We are at our favourite neighbourhood café.
A family of four arrives. Mom wears a long colourful sun dress, her hair in a perfect up-do. She pushes a high-end stroller. Blonde-haired boy runs to grab a table. "Don't touch" Mom squeaks when she sees the pile of dirty plates in front of him. Boy smiles and gives the thumbs up.
Mom and Dad stand in line to order. Preschooler in the stroller wears a short pink sun dress, thick dark hair (just like Mom's) pulled back in a pony. She extends her legs and throws her upper body hard against the back of her stroller. Over, and over, and over again. Bounce, bounce, bounce. The stroller, brakes on, makes little muted jumps. That thing sure is sturdy. Mom and Dad don't notice.
She looks too big for a stroller.
They are the typical neighbourhood family, well put together. Dad wears thick, horn-rimmed glasses.
Dad turns the stroller around and I can see that the girl is smiling. Happy. And drooling.
No interaction between parents and girl.
Parents place order and walk over to where boy is sitting. They sit down.
Girl in stroller is stranded in the order line (which is now empty). Bounce. Bounce.
Mom looks at Dad, a worried, weathered look on her face.
Mom gets up, goes to her daughter and unstraps her. Girl stands up and lunges toward our table. She stands right up against it, her face a couple of inches from my son's, and watches him eat. Girl smiles.
Mom grabs girl, pulls her back, hard. "Come here!" she says.
"I'm so sorry!" (to us).
Has she not noticed my son's hearing aids? His unusual features?
I want to say "I understand. I'm not who you think I am."
My chest twinges. I remember my own agitation when I brought my son here as a toddler. My radar was on for anyone who might be staring at him, noticing he was different. At the time he had an undiagnosed swallowing problem. I was petrified he'd start choking on his food. And not just because he couldn't breathe—because he'd draw attention to us, too.
My desire to blend in like the "normal" families was at its peak.
I wanted to use sign language with him, but I didn't want other people to see me sign. So I kept my hands down and busy.
Mom guides girl to their table and lifts girl up awkwardly on her lap. Girl is too big to sit in Mom's lap comfortably. Mom holds her tight.
Dad takes a full-length plastic bib out of a bag and places it on the table.
Dad walks over to another table. "Are you leaving soon?" he asks the mom, sitting with a friend and a toddler. They have the only high chair and he wants to grab it when they leave, he says.
Minutes later Dad is carrying the plastic chair to their table. Girl's long legs are threaded through the openings.
Mom's back is turned away from us.
It's time to go.