When I was 12, I met Amber. She was Autistic, and apart of the Special Ed class that had been scattered throughout the mainstream seventh grade for various class periods. Each Special Ed student was teamed with a chosen mainstream student. Amber was not mine.
I was assigned as desk buddy to Rachel, who was also Autistic. Rachel was a riot…too much of one actually. She would often have outbursts for attention in the middle of class that reflected a range of emotion. But mostly, she was boy crazy. She was famous for loudly and abruptly interrupting Ms. McMains during English with something like, “Devon is staring at me! I think he likes me! Make him stop Ms. McMains…” Somehow, we all knew this was her way of letting Devon know that he should in fact look at her, like her and not stop.
I never became close with Rachel, other than in proximity. She would often wrap her antsy fingers around my arm, pull her head up to my ear and in spit-filled whispers ask me about some boy in the class, or if she was being too loud, or if I would be her friend. As I recall, I was always pleasant toward her–and even deescalated a few scenes of conflict–but she was never really my friend. Lunch was a relief some days.
Amber, on the other hand, was quiet and could go the whole day without even being noticed. She sat in the back and instead of a desk buddy, she did her own work next to the teacher’s aid. She was brown-skinned, and usually had fresh box braids, and if it wasn’t for just how carefully and deliberately she moved, you would have never known she was slower than the rest of us, let alone Autistic. She also lived around the corner from me.
I have no idea how my mom ever found out about Amber, or that she lived around the corner, or when she connected with Amber’s mother. Moms kind of have this mysterious way of knowing things, and connecting dots and volunteering their children for good things that they would otherwise never do without them. One day, my mom asked me about Amber and if I would like to have her come over after school. I told her that would be fine.
And so she did. Amber’s mom would walk her over, chat with my mom for a little bit, and Amber and I would go off. She came over several times, during different seasons. When it was warm, we would swing on the play set in the back that I had outgrown years prior, but Amber loved it. Or, we would sit on the stairs and pick up rocks and throw them back into their piles until I ran out of questions for her to give me short responses too. And in the winter we played with blocks and dolls in the living room until I couldn’t take the boredom one more second. In those instances, almost right on cue, it seemed my mom would walk in and ask if we wanted a snack, or to paint or tell us dinner was ready and that Amber was welcome to stay if she liked.
Amber was my friend. In school she would smile and talk to me in the hallways. But she never was clingy, and she never spit in my ear and she rarely ever talked about boys, which was just fine with me at the time.
When we graduated from middle school, not only did Amber go to a different high school than I, my family moved a few miles north. There were a couple times, nonetheless, when we ran into one another. She would smile big and in a culturally appropriate tone say, “Alyssa!” and we would hug. I would ask her how she was doing and she would always say “Good” and then hold her smile and gaze awkwardly long until I told her I had to get going.
I had almost forgotten about Amber completely when I saw her in a Starbucks one day downtown. I was 23, engaged to be married and working in Marketing for a retail company around the corner. I had made a skyway run to grab a quick coffee and caught her in my peripheral, walking and chatting happily with a white young man, about our age, who appeared to also have some special needs. She looked shockingly the same. My heart warmed when I saw her smile and her youthful braids replaced with a professionally done sew-in weave.
I walked up to her excitedly and said, “Amber!” She turned and with a wide grin responded back, “Alyssa!” I never considered that she would have forgotten my name. She was far too thoughtful for that. I asked her how she was and what she was up to and introduced myself to her walking companion. She said they were also on break and grabbing coffee. We hugged and parted ways.
I had almost forgotten about Amber three years ago in the Starbucks, when this morning, sipping coffee staring out the window while the baby was napping, I watched a brown-skinned woman, thick in size, in blue sweats, power-walking. I took a double take. Amber? I walked up and put my hand on the windowsill. I squinted as she turned the corner…sure enough…while I’ll be.
I fell back in my chair, grabbed my laptop and typed…”A short story about Amber”…
Note: This is slightly edited from my original publishing in 2012