The Boy with the Open Mind
Pablo was a happy, witty, chatty baby and it was lucky for everyone that this was the case. Any person who came within a few meters of him found their mind flooded with Pablo’s thoughts—less so if there were a number of people in the room to act as buffers, more so if you ruffled his hair or tweaked his nose or otherwise made contact skin to skin. If Pablo was cold, whomever was holding him shivered. If he was hungry, they felt his painful expectation of satisfaction.
His parents never quite articulated to themselves what was special about their son. They weren’t alone—most of their casual acquaintances, most of Pablo’s classmates in school, most of the strangers they passed on the street were moved by the boy without knowing quite why. And those were people who spent years around Pablo—many more years than his parents had the chance to.
He was an immensely popular baby because, whether or not they understood what was happening, people liked to feel Pablo leeching into their minds, a balm of infant wonder. Neighbors visited his home in passing, sat down with his mother for coffee on a whim, couldn’t help pinching a toe through his knit socklings to inspire a mental twinge of pleasure and discomfort. It was the childish calculation and awe that allured them: all babies show on their faces the delight of learning to move their own limbs, bending an elbow or bringing the tip of a thumb to their lips for the first time. But around Pablo, a person could feel the world’s newness for themselves, their eyes sparkling and noses alive to the glory of mown grass, buttered popcorn, or even a faint whiff of dust. Pablo drew their attention to these things with his own.
Of course, in moments of fear or pain—the backfiring of a nearby car, the lights flicking out in a thunderstorm—Pablo’s parents felt his discomfort doubly. First came the terror that was uniquely his: a thousand cold needle pricks up the spine. Then, when they had failed to soothe him, they felt their own frustration and shame regurgitated through his confusion. If only they’d thought to talk to one another about their feelings, Pablo’s parents might have deduced the problem: that they shrank from the neighbor’s dog because Pablo shrank; that an occasional hurtful remark echoed back at them endlessly because it echoed in him. But they never had the chance.
They were eating ice cream in the car. Pablo’s mother giggled as her cone dripped, letting the baby lick the melted droplets from her fingertips as they all shared the image of a sweet milky sea. His father glanced over momentarily from the road and flicked the baby’s cheeks—a tender thock thock.
As the car zipped along the blacktop, Pablo’s mother reached over and turned off the fan.
“Why’d you do that?” asked his father, clicking it back on.
“I’m cold.” She held the baby closer to her for body heat, putting the last ice cream in her mouth so she had to talk through it. “Or do you not care, because you’re hot?” Pablo squirmed.
“Close your vent.”
“Open your window.”
“Then that will make you cold.”
“So you can shut it again.”
It wasn’t that Pablo sensed trouble around the corner; the sun was above them, and the day was calm. But as his parents bickered through the exhaustion of staying up with a baby half the night, the cool white ocean populating his mind a minute earlier began subtly roiling, like milk on the boil preparing to scald. Pablo’s father rolled his eyes as his wife reached over to shut the fan off once again, and released a guttural hiss of irritation: hcchh followed by sshhhh.
Pablo began to cry, and a look passed between the adults, who felt the darkening waves rolling off of him, out of him. Pablo’s mother reached across the empty bench seat and gripped her husband’s driving arm.
“You’re scaring him,” she said.
Pablo’s father turned with annoyance and just a bit of torque, so the wheel spun under his fingers and the car spun under the wheel. He tried to adjust, but they were already through the barrier, tumbling into the sky. With his father’s arms outstretched towards him, Pablo saw a brief image of a bird, and then nothing.
“Sweetie pie, sugar monkey,” Pablo’s auntie sang. She was a young woman, with lighter hair than her sister’s, honeyed by the false sun of highlights and teased in a carefully windblown way. Sitting beside him in the car, her shirt was incorrectly buttoned and there was eyeliner on only one of her eyes. It was Pablo’s third week with his auntie, and the strain was beginning to show on her.
In the hospital after the accident, she’d wrung her hands by Pablo’s bedside along with his grandmamma, their fingers growing whiter around the knuckles each time he tossed or turned. His dreams gave them a feeling of weightlessness both terrifying and sublime, a sense of falling up instead of down.
His aunt’s insistence on taking over his guardianship was less premeditated than inspired. While rushing to the emergency ward she had, in fact, been planning out how to shirk the responsibility: describe her two-hundred-and-fifty-square-foot studio apartment, sigh about her near-negative bank balance, and express her regret. Before walking into Pablo’s hospital room she’d reviewed her arguments with satisfaction. Then she picked him up.
With Pablo cuddled against her shoulder, his auntie saw a flash of her sister’s face. There was a beatific, ice cream dappled smile on her lips and a soft focus around her features, smoothing out wrinkles and adding a gloss to her hair. Tears sprang into Pablo’s auntie’s eyes, and she smoothed the hospital gown around his diapered rump. When she put the child down, her sister’s legacy hiccupped in her brain over years of minor wrongs, sibling rivalry, and her sister’s tendency to find fault. But with the boy clutched in her arms, Pablo’s auntie found it easy to revere her sister’s memory the way she knew she was supposed to. Her path seemed clear: to raise her nephew as a tribute to the dead.
Three weeks later, she now realized she may have been hasty. When she fed Pablo a new brand of formula, purchased on sale, he squinted unhappily and let it dribble out of his mouth. Mopping his face with a wet rag, his auntie brushed aside the image of her disapproving sister, which radiated from the child’s mind.
“I know, sugar,” she said. “Some people were perfect. But some people weren’t trying to live on a receptionist’s salary.”
It was the same when she forgot which pacifier he preferred; the same when he kicked off a shoe outside and had to wait with his aunt in the bank, half barefoot. Her choice of food, her carefully selected perfume, even the fabric of some of her clothes elicited not only wails from Pablo but also the memory of his mother, which grew more beautiful and censorious with each passing day.
The only thing that soothed Pablo was taking him for a drive. The rhythm of the car relaxed him, reminded him—comfortably, for once—of seeing his father’s flighty gesturing, of being in his mother’s arms. With a shaking sigh his auntie strapped him into the car seat so he was facing the rear, as he had over his mother’s slender shoulder. Driving through the night, his auntie watched where they were going, and Pablo watched where they had been.
Now, on the third week’s anniversary of his orphanhood, the car rolled to a stop with both passengers still in a state of relative calm.
“Ok, sweetie monkey,” Pablo’s auntie said. She hadn’t slept well since taking him home. Even at night, with Pablo in another room, the Madonna-like face of her sister menaced her. It floated around her like a ghost or an aura, and sometimes she found herself trying to bat it away.
“Ok,” she said again, to no one. Unbuckling her seatbelt, she bustled around for the diaper bags and suitcase in the back of her car before unclipping Pablo and holding him quietly against her neck. Then Pablo’s auntie picked up her messy bundles and went to ring his grandmamma’s doorbell.
As he grew up, Pablo became more unsettling in crowds. Indeed, he was more unsettling to everyone, mostly because he was unsettled himself. It wasn’t, he discovered, an easy world for orphans. And somehow, it was harder still for him.
His auntie’s unceremonious abandonment didn’t weigh much on Pablo’s mind, except in the way that it presaged a great shift in his life from popularity to pariahhood. He was too young to remember the particular events that had moved him from one home to the next. But he did recall the spooked feeling of his auntie’s eyes meeting his own, and in retrospect he thought of her as the first of many meerkats, lifting her head on the savannah as danger approached. Pablo was very fond of animals.
“That’s not terribly polite dear,” his grandmamma said one day, sensing the unflattering image of his auntie as she reached down to ruffle his hair. She refused to elaborate on the comment when Pablo pressed her; he was seven years old, quiet, kind, and he lived with his grandmamma uneventfully and well. But despite their closeness, she chose not to tell Pablo about (as she privately called it) his peculiarity. She worried that the truth would only confuse him, or paralyze him into insentience. He suspected that something was different about himself, but couldn’t put his finger on what.
Pablo and his grandmamma were in town to buy him new shoes for the school year—a practice he found uncomfortable. Although he walked quite politely beside his grandmamma, people looked at him with mistrust. He was thinking about cowboys and vigilantes. Pow pow! he thought, not quite making a pistol with his fingers, but balling his fists and directing the bullets with his eyes to ricochet off lampposts and street signs. Around him, pedestrians shuffled nervously, and his grandmamma clicked her tongue.
“Pablo,” she said.
He met her gaze, alarmed, but she just shook her head. A lock of hair fell across her brow.
“Nothing,” she said. “Nevermind. Boys will be boys, right?”
Pablo shrugged. His grandmamma had the eyes of a sharpshooter, he thought. Unflinching, focused. She picked up her pace as they pushed through a small window-shopping crowd, and he pictured her, hand twitching above her holster, glaring down a dirty villain.
Ready, he thought. Aim. Fire!
Nearby, a woman turned her neck sharply. Her small son was looking at Pablo with interest, and she picked him up and pressed him to her chest, cradling the back of his head with one hand. Kapow! thought Pablo, and a pair of teenagers started whispering to one another. Blam! he thought, and a woman admiring her own reflection in a plate glass window flinched. Pablo wanted to throw a penny in the fountain on the square, but when he ran up an old man sitting nearby tapped his cane hard against the ground making sharp reports until the boy shrank away, blowing smoke from the mouth of a pistol in his mind.
Pablo kicked the ground as he returned to his grandmamma’s side.
“Why does everyone think I’m bad?”
His grandmamma grabbed his hand and squeezed.
“Why on earth would you think that they do?”
Pablo squinted at the mother, now half a block distant, scolding her boy and pointing Pablo’s direction.
“I don’t know,” he replied. His grandmamma followed his gaze and pursed her lips.
“Some people,” she said, “can’t understand anything but themselves. And it makes them mean. Nothing you can do about it. Now, what color sneakers do you think you want?”
Her explanation did not reassure Pablo much, nor did the abrupt change in conversation. But he was used to following his grandmamma’s guidance, and, like most children, did not think to question it. He leaned against her arm and felt her leaning back, heavy warmth that was ready to envelop him with a moment’s notice.
Pablo’s grandmamma maintained her code of silence through and past his ninth birthday. Instead of giving him the frightening news that everyone within spitting range could read his mind, she chose to mold him with slow maneuvers, building a list of rules for conduct the way most parents build lists of household chores.
Rule one was that he must never lie. Pablo’s grandmamma reasoned that he would attract less attention if his thoughts and actions aligned—though she explained it to him a different way.
“It’s rude,” she said. “Not gentlemanly. I want you to grow up like your papa.”
What did this mean? Like a truck driver? Or dead? It didn’t matter in practical terms, because Pablo would do anything to be like his papa. It was his secret belief that his father was godlike and had flown away from the wreck on wings of white. If Pablo was good enough, he would return for him.
“That would be lovely, dear,” said his grandmamma.
“What?” asked Pablo.
“Nothing,” she replied.
Rule one’s insufficiency became clear in the grocery store. Pablo hated standing around in interminable lines, and his grandmamma rarely agreed to buy him the impulse toys and candy he claimed would make his wait more bearable. Instead, for entertainment, he watched the other children in the store as they begged for their favorite cereals and surreptitiously plucked grapes from the piled up bunches.
One day his grandmamma left him in line while she ran back through the store for a second package of frozen blueberries, for pancakes. Pablo held their place, lingering by the cart and idly taking in his fellow shoppers. He knew some of the children by sight, but sitting one aisle over was someone new.
The girl was stationed in a wheelchair, thumbing through a comic book picked off a nearby shelf. Her legs were thin beneath her blue skirt, almost as thin as Pablo’s arms. He knew about wheelchairs from school, where they sang songs about how difference was a rainbow. But he’d never seen a person in a wheelchair up close, and he wanted to get a better view. Taking a step in the girl’s direction, he looked at her face—occupied with the comic—and then back at her legs. They seemed almost to lack knees, folded instead with the fluidity of fabric or wet clay. He wanted to touch one, to make an indent with his finger and see how long it would stay.
Suddenly the girl began to scream.
Fluttering, the comic fell open on the ground and the girl cried and cried, unintelligible until her father knelt beside her.
“He poked me! He poked me!” she said then, and the man turned to Pablo. He was tall, and incredibly bald, and his voice was very soft.
“Is there something wrong with you?”
Pablo shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think so?” The man got closer, bent down to look Pablo in the face. “Do you like to hurt little girls? Make fun of them?” “No,” said Pablo. Tears sprang into his eyes, but he was afraid to brush them away. In desperation, he looked to the girl, but she ducked her face behind her father’s legs, wearing half a smile. For just a moment Pablo wanted to hit her.
Instantly, he was off his feet. The man held Pablo up by the elbow, and shook him.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked. “What’s wrong with you?” He would surely have popped out the boy’s shoulder, and tears now streamed down Pablo’s face, but at that moment the boy’s grandmamma reappeared, and snatched him out of the air. With a black look at the man, she pressed the frozen blueberries onto Pablo’s shoulder against the pain, and maneuvered their cart to a cashier’s line at the far end of the store.
“I didn’t lie,” said Pablo. He prodded the blueberries, which sweated onto his shirt. The imprint of his finger remained in the bag.
“I know,” his grandmamma sighed. “I heard everything.”
Rule two was even worse.
“Sometimes lies are necessary.” Pablo’s grandmamma spoke over her shoulder as she bent to take a pan of cookies out of the oven. “Little ones. To help people feel happy.” She flipped the cookies onto a rack to cool, and Pablo grabbed one, passing it back and forth between his hands as it steamed.
“I’m not a good liar,” he said.
“No,” she agreed. “The thing is, maybe you’re thinking about it too hard. Sometimes thinking a lie is as bad as saying it out loud.” She paused, picking up a cookie herself and nibbling around the edge. “For some people.”
“So what should I do?” Pablo’s eyes were large. In them were impatient teachers, nervous strangers, schoolyard fights. His grandmamma knew he tried to play nicely with the children at school, but so many games were out of the question. There was no possibility of a poker face at cards, no chance of succeeding at hide-and-go-seek, no tricky dodges in tag that went unanticipated.
His attempts at playing pretend were the worst. Walking onto the hot blacktop, kicking around pieces of crumbling rock, Pablo envisioned a moonscape: dark sky with Earth off in the distance. Immediately, another child would foot-stamp in despair.
“We’re cowboys,” they’d say. And Pablo tried to adjust, happy to attend to a new idea. But his imagination always failed to produce a perfect match for anyone else’s, and they knew it.
“No,” the other child would shout. “You’re an Indian.” And after a beat: “No, you don’t have a horse. You’re a tracker.” And most disconcertingly of all: “That’s not what you look like.”
The edge of the playground was called Siberia, though no one could remember who came up with the name. By the end of recess, Pablo was always prowling there, running his fingers along the fence like a tiger in a cage.
“Well,” said Pablo’s grandmamma. “Maybe just don’t think so hard.”
“About everything. Just give it a try.”
Pablo stood in front of the mirror that night and attempted to cultivate perfect vacuity. He felt like he was always thinking about something, even if it was just the weight of a shirt on his shoulders, or the lingering taste of chocolate stuck on his back tooth. The only solution he could muster was to turn off his systems a bit at a time: release the tension in his cheeks so they lay slack against his teeth. Loosen his neck so his head dropped to one side: right or left, it wasn’t important. Once it fell, he let gravity pull on his spine so his whole body slouched, swaying back and forth.
In this state, if he let his spit dribble down to the floor he could succeed in thinking nothing. That’s what it sounded like: nothingnothingnothing. His grandmamma was startled when she walked into his room to wish him goodnight. But the quiet buzz that came with his empty face stopped her.
“That,” she said slowly. “Is really quite good.” She put a hand on Pablo’s back and felt him breathing, ragged intake against his cramped ribs. His shoulder blades jutted out like nascent wings and she stroked them, bare as they were, and exposed. “But is it worth it? All the time?”
He looked up at her, the memory of their conversation in his mind and on his face.
“I know what I told you,” she said. “But I was wrong.”
At the end of each school day Pablo ran home, his path guided by the slow descent of the sun towards the hills behind town. He chose a straight course to his grandmamma’s house, with no dawdling, because rules three and four and five were all about safety, and happiness, and being alone when he wanted to be.
School was terrible for Pablo. The teacher always knew if he was peeking at someone else’s answer on a test, and the students heard his confusion, his loneliness, and radiated away from it like a disease. Bullies rooted caramels out of his pockets and a girl named Janine looked him right in the eye and told him the surprise end of a book he was reading.
His only consolation for attending at all was bursting out of the building, at the last class bell, and feeling the afternoon sun burn his skin golden. Left, he thought as his foot hit the ground. Left. I left my ma and buried my pa in an ocean of ice cream and river of marmalade. Did I do right? Right? Right to go hungry, right to be angry?
Pablo’s grandmamma heard this meditation as he approached, heard the hard pounding of his shoes against the street and the echoing rhythm inside his head. She was used to Pablo’s flights of fancy, and indeed encouraged them: with books of fantastical literature, eighteenth-scale toy dragons, comic books, modeling clay and building block sets. According to the age range printed on the box, the blocks were for a much younger child, but Pablo spent hours building castles, bridges, entire cities from the wooden circles and cubes.
His grandmamma knew each world he created intimately, because she sat beside him as he played and marveled at the way they grew around her: vines twisting up the walls of their living room and gargoyle spires tilting ominously over the rooftop. Sometimes he spent an entire afternoon with a gryphon, running his fingers through the feathers and fur. Sometimes he walked through the woods with a unicorn, which was perfectly silent and white as clean teeth. One day, when Pablo was raucous and lonely, he filled the entire house with keening tropical birds.
As he sprinted up the drive, Pablo jumped into the air, then ran a few more steps and jumped again. From a distance he looked just like any overexcited child, burning off the energy he had stored up while sitting at his school desk. But as he got closer, and his mind came into range, his grandmamma felt him lift with each jump—slightly higher, higher, higher until his legs were scissoring in the air and his arms pushing through the wind as through warm water.
She felt, too, the constriction of his heart at the thought of describing his day to her. She never asked him if he’d made friends or had a good time, keeping her inquiries on the level of his learning. What was it like to look at the skeleton of a bird? Could he spell trapeze, taboo, taciturn? She thought it was a kindness, not wanting to remind him of anything painful. But today he jumped farther and farther away from the earth, and when he spotted her in it, she could feel the knowing silence ring between them. Her politeness embarrassed him. He thought: Not again.
“Pablo,” she said. And he skidded to a stop in front of her, his toes jamming into the front well of his shoes.
“Yes?” he asked. Pablo was pretending not to pay attention to her, but his grandmamma didn’t mind. She enjoyed his leftover feeling of floating—half gymnastic, half holy. And she knew that her next words would focus him instantly, like the chime of a bell.
“New rule,” she said. And indeed, Pablo looked up, his eyes bright with noise, but his mouth attentively silent. “You can lie if you have to.” The boy’s brow furrowed, his mouth screwed up. “But only if you have to. And only if you believe it. A little.”
“How can I believe a lie?” Pablo asked. “If it’s a lie?”
“Sometimes you can,” his grandmamma said. “If you want to.”
That night Pablo’s grandmamma tucked him into bed. She always told him stories—they both preferred astounding stories; anything with daredevils, cursed relics, magicians. But one story was his particular favorite: the tale of a man named Lew who lived on high wires, balancing side to side with an umbrella. Each time Lew wobbled, Pablo and his grandmamma laughed and gasped for breath. And when it rained and Lew opened his umbrella to stay dry, they liked to listen to the water pattering against the canvas.
As he fell asleep, Pablo’s cheeks always flushed. It would someday embarrass him, his grandmamma knew. The fact of her witness to his bodily processes: blood flowing, breath slowing. It would be almost as bad to him as everyone in town being able to read his mind—good and bad thoughts all jumbled together, indistinguishable. Intent just a feeling, hard to put into words. He would have difficulty figuring out for himself what he wanted, and she hoped that this would work to his advantage. People wouldn’t really know that they knew what he was thinking, because it would feel too much like what they were thinking: what? And, how? And, why?
In Pablo’s mind, the tightrope walker sat down on the thin strand of wire and dangled his feet into an abyss. Pablo could picture Lew beyond the bounds of his grandmamma’s stories now, the small moves he made, the dangerous distraction of an itch on his nose or a breeze blowing north. In his dim-lit room Pablo burrowed into the bed, rearranging himself, lifting his head and pounding it down into a new rut of pillow. And in the sky, a weight bounded down onto the tightrope beside the acrobat.
“I wish I was Lew,” Pablo said, as his grandmamma moved a lock of hair off of his forehead.
“Why?” she asked. The weight beside Lew ruffled its wings, troubling and then reassembling the feathers into a sheet of silken armor. “Aren’t you happy being Pablo? Here with me?”
The boy frowned.
“He lives in the sky.” Pablo’s fist twined around the sheet and then flapped it. “He’s close to heaven.”
“Ah,” said Pablo’s grandmamma.
Truth be told, the day her grandson came to live in her house was the best day of her life; the best thing that could have happened to her. Alone she’d watched television and eaten canned meals. Every so often her son brought over his family, and they all sat at the dining room table, sipping tea.
Pablo warmed her up like a small fire, fed on bits and pieces, twigs and leaves. He needed so little and made so much of it: whole universes, living breathing people.
“You wouldn’t want to leave me though, would you little one?”
What had his grandmamma said? Pablo reflected. To tell a lie you have to believe it. In his mind a hand fell on Lew’s shoulder, and the tightrope walker turned to see his long-lost teacher who flew around in a congress of angels and had broad wings: pale as snow, pale as milk. Pablo forced himself to think instead about the feeling of his grandmamma’s hand where it rested on his own: her paper-thin skin and the regular beat of her heart. He squeezed her fingers, to choose and keep them.
“No,” he said. “I don’t want to leave you.”