Travels with Jessica

Jessica is in many ways an amazing child, but her brain does not have an executive function, or if it does, it’s like one of my former bosses, out on a three-martini lunch most days. She cannot intuit or deduct but she can memorize and extrapolate. Which means that I have to do all the executive function for her—planning and problem solving—and I have to do it out loud so she can hear it.

For example, just this week we were on a shuttle bus at the airport, returning to the parking lot where we left our car.

The bus stops.

“We get off here,” I say to Jessica.

“Okay,” she says. I stand. She looks up at me. “Do we get up now?”


“Okay.” She gets up. “I will need to take my bag?” It’s a question, not a statement.

“Yes. Now we need to turn to the left and walk down the aisle, girlfriend.”

She nods and starts walking. Someone has dumped a piece of luggage in the aisle as there’s no room on the rack. The luggage blocks her progress.

“There is something in the way,” she says.

And that’s it. That’s where her brain stops. It can’t figure out what else to do except ask me for a hand. So I move the luggage out of the way, and we proceed down the aisle.

“Now you’re going to go out the door,” I tell her, “and down the big step. It’s marked in yellow. Then step up on the curb and wait for me on the sidewalk while I get the luggage.”

She couldn’t have figured out that complicated sequence of events on her own, but if I tell it to her, she can do it. She gets off the bus, and goes down the big step and up the curb and waits for me on the sidewalk until I have collected the luggage. I start dragging it toward the car.

“Should I come with you?”

I stifle the impulse to say Unless you want to sleep in this parking lot, and say, “You betcha.” 

“Where are we going?”

And I stifle the impulse to say Inner Mongolia, and say, “We’re going to find our car, and put the bags in, and go home.”

She thinks about this for a minute and says, “We will also have to put ourselves in.”

“Very true,” I say. She can always find the flaw in my brain’s executive function.

To say that this is exhausting is the kind of understatement that sends me into hysterical laughter. It’s not that Jessica is stupid. It is that her brain just doesn’t work the way the world is set up for a brain to work. That does not stop Jessica.

On our trip, we stop by a restaurant we want to try, and the host says the place is closed for a private function.

“Okay,” I say, and explain to Jessica that they can’t let us in, and turn to go.

“Well,” Jessica says to the host, planting herself in the take-no-prisoners way that has daunted more than one hardened businessman. “We were going to eat here. And now you say we cannot eat here. So what are we going to do for dinner?”

The host gives her a devastating smile that I would very much have appreciated being on the receiving end of.

“There’s a great restaurant called Lincoln not far from here,” he says. “It’s a tapas place—”

“I do not know what that is.”

“It’s small plates of different kinds of foods. All kinds, lots of American favorites. It’s just across the street.”

Jess turns to look across the street. “I do not see it.”

“Well, you have to go over to Vermont. You have to kind of veer across 14th Street to get there. So, you have to cross at this light and then that one just beyond. And then you turn left, and it’s about halfway down the block, past the CVS but on the other side.”

“On the right side.”


“And I will like it.”

This is a man who knows how to close a deal. “Yes.”

“Thank you.” She opens the door.

“Hey,” I say, following her out. “Maybe I don’t want to eat at Lincoln.”

She gives me The Look. We had a problem, someone solved the problem, what more do I want?

Later, we stop by an ice cream shop we visited earlier in the week. Tonight the shop is dark. Jessica is dismayed and stands looking at the locked door.

An old man with a collection of torn bags is sitting on one of the chairs outside the shop. I expect I’ll get hustled for a few bucks if we don’t keep moving, but he sees her and says, “The ice cream shop is closed, chile.”

She looks at him and says, “We came here on Thursday. It was open on Thursday night.”

The old man sighs and says, “Ain’t that the way of the world.” He thinks a minute, and Jessica waits patiently, for what I don’t know but Jessica does.

“Well,” he says, “I’ll tell you what. You go down this street to the corner, and you turn left at the corner. And then you walk two blocks. You follow that? Two blocks. And then you turn right. And you go down that block a piece, and there’s a yogurt shop. Frozen yogurt. Think that’ll be all right?”

“Yes, that will be all right.” Jessica smiles. When she smiles the world lights up a little. You will never be in complete darkness as long as you have Jessica. “It sounds like Three Spoons.” That’s her favorite place, a local frozen yogurt shop. “That will be even better than this!”

The old man smiles. “You have a good night now, chile.” Then he nods to me. “It’ll be at I Street and 14th.”

“Thank you,” I say.

“No charge,” he says, and smiles more broadly, and I’m pretty sure he knows exactly what I was thinking.

Later, back in our hometown, Jess and I trek through the parking lot.  “I hope you wrote down where we parked,” she says. “Or we will never find our car.”

“I should have just told you the stop and the row,” I say. “Then I wouldn’t have had to bother writing it down.”

It is an oddity of her brain that she can remember some things and not others. We spend a day on the Metro and she can tell you that if you hop on the Blue line at McPherson Square, it will stop at Metro Center and Federal Triangle before it goes to Smithsonian, and that you’ll want to switch to the Red line if you’re trying to get to Chinatown. If you want the Green line, the nearest place to our hotel to connect is L’Enfant Plaza. I don’t know how she knows this. I am still trying to figure out which way to hold the map.

She nudges me with her elbow. “That is true. But you write down everything because you cannot remember anything.”

“Well,” I say. “I remember some things.”

She laughs. It is an affectionate laugh, but also indulgent. “Really all you have to do is ask.”

“I see that now,” I say. We make our way through the quiet parking lot. The sun has set, but it is not quite dark. Jessica is smiling.


  1. Jessica's way of thinking is fascinating, and and you do an superb job of writing about it. I have a better idea now of how differently she responds to the world. Thank you.

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