Boston, Part Five
Thursday was more low-key, due to our decision to wholeheartedly embrace sloth. Hannah slept until eleven, and we didn’t make it out of the hotel room until one.
Hannah had to attend the conference again, so we hung out in that general area, meandering through Boston Commons, then downtown, and found ourselves in Chinatown. The age and solidness of Boston’s downtown area appeals to me. It doesn’t feel like home, and it doesn’t even feel particularly familiar, but it does feel recognizable. The old buildings and tangled streets exist on a wavelength I understand and enjoy.
As we walked back toward the conference centre, we passed a perfect little pizza place, the kind that looks like it hasn’t changed at all in forty years. I spotted a slice of pizza through the window and it looked rough and homemade; the pepperoni was slightly burnt. I knew I’d never taste that pizza because I didn’t have time, and I knew that in all the vacations I’d ever have, versions of that pizza place would follow me. On a vacation there’s always one or two things that remain tantalizingly out of grasp.
The weather was cold and windy on Thursday, and I didn’t particularly want to wander around outside. So after dropping Hannah off at the conference centre, I found an adjoining mall and hung around for awhile. I found a different, less satisfying pizza place for lunch.
After an hour or two, I got bored of being inside, so I decided to venture north through Back Bay, past Newbury.
I discovered a broad row of elaborate Victorian apartments, separated by a parklike median. From there, I walked even further north, and ended up next to the Charles River.
I badly wanted to explore it, and walk either one way or the other up the shore, but I wasn’t sure if I had time.
The river was just another pizza place. I turned around and went back to the hotel to meet Hannah.
“I want to see this library you keep talking about,” she said, and we walked over to McKim.
We took the rickety, narrow elevator to the second floor, and I asked Hannah if she’d learned anything interesting at the conference that day.
“I found out why you think the way you do,” she said.
“Great, at least one of us has.”
We exited the elevator and walked down a marble-floored hallway.
“So there’s something called a vagus nerve that activates when we want to relax. It slows your heart rate, slows your breathing, and is associated with a general feeling of contentment,” said Hannah. We entered the library’s main chamber, a high-ceilinged room lined with reference books.
“The vagus nerve activates specifically in positive social situations. It’s an evolutionary thing, which developed because it helps us bond with other people. The nerve gets activated when you’re genuinely happy to see someone, or want to connect with them.”
We left the main chamber and entered a second, smaller room. It had a blocked-off spiral staircase that led to a balcony.
“When the nerve is firing, it activates a lot of facial muscles,” Hannah continued. “Like eyebrows raising up. Or your voice pitch goes up. You know, stuff that indicates you’re happy to see someone.”
“I’m never happy to see people,” I said.
“Well, exactly,” said Hannah. “But with most people, these facial expressions and body language are unconscious. They do it automatically.” We reached a doorway at the end of the second room.
“What’s down that hall?” asked Hannah.
“A staircase,” I said. “We should turn around.”
We did, and walked to the elevator, heading up to the third floor. It consisted of a high-ceilinged corridor lined with enormous oil paintings.
“So all this body language releases hormones that promote social bonding,” said Hannah.
“My vagus nerve must be fucked then.”
“It’s underdeveloped in autistic people, yeah. And it doesn’t just impair social communication. The nerve also changes your eardrum so you can only pick up high-pitched noises. That allows us to pay attention to the person we’re talking to, and filter out all other sounds.”
“That’s why I can’t pay attention in noisy places.”
“Right, and it’s why you find social situations so stressful. You have to consciously do things that come naturally to other people, like understand facial expressions, and be expressive, and listen closely, and all that’s exhausting.”
We reached the end of the corridor, turned back, and took the elevator back to the first floor. We walked down another marble-floored corridor.
“But it’s not just that,” I said. “I genuinely feel indifferent about most people, as well as most social situations. Sure I find them stressful, but more than anything I find it hard to care. Most of this shit doesn’t mean anything to me.”
“That’s all because of your vagus nerve,” said Hannah.
“Hey, this is where that courtyard is,” I said. “Wait’ll you see this.”
I led Hannah through a glass door into the courtyard. Unlike the previous day, the courtyard was empty. We strolled under the portico.
“The problems with your vagus nerve also serve to make autistic people more isolated,” said Hannah. “Monotone voices and flat facial expressions make other people feel anxious.”
“We freak people out,” I said.
“Yeah, in a way they can’t even articulate. The guy who explained this to us does a kind of therapy that’s teaches how to express vulnerability, and communicate a desire to be part of the tribe. It was originally meant for people with anorexia, but there’s a huge number of anorexics who are also on the spectrum.”
We walked down a ramp to the centre of the courtyard next to a dried-out fountain. I felt a speck of rain.
“What if people are genuinely indifferent or don’t want to belong to the tribe?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said Hannah. “Most anorexics want to belong. Maybe it’s different for autistics.”
We left McKim, and decided to walk to the Union Oyster House. It’s the oldest restaurant in the United States, dating back to 1826. I briefly surveyed a map before we left.
“I think if we follow Boylston to Tremont, we should be fine,” I said. “Tremont goes right past the city hall, and Union Oyster House is on the other side of that. So all we have to do is keep an eye out for the city hall, and just follow Tremont until then.”
Hannah has no sense of direction, so she said okay.
About forty-five minutes later, we stood at the corner of an intersection. The street signs leading both directions read Tremont. It was getting dark. There was a highway a block away, and what looked like tenement buildings past that.
“I have no idea what I’m doing,” I said.
We hunkered down in the vestibule of an apartment building so I could consult my map.
It wasn’t helpful, so Hannah turned her phone on to get directions.
“What about the roaming charges?” I said.
“It won’t be that bad.”
I enjoy Hannah’s tendency to throw money at problems. It’s a strategy I’ve never used, because I’m a cheap bastard, but it’s consistently effective.
The phone suggested a route. I didn’t trust it, but figured it was impossible to get more lost, so we followed its directions.
It led us to a historic marketplace which was still open. And there was a vendor inside who was selling cupcakes in jars.
She knew where the restaurant was, and Hannah and I knew we needed to buy a cupcake in a jar, so it was a win-win situation.
We found the restaurant, went inside, and were escorted to a table. The place looked like it hadn’t changed in at least fifty years. Once again we ate enormous amounts of food at too late an hour. Once again it was very good, and once again we were uncomfortably full afterward
Hannah and I took a subway back to the hotel, feeling satisfied with the state of the world and our place in it.
When we got back, it was after midnight, and we still had to pack. I wanted to get up early to see the ocean, and Hannah- god bless her late-rising heart- had consented to this.
We had an ass-ton of stuff to pack, including a truly scandalous amount of junk food, and quickly abandoned any attempt at a cohesive organizational system. There was simply too much stuff, and not enough room to fit it. But by God, we made room, and
crammed and stuffed things in whatever sections and pockets we could find inside the two knapsacks and one suitcase we’d brought.
When I get tired, I become hysterical, and was soon laughing uncontrollably at everything. This was contagious, and soon Hannah and I were two very silly bitches. I can’t even remember most of what we said and did, except that it was largely nonsense. Honestly, it was the most fun I’d had during the entire trip. I could barely breathe I was laughing so hard.
Eventually, at about two thirty, we’d packed almost everything.
We got ready for bed, and discovered that the neck roll which Hannah uses to support her head was missing. Without it, there was a good chance that she would suffer from pain issues in the night. We looked everywhere, and couldn’t find it.
We went to bed, assuming the issue would be quickly resolved in the morning.
We assumed wrong.