He comes to visit. Never leaves. The little blonde haired blue-eyed boy named John who lives just across the street is fascinated by our family the way a scientist who just discovered a new element would be. He’s in first grade, and Avery is in the fourth. So many years apart, but they become fast friends. John latches onto Avery. No one ever latches onto Avery, but John attaches himself with the zeal of a tick.
We are living in a giant beach house with Robyn’s parents in Carolina Beach, North Carolina. This would normally be quite embarrassing, this business of living with parents as grown people with two sons of our own. Somehow it just isn’t, though I am careful not to mention it to anyone until I know them pretty well. The day-to-day shock of living with Robyn’s parents wore off a long time ago, and now we just accept that it’s happening. So, whatever embarrassment was initially there has been absorbed into the bloodstream at this point.
John shows up one day in our lives and quickly integrates himself. He and and Avery start playing. This is great because Avery is autistic, and I have always been his fumbling social director. Forever trying to introduce him to new people. Getting him into games with other kids. Coordinating his activities. It’s pretty exhausting. So, I’m happy to have John on board.
They’re cute to watch together. Avery is playing a video game in the room on the first floor that houses a couch and and a TV with a Wii Game System. John is just sitting and watching Avery play. This is enough for John. Anything Avery does is cool, and John is happy to sit and watch Avery do it. Later, they will come up, and we will give them both bowls of macaroni and cheese before they trundle back down four floors to play and watch video games being played some more. I am so happy. It’s a miracle, this John. A prayer answered.
John shows up with great regularity at the house. There was always a lot of love in that house, but we considered it necessary background noise like the hum of a refrigerator. Maybe John could actually hear that sound we took for granted.
As he grows more comfortable, John starts to wander around to each room on every floor to check on us to see how we might be doing. He checks on Robyn’s dad to see what computer files he might be trying to wrestle into submission on his PC. We keep telling Robb to get a Mac. He never listens to us. John watches Robb trying to kill a virus and download some music and delete some e-mail. He’s happy as a clam just to watch.
John wanders on up to the top floor with the giant living room and kitchen. Robyn’s mom Jayne is there watching television on the couch. He plops down beside her and watches Inside Edition in all its drama. Beyonce did what? You go girl. Taylor Swift did who? Why so desperate Taylor? You’re better than that.
Eventually, John stops ringing the doorbell. He just opens the door and makes himself at home. Avery sometimes doesn’t want him around because he’s always around. He shoos him out of the Man Cave, the place where I sit on Sundays watching endless pro football games when Avery is not playing video games. Sometimes Avery is so tired of him that he goes down to answer the door, sees it’s John and walks back upstairs without letting him in. I think that’s why John feels obliged to let himself in.
So, with no warning John will appear upstairs in our living room. He sits himself down on the large couch to watch some television. Jayne is startled. “I didn’t hear the doorbell ring,” she says. “I didn’t ring it,” John replies. “Oh,” she says. Then they are finding out about Tom Cruise and Scientology on Entertainment Tonight. What is wrong with him? Will Katie escape or won’t she? Is mind control involved?
“This is getting weird,” I tell Robyn. I’m not talking about Scientology, either. John has just appeared in our bedroom. We were lying in bed asleep. We felt a presence in the room. We looked up. “Oh, hi John. We didn’t realize you were here. Avery is downstairs playing video games. Why don’t you join him there?” He nods and leaves.
“How bad can that kid’s home life be that he’s that fascinated with ours?” I ask Robyn. “I dunno,” she says, “but he’s starting to creep me out.” We have to have a talk with John. Who will have this talk? “You will,” Robyn advises. I nod. Explaining hard truths is not my forte. But it’s a life skill I should begin mastering. “We couldn’t all just get keys and start locking the door and not answering it?” I ask. “No,” she says after a beat, as if she’s considered it.
“When you come over, we’d really appreciate it if you ring the doorbell,” I tell John. “That lets us know you’re here. We like to know when visitors are coming. We might not be dressed. Maybe we’re wandering around in our underwear. You don’t want to see that, and we don’t want to show you that.”
John nods at this. “But sometimes Avery doesn’t answer the door,” he points out. We turn to Avery. “You must always answer the door. When someone is at the door, you have to answer it. It’s not polite or right in any way to simply not answer the door.”
Avery nods. Problem solved. Then John promptly moves away. As soon as all the protocols for his visits are in place, he leaves. I guess that makes perfect sense. John is the first and only groupie our family has ever had. There will likely never be another.
We have no such groupies in New York City, where we now live. No mascot who appears at our doorstep and seems desperate to stay. It’s hard to form friendships here. Avery has one friend at his high school that he texts with relentlessly. But we can never seem to work out the schedules for them to meet up. They are virtual friends, but not face-to-face friends after school hours are over.
When Avery walks the dog, he has a million instant friends in New York City. They coo at Boo Radley. Ask to pet him. Sure, Avery says, smiling. Everyone loves the dog. “Try scratching him here. This is his spot,” Avery advises. Really anywhere is his spot, he’s such a ridiculous ham of a dog. Avery basks in Boo’s glow, happy to share him with the world. Social contact achieved. It’s not friendship, but it’s something.
How does one make friends here? The city comes with no user manual. No step by step instructions to follow. You have to find your own way. It’s not easy. You must first believe everyone is insane or a criminal as a protective measure. Once a person has somehow proven they are not mad or bad, there’s a delicate dance whose steps no one has bothered to teach us yet that eventually results in a friendship.
What did John see in us that we couldn’t see in ourselves? How were our lives so very attractive to him, more absorbing than they were even to us as we lived them? It’s a mystery.
Some days I miss him so much I would even answer the door if he rang the bell.