Confessions of a Willy Wonka romantic

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of going on about a dozen dates with an autistic woman I’ll call C. I had chased her on and off for three years and was quite excited that she’d begun to reciprocate.

Being autistic myself, I thought we would be effortlessly compatible. Instead, it was like seeing myself from the outside, something I cannot do unaided, for the first time in my life.

“What a fascinating, beautifully strange person I’ve discovered!” But how long can I remain enthralled by a world I can never really enter?

At once, many mysteries of my interpersonal life were solved. Before, I understood I had some qualities people commonly find mildly unpleasant (outward coldness, insensitivity, difficulty giving comfort). Little stuff that’s not enough of a problem in itself to comment on, until the constant low-level irritation builds to a breaking point.

Which, from my perspective, always seems to come out of nowhere.

My time with C taught me what it’s like to be on the receiving end of those behaviors, as well as what makes tolerating them worth it, at least in the short term.

C is a lovely young woman, a bright shining star, unlike any other in the night sky. Her autism made her deeply insular; by inoculating her against outside influences, it also made her creative and brilliant in a way utterly unique to her.

Her inner world, insofar as she let me glimpse it, intoxicated me. Her mind was a vast empire of one, with its own language, currency, and history. C seemed to me walking “bottle world,” a living, breathing wainscot society.

I quickly came to realize that no matter how fascinating I found it to observe this world, I would always remain outside it. This wasn’t going to work.

Not that I left C of my own accord. It is she who moved on, making no bones about the fact that while she liked much of what I had to offer, my romantic partnership was of no interest.

Still, the uncanny experience of dating someone like myself made me ponder my previous breakups. Unlike C, who was refreshingly blunt and pragmatic, the neurotypical women in my past were never quite able to explain why they were leaving.

The usual cycle roughly follows the trajectory of one of cinema’s more awkward love affairs: that between Enid and Seymour in the 2001 film “Ghost World.” When alienated, proto-hipster high school senior Enid (Thora Birch) meets Steve Buscemi’s cantankerous, hyper-verbal record collector, she becomes enamored.

“What a fascinating, beautifully strange person I’ve discovered!” She does start to notice some disagreeable idiosyncrasies, but the thrill of this rare specimen’s company allows her to dismiss them. Over time, however, she grows disillusioned and increasingly distant.

For me, the beginning of the end generally comes when she broaches the subject of seeing other people. I promise to change; she counters that she doesn’t want me to. A very confusing response, until recently!

What is especially galling about this seemingly inevitable moment is that I’ve worked hard to overcome my inborn social deficits. I have painstakingly transformed myself into a man of social grace and savoir faire, a man who might be molded into what they call boyfriend material.

And I have indeed inexplicably managed to land some real stunners. Fool that I was, I thought passing this initial test was the hard part. In reality, it’s where the real work begins.

What was required to make them stay? Whatever it was, I clearly lacked it. A common refrain was their insistence that I not change. They wanted me to go on being my wonderful, one-of-a-kind self … as long as I did it away from them.

My experience with C gave me a new perspective. Such that I would now liken myself to a slightly more flattering cinematic avatar: Willy Wonka.

Wonka’s mysterious Chocolate Factory may operate via obscure and unconventional systems, but it is highly effective. The weird little man makes the most disruptively delicious candy on the market. No small part of its appeal is a certain magic the inscrutability imparts.

Who wouldn’t take the opportunity to see for oneself how these enticing confections are made?

At first, it’s magical. A privileged feeling, to share in such a secret. And such a rich, endlessly explorable place. It seems you’ll never run out of marvels to discover.

Fast forward a year. You’re living full time in the factory. It’s quite finite, after all — you’ve seen every room top to bottom. You drank from the chocolate river even though the fat German kid drowned in it. You tasted all the fruits on the wallpaper. You turned into a blueberry and back. You tasted every mushroom, flower, fern, boulder, and so on in the indoor park where everything is made of candy.

It’s all still made of candy a year later and will be the next year. You’re quite tired of candy by now, but you put on a show for Willy, who never tires of it. He’s always delighted when he finds you in that room. “Everything is candy!” he remarks with sincere wonder every time, as if realizing this anew.

“Hehe, yep. It’s aaaallll candy,” you tepidly reply.

Wonka is all candy as well; he has little interest or capacity for discussing anything else. You’ve also grown tired of that performative, doddering old-man routine, followed by the spritely, acrobatic somersault he pulls out every time you or anybody else meets with him. It’s not that it’s an act. He genuinely can’t not be that way.

What of his more alarming offenses? Can he help those, you wonder? He let a kid drown in chocolate to make a point about greed, then had his orange-hued workers sing a jaunty song about it. About those Oompa-Loompas: Do they receive a fair day’s wage? Are they free to leave?

You could get Wonka to change. He’ll do anything to convince you to stay at this point. Safety inspections for the great glass elevator? A DEI panel to address any Oompa-Loompa grievances? Overhauled management systems based on Six Sigma methodology? You got it, babe.

But who’d want to visit that factory? To make the “improvements” necessary for you to thrive there would be to destroy what makes it special in the first place. Worse, it would become an environment hostile to Wonka’s own survival.

The only course of action is to depart as gracefully as you can, leaving it unspoiled for the kindred spirit who’s bound to come along eventually.

Or, so I imagine each former girlfriend understood our parting. Perhaps, I’m fooling myself, overthinking what were no more than a series of classic “it’s not you, it’s me” brush-offs. But I like to think they experience at least a touch of the melancholy, stoic acceptance I felt in losing C.

Either way, it’s not something I can afford to dwell on. I cater to a specific market, and I’m clearly not for everyone. Even the true connoisseurs sometimes find themselves unable to match my enthusiasm in the long run.

Fair enough. All I can do is continue to maintain the standards of quality ensured by my enjoyably uncompromising way of doing things. The right collaborator, when she comes along, will expect nothing less.

​Men and women 

You May Also Like

More From Author