Last week Martin opened a restaurant.
He woke one morning and said that he was launching a restaurant and that in fact the grand opening would be that very evening, in his bedroom. I thought he might forget about this plan over the course of the day, but nope. After school and homework and taekwondo practice, and without even asking for his iPad (his usual request when the obligations are done), Martin scampered to his bedroom and shut the door. Half an hour later, when Adrian arrived from work, Martin reappeared in the kitchen and asked whether we’d like to attend the big event.
“Welcome to Emerack Bitter!” he said as we entered his room. Indeed, a handmade paper sign, propped against the hallway molding just outside the door, read “Emerack Bitter.” What a name!, I thought. Sounds like Brooklyn’s trendy new bourbon bar. “Panda is the host,” Martin continued, gesturing toward a stuffed panda bear perched on a cabinet. “Would you like to request a table? And here’s Bob, the owner. Maybe shake his hand and congratulate him?”
Adrian and I played along as Martin showed us the great turnout. Emerack Bitter’s eight tables were all occupied, with stuffed animals seated in groups, including its largest table, where six animals were eating. Opening night had entertainment, too: A mechanical bear in an Elvis costume, with a guitar. Beside Elvis Bear was a handmade sign instructing guests to “follow him on-line at http://www.ElvisBear.com.”
I ordered a smoothie, to Martin’s delight. He asked which fruits I would like, then pretended to load them into a blender, pretended to place the top on the blender, pretended to pulse the blender button, pretended to pour the mixture into a cup, pretended to add a straw, and finally pretended to hand me my smoothie before taking Adrian’s order.
If perhaps I am harping too much on the pretending aspect, it’s because Martin has never really engaged in this type of pretend play, never invited others to join him in an imaginary setting. I realized quickly that Martin was combining experiences he’d had in Nicaragua. We attended the grand opening of a friend’s restaurant, where we complimented the owner on the full house and enjoyed live entertainment, a signer/guitarist with (you guessed it?) a sign telling us to follow him on-line. Separately, every afternoon we purchased smoothies at a roadside stand, where Martin watched the proprietor write orders and load fruits into a blender.
Seven years ago, after we realized something was different about Martin, I filled out various questionnaires designed to help determine whether he was on the autism spectrum. Each one asked whether Martin engaged in pretend play or acted out imaginary scenarios. “Never,” I circled, time and again.
I understand that a child recovering from autism may “go back” and meet, on a delayed basis, typical developmental milestones that he missed along the way. I was excited to tell Martin’s psychologist about Emerack Bitter. She seemed pleased, too—although when I said, “I know that pretending like that is characteristic of a kindergartner, not a nine-year-old” she took some wind from my sails by replying, “More like a three-year-old.” She added that, in her office, Martin had recently created a scene of soldiers, including one lying belly-down and aiming a gun. Martin had said the gun was actually a camera, and that the soldier was using it to take a picture of another soldier he placed on a castle balcony. (Quite an assemblage of toys in the psychologist’s office!) This was new, the psychologist said, this ability to see from the soldier’s perspective and understand where his camera would be aimed.
Last weekend, at a softball game, I had a beautiful hit that cleared the centerfielder and sent her chasing the ball deep into the outfield. Unfortunately, as I rounded toward second, I missed touching first base. I had to go back to touch first base and continue from there. The fiasco converted my probable homerun into a triple instead. But in the end, it didn’t make any difference that I had to return to touch first base. The very next batter hit a solid line drive, and I crossed home plate, just a little later than I would have otherwise. No one cared. A run is a run.
After the grand opening of Martin’s restaurant (upon additional consideration?), he announced that the owners actually were Don Emerack and Dawn Bitter, and that they thought it was so funny that their first names were almost homonyms that they decided to combine their last names for the restaurant.
I think it’s a pretty cool name. Look for the next Emerack Bitter near you.