How long does it take to really know somebody?
When you learn a new language, you only learn the rules, the spellings, the usages. But you don’t really learn the meanings. Not at first. You think you know what the words mean, but you don’t because you’ve never needed to say anything with those words. You’ve never had to beg for help with those words, to expel your frustration with those words, to admit some primal love that realigns your every thought with those words.
When I first came to know Fin, the people around him would relay their sympathies like long overdue confessions. They would inform me of his condition, that it was so severe even his own imagination struggled to empathize with his thoughts at times. But beyond what everyone thought of or said about him, about his miswired mind, firing off all the wrong thoughts to think, I discovered a real person who asked real questions and pondered real thoughts, more real than anything most of us have ever asked ourselves. And for that reason, it must have seemed often like he was speaking in a completely foreign language.
On the very first day we met, he didn’t seem to question my presence at all. He asked me plenty of questions, but none of them about why I was there or where I’d come from. He didn’t even ask me who I was. It was as if he just accepted that I would be part of his life from then on and skipped past all the bullshit.
He asked me if I was afraid of being alone.
I wasn't sure if he’d meant socially or physically, so I asked. He asked if there was a difference.
Fin liked to play a game where he’d point out some random object and we'd speculate as to how it came to be. Like the lamp on his desk. We’d wonder if the aluminum came from some mine in the DRC or if it was pressed by some large machine in China. Despite his utter indifference for my own origins, he was fascinated—or perhaps obsessed—with the story of how things come into being.
One day, Fin had been picked up from school by his parents for throwing his desk over and screaming in class. They said he wouldn’t explain why it had happened. The teacher claimed there had been no provocation. The other students were in fact being very nice to him, just making polite conversation.
I asked Fin for the truth. I hadn't known him terribly long, but just like strangers on an airplane, that distance between us made it easier for him to tell me the truth about things he couldn’t tell other people. I think maybe because like him, I didn't really belong in the world in which he resided. I was just as much a stranger as he was. Who was I to judge? Who would I even bother to tell?
Surely, one of the other students must have said or done something, pushed him in some way. But when I asked, he told me that none of them had done anything wrong. That it wasn’t their fault. I asked him to tell me the whole story.
It turns out, some of the kids were playing a new game on one of their smartphones. One of them asked if Fin wanted to try. He got a high score on his very first attempt, which impressed a lot of the other kids. They started to talk to him and ask him questions. I asked him what kind of questions. He said the nice kind. And when I asked him what happened next, he said, Nothing.
Nothing else happened. I didn’t understand. Something else had to have happened, but he said that was it. I asked him why he threw his desk over and screamed at them. He looked at me and asked what he should have done. I told him I didn’t know, but he shouldn’t have thrown the desk over. He said he didn’t want to talk to them anymore and asked me what I do when I don’t want to talk to a nice person anymore. I told him I just say I don't want to talk anymore. He asked if that was true.
Was it true? Have I ever told anyone I didn’t want to talk to them anymore? Has anyone ever just told a perfectly nice person they just didn’t want to talk anymore? I mean, I’ve made plenty of excuses. I've lied about places I had to be, told people I had to use the restroom. But I’ve never told somebody I just wanted to stop talking to them. Why? I’ve felt it plenty of times. I can't even count the number of dull, pointless conversations I've been caught in. But I’ve never told anyone I just wanted to stop talking. Why? Because it’s not how normal people act? But Fin wasn’t normal.
I asked him if that's how he really felt, why didn’t he just tell them that? Never mind what I would do.
He said because they wouldn't understand.
That it wasn't their fault.