For my second year in Spain, I worked at a semi-private middle school in the outskirts of Madrid. Every workday (Monday thru Thursday), my coworkers and I would go to a bar a block away from campus and enjoy the “menu del dia” or “menu of the day.” In the States, the big meal is dinner, in Spain it’s lunch. It’s often a menu made up of three or more courses (wine or beer included) starting with an appetizer (primero) followed by a meat dish (segundo), finishing with coffee and/or dessert. In the midst of a long work day in Los Angeles, lunch is often overlooked, not so in Madrid. While the US is trying to stuff a burger and fries into thirty minutes or less, the menu del dia can last for hours. For my co-workers and me it lasted two (not including the traditional siesta which we did not get to enjoy due to our work schedule).
During my first two weeks at the new school, I struggled to get by with pre-packaged sandwiches from the “Chino” (the term the Spaniards use for a type of convenience store owned by Chinese). The owners speak Mandarin, a speck of Spanish and no English. I speak English, a speck of Spanish (Castillian not Latin American, Spaniards are very particular about what they call their language) and no Mandarin. Mostly I just pointed….to that, that unappetizing but hopefully mildly nutritious and somewhat filling puréed meat between two shingles. It didn’t sound appetizing. It didn’t look appetizing and it didn’t taste it either. After two weeks, I convinced myself to keep looking. Most of the Spanish teachers (teachers who were Spanish not teachers who taught Spanish) fancied a bar a block away. “A bar?” I thought, “what good food will I find in a bar, that bar?” (I forgot I was in Spain). From the outside, it looked cluttered, unclean and unappetizing. I delayed the inevitable for as long as I could. Finally, I took a deep breath, held it (I was sure there’d be a stench) and I stepped up into that bar. I’m glad I did. The meals were amazing! Even the tapas (traditional Spanish appetizers) were incredible! One, I could swear, was bacon’s older brother. It was a baked, and not a crispy version of chicharrones. I forget the name but imagine chunk bacon. That’s what it tasted like. If there were no other reason to make it past that the front door, the chunk bacon would have been reward enough. There was more. There was always more. Good food and a variety of specials that changed daily kept us coming back.
The chef was a quiet and unassuming but friendly woman who spent most of the time in a kitchen the size of a closet. Spain has those kinds of kitchens, not everywhere but often, they’re called “cocina americana.” I don’t know why. I’ve never seen kitchens so small in America. The owners were a husband and wife. He was a big man and before knowing him, I thought him cold. After a few weeks of going there, he was warm. He had broad shoulders, a loud smile and a thick grey mustache. His wife was equally friendly. She was small and thin with wiry hands and her hair was mostly dark with a few grey strands. She wore a loud smile also but her laughter was even louder. In fact, her laughter was more like a cackle. Often times, when she’d go outside to have a cigarette, she’d have a brief conversation with a patron and she’d cackle. She’d cackle and she’d smoke. They all smoked. Many people in Madrid smoke. It’s quite common, much more common than it is in the US and it’s almost everywhere, everywhere but indoors, that is, and it’s accepted. There is no stigma to it. Normally, I might be put off by such cackling (the smoking didn’t bother me. I used to smoke), but in this case, it was part of her honest charm. I liked her. I liked him. I liked them all. Sometimes we even smoked together.
Not long after, all of the native English teachers made the bar their afternoon home as well. I think they discovered it before I did, but it wasn’t until about a month into being at work that our schedules lined up so as to permit our lunches to be enjoyed together. It quickly became our routine. If one of us got out of class late, we all knew where the others would be.
One day, I think it was a Wednesday, we all (five of us) gathered at our watering hole and asked for the specials. I remember one because I didn’t want to remember it. I didn’t want to order it, but I did. I thought it was something else. It wasn’t. It was tripe, just tripe…covered in brown sauce. Sometimes I can manage tripe. Sometimes I enjoy it. Good menudo (it’s Mexican not Spanish, by the way) is great, for instance. This? Not so much. I had had it once before…when I was expecting it. That day I was expecting something else and when the owner came out to place it before me I winced. He hadn’t even set it down yet and I was visibly disappointed. I sent it back. The owner wasn’t happy about it, he even softly exclaimed “mierda” (shit) as he walked away, but I knew him well enough to know he’d understand. He would. My friends wouldn’t.
When I turned my attention back to the table to continue the topic at hand, I discovered there was a new topic, me and my actions. I wasn’t prepared and apparently neither were my co-workers. They were aghast.
“What?” I asked boldly.
“Peter! Did you see what you just did?”
“Yeah” I shrugged “I sent it back. So what?”
The fact that I was so matter of fact about it probably worsened things.
“Peter, that was so insensitive! What you did was incredibly rude and did you see the owner? He was pissed!”
“He’ll get over it. We come in here all the time and we pay good money…”
“Maybe we won’t…” they interrupted.
I continued, oblivious to their warning. “I mean, we eat here all the time. And really, if this is an issue, it’s an issue between him and me….”
I finally heard their “we“.
I looked around to each face individually. I was looking for understanding. I was looking for sympathy. I was looking for dissent. I was looking for one person who would come to my aid and tell me I wasn’t alone, but I was.
What I saw were clenched teeth, flaring nostrils and furrowed brows.
No longer were there five separate voices at the lunch table. There was one. My co-workers were a united front. They were speaking in one voice:
“You may come in here and you may eat lunch but you may be alone.”
The last bit of my previous sentence slipped out. “…this has nothing to do with you!”
Immediately their tone changed. No longer were they speaking quickly or with a raised voice. They were distant and disengaged. I recognized it instantly. More than any other tone, I fear it. It’s far worse than a belt or a shouting, threatening voice. It is the culmination of everything that I fear and I would instigate and volunteer for abuse from my father rather than ever risk it being heard in our house. It’s the tone of indifference.
Now, they were speaking slowly, deliberately, indifferently. Pausing… between… each… word…
They corrected me:
My chair began to recede.
The further I receded the further their faces pushed forward. I was shrinking, getting smaller and falling backwards.
The back of my chair hit the wall behind me.
I could no longer see the edge of the table. There was no food. There were no drinks. I was Pluto on the edge of my orbit. They were Saturn, Venus and the Sun. They were and I wasn’t. I was no longer part of them.
For a brief moment, I floated in emptiness. At first, it was slowly, looking around at the vacuum of space ahead of me, sweetly, serenely, numb to the outside world and unaware of the gravity of what had just hit me. Then it was totally different. It was the opposite. My thoughts slowly started to gather and collect and I could feel them come back to me. I considered what was before me, what had happened, where I was and why I was alone. I had no answers and no explanations. To this day, I still don’t understand why my co-workers were as upset as they were. I only know that they were upset until they weren’t and it’s when they weren’t upset anymore that I began to split and then I was spinning and twisting and swirling without a buoy or an anchor or a rudder. I had no connection. I had no frame. I had no reference. I was adrift and all that I could see were their faces in my mind’s eye. Again, their teeth, their nostrils and their brows, all of them, were pulsing and pulsating and growing larger and getting bigger until I could feel my universe was beginning to break apart. And then…
Panic for other people might consist of running and sprinting and leaping and breathing uncontrollably. It might consist of standing and lashing out, throwing punches, throwing plates, kicking doors and kicking cabinets. For me panic consists of tears. Some deal with their adrenalin in more conventional ways; “fight or flight”, I believe these examples are called, I cry.
Contrary to what I was told as a child, crying is healthy and extremely therapeutic. It is a release and an overflow of overwhelming emotions which would otherwise wither and rot like cancer if allowed to sit and stagnate in my soul. Not only do real men cry, I look for it in any man I approach for wisdom and counsel. It demonstrates maturity, confidence, emotional availability and courage, all of which I am in short supply.
Crying was probably the best thing for me. I was cornered and I had no choice. I was so overwhelmed by what I was feeling I no longer worried what I’d feel like if they knew.
Lowering my head in defeat, I looked down and quietly let my embarrassment slip out. “I have Aspergers” I confessed.
To this day, I don’t like to admit it. Even now, as I’m typing this, I’m crying because I don’t like to admit that I’m different. I worry about what you might think. I’m afraid of what you might say. I’m afraid you will judge me. I worry that I won’t be “a part of”. I worry that I’m not as human as you are and that this is why I don’t get your jokes, don’t understand your dating games and can’t comprehend the dishonesty of “would you like to come up for a night cap” when what you’re really asking is “would you like to fuck?” It’s as though you’re speaking in code and I’m the only one who can’t crack it.
As if the “terminal uniqueness” of being an alcoholic weren’t enough, having Aspergers to add to it (the realization that I have this condition came late in life, very late, by the way) can make it absolutely unbearable. For all the effort human beings like to put into being unique and standing out in a crowd, few things are as lonely and as isolating as being different and the only isolation worse than being different, apparently given my admission at the lunch table, is the isolation of rejection, being surrounded by others and yet alone.
My admission was met with silence. My worst fears were confirmed. I knew they wouldn’t understand. Sure enough, as a group, they stood up. They collected their belongings. They maintained their disapproval. They excused themselves and they left me at table all alone. Only they didn’t. They didn’t do that. Instead, after a few moments, one of them broke the silence.
“I’m sorry, Peter. I didn’t know.”
Trying to salvage the last bits of dignity that I could manage to muster, I weakly snarled through my tears “Does it make a difference?”
“Yeah, it does,” another offered. “I’m sorry.”
“Me too, Pete. It’s all good.”
When they spoke me into outer darkness, they did so collectively, with one voice. When they invited me back to their presence, they did it individually.
Within minutes, I was restored. I was lifted up, accepted and embraced. I was one of them again. We carried on. We laughed. We teased. We ate our lunch and we gossiped about our boss who would say one thing and do another. In other words, we did what we normally did.
We finished our lunch by selecting coffee and paying our bill. While the others headed for the door to smoke, I trailed behind. I stepped up to the bar, looked at the owner, reached over the counter with my hand and apologized to his face. Through his white whiskers, he smiled warmly, shook my right hand with his, raised his left, as if to dust away my words as being unnecessary, and said: “No pasa nada.” Don’t worry about it.