“Come on, Ovie... come on. Just put one foot in front of the other. Yes...just like that...Good job…”
I try to keep the edge out of my voice. Tonight is going to go great. Just great.
“I’m gonna throw up, Jo,” Ovie slurs the words. She throws her arm around my neck and lets most of her weight fall onto me. Never mind I’m six inches shorter than her. “Jo, I’m gonna throw up.”
“No you won’t.” Please God. Don’t let her throw up. “You haven’t thrown up since high school.”
That makes her grin proudly. “Vomit free since ‘98!”
“That doesn’t rhyme,” I tell with her wry a grin. “It never has.”
Ovie just shrugs, still smiling. Then, she sinks into the seat of the empty booth that we’ve finally reached and lets her head drop onto it with a resounding thud. The noise makes a group of guys to our left look over in curiosity.
It’s hard to believe that the thirty-two year old drunk woman who is collapsed on the table in front of me was once an Air Force officer pilot. Someone who had been known for being calm and collected under pressure. She had been daring, cool, and steely.
And now she even couldn’t keep her shit together long enough to meet my girlfriend.
Four months she’d been back. Four long months full of benders, promises, and relapses. I had known that this sort of stuff might happen. After all, when the life you're used to...the life you love is suddenly snatched away from you... the repercussions are bound be dire.. Throw in all the stuff you see after two tours to Afghanistan and it's only to be expected. I guess. I mean, I knew she was going to have to cope somehow, I just didn’t know that the coping mechanism would manifest itself in such an...embarrassing way.
I shoot the boys next to us an “eat-shit-and-die” look and then sit down on the seat next to Ovie. “Lindsey is going to be here in about five minutes,” I remind her.
Ovie pushes herself up into a sitting position. She sways a bit in the seat, but hey, at least we’re making progress. For a moment she looks at me blankly. Then, it hits her. A look of extreme remorse washes over her face. She lets her head drop in shame. “I’m sorry, Jo.”
My heart pangs. I rub her back. “It’s okay.”
Is it though? I didn’t really know. It had been up until an hour ago. In fact, things had been going fantastic. Ovie had promised to be on her best behavior for the night. Hell, the whole thing had been her idea. Meeting Lindsey. Grabbing dinner. Maybe even going out dancing afterwards. She wanted to impress her and get to know her. While she still could, she'd told me.
I promise I won’t screw up, she’d said.
So we had decided to meet at 7:30 at one of our favorite places. Ovie and I would get there early because it was Memorial Day and it would be crowded. It was a nice evening so we had walked the couple of blocks from my apartment. For a little while, I thought things might actually go off without a hitch.
And then the fireworks had started.
Seriously. Who was the genius that decided to celebrate war heroes and victories with things that go boom and flash?
Ovie lost it. She always tries to act like she has a hold on things, but when something provokes her, her whole obdurate exterior cracks. And it cracks quickly. When I finally got her out of her borderline catatonic state and walking towards the bar again, she begged to just duck in at the place nearest to us. She didn’t say as much, but I knew she was afraid the fireworks would start again.
The nearest place to us was actually the place we had been standing outside of when it happened. The Aero Club. Ah, the irony. Almost immediately, Ovie had headed to the bar and began throwing them back while I watched dejectedly, unable to figure out how to save the night or help my big sister.
I’ll tell you something: the military should send their discharged members home with a possible list of trigger warnings to give their family members, rather than just those useless pamphlets about support groups and possible medical conditions one might acquire in the next fifteen years.
I know it’s rude to stare. People hate it. Myself included. But sometimes something catches your eye and you’re just unable to look away.
Yeah, yeah. That’s probably how people justify it when they stare at me too. My giant wheelchair isn’t exactly inconspicuous or anything. It’s not something you see every day.
But then, you don’t really see a woman drink no less than nine (yes, I counted) drinks in under an hour and not be on the floor from an alcohol poison induced coma every day either.
Sure, she fell off of the cliff, but not to her death like I’d expected. She still seemed able to function too. Well sort of. After she’d sat down and gulped down about three glasses of water.
“Glad we’re past those days, eh Dan?”
The question makes me roll my eyes. Instantly, a hundred memories of drunken escapades and hangovers and my twenties flood my mind.
Tonight is not the night to dwell on the past though. Instead of strolling down memory lane, I nod pointedly at Evan’s beer--his fourth tonight. He grins and shrugs and then offers me another sip of my own.
The thing is, I’m not so sure that this is one of those days for that girl. I was watching her from the moment that they came in and, from the get go, she had looked...disheveled. Shocked, almost. Visibly shaking and pale. Immediately she had made a beeline to the bar and ordered liquor while her friend watched with a sad expression on her face.
I watched until they made it--after a precarious journey full of lots of stumbling--to the booth across from ours. Then the friend shot me a dirty look and that was pretty much the end of that.
“Want me to wingman for you?” Evan asks loudly. No tact, that man. No tact at all. He winks at me.
I look at him out of the corner of my eye. I can’t move my neck that much and there isn’t enough room to turn my chair around in this small bar. From what I can see though, it looks like a third girl has joined them. The one woman seems to have somehow sobered up and is animatedly making conversation. She’s still chugging water.
I shake my head. “It doesn’t look like a good time.”
Evan scoffs. “Bullshit. No time like the present, Danny-boy!”
And with those last words and a pat on the back he’s suddenly gone.
My head is pounding and I feel like I’m going to throw up. Literally every time I open my mouth to add to the conversation I’m afraid actual vomit is going to come out. Which might not be much worse than word vomit that’s already flowing.
On second thought, actually it would.
I didn’t mean for this to happen. Really, I didn’t. But then those fireworks started and I just lost it. In more ways than one.
The triggers are just the icing on the cake.
Despite Jo’s irritation--and I know she’s irritated--she’s been pretty swell so far. Not snippy or pouty or even bitchy. Instead, she has filled the last hour since Lindsey arrived with an incessant string of chatter and jokes. She is really enamored by this girl, I can tell. And, for the first time in four months--since the day I came home--my little sister looks truly happy.
I excuse myself to the bar--just for a water, thank you very much--and watch them from afar. It’s such a relief to see joy finally replace the guilt and pain that usually lines her face. It makes me breathe a little easier. Suddenly, I feel a fog of my own lifting. Although, now that I think about it, that could also just be the alcohol beginning to wear off.
Then, from across the room, I see Jo’s eyebrows knit together quizzically. She gives me a weird little signal that I don’t understand and when she realizes I don’t get it, she mouths “Behind you.”
Curious, I spin around. Bad idea. The sudden movement makes the world--which has only just stopped spinning--tilt dangerously again. An involuntary groan escapes me. Tomorrow is going to be an absolute bitch.
I’m concentrating so hard on not puking that I barely notice the guy in the wheelchair whiz by me.
What I do notice is that there is another guy standing uncomfortably close to me. He’s of an average height with longish blonde hair and a beard. He doesn’t look much more sober than I feel and smiles lazily in my general direction. But, he doesn’t say anything.
“Yes?” I prompt.
“That’s my friend.” He jerks his thumb towards the door of the bar. The guy in the wheelchair sits outside with his back to us. “His name is Dan.”
It takes me a second to realize what’s going on but when I do I almost laugh. This guy has got to be the worst wingman in the history of wingmen.
“So Dan wants me to introduce myself then?” I hear the words coming out of my mouth before I can stop them. Damn alcohol. I don’t usually play along with games like these but I’m obviously not thinking clearly right now. The wingman nods enthusiastically.
Great. Now I have to go introduce myself to this Dan.
I hate it when he does shit like this.
He’s never been good at picking up women. In fact, I’ve actually never seen Evan pick a woman up at all. Usually he’s the one getting hit on. So whenever he offers to wingman, anyone who knows him cringes. Yeah, he means well and all, but it usually ends...awkwardly.
Especially when I’m involved.
Plus, it wasn’t a good time for this. I told him that. They were clearly in the middle of something that he shouldn’t have interrupted. That fact somehow makes the awkward wingmaning a million times worse.
From where I’m sitting I can’t see the interaction happen. But I imagine (with horror) how it’s going (not well) and eventually (after about two minutes) self-preservation wins out. I tell the guys I’ll see them later, wrangle some cash for my two beers onto the table, and slowly get my chair turned around and begin to make my way out of the bar. All without Evan noticing a thing.
I’ve had enough bar and alcohol induced rejections (especially at the his hand) to last a lifetime. I do not want to add another tonight of all nights. My plan is to quietly leave. Sneak out.
Except I don’t make it very far because of the fucking doors.
Let me explain.
The doors to The Aero Club are notoriously cumbersome. They’re these thick, mahogany, behemoths that seem really out of place in the otherwise sleek bar. In all the years that I’ve been coming here (almost ten) I’ve never seen someone who hasn’t had trouble opening those things.
So the idea that a guy in wheelchair--who can’t lift his arms higher than a few inches and whose hands are effectively useless--could open the doors is pretty laughable.
It only takes a minute or two to get help with the doors and get out, but by then I’ve lost precious time.
Behind me, I hear the door slowly open and then close with a loud thud. The sound of heels, clack-clacking and shuffling slowly towards me, tells me that Evan was successful.
My heart beat begins to speed up rapidly as the woman pulls a patio chair up and sits down beside me.
What am I doing?
I have no idea.
Why am I walking towards this guy on the front patio?
I have no idea.
How am I walking without falling over?
That one really baffles me. Especially because with every step I take my head pounds and my stomach churns more. Ugh.
The guy--Dan--doesn’t so much as glance at me as I pull a chair up next to him and sit down. We sit there like that--not looking at each other and in silence--for a while until I pull out a pack of cigarettes and light one. Then, he snorts.
Slowly, I turn towards him. I cock an eyebrow derisively and extend the pack towards him. “Ciggy?”
“They're death sticks.”
“I’m gonna die eventually,” I try to sound nonchalant and shrug, but my own words sting. “Why prolong it?”
He rolls his eyes.
After that we lapse back into silence. For a holiday that usually involves copious amounts of drinking, the bar and the ones surrounding it, are pretty empty. Too bad. I’ve always liked drunk people watching.
Since I can’t watch passersby on the street, I turn my attention to him instead. His wheelchair is massive. Giant and black and conspicuous. It sits a little higher than my own and is reclined back a bit. Because of this, I have to look slightly up at him. Judging from how eerily still he is I reckon that he’s paralyzed. Most likely.
My eyes travel over his body; I notice the strap across his chest that seems to be holding him upright and my suspicions are further confirmed. Although he is relatively thin, his stomach has a slight paunch. His left arm lies motionless on the armrest, the hand is flat and thin; his right arm, in comparison, is much the same expect for that this hand is loosely wrapped around a joystick.
My gaze rises. From the shoulders up, he’s actually quite nice looking with auburn colored hair and hazel colored eyes. His jawline is strong and covered in a beard that is sprinkled with more gray hairs than red.
He catches me staring and smiles knowingly.
Instead of looking away when I catch her staring, she meets my eyes with a cheeky grin.
Usually I can tell what a person is thinking. I mean, what they’re thinking about me. People suck at hiding their emotions so quite often their thoughts are plastered all over their face. Most of the time it’s pity. Sometimes it’s morbid curiosity. Occasionally it’s concern (usually only happens if I have some sort of public incident, read: spasms or autonomic dysreflexia attack).
But it’s always something. And tonight is no different. She looks at me curiously and I can tell that she is burning with a desire to start firing questions away. I wager it’ll be less than five minutes before she starts in.
Sure enough, a moment a later she asks, “So who are you?”
“Who am I?” I echo, caught off guard. Not the question I’d been expecting.
“Mmm.” She takes a long drag on her cigarette.
“I’m Dan.” I shrug, a slight twitch of my shoulders that she probably didn’t even notice.
“Your wingman told me that much.”
I chuckle. “He is nothing if not a winner.”
“Without a doubt the best wingman I’ve ever met,” she agrees with a small smile. Then she fixes me with a serious stare again. Her eyes are a brilliant blue color. “What I mean is: what’s your story? What brings you here tonight?”
A bitter sounding laugh escapes me before I can stop it. She looks at me curiously. A bemused smile plays at the corners of her mouth.
“It’s my wingman’s going away party tonight.”
“Where’s he going?”
As I expected, a confused look flashes across her face.
“Mount Elbrus,” I clarify. “It’s in Russia.”
She doesn’t miss the acidic tone of my voice. “What’s it to you?”
I look at her incredulously. She’s frank.
So, I decide to be too. “This time next week Evan will be waking up at base camp in Kislovodsk,” I chose my next words slowly, trying not to choke on them. “Meanwhile, I’ll be waking up over on Worthington Avenue like I have every day for the last eight years: stuck here like this.”
I gesture to my chair.
She looks at me like she knows I’m holding out on her.
“Mount Elbrus was my idea in the first place.” I let that revelation sink in. I don’t usually (ever) share things with perfect strangers and suddenly I feel weirdly exposed.
A change of subject feels like it’s in order, so I nod towards the pack of cigarettes that are still in her lap. “I think I’ll have one of those death sticks after all.”
Not a lot is happening out there. And I’ve been stealthily watching Ovie and the handicapped guy for a while now. Really it’s been five minutes. But five minutes in bar time is like five years in real time.
At least Ovie has pulled herself together a bit. Or is acting like it. Maybe being out there with the guy in the wheelchair will be good for her. Maybe it’ll make her realize that things could be worse and her life isn’t over yet.
Hey, who knows, maybe this guy will end up being her Prince Charming.
Dan reaches over with his left arm to take a cigarette. It’s an awkward and shaky looking motion. Slow too. The amount of concentration that he has to exert to move his arm is startling.
He holds his arm there for a minute, suspended between us. That’s when I realize that the next part is all on me. I look at him with an expression that clearly screams “HELP!”
“Just help me wedge it between my fingers,” he instructs patiently.
Maybe it’s the alcohol. Or nerves. It could just be that I’m careless and not paying attention. Whatever the reason though, I somehow manage to wedge it between his fingers, just like he tells me to--but I let go before he has a solid grip on it. A nanosecond later, the cigarette drops to the ground.
Dan lets his arm drop back onto the armrest. It lands with a defeated plop.
I know the last thing this guy probably wants is pity, but I feel bad. Trying to reconcile the situation I reach into the pack for another. “That was sort of my fault.”
He shrugs noncommittally.
“Try again?” I try to sound peppy. Like a game show host. My way of apologizing for embarrassing this perfectly innocent and strangely attractive guy.
Yep. It was definitely the alcohol.
To my surprise he smiles and nods. Then he reaches his hand out again, repeating the same awkward process. He grunts a little from the effort.
But screw that method. It didn’t work the first time; chances are that it won’t the second either. So I ignore his outstretched hand and lean across his chest instead. This close to him I’m able to detect a hint of freshly cut grass mixed with Jovan musk. I place the cigarette in his mouth between his lips. Then I flash him my best thousand watt smile for an added flourish.
Damn. He smells nice.
He looks taken aback. But then he shrugs. I lean across him again--to light his cigarette, definitely not to get a nice big whiff of him again or anything--and then light another one for myself.
“Chain smoker, huh?”
The question isn’t accusatory. “Wasn’t. Not up until about four months ago.”
“Hmn…” He engages the little joystick on his wheelchair and turns it so that he’s looking fully at me. “So who are you then?”
Ah. Turning the question right back around at me. Like an old pro.
“Captain Olivia L. Essex. Officer. Pilot. At your service.” I salute him. Then I cringe. I can’t believe I just did that. Yikes.
He rewards me with an amused smile.
“Or at least that was the schpiel up until recently.” The words tumble out of my mouth before I can stop them. “Until six months ago when I started getting nosebleeds.”
“Nosebleeds.” I pause. When I start talking again, my voice sounds thick and foreign. “Turns out the nosebleeds weren’t a reaction to anything at work.” I take a long drag on my smoke. ““They were a reaction to a pharyngeal nasal tumor.”
Dan coughs from the smoke.
“So I guess a better answer to your question would be Ovie. Discharged. Diagnosed with an inoperable, un-treatable, incurable tumor. Probably expiring in six to twelve more months.”
For a second I feel sort of bad. Complaining to a guy who can’t move most of his body. But then I reevaluate things and realize I probably get a pass on this one.
Still, I feel awkward. Sharing does that to me. Ugh. So I add, “It’s kind of funny actually. Not ha-ha funny. More like morbidly ironic funny. I used to get nosebleeds all the time as a kid. Eventually I grew out of it. Who knew that--while I thought I was growing out of it--something was actually growing into it. Or me. My nose. Whatever.”
I try to laugh it off. But instead of sounding light, the noise sounds guttural and choked. I shut my eyes tightly.
I’m not going to start crying.
I am not going to start crying in front of Handsome Dan.
But I do.
“Wow,” Dan says after I’ve sniveled and then pulled myself together again. Somewhat. I look up at him expecting to see pity or remorse or revulsion.
I don’t though. Instead, there’s something else.
It might be desire.
But it probably isn’t. After all, who wants to hook up with a dying girl? Especially a strange, emotionally unstable one. Probably not many people.
Hmn. I wonder if he even can hook up. I mean, he can barely hold his arm up. Makes a girl wonder...
“You know,” he continues and pulls my mind out of the gutter. “I don’t get to say this very often.”
“I think you win this one.”
He says the words in a deadpan sort of way. Despite the morbidity and self-pitying vibe we’ve got going on, I laugh. And once I’ve started, I can’t stop. Dan joins in too. Then suddenly, we’re both laughing so hard that we’re practically convulsing. It feels natural and right.
But most of all it feels good.
I watch as Ovie suddenly smiles. It’s a small, shy smile laced with something else: seduction.
Prince Charming or Prince One Night: it doesn't matter much to me. Because the smile on my sister’s face suddenly makes everything--the fireworks, the shit show, taking cover at The Aero Club-- that has happened tonight worth it.