when you speak, it is fish. and buildings and nylon loop carpet.
you and i sat facing each other across a lunch table at the portland public market in maine. you were opening your mouth and words were coming out: you were trying to tell me a story, and to show you respect it was important i get it. i’d been trying the entire time we were together to listen to you, the way you needed to be listened to. but trying to listen to your words, the confusing sounds against ear and sine-wave variations of speech, i was aware of everything except what you were saying. as you moved your lips, i saw this:
the angle of your posture as you held herself softly against the table. the tiredness in your shoulders. your dark, glossy hair, waves of it on your shoulders, and the fallen hair across your brow. the arc of your eyebrows, your irish nose, the clarity in your eyes. i could see the rise and fall of your chest as you breathed softly, the motions of your hands, the way the clothes you were wearing fell against your skin. i saw the upper floor we were sitting on stretched out into perspective, stonework ending in a brilliant explosion of snow-grey sunlight, the ancient metal work of the table, the glossy stonework of the floor. i heard heavy metal chairs being scraped against floor, heavy thuds, paper rustled, soft rub of fabric, i counted out how many people were in our immediate vicinity, canvassed them for threats, arranged them into bins by height, age, matched them by color. i calculated how many feet above ground floor we were, the curve of the stairs, how high up the ceiling was, my own awkward posture, the futility of my words. i counted out your words as you spoke them, reduced them to semantic markup, arranged your words into categories of redundancy, newness, abstract, proper noun, active and passive verbs. i critiqued your wordflow, analyzed it as a school paper, rewrote it so that it might be more concise, more in line with clear-cut rhetoric.
the words coming out of your mouth? brain pressed flat, they flew past me like matrix bullets. not for want of trying. the whole time we were together, the year of together, the year of ex’s, the year of trying to be roommates & friends, i used to notice, enraptured, how you’d stare at me with quiet concentration, focusing fully on every manic narrative of speech i ever offered. i loved the way you paid attention to me, that when i spoke, i was the center of your world. i tried to give this back to you, but doing so was like trying to pull the shapes of buildings from my muscles when i’m made of playdough, it was blind kid being tested on ability to recognize color. i rationalized, trying to make it work, that i have my own gifts, my own ways of seeing the world, and i figured that the alternative way in which i was aware of you was so intense and real in my own right, it had to be enough.
i have only recently realized why it would never be enough.
when you speak, you are linear. you deal primarily in emotions, unspoken subtexts. yours is the great neurotypical net, and the billions of you rule this world, and are largely unaware that people like me exist, and the few of you who are aware of us, i don’t think there’s any way you could really understand, our brains are far too different. i, standing there, looking at you, see mouth moving, i hang on your words literally because logic is all i have, light comes at me in cacophonous waves and translates instantly into skin-blast. i do not see the unspoken subtext. i know it is there, by inference, but i do not possess the special glasses to see it, i don’t have the universal translator, i am star trekian stripped of gear, lost in an alien world whose language i can’t understand. when you say to another, “how are you?”, they instantly know how to respond. it’s a response pulled out of a guidebook that i never received at birth. this is what the guidebook taught you at an early age to say when someone asks you “how are you?”: perhaps a heavy sigh, or a distracted motion of the hands, maybe a perky bounce, effectively summing up the day’s details, and the other person nods her head, instantly understanding, and then the small talk goes on its merry way, continuing its tumbleweed path that i can’t understand to save my life.
when you ask me, “how are you?”, i am paralyzed with indecision. “how are you?” ?
are you asking me how i came to be? if that is the case, are you looking for an answer framed within a philosophical context, or genetic, or evolutionary? could you, please, be more specific? or are you seeking the quality, the breadth and depth of me, a quantitative assessment? if this is the case, an infinite number of contexts exists. do you seek to know the quality of sunlight and the way it reaches my fingertips, or the way it feels when air leaves my lungs and for all intents and purpose i think it’s speaking, though they are words i don’t understand? or shall i look at the word “how” and take it to mean “why?”, are you asking me my purpose, my goal, will death be a thing of fear, will i be waylaid blindly by senseless beating and sudden snuffing of faded light?
i have been accused, many times over, of being dumb, am i even listening, what with my blank stare and dislocated gaze. i’m staring at you like that because i’m seeing your lips move and i know sort of what’s expected of me, but it’s such a rock and a hard place i am smashed flat into senseless beating.
i have learned, through the years, through trial and error, the formulaic response that’s expected of me. i’ve learned it’s not about my honesty, not about my soul, not about truthful constructs in my mind. i’ve learned that most daily banter is fluff and self-denying, at least for fringe-freaks like me. it is strange air, small talk, and i strangle when i try to breathe your world. i look at you, seeing your lips move, the speed of your approach as you angle your hands toward the soft dented surface of the bar. i instantly feel your presence, can see the texture of your skin, i feel skin beneath your clothes and compressed layers of possibility between us. i take this as my cue to enact the rote mannerism. i angle my palm 30 degrees up, nod my head half an inch to the side, muscles in my face assume the shape of a wry, disaffected smile, and i say “i’m all right. how you doin’?” i try to affect a cockney brooklyn accent; this is a performance, after all. i’ve been told that i am “cute”, and i clumsily try to use this to my advantage, though i know said cuteness has faded with age, iron-trap heaviness weighing down laugh lines, disappointments too severe.
the more successfully i’ve learned to lie and speak generic cliches, the easier i’ve found it is to function in daily society, and the thinner and hollower my ghost becomes.
i used to chastise you, criticize you when you said “a couple” when you really meant three, when meeting in 2 minutes was really 10 minutes of me waiting, frustrated. i hang on your words because they’re all i have, i desperately cling to definition, in this world lost in marshmallow lies and unspoken pretense. i honestly don’t know how to intuit that when you said the restaurant was 2 blocks away it was really 9 blocks. how could i have known? you said you’d never had this problem with anyone else. i said that i’d never met someone as disorganized and lacking in logic as you. when we crushed together in our struggle of conflict, minds seeking to connect though barriers slammed in our way, you offered to me your neurotypical normality, and what you needed from me was an emotional response. what i needed from you was to speak words with defined meanings, for conversational subtext a to correlate cleanly with conversational subtext b. you needed me to meet you in your happy, normal world, while i was spinning blindly in my tiny, lonely world. where my need for logic is absolute, where your earnest narrative of your day’s events might as well, to me, be shoes and ships and ceiling wax, cabbages and kings.
you were, and are and forever will be right, of course. i have learned this: there is power in numbers. most of the world is like you, and so i am the one who is wrong, i am the one who sins and hurt you and made you feel less than you are. me kneeling with rug-burned knees on carpet at your feet 4 months ago, looking up at your face weary with years of hurt and not-there, i was powerless, feeling that this skin i am in is the worst place to be, je suis un criminel, and those i care about i hurt the worst. it is in this moment i tell myself it’s best if i never care again, if but to spare others like you the hurt i know i cause. i am mal-shaped, disfigured, malfunctioning robot. i am square peg in round hole, fractured splintered wood blindly trying to assemble an acceptable identity, monkey-suit clothes that chafe against poor-performance skin.
you know the problems i’ve had in the world of temp assignments ever since my webmaster contract ended. me trapped in small offices with dull thinking people who repeat themselves without consciousness and try to trap me in their irrationality, and i cry and grow frustrated. i remember how, in the past year and a half, each time i broke down in frustration and couldn’t take it anymore, you came and got me, sat there and patiently listened while i ranted and cried.
friday morning on my first full week of work here in boston, you left behind in maine, i arrived before everyone else. i sat at my computer, calmly, writing in my notebook, waiting for the day’s “work” to begin. the person i was working for finally arrived at 9:14. i rotated in my chair, patiently waiting, in good humor. she approached, and she spoke these words to me: “you have nothing?”
i stared blankly at her, confused. was she talking about the emptiness of my soul? was she saying i have no gifts, that i am stripped of identity, i am a disappointing shell? i stared blankly, not knowing what to say, but already i know i have done the wrong thing. i say to her, “what do you mean, specifically?” and she glares at me, says, “do you have any WORK to do. why ELSE would you be here?” and abruptly walks away.
i sat there, stunned. why else would i be here? i am living, breathing human, i want physical connection, i miss what it feels like to kiss someone with soft lips, i like the feel of sweat-sheened muscles when roller-blading in the heat, i am clumsily trying to pull together the fragments of an identity, trying to give my life a shape that won’t turn into 50 year old abandoned mother lying face down crying into shag green carpet. why else would i be here?
i tried to salvage the situation that day, ask her specific questions each time she told me things that made no sense, so i could understand what she was asking, but she pushed me aside, and i was left standing there, knowing this would be the last day of my assignment, that i’d failed, somehow, once again. i went back to my computer and sat there, weightless, trying not to feel my skin. i numbly punched in numbers into cells, knowing, once again, it didn’t matter how hard i tried, i was always on the outside, saying the wrong things, malfunctioning robot. everyone around me talking, laughing, group hugs, invites to parties, and i am the hyper-logical automaton sitting by myself in the corner, spinning blindly.
i am sorry, you, and you, and you. i can’t tell you how much i want to be able to speak your language, to join in your reinder games, on this island of misfit toys. do you know my world, though? have you ever been there? have you ever thought to look?
i am the person you will find dancing by myself on the dance floor. i am in the corner, away from the crowd. i am high up there in waves of music, rivers of bass and acres of treble dashing through my soul and i am splintered into a million infinitive pieces. words broken, pretense pushed aside, all the regret of daily life forgotten for a moment, a clear language offers itself to me and i take it, gratefully, and for a fleeting moment, maybe half an hour, maybe 2, maybe all night, i can lose myself in cascading lights and pure motion, nothing but pattern and rhythm, salvation. i am the person you will find locked in my room at 10 o’clock at night, gesso’d canvas tilted against the wall, and i have oil pastel and turpenoid streaked on my forearms, and, once again, linear language broken down, shoved aside, for a brief moment i push through to another world, where it’s electric and clear, mind let loose, broke free.
i am the person you will find find fading to nothing with each passing year because i can’t find an avenue that fits me, sitting stiffly at my cubicle desk for $9/hr, crushed beneath the blanket of office politics and eternal coughs of phlegm, desk pounding, mouth flapping, pen clicking, tittering giggles, throat clearings, door slams, temperature changes, insufficient light. i’m the one with the look of incomprehension when you speak at me your words that, if we were to see them written down on paper, we’d both see they say nothing. i’m the one who flunks your simple tests. i am the person sitting there awkwardly, though maybe you think i’m elitist, watching you carefully out of the corner of my eye, feeling the distance between you and i, acres of it between us, and i know nothing i can ever do can enable me to cross that distance, there are no ski poles or shoes that can make this work. i sit and spin blindly, instead, alone, rhythms and patterns tracing numbers in the air around me, clear rhythm pushed down and crushed by the everyday, til i can’t feel myself anymore, and instead i am defined solely by you. misfit. retard. loser. i used to think that i was smart, but i’m not so sure anymore. i am charlie gordon.
i’m sorry that i hurt you because of this. i’m sorry for the way i was made. i’m sorry that periphery, for me, is where all the sensation is, but i learned there’s something you needed, framed in a language i can’t understand, and i didn’t have the tongue to try to speak it, and thus the core of me is empty, and the core of you i only see as art, and thus i made you feel less than you really were. i’m sorry for myself that this is the way it will always be.