Ervin Brown

Caterpillars and Tire Swings

Within my first week of being alive, I was tested for autism, and everything seemed normal. Doubt started to arise after two years passed and I still hadn’t spoken a single word. My dad, who’s been my only parent for most of my life, made an appointment to talk with a doctor. We went down to Mount Sinai on the eastern border of Central Park, a ninety-minute train ride from our home in Coney Island. Most of the process involved the doctors talking to my dad. At some point, I was provided a memory exam. I spent most of my time in the waiting room by myself, drawing on the very bottom of the whiteboard, the furthest I could reach. By the end of the visit, I was officially an autistic child.

When I was six, there was a woman named Barbara whose house I went to every day for an entire summer. She was a learning aid for kids who were language deficient. The only thing I remember about the time I spent there was the caterpillars in her backyard, of which there were hundreds. I watched them for hours on end with fascination. Once, I watched a caterpillar cross the entire backyard from start to finish. It took about three hours to make the journey. When my dad finally came to pick me up, I was saddened more than anything to see it go. I waved goodbye and he took me inside.

Before we left, I was put in a children’s room while my dad discussed with Barbara what I had learned that day. The room I was put in was covered with wallpaper of all different shapes and patterns, bean bags, toys, and games. The only thing I did in that room, the second I was all alone in it, was expeditiously flip the light switch. That was the only thing in a room designed for kids that was of any interest to me.

I experienced pure joy watching the whole room light up, an explosion of various visual stimuli spattered across the walls and ceiling, and then watching it all magically disappear. Poof! Darkness.

My dad enrolled me in a special needs program. On the first day of kindergarten, I was taken to a small room on the top floor of the elementary school with four chairs lined up. They were the kind of chairs with metal bars that look tiny to an adult but are too heavy for kids to carry. There was also a window in the room with a magnificent view looking down at the street.

Three other kids entered after me one at a time. The first had snot drooling from his nose. He was wearing large glasses and corduroy pants. The second was a girl who I no longer remember. The third chewed at his sleeve while rubbing his thumb up and down the leg of his chair. He began rubbing at it quicker and quicker until he suddenly let out a deafening, passionless cry. I sat attentively still, gripping to the seat, not knowing what was going to happen next. I was scared. What the hell was I doing here on the first day of school? Did the school think I was exactly like them?

I wanted friends more than anything since I wasn’t making them at school. Two older kids came up to me one day at a playground by my house and offered to be my best friends. I was sitting all alone on a tire swing.

“Sure!” I said.

Then they began winding me. Winding and winding until the three metal cables were locked together at the very top where they formed a vertex. One of them got out their phone and started recording while the other let go. I began spinning more and more rapidly, the frictionless attachment to the tree flowing in circles with ease, picking up acceleration. Faster and faster the tire spun, my field of vision blurring together like a giant color pallet against a fan. After a few minutes, when the tire slowed down, I threw up enough to fill a couple of buckets. I looked around to see if my new best friends were still there to take care of me. There was no one in sight.

My obsessiveness started kicking in around the same time. I loved watching Tetris and playing with the Rubik’s cube; they were clean and predictable. I loved collecting little figurines of wild animals as long as they were all roughly the same height. When I came into a room, the notebooks needed to be stacked neatly on top of each other. Every sheet on the bed needed to be squarely tucked in. There were never any posters hanging on the wall or elaborate decorations. The less stuff there is in a room, the less chaotic it is. And that’s how it had to be.

The only exception to that was the stars that lit up my room at night. Not the glow-in-the-dark kind you stick to the ceiling, but a lamp that projected them through a semi-covered bulb. I always found peace under them. To the stars, I was free to be whoever I wanted to be. To the stars, I was just as normal as everybody else.

Ervin Brown is 18 years old and studying at the University of California at Riverside in the creative writing program. He was born and raised by the Coney Island boardwalk and loves the ocean.