Tina sticks her spoon into her ice cream and stares at it.
“It’s going to turn into a cream puddle if you don’t eat it now.”
She lifts her head to look wearily at Blaine, smiling hopefully at her as he asks, “Ready to spill your troubles?”
“No. But I’ll have to, won’t I?”
Blaine’s smile disappears. “Tina, what’s wrong?”
His concerned voice erases all of the jubilance of Mercedes’ voice and the positive thoughts she’s tried to drum up in the past few hours. She hangs her head and sighs loudly.
Then she tells him. How she’s been really touched by Mike’s little gestures and how she would love to be in a relationship with such a caring and genuine guy. Yet, she’s so distracted by her daily work and she really wants to get everything done perfectly – the workshop, the individuals... Artie. Artie, who has made her see hope in her job, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel that many special needs educators find hard to see. Artie, who has put a smile on her face with his efforts countless times, as much as he has made her cry at the end of the day because he just won’t listen.
Artie, who makes her feel like she’s doing something right in her life and spurs her to do more, even though her aims have always been fairly mediocre and easily contented with.
And Artie, who has somehow – in the midst of all this – become attracted to her and made things absolutely, disastrously complicated.
Blaine gives her an appropriately sympathetic look. He stirs his ice cream float, then asks, “You seem to be rather taken aback by Artie getting attached to you pretty quickly. Did the kids you worked with before not exhibit similar characteristics?”
“But they were kids,” Tina protests.
“And you didn’t expect adults to form romantic attractions?”
Tina hangs her head. “I feel like I’m not walking the talk. I always talk about seeing someone with autism as any other person, just with special abilities, attitudes, personalities, actions... but deep down inside, I’m still the therapist and he’s still my – my patient, in a way.”
“It’s okay to see them as friends,” says Blaine. “And I know you see Artie as one.”
“Then where do you draw the line?” Tina asks, helplessly. “I thought I had it cleanly outlined, but it just seems further and further away!”
Blaine sips his float, then looks kindly at Tina. “You know that it’s much easier to coach children than adults in many things, right? Not just people with autism, even people like you and me. It’s easier to learn when you’re young. The fact that you’ve managed to spark so many changes in Artie is truly commendable, Tina. The way he’s opened himself up to so many more possibilities, adapting himself to changes... Rachel would have been stunned by his progress. All of us are, and that’s why Sue asked you to work your magic with the others because it’s been so long since we managed to get Artie to do anything else except for watching West Side Story or just stoning by himself.”
“Thank you,” whispers Tina. “There’s a catch somewhere, isn’t there?”
Blaine smiles faintly. “Your work has also led him to take several steps outside of his social comfort zone. Maybe not during mass games, but at least he’s conversing with you about things other than musical theater. He’s responding appropriately on many occasions and when I met him for the music session a few weeks back, he was really adept at offering his opinion. I really enjoyed his insights.”
He leans forward. “But you do know that Artie’s insights are drawn from his amazing observational skills too, don’t you? And that he actually applies those skills to real life – the people he meets, the things they do... he’s actually really concerned about that.”
“I know,” says Tina, woebegone. “You should have seen him at the park today. He was so incredible. One moment, he’s being hated on, one moment he draws on that to connect to others and turns the whole place into a freakin’ dance floor. Not only does he attempt to overcome his social awkwardness, he’s showing others that he’s so much beyond a chair, that it’s just a part of him. After a while, all the things that sets him apart from you and me becomes invisible!”
Blaine doesn’t comment; he just sips his drink.
“That’s why it’s so hard to draw the line.” Tina leans back in her seat. “It’s so hard when he says things like ‘you can dance well’ – he knows when I’m hurt he compares me to Rachel, so he tries to make me feel better. Isn’t that insane?”
“Not at all. Artie’s really perceptive and I think he cares for people more than he lets on.”
Tina lets out a frustrated noise. “Blaine, you’re not helping.”
“I’m telling you the reality,” says Blaine. “Everybody’s going to tell you to pick Mike, but I’m here to help you understand how Artie thinks and then you can work on dealing with it better.”
“No one will really know how he thinks!”
“Well, he did tell you how he felt.”
“And then? Does he know what comes after that kind of confession? Was he expecting me to reciprocate it?”
“He did ask you if you had a boyfriend. I think he mentally prepared himself.”
Tina looks at Blaine incredulously. “Do you really think that?”
“And do you not?” counters Blaine. “Listen to yourself, Tina. Why are you being so skeptical about the whole thing? And then – if you’ve already decided that Artie is going to treat a relationship functionally rather than emotionally, and that’s not your cup of tea, then why are you even having a dilemma? If he’s not going to function the same way as us, why would you be so concerned that he’s upset?”
“Because he is!”
“Blaine, I wish it was that simple. I wish I could just say – look, he’s autistic, he’s never going to see things the way I do. Period. But – but it’s precisely because what he does and what he says and how he looked when I told him I have a boyfriend... it just makes me think otherwise!”
“So you’re convincing yourself that he isn’t normal when you don’t actually think that way.”
Tina gives Blaine a helpless look.
Blaine shrugs. “I thought I might get a thanks for summing all that up for you.”
When Tina lies in bed that night, she can still feel the frustration bubbling up inside her. She wants to push it away and just stick with what makes the most sense because right now, her conscience is interfering.
It feels like pity. It’s like – you know he can do many things like most people can and you want to believe that. You think rejecting him is going to break his heart and you don’t want that for him.
But Tina, it’s impossible.
Professionalism, she thinks. That’s the best reason. That fine line has to be established somehow and she’s establishing it now.
She stuffs a pillow on top of her face and tries to think of Mike’s hand on hers at Breadstix and how it made her heart flutter.
She relaxes with a deep sigh. You know the answer, Tina.
You know it.
The next morning, Tina gets up to a very nice breakfast of cereal and croissants made by her mother.
“I could have this for breakfast every day,” Tina announces.
Her mother laughs as she wipes the tabletop. “Glad you like it.” She hesitates for a bit, before saying, “I met Mike Chang’s mother yesterday at the community center.”
Tina’s spoon hits the cereal bowl with a clank. “You met Mike’s mother?”
“Well, we were signing up for the same cookery class... and just started chatting. Then the topic went to our kids and I found out her son works at the Autism Center too.”
Tina gulps. “O-okay.” Awkward.
Tina’s mother looks at her intently. “She’s under the impression that the two of you are dating. Is that true?”
“What? No! We just... we just go out,” says Tina, knowing that her face must be flaming red. “Although... he did ask me to be his girlfriend yesterday.”
Her mother squeals like a little ten-year-old girl and rushes forward. “What did you say?!”
“I said I needed time.”
The expression on her mother’s face changes immediately to that of annoyance. “Why?! Tina, it’s been ages since you last hung out with a boy. This man looks like a good one, and he comes from a good family too.”
“And how would you know that?”
“Great question, because the answers are not coming from you,” her mother shoots back. “You’re always talking about your work and the people you deal with, but you hardly ever talk about Mike. I only know because you seem so happy talking on the phone with him.”
Neither mother nor daughter say anymore, but Tina is pretty sure that’s not the ideal start to her morning.
Jacob is down with gastric pains that day, so Tina is faced with Artie. For the first time, she feels like telling Sue that she really doesn’t want to work with him, but that would be extremely unprofessional. Ignoring the problem would also be really rude and insensitive towards Artie, so she decides to talk about it. She has to make sure he’s okay, after all.
She hands him The Great Gatsby while he picks his fingers by the table. “It’s a good book, isn’t it?”
He looks up at her and blinks obviously.
“Who’s Gatsby’s love interest?”
“Daisy,” he says immediately.
“You’ve read the book!” Tina accuses.
“Yes. A few years ago.”
Tina completely shoves the whole relationship issue aside as she stares at Artie in wonder. “You amaze me every single time, Artie Abrams. We all thought you’ve been immersed in West Side Story when you’ve actually been reading?”
“If I watched West Side Story every day, the count would be three million, six hundred and forty-two times.”
“You were bored watching it?”
“I didn’t have a therapist for three months in 2005. They let me be alone and do what I want, so I stayed in my room and read the book.”
“Did you read any other book?”
Artie’s a little distracted with the book in his hands once he’s flipped it open, so Tina has to extract it from him carefully as she repeats her question.
Through a short conversation, Tina realizes Artie is actually quite the bookworm. He may have been obsessed with musicals, but he is somehow comfortable with reading in the absence of a musical film to watch. He’s very specific with what kind of film he wants to watch and how he goes about giving his feedback, but he’s less specific outside of his obsession and reads everything from fiction to non-fiction. But he doesn’t talk about it nor will he read the book again.
He never really ceases to surprise me every single time. What we think we know often turns inside out to reveal more.
“You have been in every line I have ever read,” says Artie.
“You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here. The rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then.”
Artie continues, “You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since – on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes...”
Light dawns upon Tina at the word ‘marshes’.
“...in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets...”
“‘Great Expectations,’” Tina whispers.
“It’s a long quote,” says Artie. “I only remembered up till there.”
“That’s... pretty impressive already.” Her palms are clammy once again. “And that’s how you think you’re attracted to me?”
That just makes her highly confused. “Did you read it on the Internet then?”
“West Side Story, maybe? Maria and Tony are rather dramatic with their emotions.”
Tina pauses, before asking slowly, “Then how do you think you know... you like me?”
“My parents,” Artie says without missing a beat.
Artie’s eyes glaze over; he’s faraway in thought and Tina feels like it’s sacrilegious to break that train of thought. Eventually, he comes back when she touches him lightly on the arm, but there is a tinge of sadness in his eyes. Artie’s expression is often blank, so for a shred of emotion to appear, there is a tug at heartstrings.
“They take care of each other,” he explains. “They hug one another when they’re happy or unhappy. It makes them feel good, I think. They hold hands and say nice things to one another every day. They make each other believe that tomorrow will be a better day.”
It’s been so many years since his parents were alive, but Artie clearly remembers every single detail.
“That’s absolutely sweet,” whispers Tina.
“Aren’t we like that too?” Artie turns those sad eyes on her.
“Artie...” She wishes that her voice doesn’t crack, but it does anyway. “Those are gestures that... can be interpreted in many ways.”
His sadness gives way to a rather angry scowl. “That’s confusing. I hate this. I hate that there are so many ways to interpret actions. I see it this way but you won’t. You see it one way and I won’t. That’s stupid and ridiculous.”
Tina has to smile despite the tears. “Yes, it is stupid and ridiculous. But...”
“I don’t see things the way other people do.”
“That can be a blessing too.”
“No!” His jaw is set hard and his fingers curl in. “No, I don’t see it.”
“Listen, Artie, I know you’ve been trying very hard and everybody sees your improvement. People do see what you can do and they’re willing to wait for you to show them who you really are and what you’re capable of. You may not see things the same way they do the first time, but they’ll be happy to teach you, to guide you...”
“But I don’t want to see it their way! This is my life!” Artie retorts. “I am the director of my life, am I not?”
Tina is taken aback. “Yes, but –”
Artie continues ranting, “And everyone can have a girlfriend but me because I can’t do things for her like everybody else can. I can’t walk side by side with her. I can’t hold her hand properly unless she bends down. I can’t say the right things. I can’t go to a play and make her happy because I say stupid things and she’ll be angry with me.”
The last bit almost makes Tina stop breathing.
“I can’t have a girlfriend,” he says, then shakes his head. “I can’t.”
Tina is pretty sure he only sounds so matter-of-fact about it because that’s just the way he speaks. If the emotion could shine through, it would most definitely ring of resignation.
“Artie, please don’t –”
“I can’t!” He stares at the wall. “Go away.”
“Artie, you can have one. Someday, you will find someone –”
“Go away, please!”
“Artie, I will not have you feeling sorry for yourself!” All of a sudden, Tina finds the strength in her voice. “You’re so much more than that! You think you’re different? But everyone is different! You should make use of your difference as your strength! Don’t you remember how all the people at the park loved the way you wanted to dance and did so even though you’re in a wheelchair? The fact that you want to do things your own way makes you such a great director, because you have opinions – opinions that matter! Right now, you should stop feeling sorry about your lack of a love life and focus on achieving your dreams of becoming a director and making that musical a hell of a show for everyone to see that you, Artie Abrams, are not just different, but special – someone extraordinary!”
She has to take a deep breath after that speech, but it comes out more like heaving as she glares at him. He’s wide-eyed and she’s not even sure if he registered all of that since she sounded like a bullet train.
This time it’s not Artie who leaves the room first. Tina stomps out with her bag and materials firmly tucked under her arm, and heads straight for the office.
Sue is standing by the reception handing files over to Santana, and both of them are quite surprised by the way Tina storms into the office.
“If Jacob doesn’t come back tomorrow, I’ll be taking Sam Evans,” says Tina, forcefully. “Artie will be on his own from now on; he’ll just work with Blaine on the musical. I won’t be taking him anymore.”
Sue raises a skeptical eyebrow. “And what made you –”
“You were right,” says Tina, even though she wants to yell at Sue for being right. “There are others who need help, others who truly want to be helped and I’ve been neglecting their needs. I’ll make sure that’s corrected. Now I need to finish up Artie’s report, if you’ll excuse me.”
She strides past them, back to her desk and sits down hard. Santana follows after, an incredulous expression on her face.
“Did that bee sting you in the booty?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh you damn well know,” says Santana, and she pulls her chair over. “He’s drawn blood real deep. Spew your guts out, woman, what’s made you ditch the brolly-man?”
The word ‘ditch’ conjures the notion of relationships that Tina really doesn’t want to revisit now. She opens Artie’s file in vehemence and begins typing furiously.
“Have you fallen for him?” comes the softly-spoken question loaded with skepticism, awkwardness and worry.
Tina stops typing.
Santana lets out a groan.
“No, it’s not like that!” Tina huffs as she turns around. “I just don’t want to hurt him, that’s all.”
Santana is wide-eyed. “What. Happened?”
When Tina doesn’t say anything, Santana gasps theatrically. “He fell for you, didn’t he?! Oh sweet lady Chang, what honeyed pollen vibes you give!”
Tina gives her a death-glare.
“I could bring up the whole Rachel-Finn-Jesse story again, but as your good friend, once again, I will spare you the details,” says Santana, in a most benevolent voice, “and just tell you that I totally saw it coming.”
Tina rolls her eyes. “You’re a great, helpful friend. Thanks.”
“You do know that even if you did fall for Artie, while it’s extremely unprofessional and could be quite confusing, it’s not actually a morally bad thing?”
Tina throws up her hands. “Are you even listening to me, Santana Lopez? I said –”
Santana raises her hands too. “I’m just saying.”
Tina slaps her hands down back on her lap.
“I mean, Rachel chose to run away from it. She found Jesse and decided to leave this place so she could leave behind the thought of Finn. I think Mikey boy would jump off a cliff for you given his adoration, so you know, you could technically do the same.”
“I’m not exploiting Mike’s attraction to me, thank you very much,” snaps Tina. “And I like him.”
“Now to be really serious,” says Santana. “As a therapist, while it’s all good and dandy to care for your mentee, it’s also important that you separate yourself from his feelings as well. If you must hurt them for him to move on, then just do it. And when you have chosen to let go, let go. Now that you’re working with Jacob full-time, don’t you dare go back and find Artie and try to think of ways to make his life better. Once you slip into caring for him again, you’re going to find it very hard to desensitize yourself to anything he does.”
“Isn’t that quite heartless?”
Santana makes an exasperated noise. “Girl, you’re dealing with adults with autism. You’re going to give a workshop on it, for heaven’s sake. I’m sure it’s like 101 with regards to the level of emotional involvement these adults have compared to kids. It’s like all bottled up and magnified in them because they don’t always have the appropriate outlets to express these feelings. I’m sure you know how Artie expresses himself.”
“Music,” replies Tina, instantly. “Directing.”
“Yes, so he’s going to focus on those two areas. Isn’t that good? And you can just focus on getting your job done and getting paid for it.” Santana folds her arms. “Problem solved.”
Tina cracks a small smile. “Thanks, Santana.”
“Aunty Tanny always gives the best advice,” replies Santana, and she goes back to her desk.
When you have chosen to let go, let go.
So she does.
She works with Jacob the next day and is pleased to note that he’s trying his best to divert his handsy attention onto the stress ball. She purposely wore the silver necklace to monitor his progress. It’s all good. Except that when she goes to the ladies, she has to pass by Room No. 3.
She can’t help but peek in.
Artie is watching The Phantom of the Opera, another of the tapes she had given him. He’s scribbling things down on the clipboard in the usual focused way, with his eyebrows furrowed and lips set in a straight line. Tina tears herself away from the window and makes her way to the ladies, but she can’t help being curious about what he has written for that show since it’s the first time she’s seen him watch it.
At the end of the day, Tina goes back to Room No. 3 to see the clipboard placed neatly on the table. To her surprise, instead of an analysis table on the paper, Artie has written a cast list. She half-expects to see a fully-copied version of the cast list on the tape’s information sheet, only to realize that Artie has cast himself as the Phantom, Tina as Christine... and Tina’s boyfriend as Raoul.
Tina sits down hard.
You’re not the Phantom, Artie.
But she knows why he chose to be the Phantom. The sad, lonely Phantom who craved love and acceptance and unloaded his dreams onto his love Christine, only to be rejected by her for a handsome, normal young man.
It’s also important that you separate yourself from his feelings as well. If you must hurt them for him to move on, then just do it. Santana’s voice echoed in her head once again.
“You are the one who gives the lessons, Tina,” she says to herself sternly. “You are the one who makes sure he gets to the next stage in his life, not the other way round. Focus, Tina, focus!”
With that, she goes to finish up her report on Jacob, then after texting Mike, waits patiently at the school gates for him.
“Hey!” Mike jogs up to the gates ten minutes later. “Sorry, I still need to stay back to finish some workplans. Anything important?”
Tina looks at him, then reaches out to take his hand.
Mike stares at her in wonder. Then a hopeful look emerges. “Tina?”
“Yes,” says Tina. “Yes, I’ll be your girlfriend.”
Mike’s eyes widen, then breaks out into a huge beam. “Tina! Do – do you mean it?”
Tina draws him into a hug, and he clutches at her tightly. She breathes in his scent and relaxes in his embrace. “Yes... yes, I do. Mike... you’re a wonderful man and you make me so, so happy.”
He really does. That’s why Mercedes and Kurt tease her about being so chirpy ever since she started going out with Mike, or that her mom says she’s been so happy on the phone with him.
Mike pushes his workplans aside and takes her out to a romantic dinner with flowers, ending the date with a soft kiss that still lingers on her lips as she tucks herself into bed that night.
The following week, she holds the three-day workshop with Santana. The turnout is immense, with many parents, educators and psychologists taking their seats before her. There is a panel of autism and psychology experts who share tips on how to manage adults with autism and offer shining examples of those who have made it big, but Tina has made sure that their main message corresponds with her conclusion.
“We all hold onto a belief that autism is merely an obstacle in their lives, that sometimes it may even be a booster for them to achieve things that no one else can. On most days, this belief seems invisible and no matter how many times we psyche ourselves to stick by it, we just want to walk away and say it’s impossible. My child, this boy or girl, this young man or young woman, will always be different from other people and no matter what they get in life, it’s like a pity token. Sometimes, you even feel like the pity token’s for you rather than for them. But like what I told my mentee, everybody in this world is different. Are you going to sit there and lament the fact that it’s hindering you or are you going to use that difference to make a difference?”
Tina smiles. “It’s easy to say, huh? I’m just another one of those therapists who are trying to instill hope in you. But no, my purpose is not to make you feel better. My purpose is to make you want to make them feel better. To make them feel that the only difference they have compared to other people is simply the difference between you and me. The differences amongst human beings. Apart from encouraging them verbally, we have to act it out. We let them take charge of their lives. Start by asking your child, your patient, your mentee – what is it that they want? Is it that impossible to let them work towards that goal?”
Tina draws in a deep breath. “When I first came here, my mentee was obsessed with musical theatre films. He refused to watch anything else but West Side Story. He called for his previous therapist and refused to listen to me.”
All the memories of Artie facing the wall, wheeling himself back and forth, his eyes glued to the T.V. and his signature scowl came rushing back to her.
“But when he slowly realized that I wasn’t there just to tell him that he could be a good director next time. I made sure he became one. I made sure he got the chance to do it and when I believed in him, he started believing in himself too. He started seeing things from different angles and began to open his mind to other things, opportunities.”
She took a poster that the musical’s artistic director, a fourteen-year-old girl with Asperger’s, had churned out the day before and displayed it to everyone. “Artie is now the overall director of this upcoming musical ‘Estella’, an original production, a spin-off from the classic novel Great Expectations. My colleagues Blaine and Nessie are the scriptwriters and are co-producing this with Artie, the composer is Zoe Lance and lyricist Matt Griebson, both of whom are also autistic. The musical will be held in the Lima Town Hall and tickets are priced at twenty dollars each and will go to the charity for autistic children.”
The image of Artie standing on the stage receiving his standing ovation comes to her as she continues, “As much as I’m doing promotion for this musical and the people involved, I am also showing you that this is what happens when you truly, honestly believe in those that you care for. This is what they can do.”
Tina could see Santana in the corner, hands held up to her cheeks as she watched. Blaine was in the other corner, a tiny smile playing at the edge of his lips. Sue sat in the front row, her head bobbing in agreement.
This is what we can do for them, and this is what they can do.