looked at Dr. Wide’s left ear, studying its shape. Then when it was time he looked at Dr. Wide’s right ear. He could remember the left well enough that he could mentally compare them back-to-back to analyze their symmetry.
After the exam the doctor explained that Arnold had astigmatism, a defect in the spherical curvature resulting in light rays being unable to meet at a common focus.
Sounds like autism, Brenda said, automatically wishing she hadn’t.
Arnold chose glasses with thick black frames. It took a week for them to arrive at the house. They made the world seem very clear, though being able to see clearly also made him feel much smaller—both more and less vulnerable than before. The case the glasses came in was gold with a pattern of squares.
Brenda crossed eye exam off her list, still leaving: dog breeder, pediatrician, nutritionist and teacher.
Would you like some tea?
I’m here to discuss the dog.
Yes but would you like some tea?
Oh, if I must.
The dog breeder sat down at a wicker chair. Brenda poured the tea from the old fashioned kettle.
And you want a dog because?
Well I was going to get one from the support pet program but was declined.
Why were you declined?
Not needy enough, it would seem.
You seem needy enough to me.
You see my son, he’s having troubles socializing and I’ve read that dogs can help—
Oh, I thought you were the one who needed support.
No, it’s my son. He’s seven.
Does he have any empathy?
Well I’m not about to give a dog to someone cruel now am I?
He has trouble reading people, his emotions are all there.
A dog cannot teach a child to read.
Yes, yes, of course, but to have a friend, someone to play with—
Well we only have two left.
We would greatly appreciate—
And another couple has a big back yard and no children. Troubles conceiving.
I just really want to help my son and I saw on some documentary, Suzuki, was it?
Pets are work too.
Yes of course.
Can I meet your son?
Yes, just a minute.
Brenda walked up the wooden stairs. Arnold, darling, would you come meet our visitor?
Arnold came out wearing jeans and a NASA Kid! tshirt.
Darling this is—
Yes, Mrs. Henderson, she’s a dog breeder and is wanting to make sure that our house is suitable and I was just telling her how great you would be with a dog.
Arnold stared at the woman who began to tap her fingers on her teacup.
And why would you like a dog?
Dogs are a lot of work.
I like work.
What type of work do you like?
I like to build houses.
Houses, that seems like a big job.
He wants to be an engineer.
Mrs. Henderson gave Brenda a nasty look.
In Arnold’s room was an entire city made out of cardboard, each carefully designed following architecture WikiHow manuals on model houses.
Do you like dogs then?
Would you ever hurt a dog or forget to give it water or walk it?
I said he has trouble socializing. He’s very responsible and not cruel!
I will think about it.
Yes, of course, thank you Mrs. Henderson for being kind enough—
Mrs. Henderson was already gone.
Brenda shut the door and stared at Arnold. Arnold stared back. Brenda wiped her face and told him that he could go back to his room if he liked.
Brenda picked up Mrs. Thompson’s tea, she had barely had a sip. She dumped it down the drain and sat back down. Arnold’s report card lay on the table, very bright in math and science, doesn’t meet potential in reading, fights frequently with other students, appears to purposelessly write sentences entirely backwards. Brenda thought that the teacher must have been exaggerating until she found one of Arnold’s assignments.
Why do you do that sweetie, you do know this is in the wrong order?
Arnold looked around the room as if he was trying to find his escape.
You aren’t in trouble, I’m just trying to understand.
Arnold ran to his room and shut the door.
In his room were 70s curtains Brenda had desperately wanted to rid of but Arnold liked the symmetry. They were plaid. The newer plaid tended to have colours that were far too bright and intimidating. Arnold wanted to live in a world made entirely symmetrical. He wanted to live in a matrix. He wanted to be a mouse in a maze. One of the boys at school said that he must have been dropped on his head. He never understood this. How good were they at mazes and maths? He knew that only in the UK was it called maths but he preferred it that way, even if it made you sound like you had a lisp. It was more accurate. Maths wasn’t just one thing, maths was many things.
Arnold’s father had been out of the picture for a year now. Perhaps he had never really been in the picture. He was more like the photographer, the one you always looked to but was always missing. Brenda looked up the breeder again, references required, it said, Brenda didn’t have any references for she had never had a dog. But it seemed to her that if she could raise Arnold, she could take care of a dog.
Arnold liked dogs least because of the drool and because he saw other kids picking up poo. Because dogs always seemed so excitable, except for certain breeds like pugs that appeared almost dead with bodies that were clearly the wrong shape. Most dogs, he thought, needed more Ivory soap. He didn’t understand the point of dogs. Cats were almost as perplexing. If he were to have a pet, it would have to be an iguana.
Brenda started cutting Arnold’s ham and cheese sandwich into triangles, keeping the crust. She put it in a plastic Ziploc bag and into his plain blue lunchbox with a juice box. She had made sure to look up which juices were best for children with his needs, not too much sugar, etc. but not so unappealing that he would resent her or the other kids would make fun of him. She debated leaving a note, deciding, ultimately, against it. She didn’t want to be too demanding. I love you can say, say you love me back, and he would know. He was only seven but he would know. She put his lunchbox beside the door and called up to him. He came out wearing his pajamas and she tried not to show any disappointment. Darling, why don’t you put on your school clothes?
Arnold stood there, he almost looked like he was going to urinate into his NASA pajamas. Please get changed, we don’t have much time. Arnold slowly turned back to his room.
At school Arnold did end up urinating in his school clothes. The teacher found him some clothing they kept in the supply closet for these types of occasions. He had been drawing on his graph paper during recess when a girl had asked him why he was eating bread in triangles. Then she asked him if he would go to the cubby room with her. Not knowing what else to do, he followed. When she grabbed his crotch, he peed. The girl ran to tell the teacher, leaving out the part where she had touched him inappropriately.
The other clothes were too small and felt itchy. He preferred only cotton. He felt suffocated. He went back to sitting by himself, to draw a stadium, then the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty, being careful to have each drawn perfectly to scale.
He hated his lunchbox. He hated being a child. And he didn’t want a dog. Other children had dogs. Other children didn’t urinate into their pants. Other children were other children. The teacher looked at him as if she were looking at a decaying plant. Arnold closed his eyes and recited pi backwards. It had taken him a year exactly to learn this.
Brenda Googled other breeders in the area. It seemed strange to her, how no one had questioned her at all when she had a child but now here she was being interviewed about a dog. Granted, she wasn’t taking somebody else’s child, but if she already had a child, couldn’t she have dog? When she had Arnold the hospital just sent her back home, back on her way, with a wave and that was it.
When she picked him up she didn’t ask why he was wearing different clothes, she knew the answer. They drove mostly in silence. Arnold stared out the window at the flashing lights. He wanted the car to stop, everything was way too fast but he said nothing. He continued to watch everything pass by as if he was on a roller coaster.
Finally he said, I have to pee.
We’ll be home soon.
I have to pee.
So they stopped at a local restaurant and Arnold ran to the bathroom, forgetting to shut the door. Brenda rushed to shut the door for him. She thanked the waitress for allowing them in, though they hadn’t stopped to ask. She picked up a menu as a sign of respect.
At home Arnold went back to his room and filled another notebook. Brenda turned on the TV to find an old episode of Will and Grace on and cried.
Arnold threw away his lunchbox the next day.
I want a paper bag, he said.
Brenda had no idea where this was coming from.
I want a paper bag!
Okay, okay that’s what you’ll have! she said.
Arnold had heard some place that paper bags can save you if you stop breathing. While his lunchbox was more symmetrical, it was too much like the other children’s and it was heavy and it would never save anyone from anything.
Brenda bought the paper bags and they looked like things that bums carried whiskey in. This thought made her almost cry. All the other moms in the grocery store, she was sure, would know. This could be you, she wanted to shout at them. How could anyone know what type of mother they could be if they couldn’t turn to Oprah?
Arnold started eating his lunch in the bathroom. The teacher sent Brenda another notice.
Why do you eat in the bathroom?
Are the other kids mean to you?
Arnold started to get hot in the face and started to tremble.
I just want to understand.
Arnold ran to his room.
Brenda made dinner.
Arnold stacked his sandwich triangles into something like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Normally he hated a lack of symmetry but this was okay because it was accurate. Outside some children were playing Red Rover. They came back inside looking like feral cats. Arnold sank into his desk and sharpened his pencil until it could be used as a weapon. He disliked everything that lacked symmetry and thus, everything natural. Apples had to be cut up as well as everything else. They had to be as removed from reality as possible. Nothing could lean, things that leaned would naturally fall. He lined up his teeth marks and analyzed them. He could recognize his bite now perfectly and thus would know if somebody else had bitten his apple. His apples were red. Everything came in Ziploc bags. Sometimes he wanted to put a rotten apple in the backpack of the girl who had asked him to go to the cubby room with her. Sometimes.
Arnold lifted a yellow crayon to his nose. It smelled like a candle in a museum. He did this with each crayon until another child called him a freak. He went back to drawing. Started to draw a cathedral, not for his soul but for the shapes, or maybe his soul was made up of shapes.
Brenda played Adele, the singer known for her songs of heartbreak, and cleaned the house, humming to herself. She wanted her apples bruised and fallen and a child that would come inside with bruises from combing trees with other boys and playing Red Rover.
Arnold was the VIP for the day, this person had to make a speech and that was mostly it. He hated empty titles. He and everyone else knew that he was not a very important person. The other kids laughed nonstop when he wrote VIP as PIV on his nametag. The teacher wrote a new nametag for him, long since giving up on teaching the difference. She underlined it, which she didn’t normally do for anything. Arnold wasn’t sure what this meant. Isn’t a very important person already declared as important enough?
He made a speech about seal hunting in Northern Canada. The teacher interrupted, stating something about it being a sensitive topic. Arnold didn’t know why he couldn’t discuss the seals. He was not for or against seal hunting. Arnold rarely understood sensitive subjects, or what made them sensitive, though he was fairly certain that the cubby room incident was a sensitive subject. But he didn’t blush at the thought of the seals. Since he had no other topics prepared, he didn’t even get to be a pretend VIP. He wondered what seals tasted like. He knew better than to ask. He ate some cookies and drew a baseball park. Baseball was his favorite sport and it had the best shapes and people didn’t hit each other. Arnold was relieved the next day when he could officially go back to being an unimportant person.
His NASA Kid! clothing were all blue. His bedding had a baseball design. His nightlight was a light bulb. The last thing he remembered his father saying to him was about Edison, who invented the light bulb and how Arnold one day may also invent something. Arnold never understood what would need inventing, how do you know if you need something if someone hadn’t already invented it?
Perhaps Arnold could invent a trap door for cubby rooms. But if it had a name, it probably already had been invented. Perhaps he needed to invent something stupid like sushi. The girl from the cubby room always had expensive lunches like fresh sushi. She was popular and sometimes made Arnold blush. He watched her and she looked right through him. Arnold remembered his father saying, people invent things that solve problems.
Brenda wondered what she was doing when she bought the baseball bedding. This kid wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere near an actual ball or sport. Then she gave up wondering. Arnold’s father had called him Buddy, which Brenda could never get away with. She couldn’t even make Arnie stick. She had tried to teach him the purpose of nicknames, how it was a sign that you cared for someone. Brenda had assumed that her child would grow up as Arnie and only use Arnold for official matters. Now it all seemed silly.
Brenda remembered when she started babysitting as a teenager. She felt so important, being responsible for somebody’s child. She had regimented routines with these children, routines she abandoned as a mother, routines Arnold probably would enjoy them but she no longer had the energy for it or saw the purpose of. She didn’t make the star charts or chore lists that she saw parents make on TV. She found even watching those parents condescending. Perhaps children were too eager for stars from authorities. Perhaps they should instead be taught that life is not symmetrical and people sometimes fall down. She felt bruised in all the wrong ways when she thought of this and thought of Adele and the vacuum. Thought of Arnold’s lunchbox. Thought of how she regretted buying it, what a ridiculous purchase it had been; she thought of Arnold being a teenager and felt something like shame, and shame for finding the thought of her child as a teenager shameful, shameful. Teenagehood was the opposite of symmetry and she doubted Arnold would cope. He would never understand Adele. He would build walls around himself. And then he might make millions. Silicon valley was full of Arnolds.
Brenda started to feel her head spin and sat down. She was on disability from work but the doctors didn’t seem to know what was happening to her. She sat down and the whole room started to spin. She managed to work her way to the floor where she stared up at the fan that seemed to start and stop and reverse directions. She closed her eyes. She felt her head go warm then cold. She felt like a teenager on drugs in a stranger’s house. She turned on her side, remembering hearing on the news a local girl who died by choking on her own vomit. At least that was unlikely to happen to Arnold.
A knock came at the door. She had no idea who that could be but refused to answer. A few more knocks, increasingly louder, then they left. Brenda brought her knees into her chest and squeezed her eyes shut. She suddenly grew very cold and started to shiver. She thought, god if somebody were to see this! She wasn’t sure what time it was, she hoped that Arnold wouldn’t find her this way. She had started letting him walk home by himself and he seemed to like the responsibility. Who could really tell?
Arnold came home to find Brenda still on the floor. She had let go of her legs and seemed to be sleeping. He tapped her on her shoulder. No movement. He tapped her harder and she jumped up.
What happened, she asked, getting to her feet.
You were on the floor, Arnold said.
What time is it?
You didn’t do anything.
Yes but I’m still sorry. How was your day? Would you like a snack?
I’m going to my room.
Yes of course.
Brenda called her doctor. It happened again, she said to the receptionist.
What happened? Would you like to make an appointment?
Brenda realized that it was a new receptionist and she probably now seemed crazy. She had become friends with the last one, sort of.
Yes, yes, I would like an appointment, Brenda said.
That night Brenda held her knees tight into her chest again but in bed. She let her breathing slow down. She let herself float above until she was like a fan. She remembered reading Arnold stories, she wished he still let her do that. She wished for too many things.
In his room with the door safety shut, the curtains drawn, he built a new city, with houses all exactly the same and a sign that said,
Allowed dogs no.
Allowed cats no.
Allowed people two.
Brenda poured a glass of wine and watched a documentary on child soldiers. No one ever talks about the mothers, she said to no one.
Outside a dog barked incessantly.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Five.