After I signed the lease to my first apartment, which was located next to a strip club and potential meth lab, I remember sitting down in the empty space by myself and feeling a mixture of pride and relief. This space is all mine. I will spend the hours between nine in the morning and six in the evening in order to pay for the freedom of coming back to this place each night and having everything be on my terms. At the end of each day, I will retire to a place all my own, my own space in the world, vacant of anyone to critique any of my choices or point out or question any odd character traits that reveal themselves when in private. One of which was constantly having an episode of The West Wing playing on the television. I would wake up, turn the TV on and the DVD chapter list with Martin Sheen posed in front of a muted American flag and gazing off into the distance would be waiting, all I would have to do is push play. The West Wing was required to be on and turned to a specific volume in my home similar to the opening procedures of a grocer who each morning was required to turn on the music overhead and turn it off again when the work day was over. Only instead of a best of the 80’s, 90’s and today station it was a fictional President and his staff debating the legislative or political issues of the United States. It’s not like I had a framed picture of President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) mounted in a prominent place in my home, but I might as well have. President Bartlet is my favorite President of the United States, but you can’t tell people that. If anyone came over I would turn it off and hide the series away in a woven basket I had purchased for under five dollars at the Ross Dress For Less down the street and no one was the wiser.
The same went for my eating habits. Unless pilfering through my garbage, no one knew that I consumed a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese a day whether it be for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Friends and family knew I enjoyed it, but no one truly understood or was aware that my enjoyment of it bordered on devotion. Living alone meant no one was breathing down my neck as I stirred in frozen peas and ate out of the pot I made the whole disgusting thing in, lecturing me on the severe damages I was inflecting on my internal organs. Packages of processed powdered cheese and dry pasta filled my cupboards and no one could say a damn thing because anyone who walked through that door was a guest who had to be polite and keep their opinions to themselves. Usually if I was treating myself, I would buy the “deluxe” form of Kraft macaroni and cheese, which replaced the powdered processed cheese with a prepared processed cheese spread that comes in a foil pouch. This allows the cheese to be applied directly to the cooked pasta without the additional preparation or ingredients of milk and butter. The pasta is also different; elbow macaroni replaces the thin, straight macaroni supplied as part of the “original recipe.” But the point is I could enjoy it everyday along with listening to the inner workings of the Bartlet White House administration without anyone assessing or placing me on the scale of Aspergers syndrome.
But when you live with someone else, you can only suppress your true self for so long before these behaviors slip out, and once they do, they will not only get called out, but be put in a spotlight, a glaring spotlight, like one beaming down from a search and rescue helicopter. It was only the first night in our new apartment when Josh and I were watching television (not The West Wing) and he asked, “What are you looking at?” “Huh?” I said my eyes landing on him. “You are looking around from corner to corner of the room, what are you doing?” he explained, searching the corners of the rooms with his own eyes. I was quiet. “Nothing, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. Later that night, while he was asleep, I would sneak into our living room and begin re-arranging all the furniture. Adding a piece from the guest bedroom along with a lamp to the living room, neatly stacking books, moving the kitchen appliances around, picking Plumeria flowers from an outside bush and arranging them in a glass cup on the dining room table. I was like the Santa Claus of interior decoration, or possibly Martha Stewart, but the Martha she was after the experience of prison.
“Where did the toaster oven go?” Josh would ask in the morning, inspecting the new shelf full of neatly stacked dish wear, arranged in such a way to make the shelf and its contents look as if they were for sale in a Pottery Barn. “It was red and ugly so it’s in the closet of the guest room,” I told him. “How did you move that clock? Where did you get nails and a hammer?” I never need nails and a hammer, it is a skill of mine to somehow always find a way to hang things on walls without them. Tip: the heel of a cowboy boot can be used to hammer in a piece of metal from a picture frame into a wall. Sometimes this means when I vacate an apartment there will be gaping holes or goo smeared across the walls. If it’s a critical problem a bill from the landlord usually appears in the mail a few weeks later, but my last landlord just sent me an email littered with multiple sad face emojiis.
In Target, I would abandon Josh in the spicy food aisle and return suspiciously and out of nowhere. “Where did you go?” He would ask, only to realize as we were checking out that foreign items had been added to our cart. “Wait a minute what it this tiny porcelain dish? We didn’t get that,” he would say holding it up confused. “I’m buying that.” He looked at me sternly. “For my shells,” I said, tilting my head to one side and smiling with no teeth. “And these mason jars too?” He asked unloading three of them and raising his eyebrows. “Those are to store dry coffee and tea bags in,” I explained. “Tea bags?” he said, and then after digging through the cart holding up a box with a cartoon bear wearing a nightgown. “Sleepy time tea bags,” I confirmed. “What are these?” he asked holding up a red package that looked like it was defrosting. “You asked me to get some chicken to cook,” I reminded him. “Dino…nuggies?” he read off the melting bag. “They are chicken nuggets,” I explained. “You microwave them.” “But they are shaped like T-Rexes,” he pointed out. I was searching his face, unable to see the problem.
I’ve read astrology articles online that describe the relationship between gentle, contemplative and creative Cancer (Josh) and inquisitive, passionate and intense Scorpio (me) as a good match because Cancers are the only astrological sign that can handle or put up with the overwhelming amounts of crazy Scorpios dish out. I think the article phrased it something like Cancers can “weather the storm of Scorpio due to their deep emotional ties.” As I arrange shells I found on the beach in porcelain bowls and fill mason jars with sleepy time tea bags I wonder if this is like a light rain shower on Josh’s head. We were walking back from town the other day, at first side by side holding hands, then just side by side, and then me trailing behind veering off the path to pick wildflowers and collect rocks and driftwood. “Baby, the bugs…I mean there could be bugs in all that..stuff,” he told me looking equal parts annoyed, exhausted and worried. Where is she going to put that driftwood? Are those rocks? What does she need all those rocks for?
If I was just a roommate, these complaints could be filed away and resolved without the hurt feelings factor, but as a girlfriend, a partner, a mate, these complaints are now startling revelations, ones that ask who is this person and how can we fix them? We will be at the farmers market buying fruit and I will be fondling all the lemons. “Four lemons will fill the woven basket I bought perfectly and the colors will compliment each other so well, you know on that shelf, you know the one?” I’ll say, my eyes swirling around in circles, lemons dancing around my head. My woven basket obsession ranks just below my obsession with serial political dramas. When I discovered there was a Ross Dress For Less on the Big Island I hugged Josh in celebration. “I like Ross too,” Josh agreed. “They have the BEST woven basket selection!” I squealed. “Wait, woven baskets?” he repeated, disappointed. I speak about woven baskets more than the average Joe, it definitely seems to get brought up in many of my conversations. If someone has one in their home I notice it, and compliment it. I bring it up in conversations centered around art or design. “Paintings are pretty, but what about woven baskets?” Now in the farmers market woven baskets had come up again. “Woven baskets..” he muttered. “What was that?” I’ll say, pissy. “Lets get some onions for cooking,” he will respond holding up an oversized red onion. “Uhm, that massive ugly onion can be stored in the pantry..away from all the pretty lemons in the pretty basket,” I will tell him curtly and he will fire back “You mean in the pantry with the years supply of Kraft macaroni and cheese we bought?” And it will sting.
More startling than the revelation of your own unique behavior is the discovery that whoever you are living with, roommate, friend, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, daughter, son, is not without their own set of odd traits and behaviors. We are all holding hands on the Aspergers scale- we must remember this. Josh has his, I won’t write about them because knowing them is what makes him my boyfriend, special to me and no one else. It’s the private weird oddities and quirks about people that you end up cherishing the most, because they are true. And when they aren’t hidden from you anymore, you end up protecting them, out of love. And you create your own safe space in the world, but with someone else. One that you can come home to and eat Kraft mac and cheese and watch The West Wing with, in peace.