“Aren’t you tired?”
His voice kind of snapped me out of the thousand-yard stare and hundred-mile-away mindset I’d acquired. I’d been sitting, staring at the horror convention crowd pass by my signing table for over an hour without anyone even glancing one of my book covers, all intent on meeting the movie stars nearby.
I took stock of the guy who sat beside me, halfway between my publisher’s table and one for a group of costumed performers called the Ghouligans. He was in his early thirties, overweight, about a week into growing a full beard across his broad cheeks. His eyes were close-set, his short brown hair a bit messy. A snowfall of dandruff flecked the shoulders of his new, black, horror-themed T shirt.
I guessed that I must have yawned to illicit his question. “I’m a bit tired.”
“The heat takes it out of you,” he said.
Indeed, while the convention center room had been cool when I arrived to set up, the mass of moving humanity had driven the temperature and humidity into the greenhouse range by now.
“Do you know what you should write?” he added.
Even being an author, this is rarely a lead question in a conversation with a stranger.
“No, tell me.”
“You need to write a story where the hero has Asperger’s. Do you know what that is?” His trace of a lisp made him seem much younger.
“Yes, my wife’s school has several children with Asperger’s Syndrome.”
His face lit up. He leaned closer to me, though he looked just past me. A bead of sweat rolled down the side of his face. “Really?”
“As a matter of fact,” I said, “in a story I’m writing now, a boy has Asperger’s. It makes him the only one immune to the disease that affects everyone else.”
“That’s great! I have Asperger’s.”
I had to bite back a sarcastic “You don’t say!” Even with my limited understanding of the symptoms, which I’d acquired by osmosis from my wife, he screamed of the disability.
“I don’t interact with people well,” he said. “I want to be by myself. They make me anxious. I avoid eye contact.” He overshared, rapid fire, as if he’d memorized his symptoms and now recited them as a test answer.
“That must be a very tough load to carry,” I said.
He reached for a camera on the corner of the Ghouligan’s table. It was a little silver digital model, several years out of date, but a step above a cheap pocket unit.
“I have this,” he said. “It helps me. I take pictures.”
Now I recognized him from the day before. He’d been taking pictures of the Ghouligans. I’d assumed he was working with them when he’d asked to sit in one of their temporarily empty seats behind the table. I now realized he was just a convention attendee, and how inappropriate, how Asperger’s, his request had been, and how he’s just assumed the seat again today for a quick break.
“When I take pictures,” he continued, “it makes me interact with people. It makes me get out there, out of my space. I can talk with people now. I can make eye contact.”
He made the last statement staring at my shoulder. The Ghouligan’s rep looked relieved for his reprieve. The Asperger’s man gave the camera a caress.
“It really helps me,” he repeated.
“That’s hard to do,” I said, “to force yourself out with people.”
A particularly well-costumed pumpkin-headed killer walked by. The Asperger’s man jumped up and waded into the crowd to take his picture.
I just marveled at this guy. He was fully aware of his disability, understood it completely, and took the difficult steps necessary to better fit into the society that swirled around him. These agonizing actions ran counter to every impulse his brain sent him. He had to ignore the programmed warnings that he’d no doubt obeyed for decades.
But worse for him, while he knew the “how” of assimilating, he probably did not understand the “why” of it all. He knew that he had to act a certain way, to push himself into uncomfortable human contact, but with the point of view of a rat traipsing through a maze. He knew the cheese was there, but the maze had to still seem pointless.
I couldn’t write irony like this. A sea of costumed people flowed through the convention looking for attention, passing in front of tables of the mega-famous signing pictures for fans, two tiers of society working hard to stand out above the crowd. The Asperger’s man was trying twice as hard work his way up to anonymous.
He came back to my table.
“When you finish that story,” he said, “with the Asperger’s boy? I’d like to read it. When will it be out?”
I gritted my teeth. The lengthy, uncertain path to publication, so frustrating for authors, would be more so to him.
“Probably years,” I said.
His face sagged. I handed him my card.
“Watch my website,” I said. “I’ll announce it there.”
He nodded as he looked at the floor. He took my card. Then he moved off to snap a quick photo of a vampire.
For most of us, a camera captures a moment of life. For the Asperger’s man, it functioned as a doorway to life. I wondered if he ever even downloaded the pictures.