Margy was a new waitress at a railway-themed restaurant in Seattle when I first knew her. Railfan friends and I had been meeting at what we called "the Horse" long enough to have become friends with Charlie, the owner, his wife Mary, and other staff, so we were soon on good terms with Margy as well. We especially enjoying the awkwardness of her not being able to serve beer in the weeks until she turned 21, Charlie pitching in to do the deed legally. In her work uniform of bib overalls and train engineer hat, she looked young and boyish, and younger still in comparison to the woman, a few years older than me, who had recently broken off our relationship after a tentative agreement that we were working toward marriage.
In the aftermath of that breakup, I was frequenting "the Horse" more often alone, and Margy was easy to talk to, off the potential-relationship radar that might have made things difficult for me. She seemed an older version of my middle school student assistants of a few years before, rather than a younger version of women I had been socializing with.
Shortly after my personal breakup, Saigon fell, and with an Indochina refugee flood developing, the Army Reserve asked Civil Affairs unit members to volunteer for active duty running refugee resettlement camps. Soon I was at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week - a good distraction. Regular Army "green berets" had established a "Civil Affairs Support Battalion (Composite/Provisional)" and were departing back to Fort Bragg. As the only senior enlisted person among the reservists who replaced them, I became the battalion Operations Sergeant, acting Headquarters Company First Sergeant, and acting Battalion Sergeant Major, with some duties quite literally "way above pay grade." My earlier experience as a Regular Army Military Police sergeant definitely helped in managing my young, civilian-minded, often cheerfully-unruly herd.
The MP background may have also been useful when the battalion hosted the occasional outdoor barbecue behind the building to promote better relations with the plethora of civilian agency representatives we worked with daily. While the unit commander was the official host, I had some backup hosting responsibilities, which included being unobtrusive bouncer when the well-polished garbage cans full of ice and canned beer neared empty. I gleefully observed the truth of the advertising slogan "when you're out of Schlitz, you're out of beer": the last few cans of as many as a dozen labels were always Schlitz, and when they were gone, the party was officially over. We had already started cleanup.
To keep things interesting, I volunteered to help with an ad hoc English language program, spending any lulls in my day finding volunteers from regional Army Reserve units at the post for their two weeks Annual Training. The quiet time driving around "FIG,PA" in my assigned Army pickup was a nice benefit, but it was also fun to visit the various "Under The Trees" groups in the evenings, occasionally groping in my minimal French to help with an English to Vietnamese conundrum. I would have done better in German or Russian.
As things wound down in the Fall, with only a few hundred refugees arriving and departing each day instead of the thousand or more of the summer peak, and with the last of the Reserve AT units departed for home, I found my job more and more difficult, rather than easier. Cumulative overload and autistic burnout. I was glad to head home. Back in Seattle, I found my civilian job had imploded. Or maybe that was mostly me.
Frequent solo visits to "the Horse" in the weeks that followed were excused as a need to get out of my apartment, to eat someone else's cooking, to be among people I liked. Newly unemployed, I was able to go in their quiet times and depart when things got unpleasantly noisy. Everybody else probably thought I was there to see Margy, and left when she got too busy to chat. If sufficiently pushed, I might not have denied that.
Longstanding adverse mental episodes became worse, then still worse. Mental aberrations used to be considered possession by demons. Talking therapy and pharmaceutical treatments have become the modern approach, but when things go bad, I still find demons to be the clear and present danger. Mental illness has seemed like a like a dark crystal, viewable as either demons, thought disturbances, or chemical disruptions, depending on how you look. Between that and the passage of time, my memory has a lot of blanks and confusion. Margy may not have been at "the Horse" before I went to FIG,PA.
The Friday after Thanksgiving that Fall, my grandmother hosted local and visiting family at a Chinese restaurant near Green Lake. I was encouraged to bring a companion, and took Margy. I was glad I did: she deflected quite a bit of noise and attention that might otherwise have intermittently focused on me. The next day, after the out-of-towners were gone, my grandmother died, alone, at home.
A few weeks before that, Margy and I had walked through a dark and drizzly downtown Seattle evening, ducking into a shadowy doorway to escape an unexpected downpour. As we waited for a lull in the rain and talked, I realized that I was looking down at the very appealing face of someone who clearly wanted to be kissed. I hesitated, with the irrational thought that I still wasn't completely sure that this person wasn't a boy, and kissing a boy could be a risk to my Army security clearance.
I kissed him anyway. A passing police car slowed to illuminate us with its spotlight, then drove on.
In the weeks after Christmas, I found myself spiraling into still worse mental health episodes. Margy told me she was planning a birthday party for me, and inviting her friends and my friends. I reacted with a barely-suppressed panic attack that I was unable explain to her. Disclosure issues had haunted me since childhood, exacerbated by virtually no understanding of Asperger's Syndrome to help explain sensory overload and related issues. It was quite simple in those days: if you were smart, you weren't autistic - You just needed to try harder. But I had no "try harder" left. I ended not just the conversation but all contact, without explanation. I was horribly rude, possibly cruel, at best eyerollingly dorkish.
And I was wrong, however it was received. I have no idea where things might have gone if I had allowed her to work with me. While I would not trade my life today -- my wife, my stepdaughters, my grandchildren -- for any imaginable alternatives. I know I should have tried much harder to talk with Margy. She was smart enough, kind enough, knew me well enough, that we both could have benefited. She was probably even better at being "goofy but sincere" than I was, and that's what we needed, not the deadly seriousness of depression. Whatever the ultimate outcome, it would have been worth the effort, worth the any penalties.
But realistically, that was an unlikely option. Both autism and endogenous major depression are lifetime conditions, with ebbs and flows that can be very constraining of behavioral options, especially with a lack of recognition and insight. My unfocused fears and abstract paranoia suddenly finding outlet in Margy's party proposal would not leave much opportunity for maneuvering. In later years, I would learn that as the slippery slope of a depressive episode tilted into the abyss, I would incrementally cut off contact with people. Eventually, long years later, I would learn to remind myself over and over that deep down, I still loved my wife, that the episode would eventually be over. That somewhere inside me I could no longer reach, I still loved her. And she was not at fault.
When I knew Margy, it was too early for any of that.
All the events involving her may have meant more to me than they did to Margy; I do hope so. I like to think that she simply got on with her life, sharing her wonderful laugh and quiet smile with others, while I poked and prodded my memories, trying to make sense of them. Trying to shine spotlights into shadowy doorways.
Sometimes being wrong is unavoidable. The best choice may not be good enough. The worst choice may ultimately be indistinguishable in outcome from any other choice. But still, the process matters. I will probably always be haunted by memories of the people I have hurt unwillingly, by having been unable to control my demons' enthusiasm for doing harm. I hope I have gotten better at that, but I still frequently see pain in my wife's eyes. I do know that I have gotten better at working on recovering the situation, rather than fleeing.
I grew up being called queer, retard, homo, sissy, fairy. I wondered how they could call me retard, when I was one of the smartest kids in the class. I wondered how they could call me queer, when I liked girls better than boys. I was over 50 when I finally got my Asperger's, Autistic Spectrum, diagnosis, and began understanding, then embracing, the retard label. The understanding of the queer label started earlier, developed more slowly, was embraced only recently with my still-developing understanding of non-binary and genderqueer, and my reading about autism and gender. Experiences in the homophobic Army certainly complicated the process.
Years of trying to fit in, find a lower profile, reduce the malicious taunting, follow autistic self-imposed rule sets, or to sort and line-things-up - all distorted my perceptions, including what kind of person was "best" romantically. Not long ago, I began a leisurely review of people I had been attracted to, of people who seemed to have been attracted to me. Looking for hints (or more) of possible non-bog-standard gender identity, and hints (or more) of non-bog-standard gender preference. So far it has been vaguely inconclusive (except for the people I already knew were LGBTQ+) but rather instructive, both within and beyond the original intent, and gradually became this picaresque ramble through the bowels of my mind..
The last time I saw Margy was when we unexpectedly approached each other crossing a sunny downtown Seattle intersection. We made eye contact. I looked away as she was breaking into a smile. My peripheral vision, as I walked past, permanently burned her expression of disbelief into my brain, along with my cringing feelings of shame. Autistic shutdown incapacitated me. I somehow managed to keep walking, but I would not have been capable of speech, or easily moving again, had I stopped. Or perhaps of ever leaving her again.
Years later, Charlie told me she was in Portland, married with two kids.
Internet findings suggest she died in her early forties.
[names have been made less specific to deter internet search engines]