I finally explain it to her as we walk by the lake. It’s a warm day. The sun glimmers off the soft waves and throws rippling stripes of colour over the boughs of the trees. Sparrows and moorhens call out over the rhythm of the rocking light.
She says she’s heard of it before, but doesn’t quite know about it. So I carry on explaining. I wheel out all my old jokes. I say that it’s nothing much, nothing really. I explain why I always wear noise-cancelling headphones as I walk beside a road, why I get lost on a route I’ve taken twenty times before, why sometimes every human being in the world seems inscrutable as an automaton. She nods. She has her face turned to mine, but I keep on looking ahead.
I tell her what I was like as a child, that if she could have seen me then, she would have known; I couldn’t have hidden it. I quote myself at eight years old, talking like a dictionary, angry, lashing out because I couldn’t understand. I joke about how I hid underneath the therapist’s table the day I was diagnosed, and pretended to be a dragon.
She’s silent for a moment, her eyes gliding over the ruffled water.
I didn’t think… I mean, I noticed you were…
A bit. Sometimes I thought you didn’t care. Her voice is softly resentful. I could have bitten through steel.
I’m sorry, I say. Of course I cared.
I know, she says. I know now. I could never have guessed you really had that.
Thank you, I say. That means a lot.
We pass over the cream stone bridges, as squirrels chase each other, zig-zagging through the bushes like a pinball machine. We leave the lake behind and travel up the hill. She’s chatting about what she was like as a child, bright and bubbly, joking about books and celebrities and the things she was into. Her teeth flash white in the sunlight as she laughs. She doesn’t mind. I watch a ladybird stumble through her braids. She doesn’t mind.
Past the garden with the water clock, there’s a private place. The rich sweetness of fallen apples fills a grassy hollow away from the path. The trees have been cleared, their branches stacked on the gentle slope, their trunks standing like a ring of monoliths. Our feet rustle over a thin layer of crisp leaves. She walks with her chin held high, floating through the autumn air. Thin branches thread tightly above our heads, spots of sunlight wavering over the clearing like leopard skin. For a moment we are quiet.
I take her hand.
She interlocks her fingers with mine. Like zebra stripes, I say. She laughs. I give her hand a little squeeze.
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