Going Buggy

      What could be better than seeing my daughter start dating a handsome young man?  Sarah is 22, on the autistic spectrum, and just lost more than 20 pounds. Her last (and only) boyfriend broke up with her because his parents got divorced, and he had to move to Texas with his father.  For the two years since then, my daughter has seesawed up and down 20-30 pounds during each academic year. She has also enviously watched her twin brother enjoy a parade of women, trying to keep track of all the names and faces in Max’s stories (and his bedroom). In those days, I saw it written all over her face: “When is it going to be my turn?”

     In today’s world, it’s hard enough for an attractive, neurotypical young woman to meet a nice guy.  Imagine what it’s like for an overweight young woman on the autistic spectrum. How can she manage the social, emotional and cognitive challenges necessary to find a boyfriend?  It’s next to impossible.  As her mother, I have been hoping for a reasonably high-functioning young man, who was willing and able to use condoms, in addition to functioning independently enough to plan a date and see my daughter safely home.  What were the odds of Sarah finding this needle in New York City’s haystack?

     Imagine my joy at a dinner party this summer when Sarah clicked with Jake, my friend’s son with Asperger’s Syndrome.  
     Entering my friend Daniel’s home, I noticed his son right away.  Jake was a handsome 6’5” with dark eyes and a cleft chin. His long, muscular body was sprawled across the couch to discourage anyone from sitting next to him. Jake said hello with minimal eye contact, so I hurried into the kitchen to open the wine I’d brought. As soon as I returned to the living room, I noticed that Jake had moved over enough for Sarah to sit next to him on the couch. They sat side by side in front of Jake’s computer screen.
     A few minutes later, Sarah approached me with an enormous Cheshire-cat smile.  “Jake invited me to the movies. Can I go?”

     "Now? We just got here.  After dinner, if you want….”  I laughed.  I couldn’t believe the aloof, socially awkward young man in the living room had managed to ask Sarah out in record time, faster than the few moments it took me to open a wine bottle.

     “Boy, that was fast!” I commented to my husband.

     “As soon as you left the room, he asked her to sit with him.” Henry whispered. “He’s smitten.” 

     After quickly finishing their Asian chicken salad, Jake and Sarah departed.  Our host Daniel assured Henry and me that his son was “a gentleman” and would make sure Sarah got home safely.  Jake is 25, in graduate school at NYU and has his own tiny apartment.  Like Sarah, he has had one other serious relationship. That meant   less worry about impulsive sex or birth control.  Jake’s parents had raised him the way Henry and I had raised Max: Treat a woman with respect, take it slow, and if you decide to become intimate, always wear a condom.
     Sarah came home that night, delighted with her “hot date.” 

     Our summer vacation interrupted my daughter’s slowly unfolding romance, but she and Jake have been seeing each other nearly every week since mid-September.  Jake has taken Sarah to dinner, the movies, and even to see the play, “Romeo and Juliet.” I decided to call Jake’s father and bring him up to speed on our kids’ burgeoning romance, since I knew Jake shared very little of his life with his parents.  In contrast, Sarah usually told us everything—sometimes in more detail than parents want to know.          

     “Sarah told me she was out with Jake on their seventh date,” I told Daniel. “They seem to like each other. Sarah’s been spending a lot of time at Jake’s apartment.”

     There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. “I had no idea Jake had been seeing Sarah the last few weeks.” His voice was clipped. “There’s something I need to share with you.” Jake might have bedbugs.” Daniel let out a heavy sigh. “We told him not to have any friends over before we dealt with the problem, but obviously he didn’t listen. “

     So there was the bomb. 

     “Bed bugs can be quite contagious,” I said carefully, wondering if there was any possibility that bedbugs were hatching on MY mattress as we spoke. The hairs rose on the back of my neck and I started to itch. My immediate neighbors had had bedbugs, and it took several months and thousands of dollars to exterminate them in a one bedroom apartment.  We have three bedrooms. I scratched my neck.

     “I’m so sorry,” Daniel said over the phone. “I’ll make sure Jake tells Sarah tonight.”

     I took a deep breath. “Sarah doesn’t understand what bedbugs mean.”

      I knew Sarah would be angry at me for interfering in her life when I waited up for her and had to persuade her to strip off her clothes and put them in a plastic bag.  I’m a city girl, terrified and disgusted by bugs.  I wouldn’t be able to sleep until I knew for sure whether Jake was infested and if the inspector and his bug sniffing dog would have to come to us too. 

     Daniel promised to call me the next day after Jake’s apartment has been inspected.

     I tossed and turned, and finally Sarah came home and I explained the situation by comparing the bedbug problem to a highly contagious illness.

     Sarah screamed back a barrage of why questions: “Why can’t I hang up my pretty dress?  Don’t you understand that it’s CLEAN?  Why are you interfering in my life?”  Then there was the ultra-dramatic: “Why won’t you ever let me see Jake?”

     After explaining that the problem was temporary, Sarah finally went to sleep.  I tried to count sheep and slow my breathing, but all I could think about were bugs and more bugs, multiplying in the nooks and crannies of my bed.

     It turned out that Jake had “evidence” of bedbugs.  My stomach did a somersault.  Daniel offered to send over the inspector and a dog to my home as soon as his own apartment had been inspected.

     The first good news was that no bed bugs were found at Daniel’s apartment. When the bed bug inspector arrived at my house, he was frighteningly thorough.  He showed me what a bedbug looked like inside a vial, in case—heaven forbid!—I should happen to see one.  He told me it resembled an apple seed, but I saw a black, malevolent insect whose mission in life was to reproduce and bite me when—and if—I fell asleep.  This inspector was so meticulous he even went so far as to put “a tester” in one bathroom to be sure his dog was “paying attention.”  Then I was sent to wait in my kitchen where I held my breath and cowered, while his Pekingese mix sniffed every inch of every wall.

     “No evidence of bedbugs,” he concluded.  I started to breathe normally and thanked him.  If I hadn’t been so exhausted and sleep deprived, I would have jumped for joy.  What a relief to know I could finally close my eyes without worrying about a colony of mini-vampires crawling out to bite me after dark. Even better, Jake and Sarah could resume their romance that much sooner with only one small apartment to fumigate instead of three.

     Somehow we avoided the bed bug debacle (this time).  But when you love a child on the autistic spectrum, sooner or later--one way or another--you’re going to find yourself going buggy.

               

 

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