Content Warning: Ableism, mention of sexual harassment, transphobia including misgendering.
“I hate customers like that.”
My coworker is referring to the woman in the colorful coat now walking out the door, happily chatting about her new video games to her companion. I think he’s trying to bond with me over the shared miseries of retail. Instead I offer only a shrug and return to filing discs into the cabinets behind the register. We both know what he means. It’s left unsaid because my hips hurt and, sometimes, I’m a coward.
I’d been the one to help the woman–she introduced herself to me immediately, let’s call her Wanda–find the NintendoDS games she wanted, as well as retrieve the system she had put on hold over the phone shortly before arriving.
It was clear Wanda had planned her outing. She approached the counter clutching her bag tightly and announced she was here to pick up her DS. She stuttered, but at the encouragement of her companion–a man in his early to mid 30s, likely only a few years her elder–Wanda found the words. She already had a bank envelope in hand as I looked up from pulling the device from the hold drawer and was counting out the crisp twenty dollar bills with determination.
“We’ve got a sale on used games,” I said, having heard the man mention she could get one game if she had enough left over. “You said you have $150? I can help you find a few that won’t put you over budget.”
Wanda had looked up at me, frustrated at first for interrupting her second count through, but quickly shoved the bills back into the envelope and into her bag, already turning to the glass cabinet filled with cartridges and asking questions about what Nintendogs games we had.
She’d ask me one question, and before I could fully answer it, she asked me another. She told me about which Lego games she already had, and the Nintendogs game she coveted most. Her voice carried in the relatively small shop. I could all but feel the few other shoppers eyeing her. When she made her decision, I turned to grab the key from behind the register for the DS cabinet. I hadn’t explained, and I’m slow to move toward the end of a shift, and so Wanda repeated her selections again, this time louder, to my back.
This was likely when my co-worker noticed Wanda. He looked up from the stack of Xbox 360 games in his hands to meet my gaze and raise his eyebrows. I gave him a flat line smile to avoid glaring at him before quickly turning back to Wanda.
“I just gotta grab the key for ‘em, okay? Gimme just a sec.”
As I bent to get the key, I heard Wanda’s companion– her brother, I now gathered– chastise her gently for rushing me. He saw my heavy limp and the way I labored to open the lowest drawer for the key lanyard. I waved away the words, assuring it was no problem. I hadn’t explained. Wanda was excited. I understood in a way the brother probably didn’t recognize; it’s not as easy to spot as my uneven gait.
He ended up wandering over to the PS4 games while I started finishing things up with Wanda at the register. One on one, she apologized as her brother directed–the first dimming of excitement I’d heard in her voice throughout our interaction. “I’m autistic,” she said. “Sometimes I get distracted.”
“Hey, that’s okay,” I said, and this time it was my turn to talk a little too quickly, a little too loud. “I’m autistic too!”
Wanda looked up. “Yeah?”
I offered her my knuckles for a fist bump. I can’t curl them into a full fist anymore, but Wanda bumped them all the same.
Her brother returned to the counter, and we finished the transaction. He thanked me, sincerely, in a way I’ve learned means thanks for treating her like a person. I get it a lot from the neurotypical loved ones in the orbit of autistic folks. I told him, sincerely, it was no problem. Wanda didn’t scream obscenities at me in front of her mortified child. She didn’t try to flirt with me by proving she was better at gaming than me. She didn’t refuse to talk to me while I checked her out, instead addressing all of her questions to the cis male coworker with another customer at the next register. She didn’t call my store to sexually harass me. She didn’t eye me over like a specimen in a Petri dish, brazenly staring at my crotch to finally “figure me out” when the rest of my body would not betray the answer. She isn’t a bad customer. I have plenty of them. And while I can’t say with certainty every one of those customers were neurotypical– I’ll just say, we learn to spot our own.
I don’t know what my coworker was doing while I told Wanda I’m autistic too. But by the time Wanda and her brother round the door, it’s clear he hadn’t heard me. He doesn’t know– I’m like that. I can’t look people in the eye without my stomach feeling twisted. When I do, I stare too hard. I intimidate. My face doesn’t know how to make the right shapes. People assume I’m mad when my furrowed brow is one of confusion, because it takes longer to process all the customs and protocols of social interaction. I come off as untactful, awkward, enthusiastic bordering on obnoxious.
Wanda says she’s autistic like it’s an apology. I say it like no one will believe me. The spectre of what others define us to be seeks to prevent us from forming connections.
But somehow no one seems to look at me the way those customers eyed Wanda. I’m intense. She’s special. God, how I hate that word in the mouths of neurotypicals.
There’s a reason I’m good at customer service; it’s not being a good actor, although I’d like to think myself one. It’s something more insidious. Somewhere along the way, growing up, I realized I was different. I didn’t understand why, but I saw and learned–swiftly, sometimes brutally– that people did not like it when you got certain things wrong. So I watched with my too intense stare, and soaked in all the information. I liked to learn, after all, and the consequences for not learning scared me. I became good at hiding huge parts of me. The stuff I couldn’t were explained away by those around me.
It took me 20 some years to find what I had hid. And here I am today– telling Wanda I’m autistic too, but not having the courage to tell my co-worker the same thing. What function can my privilege of passing as neurotypical serve if I don’t respond to those comments? Can it do anything if, when I do speak up and tell allistic people I am on the spectrum, they smile and nod but clearly don’t think I fit the stereotypical definition of autism society has taught them?
Wanda and I share the same alienation as different sides of the same coin. Wanda says she’s autistic like it’s an apology. I say it like no one will believe me. The spectre of what others define us to be seeks to prevent us from forming connections.
“So what games are you playing these days?”
I jump a little, dropping one of the games I’m alphabetizing on the counter. My co-worker paces behind the register beside me, bored. I don’t look up from the drawers.
“Um, Diablo mostly. I love over-the-top fantasy games.”
He doesn’t respond, having in a few long strides moved out from behind the counter to put some cases back on the shelves. I glance up just in time to see a customer with an armful of trade-ins who is looking toward him for help. “Hey there sir, how’s it going? She can help you right over there.” He points to me and turns back to the wall of Xbox games.
My cheeks burn as the customer dumps his games onto the counter in front of me with a clatter. I go through the motions, set on autopilot, hardly listening to the customer as I check his ID and look up prices. I’m probably staring too much and have to remind myself to blink. My eyes must look blank, intense.
I can’t stop seeing Wanda’s colorful coat amid the sea of black hoodies and gray ski jackets.
Right before she left, as I had fumbled to pull her change from the register, Wanda complimented the collection of enamel pins dotting my lanyard, her eyes fixed on the one that read HE. She looked up to take the coins and her bag, and said, “Thank you for all your help, sir. Thank you.”