Carry the Ocean
Normal is just a setting on the dryer.
High school graduate Jeremey Samson is looking forward to burying his head under the covers and sleeping until it’s time to leave for college. Then a tornado named Emmet Washington enters his life. The young man with a double major in math and computer science is handsome, forward, wicked smart, interested in dating Jeremey—and he has autism.
But Jeremey doesn’t judge him for that. He’s too busy judging himself, as are his parents, who don’t believe in things like clinical depression. When Jeremey’s untreated illness reaches a critical breaking point, Emmet is the white knight who rescues him and brings him along as a roommate to The Roosevelt, a quirky new assisted living facility.
As Jeremey and Emmet find their feet at The Roosevelt, they begin to believe they can be loved for the men they are beyond their disabilities. But before they can trust enough to fall head over heels, they must trust their own convictions that friendship is a healing force and love can overcome any obstacle.
It took me ten months to meet Jeremey Samson.
I saw Jeremey the day we moved into our house in Ames, Iowa. We moved there before I started my freshman year at Iowa State University. Jeremey’s house was across from ours in the back, on the other side of the train tracks that ran through where an alley should have been. When I walked with my aunt Althea to the organic grocery store down the street, I made her go the long way so I could memorize his house number and the license plate of the car in his driveway. It took a lot of online digging, but I learned his family’s name, and eventually I discovered his too. Jeremey Samson.
I didn’t approach him, though. I watched him from a distance. I studied him across the yard. I found his Instagram. He was quiet online, which is smart but makes it hard to learn about someone you’re too shy to say hello to in person. I would have introduced myself on social media, sent a message and gotten to know him first in text, but he only posted maybe one picture a month, and he never left comments.
He was a high school senior then. He had a friend named Bart, which is probably short for Bartholomew. Bart liked to post selfies on Instagram with his tongue sticking out. I followed Bart’s account because sometimes he took pictures of Jeremey.
Jeremey never stuck out his tongue, and his smile was always small, with his lips closed.
Sometimes I tried to find a logical reason why I liked Jeremey so much, but romantic feelings have nothing to do with logic. Sometimes what I liked best about Jeremey was the way he spelled his name. Jeremey, with an extra e. I made a computer program to spell his name out in a pretty font, and I always smiled at the third E. It made him special—ordinary Jeremys weren’t good enough to have all the Es.
Sometimes I liked him for his smile. Sometimes I liked him because he didn’t smile. Sometimes I got an erection because of the way he brushed his hair away from his face. It didn’t matter to my brain that these were odd reasons to care for someone. My brain, my body, my everything wanted to be Jeremey’s boyfriend.
I wanted to introduce myself, but I was nervous. My first year of college was challenging, and I didn’t have energy enough to deal with so many new things and making a new friend too. I kept hoping I would run into Jeremey on the street or at the library, but it never happened. As the school year wore on, Jeremey came outside less and less, and he posted fewer pictures, sometimes not posting anything for over a month. One day in May he had a graduation party, but not many people came to sit on his back deck with him. When I did see Jeremey, he looked sad.
I wanted to meet him and find out why he was sad, maybe make him happy. But I couldn’t. The truth was, I had a crush on Jeremey Samson. I didn’t just want to be his friend. I wanted to be his boyfriend.
Most people would say, Good job. You go get your boyfriend. If I went online to a message board, I could get anyone in the world to root for me. People hardly mind anymore if I’m gay, and nobody cares in Ames.
There’s one little issue though, something that would change most people’s minds about me. It’s the reason I had to wait so long to introduce myself to Jeremey, the reason I didn’t want to tell my family I had a crush. This tiny problem is the reason moving made me nervous, made college a struggle for me. Though I have tons of online friends, one fact about me changes what everyone thinks when they meet me in person. Because even though the me who writes like this is the same me who walks and talks and rides the bus to college, nobody believes it when they see me face-to-face.
My name is Emmet David Washington. I’m nineteen years old, and I’m a sophomore at Iowa State University studying computer science and applied physics. I got a perfect score on my ACT. I’m five feet nine inches tall with dark hair and blue-gray eyes. I enjoy puzzles and The Blues Brothers. I’m good at computers and anything to do with math. I remember almost everything I read and see. I’m gay. I love trains, pizza, and the sound of rain.
I also have autism spectrum disorder. It’s not even close to the most important thing about me, but as soon as people see me, watch me move, hear me speak, it’s the only thing that seems to matter. People treat me differently. They act as if I’m stupid or dangerous. They call me the R word or tell me I should be put in a home, and they mean institution, not the house where I live.
When people find out I have autism, they don’t think I should be allowed to be in love, not with Jeremey, not with anyone.
Which is crap. It’s like Elwood Blues says: everybody needs somebody to love. I’m an everybody. I get a somebody.
The problem is, getting a somebody is trickier if you have autism. If I wanted to introduce myself to Jeremey to see if he would be my friend, maybe something more, I couldn’t ignore him or let my autism make me uneasy about possible rejection. I tried to tell myself someone with such a quiet face and nice smile wouldn’t say mean things to me or call me the R word. I told myself to be brave.
It took me ten months to introduce myself to Jeremey Samson. To learn and memorize the etiquette, to find the right words that would show me to Jeremey, not my autism. It took a long time and a lot of work, but I did it.
I shouldn’t have worried so much about it. Frankly, I’m awesome, and anybody who doesn’t agree should get out of my way.
Before I talk about how I met Jeremey and became his boyfriend, I have to explain how my autism works. The first thing you have to learn about autism is that everyone’s is different, and doctors don’t know everything about the disorder. Some people argue about whether or not it’s actually a disorder at all, or if disorder is the right word. My mom says disorder makes it sound as if there’s something wrong with me, and there isn’t. I’m wired differently, but she says so is everyone if you come right down to it.
Honestly I think the word is correct. The word disorder means disruption of normal physical and mental functions. I understand no one is truly normal, but as I’ve told my mom, I deviate liberally from the mean. I’m not wired a little differently. I’m wired a lot differently.
It’s hard to describe how autism is different than the brain functions of people on the mean since I don’t know how a brain on the mean feels. The best summary I can give is to say I’m more sensitive than most people, and I don’t mean feelings getting hurt. My kind of sensitivity is if my socks have a seam on the inside of the toe it feels as if someone is scraping a trowel across my brain. A fan blowing on me can feel like ten million ants are crawling all over my skin. Noises don’t bother me, but flashing light makes me feel sick. Strong smells do the same thing, and certain food textures make me throw up. When I look at things, I see them extra bright, and every detail distracts me. All the sounds are louder, even someone’s breathing. Being with people too long often overwhelms me, because people can be highly over-stimulating. This is my problem at school. I don’t understand why I’m the only one who gets upset when people shove in the hallway or talk too loudly with sharp voices. Why would anyone enjoy that? Who wouldn’t be upset?
My aunt Althea has what when she was little they called mild Asperger’s, but they call Asperger’s autism now. When you talk about autism, you say someone is “on the spectrum”, like we’re all in this line and we all have different kinds of autism. Mostly I agree this is a good metaphor, for as much as I understand the concept of metaphor. Althea can function quite well. Most people don’t know she has autism at all. She can drive a car, which I’m jealous of. They say I can’t ever, no matter how many times I write out the Iowa Driver’s Manual from memory.
Althea lives with us, though, since she is as bad at math and organization as I am good at it. She can’t keep her room clean at all. Mom and I help her every Saturday, but I can’t go in for the first hour until Mom makes it less gross. Althea can have conversations more easily than I can, but she tests very poorly and has a difficult time focusing at most jobs, which is why she changes so often. Meanwhile, I focus too much. So you see, you can’t say autism and know what someone is. Any more than you can say boy or man and think you know a guy.
Althea says ASD—that’s shorthand for autism spectrum disorder—makes our filters thinner than most people’s. She says loud voices and smells bother everyone, but thicker filters mean people on the mean can ignore them. She and I can ignore bad stimuli too, but it takes effort.
She showed me a website about a woman with lupus who talks about spoons, how we all get so many spoons for each day of our lives, but people with intense physical or mental disability have to use more spoons to get through each day. I don’t understand what spoons have to do with anything, but I do know stimuli wears me out faster than it does most people. I’ve read the website But You Don’t Look Sick seven times, but I still don’t understand why the friend is crying over silverware. Althea says it’s because my brain doesn’t get metaphors, which are representative stories to explain something instead of giving a literal answer. My brain is about as literal as brains get.
There are some fun things about my autism though. For example, I remember everything I see. My brain is like a camera, and if I see something, especially a number, I remember it forever. My mom always asks me to find things for her, and I can do it not because I’m magic but because my brain is amazing. If I see her put something down, I know where it is unless someone else moves it without me seeing. I can remember recipes, phone numbers, license plates, math formulas. I can memorize fifty lines of computer code in one read-through. I understand math well, and what I don’t know I can learn quickly.
My eyes see differently too. In addition to seeing everything at once, my mom says I’m more aware of detail, like texture and color. This means sometimes I find objects and art beautiful where other people find them ugly, and sometimes what is beautiful to people on the mean is ugly to me.
People, though, are trickier than numbers or remembering where Mom’s keys are. I can’t understand people at all. Not what they’re feeling, why they behave the way they do, what they’ll probably do next. It makes me sad sometimes, because in my head I can talk to anyone, and they always understand me. It’s fine to have autism superpowers, but most times it means I’m lonely.
I try to interact with people, and I’m okay when it’s online or in text, but when I have to use my mouth, everything gets messed up. It’s not only words, either. I touch at the wrong time but don’t touch when someone wants me to. I say and do things that make people angry. Very angry. Worst of all, though, is while nobody else can do what I can with math and computers, everyone can do people—except me. It doesn’t matter how big a math problem I do or how many lines of code I fix. If I say the wrong thing to a person, usually they hate me forever. People are more important than numbers or seeing colors sharper or remembering every ingredient of our Thanksgiving dinners for the past ten years. And people are the hardest things in the world for me.
I didn’t want Jeremey Samson to hate me, but the statistics were not in my favor. First of all, to be my boyfriend, he would have to be gay too. Data is unclear, but it’s estimated two to five percent of American men are homosexual. In standard circumstances, reciprocated attraction isn’t measurable as a potential percentage, but I didn’t need a case study to know autism wouldn’t help even if I beat the rest of the odds.
I wanted to approach Jeremey, but first I needed to improve my chances of a positive interaction. It wasn’t as if I could stop being autistic—but I could choose to introduce myself in an advantageous environment. I did a great deal of research on dating advice, which was hard because I’m not always the best judge of this kind of reporting. I got lucky and found a few message boards where other autistic people had successfully dated, and they offered advice. I measured their input against the advice of the Internet as a whole. I applied myself to the study of asking Jeremey Samson out as diligently as I did my physics homework or my coding projects.
The trouble was, whenever I looked at him, I forgot all my research. I could only think about how much I liked him and wanted him to like me back.
The nice part about having autism is I could look at Jeremey without him knowing I was doing it. One of the things that bugs people on the mean the most about autistic people is we often don’t meet people’s gazes when we talk to them. I can’t speak for every autistic person, but the thing is, I don’t have to look right at someone to see them. Direct eye contact is way too loud and intense, and it feels wrong even though my mom and dad and aunt say it’s rude not to look someone in the eye.
When I watched Jeremey, my autism was a superpower. I could sit on my deck for hours, tracking him as he moved around his yard. Nobody ever knew what I was doing.
My family didn’t know I watched Jeremey, because they thought I was waiting for a train. I loved how we had a train track in our backyard, and my favorite way to relax was to count the train cars as they passed. When it rained and a train came, I was pretty much in heaven. I didn’t just count the trains, either. I noted the numbers of the cars and the engines, tried to find patterns in the way they were arranged, checked how many of the cars came through and when, and in which direction.
I did watch the trains. But I also watched Jeremey.
I didn’t see him outside often, but I always paid attention when he appeared. He moved gently and carefully in a way that made me think he was sensitive too. He didn’t smile much, but his face was quiet and calm, like my dad’s. Sometimes he seemed sad, but I couldn’t tell since I was too far away. He did chores for his dad—taking care of the garden, mowing the lawn, mulching plants. Sometimes he sat outside with his mother, and once with his sister when she visited. Bart came over sometimes, but not often. Mostly he sat outside by himself.
I never saw Jeremey anywhere but in his yard, though, and he still was never online anywhere I could strike up a conversation. To meet him, I would have to make the first overture, and I’d have to do it in person. I would have to be brave and watch for my chance.
It came in early June, at our neighborhood block party.
I didn’t want to go to the party. There would be lots of people and many shouting children, but Mom said it would be good to be with our neighbors. Normally I would have had an argument with her and told her where she could stick her block party, but then I read the flyer and realized the name was a misnomer. More than one block was included at this party. A blocks party.
Jeremey’s block too.
Of course for me to meet him there, he would have to attend, but it was a risk worth taking. The night before I practiced all my facial recognition charts and went through my flash cards of appropriate getting-to-know-a-boyfriend conversation. When I got dressed the next morning, I took extra care to make sure my shirt was nice and my hair was combed. I’m not always good at that, but when I came down, Althea smiled and told me I looked handsome.
I sat on the front porch and rocked for an hour, waiting for the party. When my family gathered lawn chairs and potluck bowls, I carried the bag of potato chips and walked along, humming all the way.
Mom watched me. “Are you nervous about something, Emmet?”
I was nervous, but I didn’t want to tell her about Jeremey. “I don’t want to talk to you.”
She kept staring at me, making her face that meant she was going to ask questions, so I covered the ear nearest her with my hand.
She sighed, but she turned away and didn’t ask me anything. Which was good. We were almost to the picnic area, and I wanted to see if Jeremey had come.
When I saw his parents, my heart beat funny. Laughing at something someone said, Mrs. Samson stepped toward a table and reached for a bowl. My pulse kicked again, and I felt dizzy. This was adrenaline, my body’s hormones kicking up in a fight-or-flight response, which was annoying. What I needed right now was focus, not chemical confusion.
Except I knew why my body acted illogically, why it disregarded all my plans and turned my super-brain into super-soup. In the place where his mother had disappeared, standing under the tree, his blond head bowed as he stared at the ground, was Jeremey.