“They’ve both sent me messages,” Mani tells me miserably, as though having two people who he clearly likes—and who both seem interested—is the worst problem anyone ever had with their love life.
“I think if you just ignore them both they’ll probably assume you’re not interested and move on,” I remind him, kicking off my shoes as we walk down the steps to the beach. Walking along the beach always makes it easier to talk to Mani, because I don’t have to spend so much of my attention trying to stay sitting down.
“I know… I just wish I knew which one of them was more likely to do that first, so that I don’t have to make any decisions or reject anyone,” he says.
“Oh, also, can you write down a description of me as a child? I’m getting assessed for ADHD,” he says casually, throwing a rock into the waves.
“Isn’t that something only kids have?” I say. “Is that even real? Just a label they give to blame kids for having shitty parents. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re fine. I really don’t think you need to be on drugs.”
He rolls his eyes. “I didn’t ask for your opinion or to perpetuate stigma. I just want to talk to a doctor.”
“What kind of doctor?” I say, sceptically. I can tell I’m feeling a lot of things all at once, but it will take a while before I can work out what they all are. In the meantime, I just feel unreasonably pissed off.
“Do you want to listen to me?” he asks me, voice raised. “Do you want to hear what ADHD actually is or why I think I might have it?”
“I know what ADHD is,” I say.
“Just don’t worry about it. You’re not the only person who knew me as a kid, so just forget it.” He storms up the beach, back to the house.
“I just don’t want you to think there’s anything wrong with you,” I shout after him. “You’re perfect, Mani. You don’t need fixing.”
I kick the sand in frustration but it doesn’t help me feel less frustrated, just covers me in sand.
When I go home, Mani’s already left.
A few weeks later Alan Sebastian asks me if I’d ever wondered if I’m autistic. He’s been writing a lot of his book recently, and he’s told me his main character is autistic but doesn’t know about it yet.
“Uh,” I say, swinging around on my desk chair to face him. “Well I think you might be…”
“—I think that is probably quite obvious to anyone who has ever had a conversation with me,” he says. “I was wondering about you though.”
“I don’t… Alan Sebastian, I don’t think we’re the same in that way. Like… at all. And it’s surprising to me that you’d think so. Socially I’m not…”
“—Incompetent? Super really awkward.”
“I don’t think I struggle with that sort of thing in the same way you do. I’m always explaining social stuff to you, because I get it and you don’t. Which is fine. It’s not like… a judgement or anything. I like you the way you are.”
“I know,” he says. “I like me too.”
“You explain social things to me a lot. All the time. In a way nobody else ever can. People do completely incomprehensible things and you… break it down and explain the logic behind it and what it all means.”
“Exactly,” I say. I still feel like he is arguing with me, but also agreeing with me. I know later I will probably unpick the whole thing in my head and work it out.
“The thing is,” he says. “When you learn another language you have to learn a lot of explicit grammar rules and things that you just sort of pick up in your native language and never think about. I don’t wonder if maybe you’re autistic because you don’t understand other people… I wonder if maybe you’re autistic because you understand me.”
I don’t know what to say to that. I lean against the back of my chair.
Alan Sebastian continues, “Nobody else has ever been able to explain the way that people work. You understand it at some very deep level in a way other people don’t. You care a lot more about what other people think than I do. And you’re interested in the way that people communicate, in the way that I’m interested in people’s names and how databases work. It’s your thing. And I think… maybe you’re not good at it because it’s natural for you. Maybe… maybe you learned it.”
“Oh,” I say. “To answer your first question…Yes. I have wondered if I’m autistic. But because I understand subtext and social conventions… I just thought I couldn’t be. But… you’re kind of right. I know how to explain a lot of that stuff because I spend a lot of time… working it all out…”
And I stay up late after he goes to bed looking up autism on the Internet. And I read a lot. And I read a lot about how closely it seems to be linked to ADHD, and I read a lot about that too. And at three in the morning I climb into bed beside Alan Sebastian.
“Are you just coming to bed now?” he asks me.
“Yeah,” I say. “I think I owe Mani an apology.”
And Mani’s been ‘too busy’ to talk or visit for a while, but I go up to visit for his birthday, and take him out to dinner.
“I wanted to talk to you about… about what we talked about last time you were here. I wanted to know if you want to know why I said what I said.” I tell Mani as we wait for our food.
“Not really,” he says. “Just forget about it.”
“I’d really like to tell you,” I insist.
“I don’t need you to. I know why you think what you do. It’s what everyone thinks. Do you want to listen to me? Do you want to know what I think about it?”
“I do yeah. But um… I hyper-focused on reading about ADHD and autism for like 6 hours in a row the other night, so I think I probably already know a lot more than I did last time…”
“.. You know if you wanted to apologise you should have started with that.”
“I should have yeah. I’m really sorry Mani. I’m sorry I got so defensive and weird about it. I think maybe you might like to hear why.”
So I tell him about how I was diagnosed with ADHD as a kid, and how my father always told me it was just an excuse for my mum not raising me properly. And that she was lying to the doctors so she could take my medication. And how she did take my medication.
“She probably had it too,” he says.
“Maybe. She was also an addict though.”
“They um… They mentioned it when you were a kid. When you started school. And Aspergers—which is ASD now, obviously. So if you haven’t already you… maybe you should look into that as well. I never followed up with it. I meant to… then I didn’t. Maybe I didn’t really want to. Maybe I just forgot and tried to justify it to myself. And then… it just seemed like you were okay. It took you longer to learn some things but… it seemed like you were fine. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I missed that. I um… I wrote that letter. About you as a kid. If you still need it.”
“Dad already did it?”
“I’m sorry for going behind your back.”
“Yeah nah, that’s fine. I didn’t want you to feel like you were… broken. Maybe it would have been easier for you, if you’d been able to get some help.”
“Maybe. I was… I was okay. It’s really since I’ve been on my own that it’s become like… a major, major problem.”
So I ask him about his life and his two interesting people and he tells me I was right and that they’d both moved on.
“With each other,” he says.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“It’s fine. We’re all… friends… now.”
The food arrives and Mani eats the different parts of his meal one at a time so that he only has to deal with one texture at a time. And I notice that I’m eating mine all at once and just forcing myself not to pick out all of the weird parts because I feel like I shouldn’t make a fuss over it.
“Did you… Did you try the medication?” I ask.
“Yeah. I’ve been on it for a couple of weeks now. It’s nice to be able to think of something I want to do and then… do it instead of getting stuck.”
“So it helps?”
“It helps a lot.”
“That’s good,” I say. “That’s good. I’m really glad.”