On a rainy school day, I wore my blue raincoat. I liked the coat, though it smelled like Scotchgard and mildew, though the fabric was stiff and though my shirt bunched up beneath the sleeves, and even though the kids teased me whenever I wore it, for it was out-of-fashion, unless I was a kid-detective in a Bogie movie. But it was the wrong color for an old black-and-white movie. It was blue. But it had neat plastic buttons that felt soft and smooth beneath my thumbs, and when I had to wait in line, I could wrap my index fingers in the belt loops and twist them until it hurt, and this took my mind off of the noise of the kids in the line I was standing, and it almost made up for being teased. At least the smooth plastic buttons did.
On this one day, the rain poured, and we were outside anyway, waiting in line, as we always seemed to have to do everyday at school. Maybe waiting in line was designed to build character, or patience, or discipline. It was one of the tortures of school, especially as it meant standing close enough to others that they could poke you, if they wanted, or pull your braids, or whisper things. The whispering things was the worst.
This day, I stood off to the side, and the rain poured, and the clamor of the kids in line, underneath the pounding of the rain on the metal roof over the walkway, kept bumping into my thoughts. My sleeves bunched up under the coat, and the material was so stiff. I stood off to the side and shoved my hands deep into my pockets, trying to smell the rain and mud, and not my mildewed collar. In the bottom of my right pocket, I felt a small hole, just big enough for my ring finger to slip inside. It felt good to have the material tight around my finger, and when I wiggled it, the material gave way. Soon, the hole was big enough for two fingers, then three, then, before it was big enough for my whole hand, I found, in my left pocket, another hole, and by the time the line of kids began to file their way inside and it was time for me to join the line again, both of my hands had found their ways through the holes in the pockets and to the lining of the coat, which I had happily ripped to shreds. But this was inside the coat, so no one was the wiser, and I was secretly delighted for I had discovered a strategy to be able to survive the torture of standing in line.
Until I got home. I must have not hung up the blue raincoat when I got home. I must have been in a hurry to shed its dampness and get out of those bunched sleeves and into a sweatshirt, and I must have left the coat in a pile on my books on the stairs, for my mom picked up my coat to hang it up and, in doing so, discovered the tattered lining and the pockets with no seams anymore.
No lie could cover up what I’d done–I realized that. I didn’t know what to say.
“Do you hate this coat?”
Of course not. I loved the coat, in spite of the smell and the teasing and bunching-up of sleeves and being out-of-fashion. It had buttons. It was cool, if only to me. Of course, I couldn’t say that. I only shook my head.
“Why would you do that? Do you know how much it costs?”
I shook my head. I had no words. I had no way to describe that all the girls in line, save for me and Laurie who smelled like stale Fritos and who wore clothes with tatters on the outside, stood beside their best friends in line. I had no words to say that all the others whispered and laughed together, while I stood apart, watching them or finding my own friends inside myself, in my daydreams.
I had no words for the comfort and secret joy my fingers found in winding their way through the holes and in slowly shredding the coat’s white lining.
“Here,” said my mom, handing me an old sheet. “If you want to rip something up, rip this. Don’t come inside until you’ve ripped it to shreds.”
And I was sent outdoors, on the covered porch, in the dark evening, while the rain poured and the lights from the kitchen window whispered of golden warmth while the creek, swollen with February’s rain, roared in the black dark behind our house.
I didn’t want to rip anything then. I wanted, only, to sit inside our warm house, brushing my dog, while the conversations rang softly in the other room and the kitchen filled with the scents of baked potatoes and meatloaf.
I knew I would never be allowed to wear that coat again, even though we didn’t have money to replace it. I knew I’d be wearing sweaters for the rest of the winter. I knew we’d never speak of this again, once I was allowed back inside.
I discovered then what I’d discovered before, that what brought me comfort brought me shame, and it was a tough trade-off, whether to be good or to be shameful, if being good brought misery and being shameful brought, at least, a feeling of peace while standing at the edge of chaos.
I think that it was in the seamless pockets of that old blue raincoat where I shoved all the memories of the bits and pieces of me that don’t fit into the profile of a “normal” person.
Maybe, since those pockets each have one big hole at the bottom of them, I felt that everything I shoved into them would disappear, too. Gone, my comfort. But also gone, my shame. And then I could carry on as the person I pretended to be, the one who wasn’t so overwhelmed when standing in a line with twenty-nine other kids that she needed a source of sensory comfort.
I realize now that I wasn’t bad, that there was no shame in what I did. I realize that I was simply over-stimulated by the noise and confusion. I couldn’t process–I couldn’t process the patterns of sound in the rain over the talking of all the kids, and the tactile sensation of gently ripping material, with its soothing tearing sound, helped me to focus on a simple act that I could process.
I wasn’t a bad kid. I was an overwhelmed kid.
Until recently, this event stayed buried deep in the pocket. It didn’t disappear. I remembered it sometimes, with a hint of shame. But when I began to consider that I might be on the autism spectrum, this memory was one of the first that I pulled out of the pocket and carefully unfolded, smoothing its rough edges. I found, within the crumbled and torn lining of the coat, a little girl who wasn’t a bad girl, but who was not understood and who didn’t know how to explain or understand herself what was going on inside of her some of the time.
Loving this lonely little girl and letting her know that she did nothing wrong on the last rainy day that she wore the blue raincoat has brought me as much a feeling of wholeness as anything in my life.