Oscar smiled as Alphonse held out her pale hand, producing two squirming caterpillars. “I wonder when they’ll turn into butterflies,” he mused.
All summer they had been collecting caterpillars together, observing excitedly as they morphed toward their glorious state of adulthood. Sitting side by side on a park bench, Oscar shifted his gaze to Alphonse. He thought the story of how her parents chose her name was both ridiculous and cool. When her parents were expecting, one time they went on a trip and said they heard the name Alphonse fall on their ears at the airport like a voice from the sky. Except it was an ordinary announcement for a lost person. The disembodied voice over the loudspeaker called, “Alphonse DeLou, please report to baggage claim.” Something made this young couple look at each other and decide on the spot: They would name their still-forming daughter Alphonse. Even though it was a man’s name, her parents thought it was absolutely perfect.
As Oscar watched Alphonse, his eyes lingered on her delicate features. Her copper hair fell in loose wave just below her shoulders. It framed her porcelain face while a constellation of tiny, pale freckles dusted across her nose and cheeks. Yet it was her stormy, gray eyes that were his favorite of all her features.
All of a sudden, he felt his stomach drop. It was like that feeling you get on a roller coaster that you’ve left your stomach three feet behind you. An instant shift in the temperature, a dismaying jolt in the air. Something was wrong. He asked her if she was upset; she tensed and denied it.
It wasn’t the first time, and he always felt slightly ill when Alphonse did this. It was like she didn’t trust him enough to share her true thoughts with him. He had learned over the months that she wasn’t always in control of her emotions, but that was okay with him. He liked her that way. She was quirky. She could talk a blue streak about astrophysics and toted around a weird collection of pens, all meticulously arranged. She was exquisitely sensitive to textures, and went barefoot often, even in coldest winter. And she needed someone to help get her wild, you’ll-never-really-know-me nature under control. As for him, he needed someone to talk to. In his family — or what was left of it after the divorce — no one ever talked about feelings. Ever. Whenever he walked in the door after school, his emotions went on lockdown and his stomach twisted in knots. He escaped whenever he got the chance.
The memory came to him immediately, embracing him like an old friend, of the dumb luck that caused them to collide that one night in the park. As he remembered, Oscar became lost in his own head. The snow swirled, coming to rest on his eyelashes and frosting his short brown hair. As he sat alone on a cold stone bench, the tears of the snow queen building up upon his thin, ragged sweatshirt, a shadow strode slowly in his direction. He glanced up and saw a figure in a knit sweater, torn, bleached skinny jeans, Keds soaked by the snow, and a face rosy like a girl from a Jane Austen book. She sat down next to him, oblivious to the fact that he was even there. Moments crawled past. Then, on a timid impulse, he tapped her shoulder.
She spun around, startled by his oh-so-slight touch. He saw her open her mouth, hesitate, then close it. She bolted upright and turned on her heels, a colt fleeing someone who got too close in the pasture. As she began to dart away, he rose quickly. A voice inside him urged, “Go after her! Say something!” He stuttered nervously, “I… um. H– hi?”
She responded half-heartedly, as if part of her wasn’t really there. “Are you talking to me?
“Uh… I guess so?”
“Oh. Well, in that case, what do you want?” A nervous flick of her hair.
“Um… I guess I wanted to ask if you were okay. You look kind of… uh, lost.”
“Why would you think that?” she responded sharply.
“Sorry. I shouldn’t have asked,” he pleaded, his hands up defensively.
“No, it’s okay,” she mumbled, softening a little. “And why do you keep saying ‘I guess’?”
“I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
A tentative smile. “Oh. Thanks,” she smiled back, shivering from the cold.
“Hey, do you want my sweatshirt? I’ll be fine without it,” he offered.
“You’ll freeze. I’m okay in this.” She gestured to her faded sweater.
“It matches your eyes,” he pointed out, noticing for the first time those gray irises. He imagined a small window behind them, which he could climb through and wander the pathways of her thoughts.
“Um, hello?” she interrupted, waving a hand in front of his face. “Earth to… whatever-your-name-is?”
“Huh?” he said, snapping back to reality. “Sorry. I… I… sorry.” Now he sounded like an idiot.
She absolved him with a nervous laugh, “It’s okay. I do that too.”
Alphonse smiled as the caterpillars’ tiny feet tickled her hand. She glanced at Oscar, his brown eyes fixed on the little creatures roaming her palm. Then suddenly the endorphins from her palm gave way to a wave of dread that washed her abruptly out to sea. For some reason, she felt unable to tell him what she was thinking. Not just unwilling; her fight-or-flight reflex flashed red. She didn’t know why her brain was doing this. Anxiety is the single most common feature of autistics; why couldn’t she use that big brain of hers to calm down? He means so much more to me than he realizes, she worried. She was terrified by the possibility of him getting mad at her if she confronted him. It wasn’t anything big, so why did she feel overwhelmed?
Alphonse had burned through so many friends because she constantly failed to get any sort of grip on her emotions; she ended up labelled “emo”. Unlike the others, Oscar had always tolerated her quirks. Actually, he liked them. What did bother him, though, was when she tried to hide her feelings. It made him feel shut out, just like he felt at home. Alphonse was doing it now, along with that invisible-trembling thing which always made him think she was ready to bolt no matter how much oats he offered.
They both knew she was a terrible liar; Aspies are too literal to lie. The thing was, she dreaded the reaction he might have if she told him what she was feeling. Secretly, she was afraid of him deciding she was too much trouble to care about anymore. That scared her more than anything.
He asked her if she was okay. She hesitated. Am I okay? she asked herself. She wasn’t quite sure. “I’m… fine.” It sounded forced. She knew he knew she wasn’t really fine. Why tell such an obvious lie? She decided to wait for his reaction, for better or worse. None came. Then Alphonse remembered: Amnesty.
“Can I have amnesty?” she asked, in a thin voice. “Amnesty” was a pact she and Oscar had made when they became friends. It allowed one person to speak their mind with the other person’s promise that they wouldn’t get upset. To put it into effect, all one had to do was say the word. Simple as that. It was especially important to Alphonse, since she was so often at the mercy of her emotions.
“Sure,” Oscar agreed.
“I feel like… you’re embarrassed to be seen with me.” She watched him, waiting for a reaction. It was such a small thing, but the tidal wave of a wounded adolescent was already peaking, ready to lay waste to anyone in its path. Finally, after what seemed like hours, he answered.
“I don’t know what to say,” he blurted, scrambling before the wave hit him. “We hang out a lot together, don’t we?”
“What about last Saturday when I asked if you wanted to go get lunch with me?” she spat, her words rushing together. “You told me you didn’t feel well and wanted to stay home. Then when I went into town by myself, you and your friends were eating lunch on the other side of the deli!”
“I felt better. I called you, but you didn’t pick up.”
“You never called. My phone was in my pocket the whole time.”
“I thought we already resolved this.” He was cornered and wanted to change the subject.
“We did, but back in June, you didn’t answer my phone calls for, like, two weeks!” she argued fiercely. He could imagine her furiously shaking her mane.
“That was over three months ago! Why are you still so upset?”
“Don’t play dumb, you know exactly why I’m angry! I made a simple request, and you didn’t bother to apologize!”
“Okay. Okay. I’m sorry!” Oscar retorted sarcastically. “There. Happy now?”
“You didn’t mean that! I lthought we were best friends, but now I’m not so sure. You’re becoming just like all the others!” spend less and less time “We’re still–” he started to say.
“Don’t even.” Alphonse’s gray eyes flashed.
All her life, she had been underestimated. Her parents were the only ones who really understood her, and yet even they were too wrapped up in their own demons. Her family had moved to six different towns throughout her childhood. She was smart and looked like a typical girl, but had learning differences that meant she was never able to fit in. She was bullied by the bigger kids. The popular kids. The rich kids. Sh never got their jokes, so she became the butt of them. After years of this, Alphonse eventually refused to be pushed around. She learned to use words like a switchblade, slashing her tormentors so fast they didn’t see it coming. She’d cut them with their own insecurities. After a handful of slashings, the bullies learned to steer clear.
Abruptly, just like that, the tidal wave eased. There was silence between Oscar and Alphonse,. The rage had dissipated. She felt drained and powerless. He hadn’t done anything wrong. She was the big bad wolf. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, her voice trembling slightly. “This is my fault. I’m out of control–” She stopped herself. Again. I went off on him for the hundredth time. I have to make it right before he gives up on me.
She summoned her courage and mumbled, “I let myself get out of control again. I really didn’t mean to, it’s just..”
Finally, he stuttered, “I…I know.”
“You… do?” She was completely perplexed by this. How could he understand, she wondered, when he doesn’t have a brain like mine? After what I always put him through?
Almost as if he was reading her thoughts, he responded softly, “I know you better than you think I do.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s okay. I broke the amnesty. You have feelings. You’re human. I guess I wasn’t taking that into consideration. I know that you can get a little impulsive, and that’s okay. Thanks for the apology. You owned up to your words, and that makes you okay in my book.”
“I…” Alphonse stammered.
“Don’t know what to say?” he finished her sentence, a grin of relief pushing back his cheeks.
“Yeah,” she sighed.
“That’s okay too. I know the feeling,” he comforted her.
“Really?” she asked. “You’re sure you’re not embarrassed to be seen with me?” She felt the fear leaving her. There was his superpower: he could make the fear go away.
“Never,” he smiled. All Alphonse could do was smile back, unable to hold it in any longer. His arms enveloped her, feeling the muscles in her back relax. For just a moment, he had tamed the colt.