You don’t remember but you were three the first time your father asked if something might be wrong with you while you sat between your parents on the couch. Shouldn’t you be talking more? The apparent vow of silence around strangers was one thing, but the lack of interest in speaking to your own family was a different story. The hushed exchanges with your siblings flew under his radar and he didn’t believe your mother when she said you were fine. They made an appointment you don’t remember either.
You met him when you were only five and your parents looked so fucking relieved to see you latch onto someone for the first time once it was clear your lives would be intertwined from that moment forward. All their previous efforts to force socialization or at least conversations with other kids had failed so miserably. But Mat was different. He approached you first and he didn’t yell at you to speak louder. He never accepted the idea something might be wrong with you. Hell, he even glared at that asshole from down the street who talked shit about your hair being longer than your sister’s.
“Nobody asked for your opinion,” he snapped, tiny fist clenched at his side.
It was amazing. You didn’t feel weird. You just felt safe.
You do remember the first argument you overheard that actually made sense to you. It wasn’t about money or secretaries or who drank too much last night. You were seven and trying to sneak a snack from the kitchen while they argued if you needed medication, a therapist of some kind or maybe just a second opinion on your development. It didn’t all make sense but it became clear to you that something was wrong. Not with them. With you. And it was the first time you felt your hands shake.
You got worse over the next few years. At least that’s how they’ve always phrased it. You refused to participate in class. You wouldn’t speak to your teachers, the counselor, the principal. You kept to yourself except for rushing straight to Mat during recess. The list of what scared you, what you couldn't handle, what you wouldn’t do under any circumstances, got longer everyday.
“He’s just shy,” your mom said again and again and again but nobody bought that version of the story. There had to be something else. Something more.
You heard your dad say Asperger’s for the first time when you were ten. You bit your lip and looked at your mom, lifting your eyebrow like you always did when there were other people in the room, when you couldn’t just ask what you wanted but she always understood what you meant. She said "something like autism" but you had never heard anything like that. Not that you remembered.
“That doesn’t even make sense,” you mumbled with arms crossed but something twisted inside you when the adults in the room ticked through a list of your behavior.
- limited social interaction
- lack of eye contact or reciprocal conversations
- challenges with communication despite high vocabulary
- speaking in monotone
- obsessed with specific or unusual topics
- awkward and often repetitive mannerisms
- clumsiness or uncoordinated movements
- difficult controlling emotions/crying easily
You cooperated so poorly with testing the specialists were forced to deem the results inconclusive. There’s a discussion about the possibility you exist somewhere on the spectrum or that it might be something else entirely. ADHD. Social anxiety. Depression. Hard to tell with a kid like you.
He wanted an answer they couldn’t provide, leaving him more frustrated than you, and she tried to calm him down on the drive home with promises that you might get better when you’re older.
You told Mat you spent the day trying to find a dog. It was the first time you lied to his face.
“Dude, remember that time I almost passed out in sixth grade? At the spring fling or whatever the heck? And I freaking bruised your wrist because I wouldn’t let go? They’re still using that against me.” You were fourteen when you started flushing the pills meant to treat your anxiety - the diagnosis the family doctor settled on when you sat silent through numerous therapy sessions after the divorce. “I’m not taking something that makes me feel worse. This is just how I am, Mat. I’m not going to apologize for it. Not anymore.”
You don’t remember but you were fifteen the first time you had a panic attack. You don’t remember how or why or even where you were when you fell apart. The worst memories often know it's best to stay locked away. Your heart literally ached in your chest from pounding so hard and you felt ten times more dizzy than when you spazzed because some girl touched you at a dance and you couldn’t think about anything except you might fucking die and HOLY SHIT, you never even told him!
His hands settled on your shoulders before shifting up to cup your jaw, lifting your face toward his but you shut your eyes. You always shut your eyes. It’s too much. It’s too close. “Hey, look at me - just breathe, okay?”
You got worse over the next few minutes but he never gave up. He never does and knowing he never will quickly becomes the reason you always fight your way back from whatever dark place your head tries to take you.
“Milo, c’mon, I’m okay. It’s okay,” he whispered, thumb tracing along your cheek and barely brushing over the corner of your mouth. His forehead nudged gently against yours for a moment and suddenly you were breathing in and out again, too fast at first but better than not at all, right? “Dude, it was an accident. It’s nothing. Nobody hurt me, I promise.”
You’re too scared to admit you don’t believe him.
It keeps happening and you can’t control it. The words panic disorder get scribbled on the first page of your medical file.
Your parents spent your seventeenth birthday arguing over who stressed you out the most growing up. No, wait… was it all genetics? Or did they fuck up by asking too many questions? Was this someone’s fault? Or was it just you? It’s not like any of their other kids came out like this.
Why does she even talk to your dad anymore? You hate it. You hate it so much. You’d probably hate her, too, if she didn’t help you get an apartment for Mat - somewhere safe. For both of you.
You’re twenty-one when you kiss him.
When he kisses you back.
When it's not too much to look at him.
When you laugh falling into bed.
When he fucks you the first time.
When you both fuck up.
When you lie to each other.
When running away isn’t easier.
When months and months go by.
When you show up at his door.
When you sleep on his couch.
When you sleep in his bed.
When you need him too much.
When he says he’s in love with you.
When you say you love him, too.
When you break their hearts.
When you reach for him again.
When you don’t want to let go.
When you almost had no choice.
When you need each other the most.
When you start taking your meds.
When you realize he drinks too much.
When he promises he’s okay.
When you don’t believe him.
When you’re too scared not to admit it.
When you decide to face it together.
When you know love is unconditional.
You met him when you were only five. He followed you and your sister home from the playground, ignoring questions about if he needed to talk to his parents first. He rolled his eyes when your mother gushed into her phone about you actually making a friend, like it was some kind of miracle. Like this counted as some victory for where she stood on the subject of your (in)ability to connect with anyone.
“There’s nothing wrong with you, Milo,” Mat said one afternoon when you were twelve, right before he picked up a rock and threw it at your neighbor’s nauseating white picket fence. “You're different but it's not bad. People are just fucking stupid and that's not your fault.”
You didn’t feel weird. You just felt safe.