To the Woman at Jo-Ann Fabric's in 2003
by Grace Carlson
I was eleven when I took the small hand of my four-year-old brother and pulled him through aisles of fabrics and threads. Our mom was waiting to pay; I was in charge of watching him. He started crying: mouth open, baby-teeth exposed, body red with effort.
You were a grown woman, maybe thirty, with a delicate daughter in braids and a floral dress. To you, my brother was the proof of someone's failure. Maybe mine. You turned to your daughter and said—loud enough so I could hear, but well out of ear shot of my own mother—I'm so glad you are a good little girl.
Even now, I wish that I had been older, stronger, braver, better with words. Anything but a quiet, chubby kid. I wish I could have said, who gave you the right? You don't even know him.
My brother wouldn't receive his autism diagnosis for another three years. We didn't understand then the reason he couldn't keep calm in the store was because the fluorescents hit his eyes like pins. We didn't understand that his tantrums had more to do with biology and less with character defect.
He will grow older and learn to manage. He will improve.
But you will never know this.
My brother and I will be followed by other women, men, grocery store clerks, waiting room occupants, the childless masses, who will stare with narrow eyes and make comments out the side of their mouths, who will dole out unasked for, unwanted, and inappropriate advice. These people will choose judgment over compassion, snide remarks over silence.
I am twenty-one. Maybe I am grocery shopping with my roommate or out at a restaurant with a friend. Somewhere, a child starts to cry, throwing things on the floor, kicking and screaming. The mothers always remind me of my mother: wrinkled clothes, lined face, dark circles under the eyes. My companion whispers why can't parents learn to control their kids.
I remember a nameless woman in a fabric store who has forgotten all about me, and say nothing.
Grace Carlson lives in the Pacific Northwest and holds a BA in English from Western Washington University. When she isn't writing (which is, unfortunately, most of the time), she enjoys reading, baking, and traveling. Her work has previously appeared in Jeopardy and Yellow Chair Review.