autism

The Mouthpiece At the End of the World

This piece was a little harder to write than my previous reflection, and it was even harder deciding whether or not to post it. Unlike the story that reflects common issues I had in elementary school, this story is very accurate. Some very minor details have been fictionalized for the sake of narrative, and names have been changed, but this one is a very vivid memory. This narrative takes place nine years later than the first, and I was a sophomore in high school.

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My mouthpiece is missing. The case for my mellophone is in its locker — bay number 64, past all the woodwind lockers and next to the low brass. My instrument is in its case, but there is no mouthpiece in the case. I take fourteen steps to my French horn locker. It’s empty. Today is a gold day, no band or orchestra on gold days. They are both on blue days.

Marching band rehearsal begins in eighteen minutes. I cannot play without a mouthpiece. I cannot participate in practice without a mouthpiece. Conclusion: my French horn is at home. My mouthpiece is in my French horn case. My mouthpiece is at home.

Mom is at work. Dad is at work. Even if they could get off neither could make it to the house and to school in eighteen minutes — now seventeen. I can feel myself starting to shake. My breathing becomes shallow and rapid. I know what’s coming, and I can’t stop it. Cold sweat beads up on my neck and shoulders, and the world becomes eerily silent around me.

Mom would take 12 minutes to get home (assuming she misses the light at 106th street, which is timed poorly) and up to 19 minutes getting back to the school — more if the light at 98th street’s sensor is acting up again. That equals 31 minutes total drive time, not counting the time spent looking for the mouthpiece in the house. Dad would take almost 40 minutes to make it home — completely out of the question.

Sixteen minutes. If I’m going to be on time for practice, I have to leave in one minute, and even that will cut it close. My friends have already left. I need to ask if anyone has an extra mouthpiece, but my voice has gone missing again. I hate that.

My hands are shaking so hard that I catch my finger in the latch when I close the instrument locker. I slip to the floor and begin rocking. How can I go to practice without my mouthpiece? I hate forgetting things! I hate how my memory seems to rely on location to work. I remember the mouthpiece in the instruments storage room. Why can’t I remember it when I’m someplace else?

My arms have scratches on them. I don’t remember those being there earlier. Scratches always appear on my arms when I’m upset. I look at my watch. Practice begins in two minutes. I’m too late.

I see the angry eyes in my mind of other band members and the directors as I imagine showing up late. I imagine the insults that will be hurled when they realize I’m not prepared to play. I’m immobilized by imagined cruelty, and my tumbling mind silently cries on the cold tile floor of the storage room.

I take 67 steps to the stairwell that leads to the practice rooms. I need to isolate. Now. 24 steps lead to the second level. Room 4 is small and has a piano in it. That’s the best room. The piano barely fits inside, but the strings vibrate very noticeably if you are playing in tune. I like that.

My trembling hand fumble with the door handle, closing it behind me as I collapse to the blue carpeted floor. I place my sweating face against the cold texture of the wall and try to slow my breathing. My mind is empty of thought yet full of fears, full of self-loathing. How can I be so stupid? How?

My head begins hurting, and I realize I’ve been hitting it against the wall. Pulling back, I clamber up onto the piano bench and begin playing chords. Harmonic intervals of two octaves, one octave, a fifth, a fourth, and a third produce the most calming vibrations. I hold the sustaining pedal down with my right foot and create the various major chords following this structure while I set my face against the piano’s smooth face board. I do this for a long time until I stop trembling, and my breathing returns to normal.

When I find my voice, I use a phone downstairs to call the band director I trust — the one I’ve known since middle school. I leave a message for him saying I think I’ve had a breakdown, and I hang up. I don’t know what else to call it. I look at the clock. Practice will be done in 18 minutes. That’s where Dad will go to pick me up.

I stare fixedly at the ground as I take 3,154 very timid steps to the practice field, trying to be as small as possible the whole way, wishing I could somehow fold into myself and disappear…

***

The next day at school is terrible. Mr. Pike, the band director I don’t really like, tells me he never wants this to happen again, so it never happens again before marching band practice. On the upside, I’ll never forget my mouthpiece again because I’m not taking my French horn home anymore. If I leave it at school, I can’t forget it.

A saxophone player says that he’s sorry, but I don’t know why he’s apologizing. He didn’t leave my mouthpiece at home. Other students (and some adults) call me selfish, self-centered, irresponsible for not coming to practice anyway. The band director I trusted asks me how I think he felt getting that message at home, and how did I get his home number anyway? (It was in his own Rolodex on his desk next to his computer in his unlocked office.)

I know I’m not self-centered. I know I’m not irresponsible. I know I’m not selfish, but I have no answers. I don’t know what I am.

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Asperger Syndrome was defined in the DSM-IV for the first time this very same year, but it would do me no good at the time. However, this incident was a turning point in that I finally became acutely aware of just how different I was from other people around me, and I began to develop the public character that I still rely on to this day. Great growth came from this one terrible event, and I finally began developing friendships and social circles through which I would later meet my wife.

Still, it would be another eight years before I really had myself figured out.

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