This is Part 21; click here to read Breaking the Ice from the beginning.
Harsh fluorescent light glinted off the knives in the lunch line of the university cafeteria. Mark turned away, trying only to focus on squeezing the ketchup onto his cheeseburger. Then he wished he hadn’t because it looked almost like blood squirting out. He put the top bun on too quickly and it came out uneven, hanging off one side of the burger and leaving some meat and cheese accusingly visible on the other. Awkward, askew, irregular, messed up, out of balance. Just like his life had been since he started classes last month.
He didn’t understand why. Everything was supposed to be going perfectly now. All through high school, he’d done what he needed to do—earned high marks while also finding time for extracurriculars and turning in a top performance on the standardized tests. When he received a full academic scholarship, his parents couldn’t complain much about his choice to study biology in California instead of staying closer to his Baltimore home. It was all going exactly the way he had planned it. So, obviously, there was no reason whatsoever for him to feel like a tiny string might catch at any moment and his whole life unravel.
Choosing a table at random, he ate the burger without really noticing how it tasted. Get a grip, this is all okay, he told himself for the umpteenth time. That was true, right? The classes were interesting, they weren’t that hard, and nothing had in fact gone wrong. Actually, it ought to be much easier now that he wasn’t playing football anymore and had plenty of time to study.
So why did a knife on the other side of the table make him think again of cutting himself? That was a vivid mental image he hadn’t been able to shake off—a blade slicing into the tight skin over his biceps, letting blood spurt out along with all the unbearable pressure that had built up for years. He hadn’t really done it, of course; and he wasn’t going to, either. Only crazy people cut themselves. Crazy people who didn’t know how to behave and got sent away to an institution.
Stepping out of the cafeteria into the warm autumn sunshine, he blinked to clear his eyes of tears, but his vision only got more blurred. Oh look, a big strong football player crying all over the sidewalk, his internal voice jeered. They’ll lock you up for sure if you keep on acting like this.
“Hey, are you okay?”
The soft voice came from somewhere to his right. Mark turned his head, blinked again, and got her into focus. Long blonde hair, shining brightly like spun gold tresses from a fairy tale. This apparition was entirely modern, though. She wore faded jeans and had strawberry-pink nail polish on the fingers of her right hand. The dark plastic of a prosthetic hand took the place of her left. Her blue eyes seemed kind, but Mark had learned long ago that it wasn’t safe to let anyone know what he was feeling, no matter what their intentions might be.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I just have allergies. Hay fever. It’s ragweed season, you know. Ah-CHOO!” He gave an exaggerated sneeze that wouldn’t have been out of place in one of his high school drama performances.
“We don’t have ragweed in this part of the country,” she informed him. Then she tilted her head slightly to one side, like an inquisitive bird, and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Mark Woods,” he answered by rote, before it occurred to him that maybe he shouldn’t have said anything. Now that she knew his identity, what was to stop her from reporting him to campus security as someone who might be dangerously unstable? They could show up at his dorm room later, decide they didn’t like the look of him, and then bundle him off to a psych ward. Maybe the university would kick him out, just on the chance he might be a terrorist. He’d seen stories like that in the news.
“You’re a freshman, right?” she went on cheerfully. “So am I. My name is Joanne Dzeko. That’s D-Z-E-K-O. It’s okay if you forget how to spell it. Seems like everyone does.”
Mark was pretty sure it wouldn’t be the best idea to mention that he never forgot how to spell anything because his brain automatically translated speech first into pictures and then into text-mode images like a scrolling internal background screen, in twelve-point Times New Roman font. But that conclusion didn’t give him any useful insight into how he ought to answer, and so he just stood there fumbling for words. Something about what it was like to be a freshman? So far it hadn’t been much fun, though, and he didn’t want to say that either.
“You know, it’s okay if you feel nervous about going away to school,” Joanne finally said, after the silence had gotten so awkward that Mark felt like anything he could say would be all wrong. “Lots of people do, and the university has counselors who can help with that. I have a cousin who’s autistic; she started here two years ago and the Disability Services Office was a big help…”
She went on talking, but Mark didn’t hear much more of it. His only thought was that he must not have heard her correctly. After all the time and effort that he’d put into learning how to act just like everyone expected, surely a stranger he had just met couldn’t possibly think he was abnormal. Maybe she was just randomly making conversation about her cousin and didn’t mean anything by it. All those years of behavioral treatment at a residential school were supposed to have made his autism disappear—at least, that’s what his parents had been told when he came home.
He’d done all right at the regular high school, so it had to be true, didn’t it? Otherwise he was still damaged goods, a fraud who didn’t belong at the university with the normal people. If so, maybe he ought to slit his wrists and be done with it.
“I haven’t got a disability.” Mark almost didn’t recognize his own voice, which rang angrily in his ears before he had made any intentional decision to speak.
Joanne looked at him calmly for several seconds before holding up her prosthetic hand, which gleamed dully in the sunlight. “I don’t hide this hand, Mark. I don’t wear gloves all the time and go around pretending that my hands are exactly the same as everyone else’s.”
He stared back at her with very little comprehension; but somewhere, deep beneath the level of conscious awareness, he sensed things shifting into a different pattern. Like bubbles rising and bursting, he began to feel a release of the pressure that had been his constant companion for as long as he could remember.
“Gotta run,” Joanne declared, “it’s almost time for my next class! But I’ll see you around. Do you usually eat lunch here at the same time?”
Mark nodded, unsure if he could trust himself to speak.
“See you at noon tomorrow, then.”