I hear Adrian muttering and sighing in the kitchen and walk out of my room. My head is buzzing, as if the wasp nest that we found in our rolled-up porch curtain had relocated to my brain.
“I can hear you muttering and sighing,” I say. “Can you please just tell me what I did wrong?”
Adrian has been working from home for the past two weeks and we have had some iteration of that interaction at least once a day. I say things like:
“Please know that I am not being passive-aggressive or sarcastic. I literally cannot understand subtext.”
“I need you to explain to me verbally and in detail what I am doing that is annoying you.”
And Adrian will respond with, “I just am not feeling well, that’s all.”
Well, that part is true. He isn’t feeling well, which is why he is working from home. But, I know there is more. There always is, with almost everyone I have met.
This time, I appeal to Adrian again while he makes his breakfast. “Please. I know this is hard for you, too. You tend to be a non-verbal communicator. You use face and body language. I don’t understand that language. Please just tell me.”
Maybe it is because I acknowledge his experience that Adrian trusts me enough to say, “When I asked if you could move away from the toaster oven, you didn’t have to leave the room.”
“But … I said I would come back when you were done cooking.”
“But … you didn’t have to leave.”
“I know, but I wanted to.”
This is maddening. It is as though we are on opposite side of a river. We have each found enough rocks to place in the water to reach almost half-way across, but there is still a huge gap. White water rushes through that gap, carrying with it leaves and twigs and uprooted plants. I stand on my rock and he stands at his, closer, but still too far to jump.
“Why does it bother you that I left?” I ask, trying a different approach. A large branch careens over to us, bobbing and unpredictable, and I grab it, almost falling in. I lift up the branch and hold it out. It is long enough to bridge the gap.
Adrian grabs hold of the other end of the branch and says, “Because you didn’t have to leave. I just needed to snag my toast and get back to the stove before my eggs burned. You could have just taken one step to your right instead of leaving.”
We both sway a little as I lower my end of the heavy branch. “But, it doesn’t affect you one way or the other if I decide to leave.”
“I know, but I simply asked you to move over and you just left.”
A-ha. Now we are getting somewhere. I hoist the branch over my shoulder. Adrian is still holding his end in the strong clamp of his hand.
I say, “You thought I was mad and that is why I left, is that right?”
“I wasn’t mad. I would tell you if I was. But, I saw that you had a lot of things going on and my stuff could wait.”
“I just had to get my toast and then get back to the stove,” Adrian repeats. He sounds wounded and I realize that he rarely asks me to accommodate him. This one time he did and I left the room rather than move over.
It’s confusing. People often say they are not annoyed or angry when, in reality, they are. On the other hand, they often think that I am angry when, in fact, I feel neutral.
In this case, I knew that Adrian was not happy with me because I could hear him muttering and sighing. Going back to when I was very little, those sounds have been precursors to inexplicable tension and, sometimes, the dissolution of relationships. From my junior high school best friend to my college roommate, from my first crush to my last supervisor, I recognize those sighs and mutters as Something Foreboding, just as I recognize that the whirlpool forming in the flow of water between us is Something Foreboding. I just don’t know what that Something Foreboding is exactly.
Adrian, for his part, thought that I was angry when I walked out of the kitchen, saying, “I’ll just come back when you’re finished.” In reality, I was just doing what made the most sense. I was not harboring any negative feelings.
I shift the branch to my other shoulder. The river seems to be rising, getting louder, the whirlpool widening, but I still speak in a quiet voice. “Adrian, I have told you before that I don’t like fast movements. You move so fast while you are cooking. You have the eggs on the stove and then you are running to the toaster and then rushing back to the stove … it is overwhelming for me to be around that. It freaks me out.”
I move slowly, I think in large part due to my postural motor skills, which fall under sensory processing sensitivities. If I move fast, I will drop or break whatever is in my hands or along my pathway. I fall down and bump into obstacles. It makes me very nervous to be around people who move quickly, because I won’t be able to get out of the way quickly enough.
I continue, “My movements are sequential and deliberate. When you asked me to step aside, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do so fast enough for you to accomplish your tasks. It was better for me to leave. I promise that is the extent of it.”
Adrian nods. “Thank you for sharing that with me. I didn’t know that.”
But, see, that is the other thing. I have said before that my pace is slower than other people’s. I say this when we are visiting the city and I am carefully staring at the broken sidewalk while eyeing the people rushing around me just as that river does. I say this when we go out to eat and when we take Reko for his walk.
I often say how I feel, but people, even my loved ones, don’t seem to realize it. I think part of that is because I struggle with expressing myself orally. When I try, it is like watching fish swimming in a river, their forms blurry underwater. I will say, “I move slowly, especially when I am not alone” and mean that when I am around other people, I now have to be cautious of their unpredictable motions as well as my own motor skills. Perhaps I don’t express that clearly enough.
Now imagine that, in addition to water, the river is muddy. The blurry fish fade into shadows and nuances disappear. My affect is that mud. When I say, “Fast activities overwhelm me”, I mean just that. I am overwhelmed, mere moments away from a meltdown. But, because I don’t say it with drama or flair, people, even my loved ones, don’t understand the extent of how I am feeling it. The emotion is there, inside me, but my affect is monotonous or, as I consider it, matter-of-fact. I often think, My words should be sufficient. I don’t speak with theatrics but that doesn’t mean my words aren’t true.
I say to Adrian, “It must be difficult for you to be around me all day. This is my natural state: quiet, conserving energy, flat. There is a lot going on underneath, but this is how I present myself when I am alone.”
We look at each other. I can feel my face. It is arranged in a blank expression. I suppose some people would describe it as aloof or detached. It’s just my face. It makes people think I am angry when, in all likelihood, I am not even thinking about them. I am probably thinking about my routine, my writing, or my cooking. Adrian’s gaze is probing, reserved.
“Adrian,” I say, “In the evenings when we see each other after you come home, I know I am engaged. I laugh and can be silly,” he nods as I continue, “but that is not how I am naturally. I mean, all those reactions are genuine, but I am only that way in small bursts. The rest of the time I am like this.”
The foreboding whirlpool is mute, pulling into its vortex pebbles, silt, woody debris. I watch them twirl around and around before disappearing in that watery funnel. I shut up now, too, because I am aware that my oral communication skills will not be able to explain what I mean. I sound as though I am being fake with my husband, when in fact, I am more me with him than I have ever been with anyone else.
But the me me, the one who I am by myself, is, for the most part, silent. Verbally silent. There are lots and lots of thoughts. They fly through my brain like a flock of sandpipers, sweeping from one end of my mind to the other, through a spray of white water, swirling together in breathtaking patterns.
Adrian says, “It must be difficult for you to be around me all day.”
“As long as I can follow my routine and work on my writing, it’s fine,” I say. I think, You should probably smile at him now. But I don’t. I am still holding that branch and it is getting damn heavy.
Adrian puts his end down on his rock and looks at me, flexing his hands. He nods, encouraging me. There is a notch in my rock, possibly eroded by the river itself, the perfect size to catch hold of my end of the branch. I nestle it in there and stand up.
The branch stays in place, even with the powerful currents splashing over it. We each take a step, reaching out for balance.