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"Readers will be touched and inspired by this book that proves that against all odds, love does occasionally triumph over all." — Tucson Citizen
Venice Beach, California
The sleeping pills should have kicked in hours ago. I swallowed somewhere close to sixty of them, praying they'd take me away from everything my life had become. I'd thought it all out, all the details. In the event my body wasn't discovered for several days, I'd written a little note, poured out a couple of pounds' worth of seed for my birds, then pulled the curtain closed around my bed, and curled up with Mrs. Willy, my giant stuffed whale. On the other side of the curtain, out by the sliding glass door caked with dirt that rumbled from the Sunday afternoon traffic, my birds sat quietly, staring out into the smog.
I had a hunch they knew.
It hadn't been a good day. In fact, as someone who had endured a lifetime of bad days, the past two years were a new, dismal low. Just when it looked like life was on the verge of being worth living, everything slipped away and turned to shit. Mary was gone and she wasn't coming back. Her birthday was yesterday. I shut my eyes and waited for something to happen. All I knew is that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life alone. Not quite sure why it was taking so long. Certainly seemed like that many pills would do the trick. For an instant, I started to obsess about the number sixty, mulling over what an interesting number it is and how I never imagined I'd die because of it. Sixty is the product of 2 times 2 times 3 times 5. Sixty is the number of degrees of arc covered by the side of a hexagon inscribed inside a circle. Each side equals the radius, and the hexagon is made of six equilateral triangles linked together. Fold them all outside and you get six more, forming a total of twelve, which makes a Star of David with one equilateral triangle for each tribe of Israel.... After a few moments, however, I realized I wasn't in the mood to do any calculations or even to think about numbers. The room began to grow quiet, the traffic a bit fainter. I wondered if I was slipping away.
Lying there, I tried not to remember. A lot of good that was doing. It took me my entire life to find Mary, and now she'd gone away. After only five years of marriage, we crashed and burned. She moved back to Tucson and I'm stuck here. A couple of months ago, it looked like maybe we'd get back together, but it didn't last. Don't know why I let myself get my hopes up like that. It just wasn't meant to be. At least not now. But once upon a time it certainly was....
I still remember that Halloween party I'd organized, the one where I first met Mary Meinel. The year was 1993, which happens to be the sum of the squares of 43 and 12. When you add those two numbers up, you get 55, which is the year Mary was born — 1955. The day we met was the 289th day of the year, a perfect square of 17. The number 17 is also unique because it's a prime number and you can inscribe a seventeen-sided figure inside a circle, which is rare.
I'd spent weeks trying to construct a whale costume out of garbage bags and paper. The results were laughably pathetic. Strips of newspaper and bits of chicken wire dangled from its side. It resembled a carcass. I ended up dragging it around the party behind me like a deflated blimp. But my costume also reminded me of how magical AGUA was. Because as ridiculous as my costume looked, everybody complimented me on it. They seemed to understand what I was trying to create, and they were proud of me for even attempting such a feat. This kind of unconditional support — whether one succeeded or not — turned out to be one of my favorite parts of AGUA.
I got my first glimpse of Mary as I stood in a hallway, waiting to use the bathroom. My bladder felt on the verge of exploding. Mary opened the restroom door, walked out, and the first thing that hit me was her lavender lace dress. Months before, she'd taken a disposable razor to her head and shaved off her hair. Of course, I didn't know that at the time because she'd pulled this crazy-looking Mozart wig down over her scalp. A cluster of powder white locks dangled and danced around her shoulders. Mary had disappeared into the living room by the time I finally ventured out of the bathroom. She was chatting with some other members of my group. I watched her for a little while, amazed at how she lit up the room. I'd never seen anything like it. When I finally summoned up enough courage to introduce myself, the first words out of my mouth were: "When were you born?"
A smile tiptoed across her face. "March 6, 1955," she replied.
It didn't take me long to come up with the answer — roughly the same length of time required to inhale. "March 6, 1955, was a Sunday," I shouted excitedly. "That's one hundred and nineteen years after the day they ended the siege of the Alamo, which was on March 6, 1836."
Mary clapped her hands together. "That's cool," she giggled. "I guess you're a savant, too?"
That voice of hers. I'd never heard anything quite like it. The sound of it was so undeniably feminine. Definitely the voice of a woman — as opposed to what I was used to hearing at these support group meetings. Half of the women who attended these gatherings were autistic in name only. Desperate to fit in somewhere, they masqueraded as one of us. They stuck out like Jane Goodall sitting in the jungle, hanging out with the chimps. Yet all Mary had to do was open her mouth and you knew she was different. Her words, the way she strung them together, possessed that unmistakable ring of someone who actually enjoyed listening to what another person had to say.
Mary's strange habit of finding another person interesting was a rare trait for someone with Asperger's, a neurological disorder that tends to lock people in their own private, hermetically sealed universe. I've spent my entire life trying to understand this strange, often lonely dimension. And whenever some normal-brained person asks me to describe my condition, I use this analogy: Imagine "normal" as pure water. Now try to picture autism as whiskey. Asperger's falls somewhere in between the two. Compared to autism, children with Asperger's syndrome usually learn to speak at the appropriate age, though the way they say things may not necessarily sound like other kids. They also learn self-help skills, such as how to tie their shoes and brush their teeth, at the same time other kids do. Many of us with Asperger's remain undiagnosed because we discover a way to make a living by capitalizing upon our interests and are forgiven for being a little "off."
This "off-ness" is strongest in areas of social communication. Those of us with Asperger's can be smart, do well in school, and maintain a job while also being incredibly thickheaded socially. For instance, most guys wouldn't ask a girl out more than three times before getting the hint that she wasn't interested. My record was fourteen times, a feat that drove one unlucky young woman to drop the college mathematics class we shared. Men with Asperger's syndrome (and some studies estimate the male-to-female ratio is 4:1) tend either never to summon up the courage to date at all or fanatically pursue a person beyond reason. They believe that their interest and devotion will eventually win her over. It rarely does.
In addition to possessing an average to above-average intelligence, those with Asperger's are often fixated on narrow, intense interests. Conversing with an Aspie can quickly prove frustrating, as he tirelessly attempts to steer a conversation back to his specific area of interest, no matter what others want to discuss. They also tend to take things literally and are oblivious to subtle physical and verbal cues. Their social deficits are often extreme: They either speak too loudly or in a barely audible whisper. They either make too much eye contact or none at all. In other words, when it comes to dealing with people, those of us dwelling on Planet Asperger's just don't get it.
A few weeks after that first meeting with Mary, I was shocked, bewildered, and amazed when she telephoned to ask me a question I hadn't heard in decades: "Do you think we could go out sometime?" A few days later, we hopped a city bus to the Los Angeles County Zoo. I wanted to pinch myself during that first afternoon we spent together, walking among the caged animals. Never in my life had I felt so at ease with another human being, let alone a woman.
Long ago, I'd resigned myself to the unpleasant fact that I'd probably spend the rest of my life alone. The prospect made me so sad that just thinking about it could instantly transform me into a grouch. I'd spent a portion of just about every single day of my life since college daydreaming about how it would feel to fall in love with a woman — the kind of love you read about in grocery store romance paperbacks or see in the movies, where two people skip through a field of clover, laughing and holding hands. But I was desperate and so tired of feeling alone, so tired of wondering why I'd always felt like I had this invisible wall encircling me, preventing me from connecting with another human being.
Mary changed all that. She turned my solar system upside down and shook it until all the planets tumbled out. By the time we embarked on our second date, it was clear that nothing in my life would ever be the same. From then on, I actually began to believe that I'd stumbled upon the one woman in existence with whom I could spend my life. That happened on the 344th day of the year, which fell on Friday, December 10, 1993. Mary was thirty-eight years old. I was forty five. We'd known each other fifty five days, which I thought was appropriate because 1955 was the year Mary was born. Even more amazing is if you take the number 55 and multiply it by how many hours are in a day, 24, you end up with 1,320. That just happens to be the number of feet in a quarter mile. My all-time favorite track event in high school was the quarter mile.
Our date started off at the monthly meeting of the West L.A. Bird Club. I was a member. Mary wasn't. But after we recovered from the shock of learning that we both owned cockatiels, it seemed like the perfect place to meet. For years, when neither of us had anyone to turn to, these ridiculously expressive, loyal creatures served as our only friends. They always looked concerned when you stepped out your front door and excited whenever you returned home.
After the bird club gathering broke up, we caught a bus that took us across town to my hopelessly cluttered apartment in Santa Monica. The nighttime air felt out of place for December. It was warm. Then again, maybe it was just my jittery nerves that made the earth seem hotter. Either way, standing this close to an actual female set my mind whirring into overdrive. Decades had lapsed since anything so intimate, so wonderful, seemed on the verge of unfolding. We stood by the front door and I fumbled for my keys. Okay, Jerry, what's it gonna be? Should you ask her to come inside? Then what? Maybe see if she wants to sit on your dirty sofa? Maybe chat her up a bit? Then make your move. Then try to kiss her.... It just might work.
The voices in my head were making me dizzy. "I've got an idea," I blurted out, shoving my keys back into my pocket. "Let's take a walk down to the bluffs. There's something there I think you might enjoy seeing."
"Let's go." Mary laughed. Her lips curled up into the most perfect smile I'd ever seen. Each time she flashed it, my heart beat crazily.
And so, the two of us began our trek down the street to the park, perched up high above the Pacific Ocean. We'd only taken a few steps when I suddenly noticed something. Never in my life, especially not during any date I'd ever endured, had I felt so alive, so absolutely at ease with another person and with myself, so unconcerned with hiding the universe brewing deep inside of me. As Mary and I strolled down Montana Avenue, I suddenly felt as though I'd spent my entire life locked inside a tiny prison cell and in the blink of an eye the walls of my cell had vanished. The sensation of freedom to just be me was dizzying, intoxicating. No longer did I have to pretend to be someone other than who I was, someone who the rest of the world would call normal.
After a few minutes, we came upon a beautifully restored '57 Corvette parked in front of a dry cleaner. The light from a nearby streetlight shimmered off the vehicle's spotless white body. Mary and I stood there admiring it, and before I knew it I was watching the streetlight's glow bouncing off the Corvette's hood, setting Mary's strawberry-tinted wig ablaze. All at once, a domino-like chain of thoughts exploded inside my head. This can't be happening to me. It's all too perfect. Women like Mary aren't interested in guys like me. A voice instructed me to start running and not look back, but I made a decision to ignore it and gently lifted my foot and tapped it against the Corvette's license plate. Mary quickly glanced down at the jumble of numbers and letters on the plate, then looked at me quizzically.
"You want me to do the license plate for you?" I asked.
"Go for it," she laughed, clapping her hands together in anticipation.
"2V0R013," I announced, then quickly plucked the numbers out of the string — 20013. My mind began doing what it had done for just about as long as I could remember; it churned out connections and relationships between the various digits. "Hmmm, you know, 20013 is a really fascinating number," I explained.
"Why?" Mary asked. "What makes it so special?"
"Because its prime factors are 3, 7, and 953," I said. "So if you get a 21 in blackjack 953 times, you win enough to pay for the Corvette."
By this point, we've resumed our trek down the sidewalk. Even though I'm not looking at Mary, I can tell she's staring at me. The pressure from her doelike eyes felt like it was burning a hole right through me. I didn't dare look into them. I had a lot of trouble with that. I always had. Gazing into someone's eyes — even for a brief instant — was like standing on the ledge of a skyscraper and peering down into the emptiness below. It petrified me, thinking that I was going to tumble into the abyss. That was why I didn't bother looking at her. I knew she understood. So I just kept walking, running the license plate through my head, over and over again like it was some sort of numerical mantra.
"20013...20013...20013," I mumbled. "Did you know October 17, 1955, was the 20,013th day of this century?"
"Cool." Mary laughed. There was something magical about her voice and how it rumbled up from deep within her throat. Just listening to it caused my cheeks to get all splotchy. I felt like I might be on the verge of hyperventilating. Up ahead of us, I spotted a battered old Saab with a parking ticket on the windshield. The license plate jumped out at me.
"2BYN467...2467 is a prime number," I explained, wondering if maybe I might be overdoing it with all my number tricks. "Did you know if you change 2467 into a binary number, you end up with 100110100011?" I don't bother waiting for Mary to respond. I'm on a roll now. Sparks are practically leaping off my brain. There's no turning back. Farther up ahead, I spot the plate on a Toyota 4Runner. "32908...that's my father's birthday — 3-29-08," I said excitedly, pausing to take a quick breath. "That's also the birthday of Man o' War in 1917, and one day before the birthday of Secretariat in 1970...Actually, Secretariat was born at 12:15 a.m. on the thirtieth, in Virginia, eastern time. So he was really born on the twenty-ninth California time."
Shut up, Jerry. That was what I heard inside my head — that all-too-familiar voice telling me to stop all this nonsense before it's too late, before I convinced this truly beautiful woman walking beside me that I was an absolute lunatic. I felt ridiculous. Why on earth did I allow the numbers to do that to me? How could I allow myself to get carried away?
"I'm sorry," I told her. "I didn't mean to go on like that.
"Out of the corner of my eye, I sneaked a peek at Mary's face. The expression I expected to find was one of extreme uncertainty, perhaps even revulsion. But when it hit me that she had an ear-to-ear grin plastered on her face, my mouth dropped open.
"You gotta be kidding me." She giggled. "Don't apologize. And don't ever stop. I love it. The universe is made up of numbers."
"Exactly!" I shouted, floored by the unthinkable notion that I'd found a woman who understood. And Mary truly understood. Every speck of matter in the universe, every single solitary thing in it, was constructed from atoms, all of which are fashioned out of various quantities of particles. Once you begin comparing these quantities, a never-ending array of patterns begins to surface. When I looked at a number that was exactly what happened — patterns, relationships, associations emerged and blossomed like flowers. People like Mary, who compose symphonies and paint pictures, experience those sorts of revelations with colors and music. I do it with numbers. For nearly as long as I can remember, numbers have been the single thing I could always relate to, the only phenomena in the world that possessed a sense of order that felt truly reassuring and comforting.
Numbers were all I had.
As we walked, I began to mull over my numerical fixation. And then it happened. Mary was actually grasping my hand. I can't say for sure when she grabbed it. All I knew was that our fingers were entwined and the warm flesh of our soft palms was pressed together. Such a glorious feeling. Nearly two decades had passed since the last time it had happened, when I was in college. Back then, I had plenty of dates. My strategy, although pathetically desperate, was brilliantly simple. I'd hang out in the library. Whenever I spotted a girl with her nose buried in a book, I'd saunter over and begin chatting her up. I've always been something of a generalist, able to spout off an endless array of facts and figures on just about every subject under the sun. Before long, I usually convinced my female targets that I was bright, witty, and — most important — a regular guy. That was the most important thing for me. By the time I exited the library, I'd usually be clutching the woman's phone number on a scrap of paper. A few days later, we'd go out on a date. Then, without fail, she'd realize the truth — she'd been hoodwinked. There was something just not right with me. Sometimes it was worse. They never returned my calls.
Not that I blamed them for writing me off. I was already beginning to do the same thing myself. I just didn't want to admit it. Nevertheless, all my dates became nothing more than excruciating trials of insecurity. The drama unfolding inside my head so consumed me that I rarely paid much attention to my date. All I wanted was for her to think of me as normal. I was obsessed with it. Whenever my date would begin telling me things like where she went to high school, what she was studying, and what she imagined herself doing in the future, I'd never hear a word she said. Instead, I'd be listening to that voice between my ears, the one that either beat myself up or pumped me full of so much self-doubt that I wanted to crawl into a closet and cry. I'd chide myself: What an idiotic thing to say, Jerry!...You sound like a freak!...I wonder what she thinks of me?...When is she going to realize how strange I really am?
No matter how hard I tried, I could never grasp the subtle expressions that flashed across my dates' faces, emotional cues that might have tipped me off to their impression of me at any given moment. Everyone else always seemed able to pick up on these tips. But for me it felt as though I were staring at a wall of hieroglyphs. No wonder I dreaded those excruciating moments when I would run out of words and find myself walking my date to the front door of her apartment or sitting beside her on the couch. Those moments were absolutely unbearable. And that was when the voice would always begin whispering: What now, Jerry? You gonna touch her hand? How about a little kiss on the cheek? What about on the lips?
Why did I endure such tortures? For the simple reason that my only sense of self came from others. I only existed when others thought of me. And I was convinced that the only way others would bother to think of me was if I was seen with the type of partner who would make me look worth knowing.
More than ten years had passed since my last real date. Not that anybody who glanced over at Mary and me would have known it. To anyone watching, we were just two people strolling down Montana Avenue, holding hands. It was all so normal, so easy, so natural. I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.
When we finally arrived at the park, the waves were hurling themselves onto the beach a hundred feet below, out past the six lanes of busy Pacific Coast Highway traffic. I heard thunder off in the distance. Mary stared out at the water until I nudged her gently and pointed at a wooden sculpture I'd wanted her to see, perched on the edge of the crumbling sandstone cliff. Shaped like a giant oval, it was big enough for two people to stand within. Which was exactly why I'd brought her here.
"Oh, wow," Mary shrieked, when she spotted it. "Far out." She threw her arms up into the air like some evangelical preacher suddenly seized by God Almighty. She began laughing hysterically and rocking from side to side. Her giggles hit me with the force of a small tornado.
"What on earth is that?" she shouted. "A nautilus?"
"I think it's supposed to be some sort of fertility symbol." I shrugged while slowly moving into the hollow wooden cavern inside the structure. "Come on," I whispered, holding my hand out for her to grab. "Come on in here with me." Mary giggled. She looked skeptical, not quite sure what to make of my request. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she thrust out her arm and grabbed my hand. Mary was strong and possessed all the grace of a bulldozer. After a few awkward moments spent trying to maneuver herself into the statue's center, I finally decided to yank her inside, up into my arms. For a few moments, we balanced ourselves and gazed out over the churning, frothing waters of the Pacific. Salt from the waves mixed with the night air and drifted upward, coating our faces. I sucked the dampness into my mouth, down my throat, then coaxed myself into peering deep into Mary's eyes. A pulse of dizziness hit me, but I manage to calm myself.
"I wanted our first kiss to be here," I told her.
All Mary did was smile. She let me pull her close and press my lips up against hers. I knew my technique must be laughable, but amazingly I didn't dwell on it. And for the first time in my life, a kiss felt unmistakably natural. For once, I wasn't caught up obsessing that I was invading someone's territory.
Then, before I knew it, we were walking back to my apartment. All the way there, I wondered what she'd think of my place. To call it a pigsty would be an insult to pigs. It was a true cesspool, filled with snowdriftlike stacks of junk mail, old newspapers, and magazines, notes I'd scrawled at various autism conferences, rough manuscripts of children's stories and poems, letters to editors of local papers, and political fliers from a volunteer stint I did with Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. On more than one occasion I'd set out to tidy up the place, but I couldn't quite pull it off. Every time I attempted to toss something into the trash, a horribly uneasy, anxious feeling descended upon me. It wasn't so much that I feared I'd someday need the item; I just couldn't stand the loss of order and control that came with throwing it out. On several occasions, I packed up the entire mess and moved from one apartment to the next, then went for months before unpacking. Sure, my place was a wretched mess, but there wasn't a single scrap of paper in the place that I couldn't find if I needed to.
The moment we walked inside, I kept glancing at Mary's face. I was looking for blatant, telltale signs of revulsion or queasiness on her part — a sneer, a scowl, rolled eyes, or a muffled gasp. Part of having Asperger's meant I was a pathetic judge of facial expression. Even if I saw something, I doubted I'd know how to interpret it.
Miraculously, my mess didn't appear to bother her. We collapsed onto my filthy sofa and began chatting about our birds. I was enjoying the conversation so much that I never had time to browbeat myself. The next thing I knew, we were making out like I'd always dreamed about doing with a real woman.
But something was different. I didn't feel like an invader. If I didn't know better, I'd swear she wanted this to happen. Yet, suddenly, without any warning, Mary stopped in mid-kiss. She closed her eyes, stretched her arms up into the air, and yawned.
She's bored, Jerry. She wants to go home now. You blew it. The voice continued, but I commanded it to shut the hell up.
"Maybe we ought to hop into bed," I stammered, shocked by my bravado. "That," Mary replied, "would be nice."
A few minutes later, we were snuggling together on the bird-eaten brown blanket atop my bed. The sensations from her velvetlike skin pressed against mine nearly overloaded my neural circuitry. One moment it resembled a blowtorch, the next, absolute bliss. I was on the verge of something I couldn't understand, something I didn't have a name for, and for the first time in my life that seemed just fine. Wave after wave of dizziness washed over me. I couldn't speak. All I could do was lie there pathetically and stare up into the ceiling.
"Uhhhh," I mumbled, "I don't have any protection....I wasn't expecting anything like this to happen."
Mary leaned over toward me and slowly opened her eyes. She looked half asleep. "That's okay," she cooed, snuggling up next to me, sliding her willow-like legs beneath mine. "We don't have to do anything. Isn't it wonderful just to be able to lie here together?"
So that's what we did. We just lay there for I don't know how long. Why would I? Time stopped. We held hands. We did not speak. An air of quiet and calm hung over the room like a soft blanket. The only sound came from the pounding of our hearts, mixed with the occasional swallow. For that brief instant, I felt so calm, comfortable, and in control. Even the voice in my head was quiet, too. Or close to it. I heard it whisper: So this is what it feels like? So this is love?
After awhile, the sounds of something moving could be heard from a darkened, cobwebbed corner of my bedroom. My four cockatiels — Pagliacci and his wife, Caruso, along with their two children, Cockatiel Dundee and Isadora Duncan — had finally summoned up the courage to investigate the strange goings-on in my bed. One by one, they flapped their wings, soared through the blackness, and landed on a nearby curtain rod, just above our heads. Mary opened her eyes and smiled her perfect smile that made my heart tap-dance. They had no idea what to make of the scene unfolding beneath them. I'd never brought a woman into my bedroom before. I couldn't even remember the last time I'd ever even invited another human being into my apartment. The four birds peered down at us with curious looks of concern in their tiny eyes. Pagliacci rocked his tiny head up and down in the air excitedly, then opened his beak and began squawking. Within seconds, the rest of his brood nodded their heads in agreement and began dancing a little jig, their tiny claws clattering as they moved back and forth along the curtain rod.
"If I didn't know better," I told Mary, "I'd have to say they approve of you."
Twenty weeks after that magical night, I stood beneath the gnarled umbrella-like branches of a tired old fig tree and asked Mary to be my wife. The way I saw it, I couldn't have chosen a more auspicious time and place to propose. After all, April 30, 1994, was the 120th day of the year. It also happened to be one week prior to the 120th Kentucky Derby. As numerical fate would have it, that very fig tree we stood beneath first sprouted from the soil on the same year as the running of the first Kentucky Derby. Even more intriguing was that April 30 marked the 28th week since I'd first met Mary at that costume party. Twenty-eight is a big number for me — my absolute favorite. How could it not be? After all, when you add up all the numbers that divide into it, you get 28. The same thing happens when you add up all the integers from 1 to 7. You get 28. But the numerical parallels didn't stop there. The more I pondered the situation, the more everything seemed to fit together like a puzzle. Mary's mother was born 28 Saturdays before her father, and my birthday is sandwiched exactly in the middle of both of theirs — 14 weeks after her mother's and 14 weeks before her father's. The day I proposed to Mary happened to be a Saturday. And then there's that business about the number 65 — the concrete fence that surrounded our fig tree consisted of 65 pillars and Mary's birth occurred on the 65th day of 1955. For a numbers guy like me, it just doesn't get any numerically purer than that. Everything fit together so neatly, so perfectly. All the various components just seemed to belong.
And so I took Mary's big hand in mine and asked, "Will you be my wife?" I looked into her eyes, hidden by the synthetic bangs of her nut-brown wig, each strand shimmering in the sunlight. "I will," she replied. We wrapped our arms around each other and I shut my eyes and rested my cheek on her shoulder. I felt as though I was embracing a lifetime of hopes and dreams. I was excited, relieved, and petrified. All at once, everything I'd ever wanted in life was positioned right here between my arms, but all I'd ever expected out of life was disappointment and rejection. The moment was so perfect I thought I might pass out.
Years before, I promised myself that if I ever could find a woman who truly loved me, all I'd need to do was spend a single day with her. That's all it would take to make me happy for the rest of my life — just the memory of our single, perfect day together. But there I was on the verge of something truly unthinkable — getting to live out the rest of my life with the woman of my dreams, a woman who loved me just as much as I loved her. Before I met Mary, I'd have told you the odds of such an occurrence were too great for even a numbers guy like me to calculate. But statistical anomalies do happen. Steep odds can be beaten. And for the first time in my sad life, I'd done just that. I'd finally trumped the odds. I'd won the lottery without even purchasing a ticket.
I opened my eyes and realized I wasn't dead. I was merely alone, just like I've been my entire life. It was after midnight. I felt groggy and stupid. Fumbling for the phone, I dialed the number of my supervisor at the medical department at UCLA, where I'd been hired four years before by people with good intentions. But in between my alienating the staff and their dumbing down my workload, I'd become a vastly overpaid gofer. And if it wasn't for my "condition," I would have been fired years ago.
"I'm not feeling well," I mumbled. "I won't be coming in tomorrow." I dropped my head back onto the pillow and hugged Mrs. Willy. I couldn't understand why I was still alive. Nearly sixty sleeping pills and it hadn't done a thing. Good lord, I'd heard of people going out with much less than that. After awhile, a thought that could only be described as comforting percolated up inside my head. Maybe you're not supposed to die just yet.
For the next ten minutes, I pondered that peculiar riddle, staring up at the ceiling until my eyelids got too heavy to hold open. Maybe there's a reason why you're still here, I heard the voice mumble.
Maybe it's time to start finding out why.
It certainly seemed like a feasible plan. First, I'd take the pills. Next, I'd duct tape the garbage bag over my head. Then, just to play it safe, I'd slit my wrists with a razor. I positioned a trash can on both sides of my bed to ensure I didn't make too much of a mess. I had a handful of suicide attempts under my belt, so I pretty much had it all figured out. The trick was really all in the way you slit your wrists. Most people just don't slice correctly. You need to sever the arteries and the only way to do that is by pressing the razor deep into your wrist, an inch or two south of the veins. It really hurts when you do that. But if you don't do it correctly, then all you do is mess up the ligaments in your wrists. Not good. Because not only do you continue living, but you can never use your hands again. I definitely didn't want that. All I wanted was to become nothing, which I had a hunch was what happened when you die. Just a whole lot of sweet nothing.
I'd been thinking about killing myself for the past month. Every day, when I'd walked down the dusty streets of the barrio where I lived in Tucson, on my way to the grocery, I passed a cryptic billboard. It read, You Are Not Indispensable. I never could figure out what it was an ad for, but I felt like it had been written just for me. All day long, I'd think about that billboard, and it never failed to remind me of what a mess I'd made of everything between the two of us. It certainly wasn't entirely my fault, but lately the clouds had lifted just enough so that I'd begun to understand my role in things. I'd come so close to success, so close to finding real love that it hurt. And now all I had to show for our time together was a big empty hole in my chest where my heart used to be.
Jerry stopped by a few days ago. He drove out from Los Angeles to pick up the birds. I don't think he understood what I was intending to do. I needed him to take them away from here. I was afraid to think what would happen to them when I was gone.
If I'd had to guess, I would have thought that about twenty minutes had passed since I swallowed what was left of my bottle of antipsychotic medication. Wasn't too sure exactly how many were in there, but it definitely should have been enough to anesthetize me so I could do what needed to be done with the razor. When I felt the familiar grogginess settle in, I pulled the garbage bag over my head, then wrapped a strip of duct tape around my neck and just sat there on the edge of my bed. The rumble of the trucks roaring in and out of the bottling plant next door caused my bed to shudder. Or maybe it was just my nerves. After a few minutes, the claustrophobia hit me. I tried to pretend it wasn't happening by taking a few deep breaths, but that wasn't easy inside a garbage bag. Then I tried to press the razor against my left wrist. It felt hopelessly awkward since I couldn't see anything. Should have thought of that, Mary, I scolded myself. And that was when I started to have second thoughts about my foolproof way out. It was the middle of a hot afternoon, in the middle of the week, in the middle of the month, and I suddenly felt stupid and hopelessly alone inside this old house, with a plastic bag taped over my head. My heart began pounding. I began to think about things: What were the odds that I'd actually manage to kill myself anyway? After all, I'd read about people cutting off their hands in factories and never managing to bleed to death. I tore the bag off my head. The last thing I wanted was for Jerry to feel guilty if something happened to me here. He deserved better than that. After all, he was my soul mate. That much was clear even on our second date.
That image of us marching along Montana Avenue was tattooed into my memory. I couldn't wash it off, no matter how hard I tried. That was the night all of this craziness started. After that, there was no turning back.
Jerry was anxious. But it was the good kind of anxiousness. Like the way a child gets when he opens his eyes and suddenly realizes it's Christmas morning. I could feel nearly everything going on inside his head without him ever uttering a single word. Autistics can sometimes do that with each other. It's an intuitive thing. We can sense in a way that sometimes extends far beyond words. Although God knows how many times I would have been content to rely solely on words, like a normal-brained person. Perhaps we swap one form of communication for another more mysterious, less understood one? But throw us into a room filled with people whose brains function in a so-called normal, predictable way, and we're hard-pressed to grasp even the most basic display of emotion. The normal world has the same problem with us. To them, we appear distant, alien, and hopelessly detached, as if trapped behind an invisible force field.
I seriously doubted that anyone who spotted us on that December evening would have had the slightest idea about the mind-blowing significance of that night. To any onlooker, we were just two odd-looking middle-aged people out for a walk, staring at license plates and laughing.
Jerry was a sight to behold. I'd never seen anything like him, especially on a date when most guys were usually going out of their way trying to make a good impression. By that point in our lives, I think we were both getting awfully tired of worrying about impressions. I know I was. So I didn't put a lot of thought into the fact that he showed up in the uniform he wore for his courier job — a spiffy white pressed shirt with his name stitched in cursive blue thread over his left breast pocket. Jerry had a strawlike mop of hair on his head. Just one look at his coif and I could tell he'd styled with his fingers. It was a look I found attractive, since I've always been a sucker for that tousled boyish look, especially on a big man like Jerry.
Yet what truly attracted me to him was what lay deep underneath all that messed-up hair. I glimpsed it the first time we met. It was that part of him that he'd kept hidden away for all those years and was only now beginning to feel comfortable exposing to others. He possessed a mysterious mixture of boy and man. Jerry could stare at an animal and react with the wide-eyed, goofy wonder of a child. Then, the next thing you knew, he uttered something so profound you found yourself pondering it for weeks.
But more than anything else, I loved to listen to him carry on about numbers. And that night on our second date, when the two of us were wandering down Montana Avenue, I didn't want him to stop because of how happy he appeared finally to be sharing his world with someone. Jerry wove webs out of numbers. He glimpsed relationships among them that few people can fathom. How on earth he could glimpse the common thread that stretches between one number and the next, I hadn't a clue. But then, I didn't really have to — just as the average person doesn't have to know a thing about music theory in order to be blown away by the staggering beauty of Mozart's creations. All one had to do was listen to Jerry ramble about his numerical epiphanies to know you were in the presence of a gifted person.
When Jerry finally got it in his head to kiss me, the two of us were shaking like leaves. We both had so many strange feelings, generated by years' worth of frustration, loneliness, and empty hope, that one day we'd find someone with whom we could feel whole and normal. Jerry hadn't been with too many women. That was pretty clear. In contrast, I'd been around the block so many times I needed new tires. Although I'd endured many long stretches of celibacy, back during my tie-dyed hippie days, I bedded plenty of men. Yet all I really wanted was for one of them to see something inside of me that I'd never been able to find myself. Of course, they never did. So I drifted from one guy to the next, always thinking my latest conquest would be my knight, the one who would tell me he loved me, who'd whisper in my ear that I wasn't the freak everyone told me I was.
For as long as I could remember, I wondered why the world seemed so revolted by me, so repulsed. Eventually, I stopped searching for answers and resigned myself to the wretched hand I'd been dealt. If the world wanted me to be a freak, then that was just what I'd be — the world's biggest, most revolting freak. My family treated me as though I'd arrived here in a spaceship from some distant planet. To nearly everyone I encountered as a child, I seemed hopelessly off. So I coped the best I could, spending most of my time either laughing hysterically while rocking uncontrollably, or possessed by angry rages that reduced me to a shrieking pint-sized psychopath. Sometimes I'd sit for hours at a stretch, lost in silent, solitary contemplation. On a good day, I could usually be found in the backyard with my arms outstretched, peering up into the heavens, spinning furiously around and around in the grass, lost in the dizzying sensations, laughing like a maniac until I collapsed.
Everything I've written here about my past is the truth as I remember it, pieced together through the haze of my memory. But memories can be deceptive, especially when they're stored in a container that's been cracked as many times as mine has. There are days I believe all the words I've written here to be the literal truth. Other times, I realize that everything I recall from my past is simply the reconstructed narrative of how I experience events, rather than how they actually happened. It's no wonder I have such a rough time deciphering the difference between what is real and what is imagined — I've lived a hard life. Part of the time, the road I've taken has led me over mountain peaks, providing me with views so breathtaking I wanted to cry from the sheer ecstasy of it all. At other moments, the journey pulled me through valleys so dark and bleak I yearned to end my life, to be no more.
What I didn't know then, but now have begun to understand, is that I was hardly the only person in my family to suffer from Asperger's. I think we all had it in varying degrees, including my parents. We were a family of hopeless but absolutely brilliant geeks, forever different from the world around us. And through some cosmic genetic joke, I was the most different of all, with a nervous system far too fragile to deal with the chaos of my quirky, wacky family. It wasn't so much that I needed a different set of parents — in fact, if it weren't for them I wouldn't have been blessed with all my wonderful gifts for music and art. But in the best of all worlds, I should have been an only child, allowed to develop in quiet and cloistered seclusion. Instead, I was dropped in the middle of what seemed to be a perpetual war zone and I'm still shell-shocked from the experience.
My parents didn't know what to do with me. Nobody did. They both tried their best to love me, but they were terrified of me. Deep down I've always thought they both believed I was insane, a prospect that seemed to confirm their most dreadful fear — that the gene for madness ran through our family.
By the time I turned fourteen, I'd grown so out of control they packed me up and handed me over to a paranoid Christian cult in Texas. Actually, I was so mixed up at that point, such a neophyte to the topsy-turvy chaos unfolding inside my mind, I was the one who first suggested it. The group's leader preached that Armageddon lurked just around the corner. My older sister, Barbara, had joined up with the group years before. She raved about the camaraderie and sisterly love she'd found there. So my parents believed this cult, known as the Children of God, offered the perfect holding pen for their wayward daughter. After all, it was either that or an institution. And what parent really wants to ship their child off to the funny farm?
They nearly whooped with relief on that afternoon they dropped me off at the group's muddy, remote compound, then roared off down the highway to freedom. They never looked back, probably because they couldn't bear to. But I stood there in the mud watching them anyway, waiting for one of them to glance back at me, longing for them to raise their eyes and try to catch a glimpse of me in the rearview mirror. I ached to see the darks of their pupils. Instead, they both just sat there in the front seat, ramrod straight, peering through the dirty windshield as my father stomped on the accelerator and sped down that muddy dirt road back to the highway.
Maybe that was why I always had such a difficult time with other people's eyes. When I needed them most, they were nowhere to be found. Since then, it seemed like so much of my life had been spent either repulsed or hypnotized by them. In fact, I don't think I ever truly met a pair of eyes that I felt comfortable with until I looked into Jerry's. He wasn't judging me. I could feel it by the way he looked at me. And that was really what I remembered most about our first kiss. Not so much the awkward movement of Jerry's lips, but that look in his eyes. Pure compassion, understanding, and tenderness. Until that day, whenever I summoned the courage to look into the eyes of one of my lovers, all I saw was my blurry mirrored image gazing dumbly back at me, calling out: "Freak...Monster...Beast."
No one had ever looked at me the way Jerry did. Not once in my life had I felt anyone truly attempt to see me, to focus his vision squarely on me. Not like Jerry did when we kissed for the first time inside that hollowed-out wooden sculpture. And by the time we walked back to his apartment, I was positively smitten. He seemed to feel the same way, only there was something about his klutzy approach at unlocking his front door that led me to believe he had a bad case of butterflies in his stomach. I liked that. I couldn't remember the last time I'd made someone nervous like that — nervous in a good kind of way.
Once inside Jerry's place, he took my hand and gently guided me along a narrow trail he'd cut through the mess. I'm extremely tough to offend, but the pungent odor of dust mixed with mildew nearly overwhelmed me. The artifacts from Jerry's world surrounded me — his ancient typewriter on the dining room table; the black-and-white head from his Willy the Whale costume leaning against a pile of papers; a broken Zenith television set coated with an inch of dust. We sat there in silence for a few moments, gazing out at his private sea of clutter.
"I have trouble throwing things out," he confessed. All I could do was softly squeeze his hand and smile. I felt his body relax. Somewhere in another room, I could hear the fluttering of wings. I told myself they might belong to angels.
"Would you accept me as your husband?" Jerry asked five months after that night. After years of searching, I'd somehow stumbled upon another human being who finally understood the lonely, frustrating world where I'd spent my entire life. Afterward, we stood there, the two of us, and I looked deep into Jerry's eyes. For the first time in my life, I didn't detest the reflection I saw staring back at me.
But good things don't last. At least, they seldom seemed to in my life. Five years later, I'd pushed Jerry away from me and ran. And now I'd lost more than a friend. I'd thrown away my entire support network. I felt so isolated, I might as well have been sitting on the moon.
"I need to go to the hospital," I shouted the moment I heard my housemate walk through the front door. "I popped a bunch of pills." She walked into my desolate room, stared at me blankly for a moment, then wandered down the hallway to find the telephone and call a taxi. I tried to stand up, but my head was spinning from all those pills. So I just sat there on the bed and waited and stared dumbly out the broken, barrio-dust-covered window.
"They'll be here in a minute," she announced, sounding concerned over having to make the phone call. A moment later, I felt myself stand upright and stumble uneasily out through the open front door, out into the bright, dusty afternoon. The glare made me shield my eyes. All I wanted to do was sleep as I dreamily watched the cab pull up to the curb. It stopped. I smiled. Couldn't help it. Whenever I spotted a taxi, I thought about Jerry and all the years he'd spent driving one on the streets of San Diego. I pulled open the door, collapsed into the backseat, and closed my eyes. For a brief moment, I tried to imagine Jerry was my driver. I tried to pretend I still felt love for him. But just then, as the cab took me away from there, the only thing I felt was failure.
Copyright © 2007 by Jerry Newport, Mary Newport, and Johnny Dodd
Posted March 7, 2011
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Posted June 6, 2011
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Posted December 15, 2010
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Posted August 4, 2011
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