I'm out for dinner with a friend and former colleague, and she is reminiscing.
Remember how weird people found you? She pours herself a glass of wine, laughing. You almost didn’t get hired, she says. They thought you were smart, but arrogant. She rolls her eyes at the memory. I told them I thought you were nice, she adds, just really direct.
I take a bite of my food and nod sagely, in the manner, I hope, of a person who is not surprised -- at all -- to hear any of this. Because I was totally expecting this (I really wasn't). In fact, I am reeling a bit inwardly. People thought I was weird? How did I not know this? And my “arrogance” almost cost me a job? Also…I’m arrogant?
It’s true that growing up, I knew I wasn’t exactly “normal.” How could I not, given how often people reminded me of it? My mum would shake her head at me with incomprehension almost daily it seemed. “You’re not like other people” she would mutter. And I wasn’t. The list of strange things I have done is legendary, including the story of how I hula hooped myself into the hospital as a toddler. I wasn’t really capable of doing things in moderation; instead, I would regularly go overboard in unexpectedly epic and alarming ways.
But that was a long time ago. Since then, I’d learned how to put expressions on my face, to put people at ease. I’d also learned how to small talk, not great but well enough. With these hardwon skills, I suppose I'd just taken it for granted that people at work liked me well enough. And they had…most of them if not all…probably…eventually…even if the first impression I made wasn’t great. Maybe not though. How would I have known?
It occurs to me, as my thoughts loop, that I’ve never been good at telling if people liked me, or if they were annoyed by me. They kind of feel the same to me. How do other people do it? But it’s fine. My friend has moved on. Oh no. She’s now telling the story of My Picture. I laugh, because it’s pretty funny. But I also cringe.
A consultant had come to my office one day, and given me a framed photo of myself, from a recent trip we’d taken together, to Chiapas. In the photo, I am modelling a shawl, woven by an indigenous woman we’d met. My colleague had taken the photo and framed it for me, which I thought was very sweet of her. I decided to showcase it on my desk, to show my gratitude. And also because that’s what I saw other people doing with photos.
That photo stayed on my desk for a year. Until one day I walked into my office and found someone there – I can't remember who - holding it in their hand and waving it around, laughing. Not meanly, but merrily. They thought it was hilarious, the way I was always bucking convention. Because, apparently, it’s Not Normal to put a picture of yourself on your desk. Only narcissists do a weird shit like that I was told..
Do people think I’m narcissistic, I remember asking? The answer was oh no, not everybody, just some people. Oh. Ok. I thought she was joking. Maybe she wasn't?
I went home that afternoon and asked my partner if they were right. Is it really that weird to put a picture of yourself on your desk at work? I was expecting him to say “What’s weird about that, people put pictures up all the time!” Instead, he says yeah, that’s a bit unusual. He explains that desk pictures are normally of your kids, spouse, friends, family, pets or hobbies. Not of yourself. He’s trying to be helpful, which annoys me. I remind him he’s adhd and wonder, out loud, whether he knows anything at all. But I know he’s right. And I’m wrong. (Or, maybe I'm just ahead of my time, Instagram anyone?)
I once wrote a story that got published in a children’s literary magazine, about an alien who looks like a devil -- red skin and horns and a tail -- but is otherwise normal (ie, not evil). In my story, the alien comes to Earth on Halloween night, dresses up as a Kidney Bean, and goes trick or treating with the other costumed kids. The irony of my story, of course, was that a devil doesn't need a costume, because he's already a monster. Except he isn't. Amazing.
I learn later that a persistent feeling of being alien, born on the wrong planet, is a common experience for many autists. But my diagnosis would be decades away.
In the meantime, I tried to go about my life like a kidney bean, quiet and harmless, but people often saw something more sinister, more arrogant and rudely oppositional. Not everybody of course. A lot of people really like me. But almost nobody understands me.
I am feeling a gravitational pull these days, a need to pull it all together, once and for all, the the many clues littered throughout my history. I want to pick them up one by one, turn them over, feel the weight of them in my hands, unravel them and see what comes of it.