For the last 20 years, I’ve associated Valentine’s Day with sickle-cell anemia.
I know that this association, on the surface, makes absolutely no sense. A common neurotypical impression of autistic people is that we are free-associators subject to speaking in non-sequiturs. You might be talking about one thing, and I might respond with a story about something that you think is completely unrelated, or spout out a song lyric based on one word you said.
And then you’re like, “Ashley, what the fuck does ‘MMMBop’ have to do with anything,” and I’m like, “What, isn’t it obvious? You mentioned homophobic slurs, which made me think of ‘pansy,’ which made me think of the pansy from the ‘MMMBop’ video, which made me--oh. I guess it...wasn’t obvious.”
When I took my first improv class at Upright Citizens Brigade, I learned that there’s actually a name for this--A to C thinking. Neurotypicals do it too, but they’re generally better at gauging whether or not other people will follow their thought processes instead of assuming that everyone is always on the same page as they are. (They also, of course, have the privilege of going through life being able to assume that most of the time, everyone is on the same page as they are. But I digress.)
Like many other autistic traits, A to C thinking seems super weird in day-to-day social situations, but when applied purposefully, it can be a terrific asset to creative pursuits.
“Ok Ashley,” you may say, “so Valentine’s Day is A, and sickle-cell anemia is C. Are you going to tell us what B is?”
Well, it all started my first day of seventh grade when I first laid eyes on This Particular Boy.
It was my first day of middle school, a place where the student body of each grade was five times the size of what it had been in elementary school. I was nervous, but also excited, because starting at a new school meant meeting dozens of new people who had no idea what an enormous fucking weirdo I was in elementary school. All I had to do was, well...not act like an enormous fucking weirdo. I didn’t really know how to do that, but I had, through trial and error, accumulated a decent amount of knowledge about what not to do.
Like most autistic kids, I had no intuitive concept of how to take control of social situations, and the concept of code-switching was beyond me. Most of the time, I simply watched my social life happen TO me, and experimented with different reactions that I imagined might possibly be appropriate, hoping to randomly stumble upon the ones that resulted in, if not praise, simply the least amount of ridicule. And whenever I was lucky enough to stumble upon the “right” or “least terrible” reactions, I filed them away as little miniature scripts in my mental Rolodex and replicated them in other situations, hoping (but never knowing for sure) that they would be equally effective (or at least equally benign) no matter who I was talking to. Lather, rinse, repeat.
In no instance was this process more apparent, more prolonged, or more painful than the epic saga that was my crush on This Particular Boy--or more accurately, everyone else's reaction to my crush on This Particular Boy.
TPB--his name isn’t a secret, but I’m rescinding it anyway--sat across from me in science class, and on that first day of class, I locked eyes with him. Of course, like most autistic kids, sustained eye contact was never my forte and made me profoundly uncomfortable, but TPB had the most stunningly blue eyes I had ever seen (a trait I associated heavily with my first love) and I could not look away.
My first thought was, Wow, he’s super cute.
My second thought was don’t be ridiculous, Ashley, boys who are that cute never give you the time of day. Even if they did, he definitely won’t now that you’ve already overstayed your welcome in this eye-lock by at least three seconds. For fuck’s sake, stop staring at him before you make an even bigger ass of yourself.
The very next day, I did in fact make an even bigger ass of myself when I dropped all my books in the crowded hallway between classes. But while other kids snickered or averted their eyes and jostled past me, TPB stopped and helped me. He didn’t say a word, didn’t turn it into a grand gesture of chivalry, he just gathered my books together, handed them back to me, and moved on with his day without even waiting for a “thank you,” which I may or may not have managed to squeak out through my haze of gobsmacked shock. For a moment I couldn’t even move, I just stood there staring blankly ahead, waiting for the catch, for the punchline that I didn’t even realize I was used to.
Even as a kid who was presumably bad at reading social cues, I had already experienced and internalized enough misogyny to not trust boys, as a general rule. Combining that deep distrust with the classic autistic black-and-white thinking, influenced only by my limited life experience and teen TV tropes, it simply did not compute that it was possible for a boy, especially an attractive boy, to just be nice to me with no ulterior motive beyond basic human decency.
In TPB’s case, I had no reason to worry. He was a genuinely nice guy who was good at making other people feel seen, included, and appreciated. In a sea of untethered prepubescent hormones, he was an anomaly of quiet maturity, which was impressive in and of itself, and downright mind-blowing to a kid like me, who had to overthink every social interaction just to survive. His effortlessly cool get-along-with-everyone energy embodied of all the things my 12-year-old self desperately wished she could be.
In addition to being super cute and super nice, he was also a top student and a precocious athlete--so naturally, I was far from his only admirer. But when word got out that I liked him, I quickly became the most famous one.
“But Ashley,” you may ask, “how did everyone find out? And why,” you may ask, “did anyone care?” Excellent questions. Let’s dig in.
Since exchanging more than half a word with TPB invariably transformed me into a stammering, catatonic tomato, I’m sure he figured out pretty quickly on his own that I had a thing for him. But if there was any doubt, it was certainly erased after someone I thought I could trust went behind my back and gave him an embarrassing song I’d written about him. I think she expected him to spread it around. But when I ran into him shortly after, and tried to sputter out some kind of explanation/apology for it, he just said, “Oh, don’t worry, I threw it away. Nobody else saw it.”
I found out later that this wasn’t entirely true--another friend of his had seen it over his shoulder--but being the cool guy that he was, he wanted to spare my feelings, and diffuse the situation to spare himself further embarrassment as well. But between the additional actions of this vindictive frenemy and the casual telephone game of middle school gossip, it trickled out bit by bit, and pretty soon, everybody knew.
Which brings me to Valentine’s Day, when it reached its (first) fever pitch.
There was a school fundraiser selling red and pink carnations, and, well...I’ll let 12-year-old Ashley’s diary tell it.
Friday, February 11, 2000
My day was perfectly normal up until lunch. Kaitlyn [my friend whose locker was next to TPB’s] came up to me.
“Ashley,” she said, “I was just at my locker and TPB has a red carnation in his locker. I wanted to know if it was your doing.”
“No,” I said. “I didn’t do it.” At first I was glad that I hadn’t done it and didn’t end up in one of my unfortunate “flirting mistakes.” But then reality punched me in the gut. SOMEONE ELSE HAD DONE IT. And everyone was going to think it was me.
I ate ravioli and a Snapple for lunch. But I had to ask Kaitlyn to get me a fork from the utensil bins (located next to TPB’s table). I was feverish again. My heart was jumping and my head was spinning.
When lunch was ending, I raced through the hallways before anyone else. When I reached the Blue Team hall, I saw clearly the blood-red flower, stuck hastily through the vents of his locker. I was so pissed off I slammed my books on the floor next to my locker. “Fuck whoever did this!” I shouted through clenched teeth. [Editor’s note: no one was there. I was already a huge fan of the f-word, but I knew better than to use it anywhere a teacher could reprimand me for it.]
I just realized that I could have taken the carnation out and thrown it away before anyone saw. Well, coulda, woulda, shoulda. Anyway, TPB came down the hall WAY too soon. I practically stuffed my head inside my 5 1/2”-wide locker. With a strange, sickening curiosity, I watched his reaction in my locker mirror. A large group of kids gathered around, so I didn’t actually see him take it out. But I could hear him reading the tag on it: “From your secret admirer.” At least five kids, TPB included, said, “Ashley Wool.”
Now, diary, you and I both know that I would never give any documents to TPB signed “Your secret admirer.” First of all, I would not stick a carnation in his locker. That’s just lame. Second, I am his anything-but-secret admirer, so I may have signed it “pal of the girl whose locker is next to yours,” or something like that. Thirdly, Kait had read the tag, and said it wasn’t even close to my handwriting.
Since TPB doesn’t know any of these things, he has every reason to believe that I did it. I want to talk to him on Monday. But since I can barely squeeze out the words I want to say when I talk to him, I’m finally going to play it safe and write a script to memorize over the weekend.
It’s obvious now that the decision to literally compose a behavioral script for myself was just about the most autistic shit ever. But back then, all I knew was that it was the only way I could take any kind of control over a social situation. I’d been doing it pretty much my whole life. Nobody ever told me to do it, and I’d long since figured out that most people didn’t have to do it, so I harbored an internalized belief that I was socially broken. My only chance at survival was to hide that brokenness by overcompensating with the things I knew I was good at--writing, memorizing, rehearsing, and performing.
The script took up two pages of the college-ruled ledger I used as my diary, and included detailed evidence about my school schedule, samples of my handwriting, and names of witnesses to corroborate my alibis about where I was when the alleged carnation-drop occurred. I knew I likely wouldn’t end up using that script, at least not all of it, but writing it out and having it in the back of my mind made me feel more prepared to deal with the onslaught of awkwardness I knew was coming on Monday.
And come it did. Valentine’s Day 2000. TPB and I were assigned to the same group project in science class, and we were putting together a presentation on sickle-cell anemia. It was the least romantic thing that two human beings could possibly be doing together, on Valentine’s Day, or any other day. But because it was TPB, and me, and Valentine’s Day, and our teacher decided to hand out conversation hearts--I could feel the other kids’ eyes and snickers burning my very skin.
At one point, inevitably, another group member brought up the carnation. That was my cue.
“Huh? Oh, that?” I said, as offhandedly and coolly as I had rehearsed it, but loud enough for the kids at neighboring tables to hear. “You guys know that wasn’t me, right?”
Before they could protest their skepticism, I said, “Well, it couldn’t have been. Think about it. The carnation wasn’t there before we all left for orchestra, and that’s all the way on the other side of the school. Lauren, you never saw me leave orchestra, right? So when would I have had the time to buy a carnation and then run all the way back across the school to stick it in his locker?”
I watched their expressions change as they realized that as much as they wanted to make fun of me, I’d come with Science on my side. They couldn’t argue with Cold Hard Facts.
“It’s okay, Ash,” TPB said, no doubt fully aware that the other kids were looking to him, as the Cooler Person, to gauge whether or not to react further. “I know it wasn’t you.”
Smug and satisfied that I had won, I said, “Good. Thank you. Anyway. We were talking about the genetic differences between sickle-cell and Huntington’s chorea.”
And so, for a shining moment, I was the one in control. My social brokenness had been successfully sidestepped for another day. And after we finished our presentation, TPB passed me a conversation heart that said “Kiss Me.” I had to roll my eyes good-naturedly and pretend that that didn’t, like, totally make my life.
Had it ever occurred to me that maybe, in fact, TPB didn’t view the alleged carnation drop, or my crush on him in general, as some Unthinkably Audacious Crime I had to deny at all costs? Wasn’t it perfectly likely he might have even enjoyed it a little, even if he didn’t reciprocate?
It had occurred to me. I wanted to believe it. But my world couldn’t accept it. Given the history of my social life and the aforementioned black-and-white thinking, I habitually gaslit myself into believing, in spite of all logical evidence to the contrary, that it was against the very laws of physics for any crush I had to be tolerated by the recipient, let alone reciprocated.
I wish I could say the carnation incident (or the "C-File," as my friends and I came to refer to it while we were trying to solve the mystery of who actually planted the carnation) was the end of it. But there would be dozens more scenarios like it surrounding me and TPB for the next three years, very few of which I handled gracefully. And three years was a stupidly long time. While I had just enough self-awareness (or perhaps self-deprecation) to appreciate that the trope of “quirky theatre girl crushing on the cool, popular soccer player” was kind of amusing, I never understood why I was singled out the way I was, for as long as I was. Surely, I thought, they’d get sick of it eventually.
But looking back, it’s clear that the culture of the time was drenched in unchecked toxic masculinity, toxic monogamy, toxic heteronormativity, and a systemic intolerance for the terminally weird--not to mention the brain chemistry upheaval that all middle schoolers experience. All these elements culminated in a perfect storm for which I was an obscenely easy target.
True, I was weird, but I was also pretty enough to have a few other boys vying for my attention. Plus, they had to admit, I could sing, and had the guts to get up onstage and do it in front of a crowd. Which was almost cool. But not cool enough that they’d admit wanting to date me out in the open. Nobody had ever taught these boys how to navigate their feelings towards girls in a healthy way, so why would they have bothered to try, when teasing me and living vicariously through TPB was so much easier?
Equally importantly, I was pretty enough for TPB’s other female admirers not to rule me out as potential competition, but I was socially awkward enough that they figured I could simply be bullied into submission. And they weren’t wrong.
Towards the end of that school year, TPB began dating an eighth grade girl who was a textbook Alpha Bitch. She had never met me, but she knew of me, and sent her posse of minions to my lunch table every day for a couple weeks instructing me to “stay the fuck away” from TPB and threatening that if I went near him she would “kick my ass.” I mostly just sat there and took it, until finally one of my mouthier friends said something like, “How about you leave her alone? She hasn’t done anything to you or your friends, and it’s none of your business which boys she talks to.”
They left, and I thanked her, but she said, “No, don’t thank me. We’ll always stick up for you, but you need to learn how to not be afraid to stick up for yourself too. What they’re doing is wrong and you shouldn’t let them just get away with it.” My other friends voiced their agreement, and I knew they were right. I had to do something, if only for their sake, because they were sick of being bothered at lunch every day too.
But my mouthier friend, for all her compassionate wisdom, had misdiagnosed the problem.
It was not that I was afraid to stand up for myself. It was that I knew I was bad at thinking on my feet in social situations, and I was so exhausted from an entire school year of masking and censoring my weirdness as best as I could that I simply didn’t have the spoons to put together yet another behavioral script to deal with these bullies.
But explaining this to my friends would have been impossible. After all, I was masking for them as much as I was for anyone else.
So I decided to try what I thought was the next best thing: throwing the bullies off their game by denying my own existence and pretending to be someone else entirely.
“How about I go by a different name?” I said. “You guys can just call me Jackie Maxwell from now on. Just act like that was always my name. That way whenever anyone talks to Alpha Bitch and her posse about ‘Ashley Wool, the girl who likes TPB,’ they won’t be able to prove that it’s me. You can be like, “Ashley Wool? No, you’ve got the wrong girl. This is Jackie. I’ve never heard of an Ashley Wool.” They’ll be totally confused, and then before we know it, the school year will be over and by the time we come back in the fall, everyone will have forgotten about it.”
This plan made perfect sense in my head. I don’t know for sure whether or not my friends actually realized that I was serious, but in the moment, they played along.
“Ok, Jackie. Today you change your name, tomorrow you leave the country.”
Incidentally, I came down with a stomach virus the next day and stayed home from school. Before my mom stopped by the school to pick up my homework, I told her that if she saw my friends, to please tell them I didn’t actually leave the country. She ran into two of my friends, and relayed the message, but admitted “I have no idea why she said that, do you?”
Well, they told my mom everything that was going on, and that they’d reported it to the guidance counselor because they were sick of seeing me getting harassed. They wanted my mom to talk to me about it and make me talk to the counselor myself.
I wasn’t mad at them, I was grateful that they were looking out for me, but I wished they had just stuck to the completely brilliant and absolutely airtight Jackie Maxwell plan and saved me the headache of telling the whole dumb story to the guidance counselor and potentially risking more repercussions from Alpha Bitch.
My mom brought me to school early the next day and walked me right into the guidance counselor’s office. Begrudgingly, I told him everything that had happened. I don’t remember much about the conversation, but I do remember begging him not to call TPB in for questioning “because none of this is his fault and I’ve put him through enough as it is.”
Those were the exact words I used. “I’ve put him through enough.” And the guidance counselor, one of the few adults at that school who actually gave a shit about students, looked at me rather bemusedly.
“Why do you say that? What did you do?”
Which brings me back to the objective truth that my black-and-white victim-blaming brain couldn’t seem to wrap itself around: I hadn’t done a damn thing. I had a completely benign crush on a boy. That was it. I wasn’t harassing him or his girlfriend, or even actively pursuing him. I barely spoke to the guy outside of class, and the pressure of “acting normal” while conversing about sickle-cell anemia was overwhelming enough.
It’s highly unlikely TPB’s memories of these interactions are anything like mine--if he remembers them at all--but at the time, I was certain that my struggle to interact with him was something he felt, and my only chance at him even accepting me as a human being would be limiting our conversations to genetic diseases, quadratic equations, or other predictable, academic, and thoroughly unromantic topics centered on Cold Hard Facts.
But actually asking him straight-up how he felt about anything? Pursuing him as an actual boyfriend, or even just a regular friend, with the pubescent paparazzi breathing down our necks at every turn?
I wanted to do that. I wanted it more than anything. But I didn’t have a script.
I don’t know if the guidance counselor ever called TPB into his office, but I do know that Alpha Bitch and her posse got at least a week of detention--and then she dumped him, publicly. Whether the dissolution of their relationship had anything to do with me or the disciplinary actions taken against her, I’m not sure, but I was glad to be rid of her.
Apparently, his friends were too. Because the next day, his locker was elaborately decorated with leopard-print wrapping paper, glittery bows, and a banner that read, “YOU GOT DUMPED!”
My first thought upon seeing the locker decorations was, really? That’s just rude. Who does that?
And my second thought, which I made a point of nurturing from that moment on, was, wow, maybe I’m not the most embarrassing person in his life after all.
Originally published on Facebook on February 16, 2020.