We are the paste eaters. We were the children who sat in the back of the art room and twisted the top off the paste- the thick white kind that’s kept in jars with the little brushes attached to the lids- and dipped our fingers inside. We shoved those fingers into our mouths, looking around to make sure that no one noticed our secret shame. We were the only children in kindergarten who ate our lunch alone. We brought strange, foreign food in Tupperware containers. It was black and brown and lumped together in a way that can never be mistaken for a Lunchable or peanut butter sandwich. It was our favorite meal, but we brought our spoons up to our mouths with the same shameful looks we wore in the art room.
We no longer eat paste. We like to think that this is because we have outgrown our childhood, but it is only because we do not have any paste in our homes. Our palates become more refined. We pull our shirt collars into our mouths with our tongues and chew mechanically until our mouths are filled with saliva and pilled fabric. We like the springiness of the cloth between our teeth and the softness of it against our tongues. We have individual tastes: woven or knit, synthetic or natural fibers. Most of the clothes we own have spit-stiffened collars. We make balls out of used aluminum foil and grind them down with our back molars. We eat cupcake wrappers whole. We do this automatically, the way most people eat popcorn at the movies.
We were taken out of class once a week to go to a special room where they taught us how to use our shoes. There was a large model of a sneaker on the desk that we carefully wove the laces through. We were shown bunny ears and single loops. We knew where our hands were supposed to go, but every time our fingers shook so much that we were never able to get the aglet through the holes of the sneaker. (We are the kind of people who know that the plastic on the end of a shoelace is called an aglet.) We do not master this skill until we are in our thirties.
We get exited easily. We jump up and down on the balls of our feet. Our arms and hands flail at our sides, we whip them around our bodies. We stare at fixed points. When we talk our voices are too loud or too soft, and each syllable is given the same weight as the last.
We walk the line between being special as in gifted and special as in Special Education. We got high marks on tests but forgot to do our homework. When other children threw our bags over our heads or taunted us behind our backs, adults took us aside. We were consoled with speeches about snowflakes and told that our enemies would one day be working for us. We were not aware that we had enemies.
Every day we live inside a glass box. We exist in the same world as everything else, but we are held separate from it by some invisible force. We feel human and inhuman. Every day we wake up as foreigners in a brand new world. When we become aware of this separation, the glass box begins to fill up with sand. Our limbs become heavy and every time we try to move we feel something pushing back hard on our ribcage.
Our hands become dry, then the backs of our elbows and knees. The pressure squeezes at us until we collapse on the floor. We scream. We throw books and pots and blankets across the room. We topple bookcases and punch walls and hit ourselves. You try to help. You try to hold on to us until we stop thrashing. You pat our backs and tell us it will be fine. You hold us close to quiet us and we bite at the fleshiest parts of your faces. We push and kick and swear you away. It hurts to be held. The only thing that will help us is if the world stops existing just for a minute, just long enough for us to breathe again.
We want to know what is wrong with us.
We were given tests. We sat in a room by ourselves for hours while the doctors looked at us through one way mirrors. We answered questions about which word fits in to a sentence and what comes next in a pattern. We didn’t know that they were also looking at how we held our pencil and if we asked for breaks. They watched how much we moved in our chair and how we talked to the tester. We passed the paper-and-pencil tests but failed the rest.
We do not know how many toothpicks are on the floor, but we are experts on things that no one else cares about. We can recite the Fibonacci sequence to the 152nd number. We know every statistic about the 1932 Chicago Bears. We have studied shapes and color theory so thoroughly that we can tell you that no, that dress will never look good on you. (We forget that we probably shouldn’t.)
We are not geniuses. We are drawn to the most minute details of things. We read the same sentence or watch the same game seventy times in a row without getting bored. We filter out the rest of the world until it is just us and the marble pattern made in the oil of our coffee. We are consumed. Our bodies feel lighter and our heads are empty. We do not see the forest for the trees because we do not see the trees, only the thin green veins on the leaves. We fill entire worlds up with the things that are too small and unimportant for anyone else.
We see ourselves on television screens. We are the neighbors who enter without knocking, the cousins who break priceless vases. We speak too fast or too slow. We cringe and ask, did we do that? We build time machines in our living room but don’t know how to hold forks properly. We are the absent-minded professors, the inventors of Flubber. We are thrown out and laughed at, not with. Never with. We grow up to be CEOs and Walmart greeters. We live in our mother’s basements. We become adults who cannot button our shirts correctly.
There was something essential to being human that we were not given at birth. They did not teach it to us in primary school and we found it impossible to teach ourselves while defending our dissertations.
We forget to ask “how are you doing?” We forget that the answer to that question should not be longer than one word. We forget that a conversation involves more than one person. We refuse to take part in the pointless kinds of conversations normal people have, the some-weather-we’re-havings and the how-about-that-local-sports-teams. We remember that in order for a conversation to work someone has to start talking, and we are so afraid that our thoughts dry up before they leave our mouths. We do not understand that talking is not as much about what you are saying as how you are saying it.
The rules that everyone else knows by instinct we learn by rote. We learn how far away to stand from a person to avoid invading personal space (3 feet). We learn to look at the bridge of a person’s nose to imitate eye contact. We buy books with illustrations of body postures, diagrams with arrows pointing to different body parts. We read picture books made for toddlers to find out the difference between “happy face” and “sad face.”
And then we see a man standing 2.5 feet away from a new acquaintance. We see people talking loudly in public and arriving late to appointments. We want to know why, when we try so hard to learn the unwritten rules of society, do those who instinctually know the rules break them without consequence. It’s still so hard for us and there are too many variables.
Brianna Minks lives in Austin with her dog, Fred. She earned her MFA from Lesley University. This is her first published piece. She can be found at briannaminks.com.