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The Speed of Dark


Questions, always questions. They didn't wait for the answers, either. They rushed on, piling questions on questions, covering every moment with questions, blocking off every sensation but the thorn stab of questions.

And orders. If it wasn't, "Lou, what is this?" it was, "Tell me what this is." A bowl. The same bowl, time after time. It is a bowl and it is an ugly bowl, a boring bowl, a bowl of total and complete boring blandness, uninteresting. I am uninterested in that uninteresting bowl.

If they aren't going to listen, why should I talk?

I know better than to say that out loud. Everything in my life that I value has been gained at the cost of not saying what I really think and saying what they want me to say.

In this office, where I am evaluated and advised four times a year, the psychiatrist is no less certain of the line between us than all the others have been. Her certainty is painful to see, so I try not to look at her more than I have to. That has its own dangers; like the others, she thinks I should make more eye contact than I do. I glance at her now.

Dr. Fornum, crisp and professional, raises an eyebrow and shakes her head not quite imperceptibly. Autistic persons do not understand these signals; the book says so. I have read the book, so I know what it is I do not understand.

What I haven't figured out yet is the range of things they don't understand. The normals. The reals. The ones who have the degrees and sit behind the desks in comfortable chairs.

I know some of what she doesn't know. She doesn't know that I can read. She thinks I'm hyperlexic, just parroting the words. The difference between what she calls parroting and what she does when she reads is imperceptible to me. She doesn't know that I have a large vocabulary. Every time she asks what my job is and I say I am still working for the pharmaceutical company, she asks if I know what pharmaceutical means. She thinks I'm parroting. The difference between what she calls parroting and my use of a large number of words is imperceptible to me. She uses large words when talking to the other doctors and nurses and technicians, babbling on and on and saying things that could be said more simply. She knows I work on a computer, she knows I went to school, but she has not caught on that this is incompatible with her belief that I am actually nearly illiterate and barely verbal.

She talks to me as if I were a rather stupid child. She does not like it when I use big words (as she calls them) and she tells me to just say what I mean.

What I mean is the speed of dark is as interesting as the speed of light, and maybe it is faster and who will find out?

What I mean is about gravity, if there were a world where it is twice as strong, then on that world would the wind from a fan be stronger because the air is thicker and blow my glass off the table, not just my napkin? Or would the greater gravity hold the glass more firmly to the table, so the stronger wind couldn't move it?

What I mean is the world is big and scary and noisy and crazy but also beautiful and still in the middle of the windstorm.

What I mean is what difference does it make if I think of colors as people or people as sticks of chalk, all stiff and white unless they are brown chalk or black?

What I mean is I know what I like and want, and she does not, and I do not want to like or want what she wants me to like or want.

She doesn't want to know what I mean. She wants me to say what other people say. "Good morning, Dr. Fornum." "Yes, I'm fine, thank you." "Yes, I can wait. I don't mind."

I don't mind. When she answers the phone I can look around her office and find the twinkly things she doesn't know she has. I can move my head back and forth so the light in the corner glints off and on over there, on the shiny cover of a book in the bookcase. If she notices that I'm moving my head back and forth she makes a note in my record. She may even interrupt her phone call to tell me to stop. It is called stereotypy when I do it and relaxing her neck when she does it. I call it fun, watching the reflected light blink off and on.

Dr. Fornum's office has a strange blend of smells, not just the paper and ink and book smell and the carpet glue and the plastic smell of the chair frames, but something else that I keep thinking must be chocolate. Does she keep a box of candy in her desk drawer? I would like to find out. I know if I asked her she would make a note in my record. Noticing smells is not appropriate. Notes about noticing are bad notes, but not like bad notes in music, which are wrong.

I do not think everyone else is alike in every way. She has told me that Everyone knows this and Everyone does that, but I am not blind, just autistic, and I know that they know and do different things. The cars in the parking lot are different colors and sizes. Thirty-seven percent of them, this morning, are blue. Nine percent are oversize: trucks or vans. There are eighteen motorcycles in three racks, which would be six apiece, except that ten of them are in the back rack, near Maintenance. Different channels carry different programs; that would not happen if everyone were alike.

When she puts down the phone and looks at me, her face has that look. I don't know what most people would call it, but I call it the I AM REAL look. It means she is real and she has answers and I am someone less, not completely real, even though I can feel the nubbly texture of the office chair right through my slacks. I used to put a magazine under me, but she says I don't need to do that. She is real, she thinks, so she knows what I need and don't need.

"Yes, Dr. Fornum, I am listening." Her words pour over me, slightly irritating, like a vat of vinegar. "Listen for conversational cues," she tells me, and waits. "Yes," I say. She nods, marks on the record, and says, "Very good," without looking at me. Down the hall somewhere, someone starts walking this way. Two someones, talking. Soon their talk tangles with hers. I am hearing about Debby on Friday . . . next time . . . going to the Did they? And I told her. But never bird on a stool . . . can't be, and Dr. Fornum is waiting for me to answer something. She would not talk to me about a bird on a stool. "I'm sorry," I say. She tells me to pay better attention and makes another mark on my record and asks about my social life.

She does not like what I tell her, which is that I play games on the Internet with my friend Alex in Germany and my friend Ky in Indonesia. "In real life," she says firmly. "People at work," I say, and she nods again and then asks about bowling and miniature golf and movies and the local branch of the Autism Society.

Bowling hurts my back and the noise is ugly in my head. Miniature golf is for kids, not grownups, but I didn't like it even when I was a kid. I liked laser tag, but when I told her that in the first session she put down "violent tendencies." It took a long time to get that set of questions about violence off my regular agenda, and I'm sure she has never removed the notation. I remind her that I don't like bowling or miniature golf, and she tells me I should make an effort. I tell her I've been to three movies, and she asks about them. I read the reviews, so I can tell her the plots. I don't like movies much, either, especially in movie theaters, but I have to have something to tell her . . . and so far she hasn't figured out that my bald recitation of the plot is straight from a review.

I brace myself for the next question, which always makes me angry. My sex life is none of her business. She is the last person I would tell about a girlfriend or boyfriend. But she doesn't expect me to have one; she just wants to document that I do not, and that is worse.

Finally it is over. She will see me next time, she says, and I say, "Thank you, Dr. Fornum," and she says, "Very good," as if I were a trained dog.

Outside, it is hot and dry, and I must squint against the glitter of all the parked cars. The people walking on the sidewalk are dark blots in the sunlight, hard to see against the shimmer of the light until my eyes adjust.

I am walking too fast. I know that not just from the firm smack of my shoes on the pavement, but because the people walking toward me have their faces bunched up in the way that I think means they're worried. Why? I am not trying to hit them. So I will slow down and think music.

Dr. Fornum says I should learn to enjoy music other people enjoy. I do. I know other people like Bach and Schubert and not all of them are autistic. There are not enough autistic people to support all those orchestras and operas. But to her other people means "the most people." I think of theTrout Quintet, and as the music flows through my mind I can feel my breathing steady and my steps slow to match its tempo.

My key slides into my car's door lock easily, now that I have the right music. The seat is warm, cozily warm, and the soft fleece comforts me. I used to use hospital fleece, but with one of my first paychecks I bought a real sheepskin. I bounce a little to the internal music before turning on the engine. It's hard to keep the music going sometimes when the engine starts; I like to wait until it's on the beat.

On the way back to work, I let the music ease me through intersections, traffic lights, near-jams, and then the gates of the campus, as they call it. Our building is off to the right; I flash my ID at the parking lot guard and find my favorite space. I hear people from other buildings complain about not getting their favorite space, but here we always do. No one would take my space, and I would not take anyone else's. Dale on my right and Linda on my left, facing into Cameron.

I walk to the building, on the last phrase of my favorite part of the music, and let it fade as I go through the door. Dale is there, by the coffee machine. He does not speak, nor do I. Dr. Fornum would want me to speak, but there is no reason. I can see that Dale is thinking very hard and doesn't need to be interrupted. I am still annoyed about Dr. Fornum, as I am every quarter, so I pass my desk and go on into the minigym. Bouncing will help. Bouncing always helps. No one else is there, so I hang the sign on the door and turn good bouncing music up loud.

No one interrupts me while I bounce; the strong thrust of the trampoline followed by weightless suspension makes me feel vast and light. I can feel my mind stretching out, relaxing, even as I keep perfect time with the music. When I feel the concentration returning and curiosity drives me once more toward my assignment, I slow the bouncing to tiny little baby bounces and swing off the trampoline.

No one interrupts me as I walk to my desk. I think Linda is there, and Bailey, but it doesn't matter. Later we may go for supper, but not now. Now I am ready to work.

The symbols I work with are meaningless and confusing to most people. It is hard to explain what I do, but I know it is valuable work, because they pay me enough to afford the car, the apartment, and they supply the gym and the quarterly visits to Dr. Fornum. Basically I look for patterns. Some of the patterns have fancy names and other people find them hard to see, but for me they have always been easy. All I had to do was learn the way to describe them so others could see that I had something in mind.

I put headphones on and choose a music. For the project I'm on now, Schubert is too lush. Bach is perfect, the complex patterns mirroring the pattern I need. I let the place in my mind that finds and generates patterns sink into the project, and then it is like watching ice crystals grow on the surface of still water: one after another, the lines of ice grow, branch, branch again, interlace. . . . All I have to do is pay attention and ensure that the pattern remains symmetrical or asymmetrical or whatever the particular project calls for. This time it is more intensely recursive than most, and I see it in my mind as stacks of fractal growth, forming a spiky sphere.

When the edges blur, I shake myself and sit back. It has been five hours, and I didn't notice. All the agitation from Dr. Fornum has gone, leaving me clear. Sometimes when I come back I can't work for a day or so, but this time I got back into balance with the bouncing. Above my workstation, a pinwheel spins lazily in the draft of the ventilation system. I blow at it, and after a moment--1.3 seconds, actually -- it spins faster, twinkling purple-and-silver in the light. I decide to turn on my swiveling fan so all the pinwheels and spin spirals can spin together, filling my office with twinkling light.

The dazzle has just started when I hear Bailey calling from down the hall, "Anyone for pizza?" I am hungry; my stomach makes noises and I can suddenly smell everything in the office: the paper, the workstation, the carpet, the metal/plastic/dust/cleaning solution . . . myself. I turn off the fan, give a last glance at the spinning and twinkling beauty, and go out into the hall. A quick flick of a glance at my friends' faces is all I need to know who is coming and who is not. We do not need to talk about it; we know one another.

We come into the pizza place about nine. Linda, Bailey, Eric, Dale, Cameron, and me. Chuy was ready to eat, too, but the tables here hold only six. He understands. I would understand if he and the others were ready first. I would not want to come here and sit at another table, so I know that Chuy will not come here and we will not have to try to squeeze him in. A new manager last year did not understand that. He was always trying to arrange big dinners for us and mix us up in seating. "Don't be so hidebound," he would say. When he wasn't looking, we went back to where we like to sit. Dale has an eye tic that bothers Linda, so she sits where she can't see it. I think it's funny and I like to watch it, so I sit on Dale's left, where it looks like he's winking at me.

The people who work here know us. Even when other people in the restaurant look too long at us for our movements and the way we talk -- or don't -- the people here don't ever give us that go-away look I've had other places. Linda just points to what she wants or sometimes she writes it out first, and they never bother her with more questions.

Tonight our favorite table is dirty. I can hardly stand to look at the five dirty plates and pizza pans; it makes my stomach turn to think of the smears of sauce and cheese and crust crumbs, and the uneven number makes it worse. There is an empty table to our right, but we do not like that one. It's next to the passage to the rest rooms, and too many people go by behind us.

We wait, trying to be patient, as Hi-I'm-Sylvia -- she has that on her name tag, as if she were a product for sale and not a person -- signals to one of the others to clean up our table. I like her and can remember to call her Sylvia without the Hi-I'm as long as I'm not looking at her name tag. Hi-I'm-Sylvia always smiles at us and tries to be helpful; Hi-I'm-Jean is the reason we don't come in on Thursdays, when she works this shift. Hi-I'm-Jean doesn't like us and mutters under her breath if she sees us. Sometimes one of us will come to pick up an order for the others; the last time I did, Hi-I'm-Jean said, "At least he didn't bring all the other freaks in here," to one of the cooks as I turned away from the register. She knew I heard. She meant me to hear. She is the only one who gives us trouble.

But tonight it's Hi-I'm-Sylvia and Tyree, who is picking up the plates and dirty knives and forks as if it didn't bother him. Tyree doesn't wear a name tag; he just cleans tables. We know he's Tyree because we heard the others call him that. The first time I used his name to him, he looked startled and a little scared, but now he knows us, though he doesn't use our names.

"Be done in a minute here," Tyree says, and gives us a sidelong look. "You doin' okay?"

"Fine," Cameron says. He's bouncing a little from heel to toe. He always does that a little, but I can tell he's bouncing a bit faster than usual.

I am watching the beer sign blinking in the window. It comes on in three segments, red, green, then blue in the middle, and then goes off all at once. Blink, red. Blink, green, blink blue, then blink red/green/blue, all off, all on, all off, and start over. A very simple pattern, and the colors aren't that pretty (the red is too orange for my taste and so is the green, but the blue is a lovely blue), but still it's a pattern to watch.

"Your table's ready," Hi-I'm-Sylvia says, and I try not to twitch as I shift my attention from the beer sign to her.

We arrange ourselves around the table in the usual way and sit down. We are having the same thing we have every time we come here, so it doesn't take long to order. We wait for the food to come, not talking because we are each, in our own way, settling into this situation. Because of the visit to Dr. Fornum, I'm more aware than usual of the details of this process: that Linda is bouncing her fingers on the bowl of her spoon in a complex pattern that would delight a mathematician as much as it does her. I'm watching the beer sign out of the corner of my eye, as is Dale. Cameron is bouncing the tiny plastic dice he keeps in his pocket, discreetly enough that people who don't know him wouldn't notice, but I can see the rhythmic flutter of his sleeve. Bailey also watches the beer sign. Eric has taken out his multicolor pen and is drawing tiny geometric patterns on the paper place mat. First red, then purple, then blue, then green, then yellow, then orange, then red again. He likes it when the food arrives just when he finishes a color sequence.

This time the drinks come while he's at yellow; the food comes on the next orange. His face relaxes.

We are not supposed to talk about the project off-campus. But Cameron is still bouncing in his seat, full of his need to tell us about a problem he solved, when we've almost finished eating. I glance around. No one is at a table near us. "Ezzer," I say. Ezzer means "go ahead" in our private language. We aren't supposed to have a private language and nobody thinks we can do something like that, but we can. Many people have a private language without even knowing it. They may call it jargon or slang, but it's really a private language, a way of telling who is in the group and who is not.

Cameron pulls a paper out of his pocket and spreads it out. We aren't supposed to take papers out of the office, in case someone else gets hold of them, but we all do it. It's hard to talk, sometimes, and much easier to write things down or draw them.

I recognize the curly guardians Cameron always puts in the corner of his drawings. He likes anime. I recognize as well the patterns he has linked through a partial recursion that has the lean elegance of most of his solutions. We all look at it and nod. "Pretty," Linda says. Her hands jerk sideways a little; she would be flapping wildly if we were back at the campus, but here she tries not to do it.

"Yes," Cameron says, and folds the paper back up.

I know that this exchange would not satisfy Dr. Fornum. She would want Cameron to explain the drawing, even though it is clear to all of us. She would want us to ask questions, make comments, talk about it. There is nothing to talk about: it is clear to all of us what the problem was and that Cameron's solution is good in all senses. Anything else is just busy talk. Among ourselves we don't have to do that.

"I was wondering about the speed of dark," I say, looking down. They will look at me, if only briefly, when I speak, and I don't want to feel all those gazes.

"It doesn't have a speed," Eric says. "It's just the space where light isn't."

"What would it feel like if someone ate pizza on a world with more than one gravity?" Linda asks.

"I don't know," Dale says, sounding worried.

"The speed of not knowing," Linda says.

I puzzle at that a moment and figure it out. "Not knowing expands faster than knowing," I say. Linda grins and ducks her head. "So the speed of dark could be greater than the speed of light. If there always has to be dark around the light, then it has to go out ahead of it."

"I want to go home now," Eric says. Dr. Fornum would want me to ask if he is upset. I know he is not upset; if he goes home now he will see his favorite TV program. We say good-bye because we are in public and we all know you are supposed to say good-bye in public. I go back to the campus. I want to watch my whirligigs and spin spirals for a while before going home to bed.

Excerpted from The Speed of Dark© Copyright 2004 by Elizabeth Moon. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Speed of Dark
by by Elizabeth Moon

  • Genres: Fiction, Science Fiction
  • paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345447549
  • ISBN-13: 9780345447548