Sounds like the opening line of a really insensitive joke, no? But it's an all-too-likely description of three residents of the Roosevelt, an assisted living facility for younger adults who need a little extra help in order to live apart from their parents. The first book in Heidi Cullinan's new romance series actually begins before the Roosevelt opens, when first-year college student Emmet Washington develops a crush on the young man who lives (literally) across the Ames, Iowa railroad tracks. Because Emmet has autism spectrum disorder, which in Emmet's case has gifted him with an eidetic memory, mad math and computer skills, physical sensitivities, an inability to read others' emotions, and a tendency to hum and flap his arms when he's excited or distressed, meeting new people is more difficult for him than for the average Joe. Especially when that new person is as cute as recent high-school graduate Jeremey Samson.
After ten months of frustrated pining, Emmet finally gets his chance to meet Jeremey in person when their neighborhood holds a summer block party. Emmet's been practicing polite party talk, and is doing a good job of keeping his flapping to a minimum when he walks up and introduces himself to Jeremey. Some guys might panic when the boy of their dreams starts having a panic attack not long into their first conversation, but not straightforward Emmet. Instead, Emmet just asks if he can help, and holds out his hand. And Jeremey takes it.
Turns out that Jeremey's problems interacting with other people may be even more difficult than Emmet's. Emmet, after all, has informed, amazingly supportive parents who accept him for who he is, and work with him to figure out how he can best make his way independently in the world. Jeremey's, in contrast, won't listen to the doctor who tells them that Jeremey is suffering from major depressive disorder, won't allow him to take medicine for it, and keep telling him that he just needs to "get over it," just needs to make an effort and he'll be normal.
Emmet's matter-of-fact acceptance of his own disability, as well as Jeremey's shameful secret is, a revelation to Jeremey: "It took me a second to digest the fact that he'd spoken of his disability as casually as he might a paper cut. Plus he'd given me so much information about himself, helpful information. Intense and direct. It was, honestly, refreshing. I wondered if I could dare to be the same" (Kindle Loc 448). Emmet's straightforward, "What do you think? Should we give friendship with each other a whirl?" has Jeremey thinking about something besides himself for the first time in a long time, and the two fall quickly into an easy friendship (Kindle Loc 229). A friendship that over the summer gradually turns into a romance when mutual meltdowns lead to mutual comforting, and then mutual arousal. Turns out people with autism spectrum disorder, as well as people with major depressive disorder, are far more than just their diagnoses; they also have sexual identities, and sexual desires. As Jeremey notes:
I don't think most people believed we actually were having sex, or if they did, they thought we were cute while we did it or something. People saw us walking down the street to the grocery store or wandering the aisles of Wheatsfield and acted as if we were escapees from the Island of Adorable, puppies dressed up in people clothes. Like we weren't really boyfriends, like we were fake. (2739)
With her explicit depiction of Emmet and Jeremey's sexual relationship, Cullinan goes a long way toward showing readers that their "cutsey" views of disabled peoples' sex lives is more of a defense mechanism against their own worries than any accurate vision.
Cullinan breaks down other stereotypes, too, including ones related to genre expectations. For true love does not lead to instant recovery of health or ability, as it might have done in a romance novel of the past. Emmet and Jeremey help each other, but Jeremey cannot keep people from teasing Emmet when his excitement or frustration leads to arm-flapping or humming. Nor can Emmet prevent Jeremey's depression from worsening, to the point where even his parents have to accept that their son needs help, far more help than the easy "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" advice they've been giving to date.
That help takes the form of a stay in the hospital, a new relationship with a supportive psychiatrist/social worker, and, to Jeremey's surprise, a new life with his boyfriend Emmet at the Roosevelt. Living on their own, without their parents, for the first time, is a challenge for the two young men, especially when they're adjusting not only to apartment living, but to living with a romantic partner. And to living with their fellow Roosevelt residents, too, some of whom are less than happy to find themselves living in "the freak house" with Jeremey and Emmet (2788).
Is it "normal" for a quad, an autistic, and a depressive to walk into a bar? Cullinan's novel argues that there is no real "normal" even while insisting that we not regard that line as the opening to a joke, but to a very real situation we might encounter in our "normal," everyday world.
Autism Awareness Ribbon: Wikimedia Commons
Depression word cluster: Mental Health Resources
Group living cartoon: Autism blog Seattle Hospital