He scanned the noisy crowd for her long, curly hair. At six-foot-two, Leo towered over the quiet woman and was now annoyed he couldn’t spot her immediately.
A rude poke to his shoulder from the young man trespassing in his personal space caught his attention.
“I said, what do you think of Perkins’s announcement? What are you going to do, buddy?”
Leo sighed. She had probably vanished by now. He would have to text her later after allowing her sufficient opportunity to reach her parents’ house or her bungalow.
Bungalow. Bungalow. Leo loved the feel of that word in his mouth. He could say it aloud fifty times for the simple pleasure it gave him. But, obviously, now was not prudent.
“What do you mean, Allen?”
His co-worker shifted from one foot to the other. “I mean, man, it’s official. The government is closing this USPS Encoding Facility by the end of the year. Only a few weeks left.”
“I’ll do what I’ve always done. I’ll secure new employment.” Leo could have added that getting a job was not difficult. Keeping the position for more than a few weeks was problematic.
Leo’s skills were hardly ever in question. People just didn’t appreciate his sense of humor or understand how his mind worked. That woman at the bank accused him of being mean. He’d merely pointed out she should have had her deposit slip ready before standing in line.
This termination was not his fault. The federal government could shoulder the blame for this one.
Allen shook his head. “Easy for you to say, bud. You actually like this job, and you are good at it. Me, I need something where I can move around.”
“You could move to Salt Lake City where the consolidated encoding facility will operate.”
“That’s not what I mean, Leo. Who can sit in a cubicle for eight hours and scan pieces of mail with crummy writing on them? ‘Bout drives me nuts.”
“I see. Well, I need to punch out now. Good evening.”
Leo turned and headed to his station to retrieve his briefcase and leave for the weekend. A message popped up on his monitor. See me. Mr. Perkins.
Oh, great. Another encounter. Wasn’t that malodorous assemblage of co-workers enough for one day? He grabbed his personal items and stepped into the director’s unkempt office. He stood quietly until his boss completed a telephone conversation and acknowledged him. Bungalow. Bungalow.
“Leonard. Thanks for stopping by. I suppose the announcement caught many off guard. Blaming me, are they? I’m not the government. I just follow orders.”
Leo rolled his shoulders. He should be stepping into his car by now. “Mr. Perkins, as a rule, I don’t engage in unproductive conversation while on the clock. And, we were all notified six weeks ago this development might occur.”
“Yes, anyway, I wanted to let you know I’ve written a letter of recommendation for you as you look for a new job. Gee whiz, you and Tina Saunders are my two best employees. I mean, the people here are the last hope for postal customers with shoddy penmanship. And your production is outstanding. What’s your time now? Ten seconds?”
Leo cleared his throat. “My monitor presents scanned pieces of correspondence with questionable addresses scrawled on their envelopes every eight seconds. I rather enjoy shuffling the mail along its route of delivery.”
Perkins blinked. “Yes, well, good job. I know you’ll be diligent up through the last day. I can count on you. I sincerely hope you can find a new employer who will appreciate your efforts in spite of your … you know. See me about that letter, Leonard, when the time comes.”
Leo nodded before turning and walking briskly down the hallway. He glanced at his phone. Twelve minutes off schedule. He sighed. One must adapt to survive.
As he drove to the grocery store, he pursed his lips. Did Perkins expect him to be grateful for the letter? Leo snorted. If his boss only knew Leo had already secured a new position that would commence the first Monday of the new year. He chuckled and then remembered he could be jubilant except for the glaring problem.
He wouldn’t see Tina every day. What would happen to their special friendship?
As he pulled into the parking lot, his phone pinged, signaling a text. He smiled. The written word was a treasure to him, as opposed to auditory input.
LEO, I LOOKED 4 U. WHERE WERE U?
With a sharp intake of breath, he thought, she looked for me. Never before in thirty-seven years had anyone affected him in this mystifying manner. He smiled once again. He yearned for contact with Tina. Extraordinary, indeed.
PERKINS BECKONED. WOULD YOU CARE TO MEET FOR PIZZA LATER AND I’LL TELL ALL?
He held his breath and marveled at his audacity.
SEE U AT TONY’S AROUND 6:30. OK?
Yes! Bungalow. Bungalow.
SEE YOU THEN.
Leo’s heart picked up its pace. A nice woman liked him and he would never need to listen to her prattle on and on. Perfect. He loved his mother, but this was entirely different. Could he successfully handle this development?
He began to hum “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As the tones resonated in his sinus cavities and calmed him, Leo recalled feeling odd in kindergarten. Being hyperlexic, he had been reading since before his third birthday. Imagine his astonishment when he discovered many of his classmates could not recognize their names in print.
Leo’s desire to make friends did not flow naturally. By first grade, he had become the target for teasing and bullying. Mrs. Gilbert had spoken to his parents and expressed her concern regarding his inappropriate facial expressions and body postures.
Multi-disciplinary staffings. Over the years, either Leo had attended or his father had related a blow-by-blow account. The labels had been attributed to him as if he were a side of beef – socially maladjusted, autistic, and several others.
Leo stopped humming as images of junior high rolled through his brain. The torment, taunting and intimidation and dismay of it all. He rolled his shoulders and chanted quietly. Bungalow. Bungalow.
That was then and this was now. What stimulus had prompted this fruitless trip down memory lane? He nodded as realization struck. The trigger hadn’t been the pending loss of a job he excelled at and enjoyed. No. He feared losing contact with Tina. The threads of their burgeoning relationship might unravel.
I must not dwell on what I cannot control, he thought. This shouldn’t require much of his time. He needed to focus and get back on schedule. No time for idle musing. He was meeting Tina in an hour and a half.
Meeting. He smiled. Here was one meeting he would enjoy.
Apples – two for a dollar. Tina often brought an apple in her lunch. He deftly felt and selected two.
Lack of interest in socializing and making friends. Too bad they couldn’t see him now. He certainly wished to maintain his friendship with Tina.
High school had presented significant complications. His growth spurt had discouraged most of the bullies, but girls looked and even smelled different. He had to exercise caution due to an annoying characteristic of his disorder – gazing too intently or conversely avoiding eye contact.
Conversations with Tina necessitated direct eye contact and a steady gaze so she could read his lips. No problem for him there. Of course, once he realized his growing interest in this quiet, sweet woman, he quickly learned basic ASL. And as he employed sign language in their more frequent encounters, he became more proficient.
“I love that you made the effort to learn ASL so you could talk with me,” Tina had said one evening as they had left the encoding facility.
His heart had soared but he had shrugged and replied, “Oh, I easily remember everything I see or read in books. Glad to do it.”
She had shyly asked him one day if he found her voice unpleasant. Although Leo never lied and did think her voice was low and raspy, he knew she had never heard the spoken word.
“No, Tina, I like your voice, and I am glad we both use total communication now.”
She had beamed.
Inability to infer the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of others. Leo smirked as he selected a bunch of bananas. Tina had certainly disproved that trait once attributed to Leo. She had texted him and must therefore want to be with him. Right?
Lack of comprehension of gestures. Gestures had never been so important to him. He and Tina gestured to each other as naturally as breathing.
Buy one, get one free. Leo picked up two cans of no-salt-added green beans. Are they defective? He wondered.
“Excuse me,” a harried woman said as she reached around him to snag four cans. “Quite a deal. I think they’re trying to get rid of stuff left over from Thanksgiving. You know canned stuff lasts for years.”
When Leo did not respond, her lips thinned and she moved on. Clearly, he wasn’t obligated to engage in conversations with strangers. Was that wrong? If Tina didn’t choose to chat with everyone, she had only to avert her eyes. He could try that.
Cereal. Leo blinked and visualized his pantry shelves. Nope. Didn’t need any today.
Leo selected a piece of paper from the note pad he kept on his kitchen counter and drew a line down the middle. He made notations as he honestly examined his relationship with Tina. The pros quickly out-numbered the cons. A fluttery feeling in his stomach gave him pause.
“Am I becoming ill?” he asked his empty apartment. He shook his head. These sensations – palpitations, nervous stomach – were foreign to him. He was losing control of the situation. Leo had never experienced this before.
Wait. He closed his eyes to visualize when his parents had taken him and his younger sister to Disney World in Orlando, Florida. He’d gamely tolerated the rides and the invasive smells of too many people mixed with cotton candy, hot dogs and unidentifiable ethnic foods.
When they had finally reached the long line outside the Hall of Presidents, his anticipation escalated to sheer excitement. Jennifer had whined and complained of boredom at least twenty times, but his father had promised.
“I loved it,” Leo said as he adjusted the temperature knob and stepped in for a quick shower. The imagineers had incorporated the latest in theatrical design and audio-animatronic technology. High impact sound, lighting and other enhancements had transported Leo across two hundred years of American history.
He failed to comprehend his sister’s indifference. How could she not have marveled as landmarks of the history that defined our nation came alive on a one-hundred-eighty-degree screen? Honestly. That girl.
After three changes, Leo settled on a light blue shirt that complimented his eyes. He studied his image in the mirror as he combed his dark brown hair and spotted a few greys. He frowned. His desire for perfection almost over-ran his common sense.
Leave them be, he told himself. Tina once said she admired how maturely he behaved. He glanced at his watch. Cell phones were indeed vital to man’s existence, but his father had given him this SEIKO SNN241 Stainless Steel with a brown leather band, and Leo trusted its accuracy. If his phone ever lost all its bars, he would still know the time and act accordingly.
Now, it was time to go.
That phone pinged as he drove to Tony’s. Friday evening traffic seemed heavy, so no way would Leo take his eyes off the road to glance at his phone. Texting equaled distracted driving.
But he was distracted. He tried to imagine what would happen tonight. His first real date. He wondered how experienced Tina could be with men. She’d lived on her own in her bungalow for ten years. Bungalow. He feared he might do something to mess up this encounter. In the past, meetings had been the bane of his existence. Multidisciplinary reviews, psychological consults – whatever.
Stop it, he told himself as he pulled into a parking space and looked at the tiny screen. Who had texted him on a Friday night? Mother. He read the text and frowned. She’s always worrying I’m lonely. Bless her heart, but I’m not ready to share Tina with anyone.
Bungalow. Bungalow. This situation was of their making. He was in no way required to do this. He wanted to. Even though he hadn’t the slightest idea how to proceed, he was willing to take the plunge. “Do it,” he whispered and exited his vehicle.
Leo rolled his shoulders and entered the brightly lit restaurant. He scanned the crowd and spied her facing him in a booth. She looked lovely. She’d changed into a cranberry sweater. He held his breath as she looked up from the menu. Her eyes lit up when she saw him.
Leo floated to the booth and slid in opposite her. They signed friendly greetings to each other. He liked the way she had removed the pins that usually held her hair back from her face. Tonight, her chestnut curls cascaded past her shoulders. While she intently watched him, she brushed a stray curl aside.
No gray ones, Leo noticed. Women probably don’t succumb to passing years as easily as men.
Leo ordered for both of them. While they waited, he and Tina discussed the closing of the postal encoding facility and what each would now do for employment. As she explained her plans, he felt an overwhelming desire to be still and let the relief sink in. She would continue working for the post office but downtown. So, she would still live in her bungalow.
“I won’t be at the counter helping customers, of course, but more in the back rooms sorting mail, bundling packages, whatever is needed. I may have to work different shifts, though. I can adapt.”
As the waiter served the pizza and soft drinks, he smiled at Tina. She said, “Thanks, Joe.” She reached for a slice and asked Leo, “What about you?”
He described his meeting with Mr. Perkins and inhaled deeply. “I have a position at a call center. It’s downtown, too.” He could read the questions in her eyes and continued. “When a person has trouble with a product, he or she reads the owner’s manual for a number to call for help.” He grinned. “I’m that guy.”
“Once again, I’ll be in a cubicle with a computer, but I like that arrangement. I’ve attended a few training sessions, but I won’t be on the payroll until January. I am well versed in bathroom faucets and shower nozzles.”
“You’ll be helping people just like you did on our last job. That’s great, Leo.”
“As long as they give me the product name and model number.”
Leo enjoyed their quiet connection until two young men approached the booth and spoiled the moment. He was astonished at how their hands flew in beautiful rhythms. They must be hearing impaired too.
Leo sneaked looks at the men and felt at a distance although they were all in close proximity. He recognized a few signs but realized his grasp of ASL was inadequate. What was she saying to make them laugh? He clenched his teeth.
“Leo,” Tina signed and said as she looked between the men and Leo. “This is Tom Johnson and Larry Weathers, friends of mine.” She shifted. “Guys, this is Leo Sullivan, a close friend from work.” Although he managed to sign cordial greetings, Leo felt clumsy and relaxed only as they left. He was ashamed of his jealousy.
“Tom’s sister is my best friend. She’s married to Larry.”
Bungalow. Leo didn’t know what to say.
Tina reached across the table to briefly touch his hand. “Leo, I have a lot of friends in the deaf community.” She sighed. “And I come from a large family – one brother and four sisters. Lots of nieces and nephews. I’m used to being around a lot of people. I do become frustrated when conversations go on around me and I’m missing out. But, I have to accept that.” She paused, afraid she was overloading him with too much input. When he said nothing, she continued.
“You are very special to me, Leo. I realize you aren’t comfortable around lots of people. But, if we continue our friendship, my family will want to meet you. Is that going to be a problem?”
Leo blinked. “I’ve been subjected to meetings all my life, but this is my first rendezvous.”
He sipped his diet soda and mulled over what to say.
“Tina, I just want to be good enough for you. When I observed you with those guys, I felt I was missing out. Am I weird for being jealous of hearing impaired people? I’d say so. But, Tina, I intend to become more proficient with signing.”
She sensed the difficult part of the conversation was imminent, so she took a last bite, chewed and waited.
“When I was first diagnosed with autism, my parents did everything they could to help me. I owe them a lot. They could have been in denial or tried to hide me from everyone and hope for some kind of miracle. But we all worked hard.”
He rubbed the back of his neck.
“So, now I’m on the spectrum as less disabled but still disabled. Asperger’s is exhausting. I use my tools everyday to be ‘normal’ but I’m not quite. I just want to be good enough for you.”
Tina blinked mist from her eyes and said, “Well, Leo, you’re an Aspie and I’m deaf. Nothing’s going to change that. I like you and I think you like me, too, or we wouldn’t be sitting here eating pizza and talking on a Friday night.” She smiled warmly. “I want us to meet each other’s families, but I’m not ready.”
She turned to look out into the night. “Look, Leo. It’s starting to snow. I’d better start walking before it gets too bad.”
Leo’s eyes widened. “You walked here?”
“I just live down the block. You can see my house from here.”
Outside they watched giant snowflakes dance past streetlights.
“May I give you a ride?”
“No, thank you. I love to walk.” She looked up at him. “I had a nice time, Leo.”
He took her hand. “It’s not over.”
As they walked in the magical night, Leo worried about the next part. What would she expect him to do? Before he was ready, her bungalow appeared in the snow showers.
Tina turned and looked up at her escort. “Thanks again, Leo. I love pizza.”
He smiled. “May I text you this weekend?”
He wanted to brush snow from her curls but felt that would be too intimate. On impulse, he quickly bent and kissed her cheek.
“I’ll wait until you’re inside. Good night.”
She signed with gloved hands. “See you Monday.”
As lights illuminated the little house, Leo bounced on his toes, a behavior he hadn’t exhibited in a long while. He could be forgiven this once. He had just experienced a joyful rendezvous.