Read House Rules Online

Authors: Jodi Picoult

Tags: #Fiction, #Murder, #Suspense, #Mystery & Detective, #Murder - Investigation, #General, #Literary, #Family Life, #Psychological, #Forensic sciences, #Autistic youth, #Asperger's syndrome

House Rules (10 page)

BOOK: House Rules
7.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The pizza lady brings out the pie, which I will have to eat by myself now. Hope you‘re hungry, she says.

I‘m not. But I lift up a slice anyway and take a bite and swallow. It tastes like cardboard.

Something pink winks at me from the other side of the napkin dispenser. Jess has left behind her cell phone. I would call her to tell her I have it, but obviously, that won‘t work.

I tuck it into my pocket and make a mental note. I will just bring it to her when we meet on Tuesday, when I have figured out what it is that I am supposed to have learned.

For over a decade now, we have received a Christmas card from a family I do not know.

They address it to the Jenningses, who lived in the house before we did. There is usually a snowy scene on the front, and then inside there is printed gold lettering: HAPPY


The Steinbergs also include a photocopied note that chronicles everything they have been doing over the years. I‘ve read about their daughter, Sarah, who went from taking gymnastics lessons to being accepted at Vassar to joining a consulting firm to moving to an ashram in India and adopting a baby. I‘ve come to know Marty Steinberg‘s big career breaks at Lehman Brothers and his shock at being out of a job in 2008, when the company folded; and how he went on to teach business at a community college in upstate New York.

I‘ve seen Vicky, his wife, go from being a stay-at-home mom to an entrepreneur selling cookies with the faces of pedigreed dogs on them. (One year there were samples!) This year, Marty took a leave of absence, and he and Vicky went on a cruise to Antarctica apparently a lifelong dream that was now possible since Eukanuba had bought out Vicky‘s company. Sarah and her partner, Inez, got married in California, and there was a picture of Raita, now three, as the flower girl.

Each Christmas season, I try to get to the Steinbergs‘ letter before my mother does.

She tosses them into the trash, saying things like
Don‘t these people ever get the message
when the Jenningses don‘t send a card back?
I fish the card out and put it in a shoe box I have reserved specially for the Steinbergs in my closet.

I don‘t know why reading their holiday cards makes me feel good, the same way a warm load of laundry does when I‘m lying underneath it, or when I take the thesaurus and read through an entire letter‘s words in one sitting. But today, after I come home from my meeting with Jess, I suffer through the obligatory conversation with my mother
(Mom: How
did it go? Me: Fine.
) and then go straight up to my room. Like an addict who needs a fix, I go right for the Steinberg letters and I reread them, from the oldest to the most recent.

It gets a little easier to breathe again, and when I close my eyes I don‘t see Jess‘s face on the backs of my lids, grainy like a drawing on an Etch A Sketch. It‘s like some kind of cryptogram, and
really means
really means
and so on, so the twist of her mouth and the funny note that jumped in her voice are what she really wanted to say, instead of the words she used.

I lie down and imagine showing up on the doorstep of Sarah and Inez.

It is so good to see you,
I‘d say.
You look exactly like I thought you would.

I pretend that Vicky and Marty are sitting on the deck of their ship. Marty is sipping a martini while Vicky writes out a postcard with a picture of Valletta, Malta, on the front.

She scrawls,
Wish you were here.
And this time, she addresses it directly to me.


Nobody dreams of being an agony aunt when they grow up.

Secretly, we all read advice columns who hasn‘t scanned
Dear Abby
? But sifting through the problems of other people for a living? No thanks.

I thought that, by now, I‘d be a real writer. I‘d have books on the
New York Times
list and I‘d be feted by the literati for my ability to combine important issues with books that the masses could relate to. Like many other writer wannabes, I‘d gone the back route through editing textbooks, in my case. I liked editing. There was always a right and a wrong answer. And I had assumed that I‘d go back to work when Jacob was in school full-time but that was before I learned that being an advocate for your autistic child‘s education is a forty-hour-a-week profession in and of itself. All sorts of adaptations had to be argued for and vigilantly monitored: a cool-off pass that would allow Jacob to leave a classroom that got too overwhelming for him; a sensory break room; a paraprofessional who could help him, as an elementary school student, put his thoughts into writing; an individualized education plan; a school counselor who didn‘t roll her eyes every time Jacob had a meltdown.

I did some freelance editing at night texts referred to me by a sympathetic former boss but it wasn‘t enough to support us. So when the
Burlington Free Press
ran a contest for a new column, I wrote one. I didn‘t know about photography or chess or gardening, so I picked something I knew: parenting. My first column asked why, no matter how hard we were trying as moms, we always felt like we weren‘t doing enough.

The paper got over three hundred letters in response to that test column, and suddenly, I was the parenting advice expert. This blossomed into advice for those without kids, for those who wanted kids, for those who didn‘t. Subscriptions increased when my column bumped from once a week to twice a week. And here‘s the really remarkable thing: all these people who trust me to sort out their own sorry lives assume that I have a clue when it comes to sorting out my own.

Today‘s question comes from Warren, Vermont.

Help! My wonderful, polite, sweet twelve-year-old boy hasturned into a monster. I‘ve tried
punishing him, but nothing works. Why is he acting up?

I lean over my keyboard and start to type.

Whenever a child misbehaves, there‘s some deeper issue driving the action. Sure, you can
take away privileges, but that‘s putting a Band-Aid over a gaping wound. You need to be a
detective and figure out what‘s really upsetting him.

I reread what I‘ve written, then delete the whole paragraph. Who am I kidding?

Well, the greater Burlington area, apparently.

My son sneaks out at night to crime scenes, and do I heed my own advice? No.

I am saved from my hypocrisy by the sound of the telephone ringing. It‘s Monday night, just after eight, so I assume it‘s for Theo. He picks up on an extension upstairs and a moment later appears in the kitchen. It‘s for you, Theo says. He waits till I pick up and disappears into the sanctuary of his bedroom again.

This is Emma, I say into the receiver.

Ms. Hunt? This is Jack Thornton … Jacob‘s math teacher?

Inwardly, I cringe. There are some teachers who see the greater good in Jacob, in spite of all his quirks and there are others who just don‘t get him and don‘t bother to try.

Jack Thornton expected Jacob to be a math savant when that‘s not always part of Asperger‘s in spite of what Hollywood seems to think. Instead, he‘s been frustrated by a student whose handwriting is messy, who transposes numbers when doing calculations, and who is far too literal to understand some of the theoretical concepts of math, like imaginary numbers and matrices.

If Jack Thornton is calling me, it can‘t be good news.

Did Jacob tell you what happened today?

Had Jacob mentioned anything? No, I would remember. But then again, he probably wouldn‘t confess unless he was directly asked. More likely, I would have read the clues through his behavior, which would have seemed a little off. Usually when Jacob‘s even more withdrawn, or stimming, or conversely too talkative or manic, I know something‘s wrong. In this way, I am a better forensic scientist than Jacob would ever guess.

I asked Jacob to come up to the board to write out his homework answer,

Thornton explains, and when I told him that his work was sloppy, he shoved me.


Yes, the teacher says. You can imagine the reaction of the rest of the class.

Well, that explains why I didn‘t see a deterioration in Jacob‘s behavior. When the class started laughing, he would have assumed he‘d done something good.

I‘m sorry, I say. I‘ll talk to him.

No sooner have I hung up the phone than Jacob appears in the kitchen and takes the carton of milk out of the fridge.

Did something happen in math class today? I ask.

Jacob‘s eyes widen.
You can‘t handle the truth,
he says, in a dead-on imitation of Jack Nicholson, as sure a sign as any that he‘s squirming.

I already talked to Mr. Thornton. Jacob, you cannot go around shoving teachers.

He started it.

He did not shove you!

No, but he said, ‗Jacob, my three-year-old could write more neatly than that.‘

always saying that when someone makes fun of me I should stick up for myself.

The truth is, I
said that to Jacob. And there‘s a piece of me rejoicing in the fact that
initiated an interaction with another human, instead of the other way around even if the interaction wasn‘t socially appropriate.

The world, for Jacob, is truly black and white. Once, when he was younger, his gym teacher called because Jacob had a meltdown during kickball when a kid threw the big red ball at him to tag him out.
You don‘t throw things at people,
Jacob tearfully explained.
It‘s a

Why should a rule that works in one situation not work in another? If a bully taunts him and I tell him it‘s all right to reciprocate because sometimes that‘s the only way to get these kids to leave him alone why shouldn‘t he do the same with a teacher who humiliates him in public?

Teachers deserve respect, I explain.

Why do they get it for free, when everyone else has to earn it?

I blink at him, speechless.
Because the world isn‘t fair,
I think, but Jacob already knows that better than most of us.

Are you mad at me? Unfazed, he reaches for a glass and pours himself some soy milk.

I think that‘s the attribute I miss seeing the most in my son: empathy. He worries about hurting my feelings, or making me upset, but that‘s not the same as viscerally feeling someone else‘s pain. Over the years, he‘s learned empathy the way I might learn Greek translating an image or situation in the clearinghouse of his mind and trying to attach the appropriate sentiment to it, but never really fluent in the language.

Last spring, we were filling one of his prescriptions at the pharmacy and I noticed a rack of Mother‘s Day cards. Just once I‘d like you to buy one of those for me, I said.

Why? Jacob asked.

So I know you love me.

He shrugged. You already know that.

But it would be nice, I said, to wake up on Mother‘s Day and, like every other mother in this country, to get a card from her son.

Jacob thought about this. What day is Mother‘s Day? he asked.

I told him, and then I forgot about the conversation, until May 10. When I went downstairs and started my Sunday morning coffee-making routine, I found an envelope propped up against the glass carafe. In it was a Mother‘s Day card.

It didn‘t say
Dear Mom.
It wasn‘t signed. In fact, it wasn‘t written on at all because Jacob had only done what I‘d told him to do, and nothing more.

That day, I sat down at the kitchen table and laughed. I laughed until I started to cry.

Now, I look up at my son, who isn‘t looking at me. No, Jacob, I say. I‘m not mad at you.

Once, when Jacob was ten, we were walking the aisles of a Toys R Us in Williston when a little boy jumped out from an endcap wearing a Darth Vader mask and brandishing a light saber. Bang, you‘re dead! the boy cried, and Jacob believed him. He started shrieking and rocking, and then he swept his arm through the display on the shelves. He was doing it to make sure he was not a ghost, to make sure he still could leave an impact in this world. He spun and flailed, trampling boxes as he ran away from me.

By the time I tackled him in the doll section, he was completely out of control. I tried singing Marley to him. I shouted at him to make him respond to my voice. But Jacob was in his own little world, and finally the only way I could make him calm was to become a human blanket, to pin him down on the industrial tile with his arms and legs flung wide.

By then, the police had been called on suspicion of child abuse.

It took fifteen minutes to explain to the officers that my son was autistic, and that I wasn‘t trying to hurt him I was trying to help him.

I‘ve often thought, since then, about what would happen if Jacob was stopped by the police while he was on his own like on Sundays, when he bikes into town to meet Jess. Like the parents of many autistic kids, I‘ve done what the message boards suggest: In Jacob‘s wallet is a card that says he‘s autistic, and that explains to the officer that all the behaviors Jacob is exhibiting flat affect, an inability to look him in the eye, even a flight response are the hallmarks of Asperger‘s syndrome. And yet, I‘ve wondered what would happen if the police came in contact with a six-foot, 185-pound, out-of-control boy who reached into his back pocket. Would they wait for him to show his ID card, or would they shoot first?

This is in part why Jacob isn‘t allowed to drive. He has had the state drivers‘

manual memorized since he was fifteen, and I know he‘d follow traffic rules as if his life depended on it. But what if he got pulled over by a state trooper?
Do you know what you
were doing?
the trooper would say, and Jacob would reply:
Immediately, he‘d be tagged as a wise guy when, in fact, he was only answering the question literally.

If the trooper asked him if he ran a red light, Jacob would say yes even if it had happened six months earlier, when the trooper was nowhere nearby.

I know better than to ask him whether my butt looks fat in a particular pair of jeans, because he‘ll tell me the truth. A police officer would not have that history to help color Jacob‘s answer.

Well, at any rate, they are not likely to stop him while he‘s riding into town on his bicycle unless they take pity on him because it‘s so cold. I learned a long time ago to stop asking Jacob if he wants a ride. The temperature matters less to him than his independence, in this one small thing.

Hauling the laundry basket into Jacob‘s room, I place his folded clothes on the bed.

When he comes home from school, he‘ll put them away on his own, with the collars all lined up precisely and the boxer shorts arranged by pattern (stripes, solids, polka dots). On his desk is an overturned fish tank with a small coffee cup warmer, a tinfoil dish, and one of my lipstick containers beneath it. Sighing, I lift the fingerprint fuming chamber and reclaim my makeup, careful not to disturb the rest of the precisely ordered items.

Jacob‘s room has the nuclear precision of an
Architectural Digest
feature: everything has its place; the bed is made neatly; the pencils on the desk sit at perfect right angles to the wood grain. Jacob‘s room is the place entropy goes to die.

On the other hand, Theo is messy enough to make up for both of them. I can barely kick my way through the field of dirty clothes tangled on his carpet, and when I set the basket down on Theo‘s bed, something squeaks. I don‘t put away Theo‘s laundry, either but that‘s because I can‘t bear to see the drawers haphazardly stuffed with clothes that I distinctly remember folding on the laundry counter.

I glance around and spy a glass with something green festering inside it, beside a half-eaten container of yogurt. I place these into the empty basket to go back downstairs and then, in a fit of kindness, try to pull the bedding into some semblance of order. It‘s when I am shaking the pillowcase into position around Theo‘s pillow that the plastic case falls down and hits my ankle.

It‘s a game something called Naruto, with a manga cartoon character brandishing a sword.

It‘s played on the Wii, a gaming system we‘ve never owned.

I could ask Theo why he has this, but something tells me I do not want to hear the answer. Not after this weekend, when I learned that Jacob‘s been running away at night.

Not after last night, when his math teacher called to tell me he‘s acting out in class.

Sometimes I think the human heart is just a simple shelf. There‘s only so much you can pile onto it before something falls off an edge and you are left to pick up the pieces.

I stare at the video game for a moment, and then I slip it back into the pillowcase again before leaving Theo‘s room.


I taught my brother how to stick up for himself.

It happened when we were younger I was eleven and he was fourteen. I was on a jungle gym on the playground and he was sitting on the grass, reading a biography that the librarian had purchased just for him about Edmond Locard, the father of fingerprint analysis. Mom was inside, having one of a bazillion IEP meetings to make sure that Jacob‘s school could be as safe a place for him as his home.

Apparently, that didn‘t include the playground.

Two boys on incredibly sweet skateboards were doing tricks on the stairs when they spotted Jacob. They walked over, and one of them grabbed his book.

That‘s mine, Jacob said.

Then come and get it, the kid said. He tossed the book to his buddy, who tossed it back, playing monkey in the middle with Jacob, who kept grabbing at it. But Jacob isn‘t exactly a natural athlete, and he never caught it.

BOOK: House Rules
7.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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