Sunday, February 28, 2010

Devo Diary Chapter 61

The Smiley Guy

July 2006

My parents come to town for my graduation ceremony. I don’t want to make a big deal over it but they do, so I try to go along with it for their sake. I put on the cap and gown, feeling like an extra in a Harry Potter movie, and get sunburned sitting outside through the boring ceremony.
My own way of celebrating a few months ago was to get a big tattoo of a flower on my calf. I think it’s gorgeous, but I didn’t tell my parents about it. I just show it to them when they arrive. My mom gives me a disapproving look, and my dad just says, “Ugh, why?!”
I try not to let it get to me. I didn’t do it for them. I did it for me. A few days later, as we’re walking down the street, we pass a young woman with tons of tattoos on her arms and legs. My mother looks her over, then as we pass, she whispers to me, “Yours is nicer.”
“Thanks.” I realize this is her way of indicating that she’s getting used to the idea.
Of course, she can’t leave without harassing me about my personal life.
“You’re not seeing anyone?” my mother inquires as we’re sitting around in my tiny living room. Her back is bothering her, so she’s stretched out on my Persian carpet on the floor.
“No.” I never told them about Billy, of course, but it’s over now so there’s no point anyway.
“You’re not still trying to meet someone on the internet, are you?”
I don’t answer. Why am I getting the third degree? Usually they leave me alone about this. I know my mom is getting desperate for grandkids and is starting to worry I won’t ever give her any. I feel bad about that, but not bad enough to not be irritated by this well-intentioned prying.
Mom stares up at me from the floor. “Have you tried dating anyone in your graduate program?” she asks.
Something in me snaps, and I can’t pretend to be nice about this. I smack my hand on my head sarcastically. “Oh my god, why didn’t I think of that! So many years of graduate school and it never once occurred to me to date someone! Oh wait, no, let’s see, every one of the guys I met at school is married, or gay, or chasing Asian girls.”
She frowns at me. “Ok! Whoa! You don’t have to be so defensive.”
“I’m sorry, but you have no idea.”
She agrees to drop it, and no one mentions my love life for the rest of their visit. I feel guilty for being so bitchy with her but it’s like she knows exactly what to say to make me doubt myself. Of course it makes sense to meet someone through mutual friends or acquaintances. But even if I wasn’t a dev, I can’t think of one guy at school who I would have dated, of the very, very few who were available. Certainly none of them ever asked me out. What was I supposed to do?

After my parents leave, I descend into a frenzy of preparation to move across the country and start a new job. Whenever I moved before, I just jettisoned everything I owned and left with only what I could take on the plane with me, but this time my new job is paying for my relocation, so I’m taking most of my furniture, crappy as it is, and shipping my car. This all takes time to coordinate. At the same time, my current landlord sells the house and prepares to renovate and increase the rent. It really does feel like it’s time to leave.
In the middle of the month, I fly out for a week to look for a place to live. I’ll be working at a massive corporation in the Midwest, near Central City. Well, “near” is an exaggeration, even by Midwest standards. I’ll be living in a rust belt company town. Real estate is cheap because no one wants to live there unless they have to. I find a house to rent, a full entire house to myself with driveway and garage, for about half what I was paying for a much smaller place in Raser City. I would much rather be living in Central City, but I hate to drive, so a two hour commute each way in a snowy climate is a non-starter.
As I’m preparing to move and trying to plan for starting my new job, I get regular updates from Billy on his around the world trip. He sends me amazing photos of Portugal, of Iran. I still can’t believe he got a visa to go there. Apparently the accessibility there isn’t too bad, and people are always happy to help him out.
I reply with bland enthusiasm. I’m glad he’s enjoying his trip, but I don’t miss him. I feel like I’ve woken up from a dream, and all my feelings for him have vanished. I’m vaguely disturbed at all of this, how I stayed in a clearly bad relationship just because he’s a para, and how quickly my feelings for him changed. Why is this dev thing so complicated? I’m trying honestly to have a real emotional connection but then horniness clouds my judgment every single time and I end up with guys I have nothing in common with. Then when they say, we have nothing in common, you’re just dating me because I’m disabled, I don’t want that to be true so I double down on trying to establish an emotional connection, to prove I really love him and it’s not just about sex. It keeps happening over and over but I don’t know how to stop it. If I wasn’t moving away, how many years would Billy and I have stayed together, just because it was easy, but still making each other miserable?

With just a few more weeks to go, I get an unexpected email from Atom the Archaeologist. Again! It’s been over three years since our brief, intermittent hookup where I introduced him to the joys of pegging. And almost a year since he tried to get me to be his dirty little secret since his girlfriend won’t peg him. Even after I told him off, here he is trying again.


Do you still live in Raser City?  The last time I spoke with you, you were finishing your degree.  What are you up to these days? I just read some manga graphic novels and thought of you.
I hope you're doing well.  I'm going to grad school at Lester State now.
I'd love to hear from you.


What the fuck! Why is it always the guys who I have the least connection with, who can’t even be bothered to return a phone call, who keep turning up months, even years later? I have dear, formerly close friends I’ve lost touch with who I never hear from anymore. Guys who I dated for years and once loved more than anyone else in the world have vanished completely from my life. Yet these meaningless, no strings attached relationships somehow never end.
I’ve already been burned twice by Atom, and there’s no way I’m going back for a third time, even if I were not about to leave town. I know that despite the studied casual, friendly tone of his email, all he really wants is for me to peg him. He probably has another girlfriend. If I were to try to have a real connection with him, he would run away so fast there’d be nothing but a vapor trail behind him.
The hell with him. I don’t even bother to reply to his email.

August 2006

Over the past few months, I’ve gotten in the habit of going out on the weekends to a nearby bar/pool hall with Sarah and several other friends from grad school. It’s a nice casual place, busy but not too crowded. On a Friday night, I’m there with a big group of friends including Sarah, another guy in my department named Ted, and Ted’s girlfriend. We’ve finished playing pool and head back to front to order another round, when suddenly Sarah elbows me.
“Look, it’s Smiley Guy.”
I follow her gaze to one of the tables near the bar. “Holy shit! It is Smiley Guy!”
Smiley Guy is the nickname we have given to a super hot quad in a power chair who I have been seeing all over campus for the past four or five years. He has straight, feathery blonde hair that he wears slightly long on top, in a charmingly boyish cut. He has bright blue eyes and the most perfect, gorgeous face. The way he moves his hands and arms is very similar to Rollerboy, so he’s probably around C7 or so. But his most striking feature is the way he is always smiling. He just seems cheerful all the time, which to someone perennially cranky like me is amazing. Even Sarah, who is not at all a dev, thinks he’s cute, and she always tells me when she sees him around.
The problem is I have never been able to speak to him. I’ve become pretty fearless about striking up conversations with hot wheelers I meet in the wild, but this guy keeps getting away. It seems like I only ever see him when I’m in a hurry to get somewhere important, or when he’s going the opposite way with a big group of friends, or with a girl that looks like a girlfriend.
One time Sarah ran into him at the ATM, and he asked her to help him take out his cash. She was happy to do it but she didn’t chat him up. Damn! I was so jealous.
But now here he is, at a bar, the one place where it would not be weird or awkward for me to hit on him shamelessly. I’m not going to let this opportunity go to waste. Never mind that half my graduate program is here watching me, or that I’m moving across the country in less than two weeks. This is the guy I have been waiting years to meet.
I grab my gin and tonic and march right up to his table. He’s with friends but they don’t seem to be talking much and I don’t see a likely girlfriend. I plonk myself down in a chair right next to him so we’re eye to eye, and give him my ten thousand watt dev smile.
He grins back at me. “Hi.”
I used to be painfully shy, and talking to strangers felt impossible. But I’ve realized it’s surprisingly easy. People like to talk about themselves. Just ask a few general questions, make some bland observations about what’s going on around you, and most people will chatter away. Pretty soon Smiley Guy and I are deep in conversation.
I find out that he broke his neck snowboarding eight years ago. I don’t ask; he just volunteers this information. He’s been working on a graduate degree part time at Lester State, which is why I see him on campus periodically. Like me, he’s in his mid-thirties.
As we talk, it gradually dawns on me that he’s extremely drunk. I’m not the most observant person, but eventually I realize that he’s slurring his words and not really listening to much of what I’m saying.
Up close he doesn’t have the sheen of perfection that I imagined I saw at a distance. He’s kind of sloppy, like he doesn’t take care of himself. He needs a haircut and his beard is growing in patchy, not in a good way. He looks like he’s been in his chair for too long without changing his clothes or showering. The reason might be that his lower right leg is in a cast. He doesn’t mention it or say what happened, but I can imagine. One of the side effects of SCI is loss of bone density. A bad transfer, an inept PCA, a drunken stunt, anything could have caused a break.
None of that matters to me in the moment, though because he is the Smiley Guy. He’s still objectively gorgeous in a blond haired, blue eyed way which is absolutely my type. And he seems happy to be talking to me, fulfilling my long-held fantasy.
I casually let it drop that I have a friend who plays wheelchair basketball, so I’ve met many guys with various disabilities and know a thing or two about SCI. He knows the team, but then the conversation turns to sports for like a really long time. Not just adaptive sports, but regular boring sports. I smile and nod, not following him at all.
“Hey.” I glance up to see Ted standing beside me, smirking knowingly. “It’s getting late. We’re leaving in ten,” he says. Oh shit! Ted’s girlfriend Hyunh is our designated driver. It’s hard to get a taxi in this neighborhood and it’s too late to risk riding public transportation by myself.
For a moment, I consider the idea of going home with Smiley Guy tonight. But no, even though he seems receptive to my flirting, things have not progressed to that level yet. Besides, it’s hard for a quad to be spontaneous, especially if he needs a PCA to help him get in bed at night. And he’s probably way too drunk anyway.
Doing my best to ignore Ted who is hovering over me snickering to himself, I turn back to Smiley Guy with my sweetest, flirtiest grin.
“So, um, my ride is leaving now, but maybe I can give you my number?”
“Yeah, sure!” Using his arm and wrist rather than his hand, he unhooks a backpack from the back of his chair, and with great difficulty fishes out a black Nokia flip phone, squeezing it between his two hands and prying it open with a thumb. The screen has a big crack.
“Uh, I’m not sure it’s working right, but I’ll try,” he says. He wedges the phone between his thighs and jabs at the buttons with his thumbs. I have to keep repeating my number because by the time he’s halfway through, the phone keeps slipping down between his legs.
Ted is getting impatient. I offer to input the number myself. Smiley Guy hands me his phone, but I realize he’s right, there is something really wrong with it. I can input my name and number but it won’t save.
“Come on, just call him!” Ted bursts out. Oh right, that’ll work. Smiley Guy tells me his number and I call him, so my number will show up in his incoming call list. I still can’t attach my name to the number, but whatever, at least now I have his number in my phone.
In the car on the way home, Ted, Hyunh, and Sarah are all laughing at me.
“Wow, so you really just went for it with that guy, huh?” Ted says playfully. I’m pretty close friends with him, but not close enough to tell him about being a devotee. But he met Rollerboy more than once, and the Mantis, so now the pattern has become clear.
“So what is it with you and handicapped guys?” Hyunh asks, glancing up from the road as she drives to make eye contact with me.
Oh my god. I don’t really know Hyunh that well, but obviously Ted was gossiping to her about me while I was making the moves on the Smiley Guy. Whatever, these are friends and I trust them to be open-minded and not judgmental. I decide that it’s better to be out and proud than to hedge or make excuses.
“I just think they’re sexy,” I say boldly, without a trace of shame. When Hyunh glances back at me again in the rear view mirror I lock eyes with her and add, “Don’t you?”
She blinks in surprise and smiles but doesn’t answer. Sarah jumps in and adds, “I never really thought about it, but Smiley Guy is hot. With him I totally get it.”
“Aw, thanks!” I give her a grateful smile in the backseat. She can be a pain in the ass sometimes but in this moment I love her for not blurting out anything about what she knows is a difficult, private topic for me, and for having my back. Thank you Sarah!
Ted just shrugs. “Hey, whatever floats your boat, it’s cool with me.”
He’s sitting in the front seat so I can’t tell exactly but maybe he’s slightly uneasy, or is it intrigued? I know that when he was eighteen, Ted had a brush with serious injury. He was in a car accident and got a head injury that earned him a long stay at a rehab facility. There was a short time when he couldn’t walk, but luckily for him, he eventually made a complete recovery.
But it wasn’t just his own injury that was scarring for him. He saw things he couldn’t unsee in the rehab facility with the other patients, most of them with brain injuries much more severe than his. He told me about one incident in the cafeteria where a guy whipped out his dick and started banging it on the table, shouting, “It doesn’t work! It doesn’t work!”
Ted was laughing as he told me that story, but it must have been upsetting for a teenager to witness. So what is Ted thinking right now? That if he had been permanently paralyzed in that accident, it’s him I would have been hitting on? Or is he wondering how I have sex with a guy whose dick doesn’t work?
But the conversation doesn’t go any further, as Hyunh pulls up to my house, and Sarah’s place is just around the corner. I thank them for the ride and we all say goodnight.
As I walk through the dark yard to my detached apartment, I’m glowing with happiness. Not only did I get to meet my fantasy guy, but I’ve gotten over my fear of outing myself. I can come out to casual friends and it’s no big deal. I feel like a huge burden has been lifted from my shoulders.
The next afternoon I call the Smiley Guy. He doesn’t pick up, so I leave a message that I hope is casual and flirty. I don’t kid myself that any relationship will come of this, but it would be fitting and oh so sexy to have one last hookup before I leave town. It has to be now, since I’m super busy preparing to move. It would have to be at his place, since there’s no way to get a power chair up three steps, and Billy took my makeshift ramp. I guess Billy was right about me, haha. But in the end it doesn’t matter, since Smiley Guy never calls me back.
A few years ago, I might have been devastated that nothing more comes of my brief meeting with Smiley Guy. But now it’s really ok. I’m proud of myself for getting over my shyness and hang-ups enough to chat him up. And I realized from talking to him at the bar that he isn’t really the ideal fantasy guy I thought he was. We don’t have anything in common, talking to him was actually kind of boring, and he seems like his life is a bit of a mess. I’ve wasted years, decades of my life pining after guys I glimpsed briefly on the street. It’s instructive to learn that maybe it’s better to just let them go, that they may not be as perfect as they seem. Learning that feels like an even greater gift than one night of sex. Even really hot sex.

The last weekend before I move away, I have a farewell party in the backyard. The weather is beautiful and sunny, and Sarah helps me set up borrowed chairs and a table on the grass.
I invite all my friends from grad school and from the opera: Lulu, Ariel, Gretchen, Frances and all the other women in the chorus I’ve been close to.
William too, of course. I’ve forgiven him for not having his life together to be the boyfriend I wanted, and we’re now just good friends.
Suzanna and Uri arrive together, acting like a cute couple in matching leather jackets. I’ve forgiven Uri too, although he doesn’t really talk to me. Frances whispers in my ear that Uri is not treating Suzanna very well, that he’s being competitive about roles. I realize she was right about him, that he’s not as nice as he seems.
Even Brenno the Baritone is there, now returned from his time in Italy and living in Raser City again. He’s dating someone else, but it’s ok, we’re just friends now too. He’s cut his long blond hair short, but he’s still got the same boyish air, all nervous energy and loud jokes. It’s nice to see him one last time.
My opera rehearsal carpool buddy the gardener poet arrives early, and gives me a french fry slicer as a gift which he hands me a bit awkwardly. I thank him profusely, as I wasn’t expecting gifts. It’s kind of him but also feels a bit strange, like this is gift for a bridal shower, not a going away party. Actually I’ve been feeling frustrated lately at having to set up a new household on my own with no money. If I were getting married, people would give me things, but since I’m still single, I have to make do on my own. I’ve actually thought of doing a self-marriage to get some help setting up my new household, but the thought of demanding presents is just too crass. Anyway, I’m deeply grateful that at least one person is giving me a wedding type present.
The gardener poet shows up alone, with a long tale about how he broke up with his girlfriend. In the hours we spent carpooling, I heard all about how he reconnected recently with the great love of his life and was so excited to try again with her now that they’re both in their fifties. I’m sad for him that it didn’t work out.
“Sometimes, you just realize why you broke up in the first place,” he says with a cynical grin. He doesn’t seem upset about it. He just gives me a bear hug and tells me how proud he is of me, finishing my degree and getting a job.
The Mantis and Titania also come. As soon as they arrive, The Mantis asks to go inside the house to use the bathroom, and I have to explain to him that Billy took the ramp away.
“What! Why would he do that?” Titania demands indignantly.
“He didn’t like the idea of me fucking any other guys in chairs after he left.”
“What a dick!” she exclaims, and I have to agree.
William and Ted volunteer to lift The Mantis up the three concrete steps into the house. I hover next to them, making sure they do it correctly and hold the frame of the chair, not just the wheels. As he lifts, Ted leers at me with a knowing wink. I just roll my eyes at him. It is kind of funny how many guys here I’ve slept with, although not all of them know it. Once again, I’m grateful that Billy is gone.
Inside the house, Titania accompanies The Mantis to the bathroom, while Ted and I linger in the living room.
“I heard you have some, ah, special brownies,” Ted whispers to me with a meaningful look.
“Yeah, they’re in the fridge,” I reply. “Want one?” These are left over from the batch I made with Billy because as it turns out, despite him insisting the whole time that I didn’t know what I was doing and they wouldn’t work, they are in fact super strong and you can only eat a tiny piece at a time.
“I thought they would be out on the table in the yard,” Ted says.
“No! What are you, crazy? I’m not going to drug people without their knowledge. If anyone wants some, they can come inside and ask.”
Ted takes a piece outside to share with Hyunh, and soon there’s a parade of people sneaking into the kitchen to try some.
I go back out into the yard with my head spinning, but only slightly. I’ve finally figured out how to stop at just a tiny bit, and not eat too much like a dum-dum.
Outside, the sun is shining brilliantly, and a warm breeze ruffles my blue and white sun dress. It’s a retro 1950s New Look cut, and I feel glamorous and happy. All my favorite people are here, the weather is beautiful, and I’m enjoying myself so much chatting with all of them. I wish I could freeze this one perfect moment forever.
The Mantis comes outside again with an assist from Titania. Bumping down steps backwards is always easier than trying to drag or lift up.
I pull up a folding chair next to him so we can talk more easily.
“Sorry about the ramp,” I say again. “I had no idea you even remembered about it and were counting on it, or I would never have let him take it.”
“Whatever. It’s ok,” he says in a tone that suggests he’s actually still annoyed. “But you’re finished with that asshole, right?” I’m surprised by the force of his response. The Mantis is usually so easy-going and laid back about everything. I feel a pang of guilt about the ramp, but it’s sweet that he’s watching out for me.
“Oh yeah, one hundred percent done,” I reply. “Jeez, I feel like I’ve dated the most embarrassing string of assholes and losers.”
“Don’t forget the wretched Mantis,” he teases, “the most pathetic and lowly of them all.”
I swat him playfully on the knee and enjoy the way it wobbles. “How is it that the most shameful dirty secret of all of them turned out to be the only decent human being?”
“Oh no, don’t call me decent! You’ll ruin my reputation!”
We laugh and joke around some more, then I say, “You know, I’ve been thinking of writing down all these horrible relationships and making it into a book. I might as well get something positive out of this parade of shame and bad decisions.”
“Also it could be super hot,” he says, waggling his eyebrows at me meaningfully behind his round mantis glasses.
“I don’t know, maybe just the part you’re in,” I say, laughing.
Too soon, the party is over and I have to say goodbye, knowing that most of them I won’t see again before I leave, or maybe ever. Everyone congratulates me on the new job, and I try to stay focused on the positive. I give the last of the brownies to Ted to take home with him, since I can’t take them with me on the plane and it would be a shame to let them go to waste. He thanks me profusely.

The last week is a blur of frantic preparation. I think I’m holding it together ok but then while I’m driving, I nearly hit another car at a four way stop because I start to go too soon. The horn blares and we both slam on the brakes, avoiding a crash at the last minute. I see a woman in the other car gesturing angrily at me, shouting.
As she drives away, I lose it completely, sobbing and shaking, my hands gripping the wheel and tears streaming down my face. She’s right to be angry; it was totally my fault. I wasn’t paying attention, and it wasn’t my turn. I feel horrible, like a child who’s been scolded for something they know was wrong. But the strength of my reaction is way out of proportion to the incident. I feel like I’m losing my mind. I guess I’m not managing the stress of moving as well as I thought I was.
Three days before my flight, the movers come to pack up the house. A team of five people show up, including a hulking Hispanic teenager who tells me to call him Pikachu. They move through the apartment like a swarm of worker ants and pack up everything that isn’t nailed down, except for a few items I marked in advance. Literally everything gets wrapped in newsprint, boxed up and carted off, even trash. Pikachu in particular is eager to pack every dirty tissue and empty plastic bag he can find. Later that evening, when I go to clean up, I realize Pikachu wrapped and packed the sponge from the kitchen sink, still wet and soapy.

With one last frantic, frenzied push and a lot of help from friends, I finally clear out of my apartment.
Ariel organizes a send-off dinner for me with some of our opera friends. As we’re eating, she asks everyone to go around the table and to recount some story about me. Almost all of the stories relate to my, ahem, singular sexual experiences. Thanks guys, it's good to know what makes me stand out from the crowd.
I sleep the last night at Sarah’s place around the corner and the next morning Lulu gives me a ride to the airport.
I’m overwhelmed with sadness at leaving Raser City. It feels good to have finally finished my degree and gotten a career-track job, but I had really hoped that by now I would be married. If I couldn’t find a partner in one of the biggest, most liberal cities in the US, how am I ever going to find someone compatible in the tiny, conservative Midwest town I’m moving to? I took this job because it was my only option, but I feel like in accepting it, I’ve guaranteed that I will be single forever.
These thoughts are running through my mind on an infinite loop as I move through the Raser City airport. But when I attempt to check-in, the little computer screen informs me that my flight to Central City is delayed by two hours (by bad weather the previous day) and I will miss my connecting flight. All other flights were full, and I will have to cancel my ticket and rebook the next day.
What the fuck! I desperately want to stay in Raser City, and it’s like the cruelest joke that I’m not able to leave now. I mentally run down my hysterical to-call list: who could I ask to come get me and my four huge suitcases, entertain me for twenty-four hours, then drive me back to the airport tomorrow? (probably only Lulu). But then reason reasserts itself--if I can take the first flight, surely there would be some way to get from Central City to my new town, either on a different flight, or train, or rental car or something. I decide to go for it, although I begin to question the wisdom of my decision as I watch my suitcases disappear on the conveyor belt and realize that my carry-on contains only bills, receipts, and my aged laptop, and the agent informs me that my luggage is going to my final destination whether I make it there or not. 
Thus begins a twelve hour plus nightmare of travel. I wait in long, nearly immobile customer service lines, where every agent I talk to is, without exception, rude and unhelpful. There are four or five other flights to Central City that morning, but in addition to the delay on my flight, there has been some major screw-up on an earlier flight that resulted in it being overbooked by over a hundred people. So the terminal is overcrowded with a roaming pack of increasingly desperate people trying to fly stand-by on later flights which are also oversold. As the numbers of stranded travelers grows, the terminal begins to resemble a refugee camp, with people drifting in packs from gate to gate, hoping for that one empty seat, and once again I swear that I will never, ever get on another airplane again.
But without belaboring the details, which become even more complicated and frustrating, despite the gate agent's dire warnings I at last get a stand-by seat. When I get to the departure gate for my flight to Central City, I find myself in line behind a para in a manual chair.
He’s a good looking Hispanic guy, probably fortyish. He’s really fit and has his chair set up perfectly—low back, good camber in the wheels to give better maneuverability, seat raked back to give good posture. I take all this in within a few seconds. Without even giving it a second thought, I start to chat him up, making small talk about the flight, about Raser City and Central City, about how I’m moving for a job.
We have a long time to wait, and he seems happy to talk. I find out almost immediately that he was traveling for business, but he doesn’t live in Central City. He’s going there for a wheelchair softball championship.
He lives in Nebraska and he’s married with young kids. D’oh! Too late, I see the wedding ring on his finger. Once again, realize this is the kind of thing normal people notice first, before anything else. What is wrong with me that it never even occurs to me to look for a wedding ring?
I don’t want to come off like a creepy weirdo, so I do my best to keep the conversation friendly but not flirty, and not to show my disappointment that he’s married. I tell him that I have a friend who plays wheelchair basketball. We chat at length about adaptive sports.
“You know,” he says just as the plane is about to start boarding. “You should come to the softball tournament next weekend.”
“Yeah, I’d love that!” I flash my megawatt dev smile, again doing my best to keep it platonic. I’m sincerely not interested in this guy, but who knows who I might meet at the tournament? I give him my email address and he promises to send me the details.
How lucky could a dev girl be? Maybe this move won’t be so bad after all.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Devo Diary Chapter 62

Hot Wheels, part 1

August 2006

I leave behind my beloved Raser City to move to a small town in the Rust Belt, to take up my first real, career-type job. I wish I could live in the nearest big city, Central City, but it’s too far away for a daily commute. Instead, I’m forced to live in the company town, a place with the religious fundamentalism, racial discrimination and extreme poverty of the deep South, but the bland food and severe winters of the Midwest. It’s truly the worst of both worlds. Let’s call it Craptown.
I move into a rental house, a small one-story faux Craftsman style place with an all season porch in front and a detached garage in back. It’s a cute little place, built in the 1950s on the GI Bill, on a street of similar houses. It’s nice to live in my first real house, at a fraction of what I was paying for an apartment in Raser City.
I try to stay positive as I get settled in. It’s not the first time I’ve lived in the Midwest. The town where I went to college is about a four hour drive from here, and those were some of the happiest years of my life. My college friends Kara and Nam still live there, and I’m excited to be able to see them more often.
Ok, the landscape is vintage rust belt, basically unchanged since the 1970s, not my first choice for a time warp experience. And I’m pretty sure that by moving out here, I’ve doomed myself to a life of eternal spinsterhood. But the summer weather is hazy hot and humid every day, and seeing the clouds stacked up in a sweltering sky reminds me of my childhood. It’s nice after so many years on the chilly Pacific coast.
After my harrowing flight to Central City, I get a stand-by seat on the last flight to Craptown, and arrive fifteen minutes before the rental car desk closes, so in the end I arrive with fewer detours than I had feared.
It's a good thing I made it here so quickly, because by the next day all my stuff including the car arrives. The mover is a beefy, doleful guy named Marshall who begins every statement with a lugubrious sigh, which at first seemed to me a bad sign that he would successfully transport all my crappy Ikea furniture across the country and carry it into the new house. But he turns positively perky as he schleps my many boxes of books up the steps in the hundred degree heat. Maybe it's that Lake Woebegone Midwestern desire for adversity.
He has a smaller sidekick who is mostly silent except to occasionally mutter "When did you get to be such a pussy?" in a flat, affectless tone whenever Marshall asks him for help in lifting some ridiculously heavy piece of furniture.
Everything seems to have arrived in good condition, although unpacking feels like it takes forever, partly because the packers wrapped everything in vast quantities of newsprint which must be flattened and folded up, since if I were to just ball it up, the pile would reach the ceiling. Unpacking is like unwrapping the most boring, endless succession of presents ever, as I re-discover just how worthless most of my stuff is, and oh look, Pikachu packed a plastic fork in its own newsprint wrapper.
I've also been making many trips out to the big box stores among the dead-eyed suburbanites to buy even more crap for the house. I refuse to shop at Wal-Mart, but I find myself spending many hours wandering the aisles at Super Target and Meijer in a fugue state. Every other person in the store is the size of three people.
I also take several trips to the Farmer's Market, open three days a week, and located in a permanent building just half a block from my house. The first time I go there I’m starving because I haven’t set up the kitchen yet, so I’m glad to see a little restaurant in among the produce stands. There’s a big sign with a picture of a cornucopia, that declares "Fresh from the Farmer's Market to our kitchen!" But in spite of this promising beginning, the menu yields nothing that is actually sold at the market: I can choose eggs, home fries, pancakes, or bacon. The only bit of produce to sully my plate is the tiny pre-pack of Mott's applesauce that accompanies my potato pancakes. The food is not bad for a diner, but apparently the pictures of fruit and vegetables on the menu are merely aesthetic. Welcome to the Midwest!
Even in the market itself, the farmers are selling the exact bland varieties that are in the supermarket, flavorless baseball-like tomatoes and mealy yellow corn. Even the Amish are selling the same highly processed, chemically enhanced cheese, bread and lunch meat as the supermarket. It’s disappointing.
The market is packed with people, but I feel like everyone is staring at me, and some are doing really obvious double takes. What the hell? I’m just wearing plain shorts and a t-shirt, with my long brown hair in a simple pony tail; my nerdy retro look is toned way down. Is it the tattoo? To celebrate finishing my degree, I got a huge tattoo of a flower on my left calf, very visible since it’s summer. But I’m hardly the only person here with a tattoo. Ok, most of them are biker dude types, but I just passed a sixty-ish grandma with a tattoo of a rainbow on her neck. So why am I getting all the judgmental stares?
After a few days of driving around town, making multiple trips to Target and the supermarket, I feel like I’m about to start crying in the car. I hate everything about this town. It’s ugly and run-down. There’s a church on every corner but hardly any restaurants that aren’t fast food chains. The three block downtown area is a ghost town, hollowed out by the strip malls a few miles away. Everything about this place is depressing, and it isn’t even winter yet.
To try keep my spirits up and stay in touch, I send long, diary-like emails to a bunch of my closest friends, trying to keep the tone funny and satirical. I also include a review of a bacon-flavored chocolate bar I found at the one gourmet “exotic” grocery in town.
Lulu, Frances, and Ariel immediately write back, each individually letting me know that bacon chocolate bars have been all over Raser City for months, and they feel sorry for me for not knowing that. Great, so even my best friends are pitying me for moving to the sticks.
Kara drives down from College Town to help me get set up, and I am very grateful, since I’m nearing the end of my tether with unpacking.
We start off the day with an artery-clogging bacon, eggs, and pancake breakfast at a local diner. The huge neon sign on the roof declares "Open 24 Hours Diner Open 24 Hours" but a smaller sign on the door says they open at 6 am. I suppose there is not a huge demand for all-night diners here. There are also big "No Smoking" signs in the window with duct tape over the "No" and as we discover it is more of a smoking-required kind of establishment. We are the only patrons not lighting up, most of them right through the meal, alternating bites of hash browns with drags on their cigarettes. But the food is surprisingly good--it may be fatty but at least it's all real ingredients, something that is almost impossible to find in the strip malls where most of the restaurants are.
Kara and I tour the neighboring suburbs, thrilling locales, all of them, each more charmingly unique than the last. Wait, no, they are all formerly rolling farmland converted into strip malls and subdivisions. But we discover two health food stores in the strip malls, so at least I don't have to eat a steady diet of high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated corn oil.

The next weekend, I’m visited by Ted, my friend from grad school, and his girlfriend Hyunh. They’re in the midst of moving to Seoul, and Ted decided that rather than dumping his junky old station wagon into the ocean as it deserved, he would pack up all his stuff and drive across the country to leave the car with his mother in Virginia. This is all kind of spur of the moment as far as I can tell. They arrive at my place three days later than they initially planned. First they call to say they have gotten lost in the cornfields, then again to say they’re stuck in traffic in Central City, then again that they have a flat tire. In the end they show up nearly at midnight, sporting a rear spare tire that is itself barely inflated.
Hm, I guess they’re planning on staying over. On the phone, Ted made it sound like they would just stop by for a few hours. I thought there were other people they were visiting in Craptown, but it turns out my house is the main attraction.
They have many stories of off-roading in the Montana badlands, camping in a tent in bear country and riding with the thousands of bikers descending on Sturgis, Montana for their yearly, um, convention? rally? whatever.
The trip sounds like the kind of thing I am happy to avoid. For starters, they had planned on staying on hotels, then decided to camp at the last minute, so they don't really have any camping gear. In fact, the car is filled with things one doesn't normally take on a camping trip, including many bonsai plants and enormous framed prints by Bouguereau and Schiele.
They also went by Mount Rushmore, where they said everyone was either a biker on the way to Sturgis or a Japanese tourist marveling at how many Americans have tattoos. Also overheard in Montana, many comments about Hyunh being "one a them Chyyyyyyyyahna girls" (she's Vietnamese).
Ted also informs me with a leer that he noticed a significant number of modified bikes with wheelchairs mounted in the back.
“No doubt for those injured by riding the bikes in the first place,” I say.
Anyway Ted and Hyunh seem to find sleeping on an air mattress in my living room the height of luxury, after a week of camping on the bare ground and being attacked by wild raccoons. I make them go shopping for furniture with me, since that's my main occupation right now, in the short time before my official start date at work.
Ted and Hyunh stay an extra day getting their car fixed, but by Saturday morning I’m hustling them out the door, saying I’m driving up to Central City. When they press me, I have to admit I’m not going to visit friends or take in the cultural offerings, no, I’m going to drive two hours each way to watch guys in wheelchairs play softball.
"A friend of mine is playing," I explain, although I neglect to elaborate that by "friend" I mean "guy I met in the airport two weeks ago."
“Say no more,” Ted says with a leer, as he throws wadded up dirty clothes and sheets in the back of the station wagon. “Good luck with Operation Hot Wheels!”

The drive from Craptown to Central City is a nightmare. Even though it’s a Saturday morning in August, the traffic is crazy. After a straight shot through cornfields for miles where people drive insanely fast and I’m constantly being passed by semi trailers, I run into construction at the edge of Central City, and sit at one cloverleaf on ramp for forty-five minutes in gridlock, inching forward over torn up, gravely asphalt. I thought one of the only advantages of leaving Raser City was no longer having to deal with the constant traffic jams, but this is at least as bad as anything I experienced there, and the drivers are way more aggressive.
By the time I finally pull up to the community park where the baseball tournament is being held, I’ve been in the car for four hours. I park on the street and stagger out of the car, my arms and legs shaking slightly from the stress. God, I hate to drive. This had better be worth it.
A small group of people is gathered around a softball diamond in a local park, watching a game in progress. I walk over and join the spectators, trying hard to act like I belong there.
A few years ago I would never have had the nerve to do this. I would have assumed that I was being weird and creepy just by going, that everyone would demand to know why I was there, and be angry or grossed out by my presence. Going to wheelchair basketball with The Mantis has cured me of that self-defeating attitude. I’ve realized that the team is happy to have people take interest in what they’re doing, and saying I have a friend on the team is reason enough to be there.
So I stand around feigning interest in the game, while actually scoping out the crowd. Because it’s a national event, there are tons of people, and so many hot wheelers. As it turns out, my "friend" isn't there, because it’s the last two games and his team has been eliminated, so he went touring instead, as he informed e by email at the last minute. It’s just as well, since I didn't want him to think I was showing inappropriate interest, he being married and all. And besides, I’m much more interested in meeting the local guys than his Nebraska team mates. But it helps me feel less like a creepy stalker when people ask why I’m there to say "I came to see my friend."
Lucky for me, the Central City team is in the semi-finals, so I hang out on their side. There’s a guy in a faded baseball cap who looks about thirty-ish, in a white Quickie manual chair with a low back. It’s not the best set up chair I’ve ever seen; it looks unnecessarily clunky and heavy. But the guy is cute, with blue eyes and light brown hair curling out from under his cap. On the back of his neck, I see the tell-tale scar of spinal surgery, an inch thick and crisscrossed with lines. It’s never just a faint silvery line, but a sign that something major happened.
I sidle up to him and wait until he notices me. When he glances up at me, I give him my mega-watt dev smile and say, “Hey, Hot Wheels.”
He looks surprised for a second, but then gives me a cheeky grin back. “Hey, Hot Pants,” he replies.
I wiggle my ass ever so slightly in his direction, and he laughs.
“So are you a fan of ___?” he asks, naming the Central City baseball team.
I give him a blank look. Oh right, the team playing right now has taken the name of the local pro team.
“Um, no…?” I say, feeling like my cover has been blown. I’m not a fan of that team or any other baseball team, or any sport at all. I haven’t even been watching the game and I have no idea what the score is.
Hot Wheels squints at me a little funny, and I rush into an explanation of how I was invited by an acquaintance but he’s not here, then adding how I just moved here and more about wheelchair basketball in Raser City. He smiles and nods, satisfied with that answer.
We keep chatting.
On the plus side, he is gainfully employed (in finance, no less), lives in Central City, and is close to my age. On the negative side, he was just injured about a year ago, and he still seems possibly traumatized and only slightly adjusted (danger! danger!).
I mention that in addition to the "friend" on the Nebraska team I also have a "friend" who plays wheelchair basketball (again leaving out that what I really mean by friend is "ex-slave" or "former torrid affair").
Hot Wheels doesn’t play softball because he is on the sledge hockey team and their practices conflict. He introduces me to a lot of his team mates. They all hit on me, but most of them were much older, so it’s more of a joke, but highly entertaining. The Mantis' observation about his basketball team seems to be true here too--all the white guys were injured in motorcycle accidents, and all the black and Latino guys were shot.
In the break between the games, a guy on the Central City team is sitting in the street holding a parking spot for his brother, when the wife of a guy on the other team drives up in a huge SUV and demands that he let her have the spot. When he refuses, she gets out and tries to slap him out of his chair. WTF?! Since when is it ok to try to knock a guy out of his chair? And for a parking spot!
In retaliation, his brother hits the back of the SUV with a baseball bat.
I leave just as the cops show up. Woo hoo! Welcome to Central City.

The next weekend, I go back to Central City for a date with Hot Wheels. I’m excited to see him, but I have a sinking feeling that no matter how vaguely and tactfully I allude to my attraction, he will not take it well. After going through all that with Billy, I’m determined not to put up with that crap again. Especially not in the passive-aggressive "I'll pretend to be ok with it because I think you're hot but secretly I will resent it" way.
This time I try to bypass the stress of driving by taking the train, but it’s unbearably slow and we have to stop multiple times to let freight trains go by. The train also takes nearly four hours after various delays.
Once again I’m a wreck by the time I arrive. The train seats are super uncomfortable and my back is aching. I feel horrible for arriving two hours later than I anticipated. But Hot Wheels doesn’t get too upset about it. He meets me at the train station, so once again I’m riding in the car with someone I barely know.
As we drive through the tunnels around downtown, Hot Wheels tells me his life story. He works as an investment banker right near the train station, and lives in a brownstone in one of the nicer neighborhoods with his brother and sister-in-law. He’s the youngest of eight kids, a big Catholic family.
Five years ago, he was in a car accident. He goes through the same details I have heard from other guys before: the disorientation of waking up in the hospital, surgery, rehab. I think I know where this is going, but then the story abruptly ends with him walking out of the hospital just a few weeks later, having made a complete recovery.
Trying to keep my voice carefully neutral, I say, “Wow, you were super lucky! But why…I mean…did you have a relapse…?”
“Oh, the wheelchair? That has nothing to do with the accident,” he says carelessly. “A year ago I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It comes and goes. It got worse for a while but now I think I’m heading into remission again.”
I’m stunned. I was so certain he was SCI. True, the scar on his neck seemed awfully high up for someone who is clearly a para, but I never would have guessed it was MS and not SCI. I know almost nothing at all about MS, except that it can progress or recede sometimes unexpectedly.
We go for a very late lunch at an Irish pub downtown, and as we eat he tells me more about how he’s been doing rehab intensively. When the MS first came on, he worked and worked at it and was able to walk again, at least short distances. But recently he had a relapse and lost all that progress. Now he’s on a six month medical leave from work.
He talks about all this with a bitter, frustrated air that makes me nervous. This is not the kind of guy who will respond well to finding out about devotees. He’s probably worried that I’ll leave him when his condition gets worse—if only he knew. In fact, I feel like compared to the other wheelers I’ve dated, he’s practically able-bodied. Maybe he’s not the right guy for me. If he goes into remission and walks again, will I still be attracted to him? The moment that thought surfaces in my mind, I immediately feel intensely guilty. If I’m going to date him, it has to be because I like him whether or not he’s using a wheelchair at the moment.
So even though I know it’s always a bad sign when I feel I can’t be open right away, I decide to give it a few weeks and see where things go. I intend to tell him soon, but maybe not on the first date.
Despite this, and despite the fact that he seems like a bro-y kind of dude who’s mainly into sports and beer and who never takes off his baseball cap, Hot Wheels and I hit it off. He’s interested to hear about my new job, and he likes sci fi movies so we have at least one thing in common. As he’s dropping me back to the train station, he leans over and kisses me, and it’s so hot. He’s a good kisser.
It’s worth all the time on the train. At least the return journey is only three hours.
I can’t believe my luck in meeting a hot para so quickly after moving here. I’m trying to be cautious in my expectations, but so far things seem promising.

In my effort to "go native" as quickly as possible, I take a trip (actually several trips) to the DMV the next weekend to get my license plates and driver’s license switched. To get there have to drive through the bad part of town, which rivals the scary parts of Raser City (you know it's bad when people stop trying to obey traffic laws).
At one point I get lost and pull over to consult my paper map. A white guy in a van pulls up alongside me and tells me not to stop in that neighborhood, not for anything. Good lord, I only stopped for a minute, what kind of town have I moved to?
So I made it through the bad neighborhood and still can't find the DMV. I pull into a subdivision side street to turn around and see a middle-aged seedy-looking couple, the man helping the woman as she shuffles and lurches along, her head down and her hair hanging over her face, like a white-trash version of Sadako from The Ring.
I locate the DMV in what appears from the outside to be an abandoned strip mall. Of course the creepy couple is there too, getting a driver's license for Sadako. Next to her, another woman is taking the written test and filling in all the bubbles for every answer. The clerk keeps telling her she can only choose ONE answer for each question, but she seems mystified.
Actually, the test is surprisingly challenging: what is the difference between a rural route and a country road? Which one is bigger? What is the speed limit on each? Who knows?
When I present the out of state title for my car, the clerk cheerfully informs me that she has never done this before. Many, many hours later, once she finally issues the license plate, she then puts me in another line, and it gets mixed up with someone else's plates, so I'm still not 100% certain I get the right one, but by then I’m so hungry and tired from waiting in line all day, I just didn't care. Anyway I am happy to now have local plates so now people will stop honking at me at every intersection because they assume I am a god-damned out of towner who's lost.

My new job is at a large regional division of a massive multi-national corporation whose values, to put it mildly, do not align with mine. I hate that I’m working at such a conservative place, but I have no choice, at least for now. I try to keep my head down and get along as best I can.
My first week on the job, I’m freaking out at all the new responsibilities I have. It’s nice to have a real office of my own, not just a corner of a storage closet/copy room next to the toilets, but with the real career job comes serious expectations. I’ve spent so long as a graduate student/part timer, I feel like I don’t know how to be anything else. My grown-up work clothes feel like a façade; on the inside I’m dying. As I walk down the hall to my office each morning I’m freaking out, my heart pounding and my hands sweating.
In addition to training and indoctrination, there are a number of social events held regularly across departments to try to foster a family atmosphere and loyalty. Even though these events are optional, I feel they are actually mandatory in an unspoken way. Besides, I don’t know anyone at all in town so I might as well try to make friends.
At the end of that first week at work, I go to one of these social events. There’s a woman there who I connect with immediately—we’re about the same age, like me she has a retro look, and a sarcastic, cool vibe I’m immediately attracted to. I try approaching her in a friendly way, but she totally blows me off. I find out much later that it’s because like me she was just hired, but she was pregnant during the job interview and didn’t disclose. Now she’s trying to hide the pregnancy as long as possible before having the baby “early.” Ugh, the things women have to do when there isn’t a proper family leave policy.
Anyway I’m feeling awkward and discouraged that my first attempt at making a friend was rebuffed. I help myself to an extra big serving of tea and cookies, and sit down by myself at one of the tables. Just at that moment, I see a handsome young para wheel in with a woman who is obviously his wife.
What the fuck! I’ve spent decades searching for wheeler guys, who seem as rare as unicorns. Even though by now I’ve met a lot, it’s always taken effort. Why is it that a guy this dreamy (blond hair and blue eyes, just my type), pops up right as I’m starting a new job?
I look away, trying to ignore them. I will not, will not, will not get involved with anyone at work and I certainly will not try to flirt with a married man at work. I hate that this has been a pattern for me, and I want so badly to break it. Best to just steer clear of them completely.
To my consternation, the wife walks right up to me and asks if the empty seats next to me at the table are taken. I smile in what I hope is a natural way and gesture at her to go ahead and sit down. She pulls out the chair beside hers to make room for her husband.
The wife starts immediately chatting with me in a very friendly way. Her name is Roopa, and she’s from India. Her husband’s name is Karl, and he’s from Germany. Apparently they were living in Germany for several years before moving to the US, which explains why Roopa’s accent is a kind of unplaceable mix of Indian, British, German and American. She’s an architect working for a very small local firm. Karl is the one working for the company, but in a different department from mine.
I’m trying not to freak out. Years ago, I would have taken this as a sign from the universe. Now I’m trying hard to just take it as random chance, but it’s still hard to escape the feeling that the entire universe is a lens focused on me. It’s like a cruel joke, to meet someone so tempting in a situation in which I can never, ever be with him. I’ve already sworn to myself nothing will happen, and besides, Karl seems like a very serious type. I’m not getting any flirty vibe from him at all, so it’s not like that is even a possibility.
But how to keep myself from pining and obsessing over him?
As Roopa chatters away, the answer suddenly hits me: make friends with her first. If I’m really, sincerely friends with the wife, I’m much less likely to harbor inappropriate longing for her husband. And just like that, my problem is solved. Roopa makes it easy—she’s very nice and seems genuinely interested in becoming friends with me. We exchange numbers and make plans to meet for dinner.
How strange is it that my first friend in town is the wife of a para?

Meanwhile, things with Hot Wheels seem promising, despite the fact that he lives so far away. Even worse, he works a night shift so our hours are basically opposite. But there’s a tiny window in the morning when we’re at work at the same time. He emails me every day, beginning every email with “Hey beautiful.” It’s the highlight of my stressful, overworked day. I respond “Hey handsome,” and we exchange long email threads while I’m supposed to be working.

September 2006

Hot Wheels: Hey beautiful, good morning.
Devo Girl: Hey handsome. How are you?
HW: So far so shitty what a cluster fuck this morning nothing has gone right, but I think I am almost done for the day. I don't have therapy today so I thought I would go and visit a couple of old friends whom I haven't seen for a while. What are you doing today?
DG: Ah, I'm sorry to hear that :( I have the usual thing today, running around like crazy at work. Bleah! Also I'm supposed to have lunch with a senior colleague but I can't reach him by phone or email so I have no idea where or when to meet him. I hope your day gets better.
HW: Hey listen I know you were planning to come to Central City on Saturday but I have this family obligation at my godparents’ house, it's a big cook-out and then everyone else is pitching a tent and staying all night. I'm not staying all night, so I thought if it's alright I would stop by your place afterwards. Sorry about this I know you wanted to go to that big Chinese grocery in Central City, but there’s always next, next weekend. Let me know what you think about this weekend.
DG: Sure, that's ok. Where do your godparents live? So will you be coming by quite late then?
HW: I shouldn't be too late but I will get back to you on when the cook-out starts and when I'm leaving. Your e-mail has a little disappointment in it are you upset?
DG: No, not at all! It's actually better, I have some things I need to do on Saturday. No guilt trip here, ha ha ha.
Later in the week, he emails me again:
HW: So how was your day yesterday? The MRI sucked, that machine I swear I can feel the magnetic pulse going through me, I told the tech that and he just laughed, like I was some crazy person. So tomorrow I have a golf outing in the morning after that I will be heading over to my godparents’ house for the afternoon and then I will probably leave at about five, which puts me at you place at about seven. What's your address again?

On the day of his visit, he’s over two hours late, but as he pulls into the driveway, he looks super happy to see me.
I hold the chair steady while Hot Wheels transfers into it from his car. Now is the tricky part. My new house is not at all accessible. I was so sure when I moved here that I would never date a wheeler or anyone ay all ever again. It didn’t even occur to me to find an accessible place. There are multiple flights of stairs to the front door, and at the back door, a big cement step inside, then a six steps from the landing into the kitchen. I told Hot Wheels all this in advance, but he said don’t worry, he can manage it.
 At his direction, I pull a pair of forearm crutches out of the trunk. He positions himself directly in front of the step, then slowly uses the crutches to pull himself upright.
With very slow steps, he shuffles up over the threshold into the house. Now is the hard part, getting up the staircase into the kitchen. There are only six steps, but directly to his right is the staircase down to the basement, which is open on one side. I’m terrified that if he loses his balance, he could fall all the way down to the basement and there’s no way I could catch him. He’s not such a big guy, probably five foot eight or so, but he’s definitely bigger than I am, and I have learned how hard it can be to move or lift another person.
As he slowly mounts the stairs, I hover behind him with my arms out just in case. Even though he’s walking, I can tell by the way he moves his legs that the muscles are not firing correctly. His legs tremble and his hips kind of sway. His right foot drops, the toes pointing down as he lifts his knee, until he flops the foot up onto the next step.
At last he makes it to the top, then waits for me to carry his chair up. I give him an abbreviated tour of the house, well, it’s not that big anyway, then he transfers to the couch in the living room. I go back to his car to get his bag.
I’m relieved he made it into the house safely, but basically we are stuck here until he leaves tomorrow morning. He’s not going to go up and down the stairs more than once, and his car is blocking mine in the driveway. It’s ok, since it’s so late anyway. We don’t even bother with dinner since he ate at the cook-out. We sit on the couch for a short time, then go straight to the bedroom.
 “What the fuck?” Hot Wheels pulls up in front of my bed, which is like three feet off the floor. I got myself a nice cast iron bed frame, not too high off the ground. But when I went shopping for a mattress and box spring, they were all ridiculously thick. I thought Billy was crazy for having such a high bed, but apparently while I was living off cheap Swedish furniture the rest of the mattress market went completely insane and now everything is like the Princess and the Pea. I bought the most basic set I could find at the local mattress store but I’m still faced with this monstrosity and feeling like even I need a ladder to get in and out of bed.
So Hot Wheels is somewhat daunted by this bed. Even though he can stand up and walk a few steps, he hasn’t been doing this so long and isn’t super confident. This is the cruelty of a progressive condition like MS as opposed to SCI. Just when you get used to your body moving in one way, it changes. Also walking up a step is not the same as hoisting yourself ass first three feet in the air.
I offer to help him transfer, and he makes a face, but accepts my help. I kind of squat in front of him to keep him from pitching headfirst into the carpet as he puts one hand on the edge of the bed and hoists his butt up as far as he can. His head goes all the way down as he lifts his butt, his legs trembling. I give him a little shove and he gets his butt up against the edge of the bed. Then I have to push his shoulders so he flops backwards, and help him lift up his legs.
“Ugh, that sucks,” he says, scowling.
I feel guilty that my house is so inaccessible, so I try to make it worth his while to come here. I help him get positioned more comfortably with his head on the pillow, then do a silly sexy striptease, pulling off my t-shirt and jeans. His eyes light up as I unhook my bra and toss it away.
Hot Wheels knows what he’s doing, and the sex is good. It’s so nice to feel like there’s an emotional as well as a physical connection. It’s not like with Billy, where sex was like some performance of his masculinity. Hot Wheels is boyish and eager in a way I fucking love.
Because he’s not SCI he can get hard but I have to ride him and do all the work. We put on a condom and go at it but it’s hard for me to move fast enough to make him come. I feel pudgy and out of shape, my legs protesting after just a few minutes. To give myself a rest without breaking the mood, I pull him to a sitting position while he’s still inside me, so we’re sitting up facing each other. That position feels so intimate, with our foreheads pressed together.
But even that is not enough to make him come. Eventually I have to stop, and finish him off with my hands. Then he does the same for me. He doesn’t seem disappointed, but I feel not for the first time the futility of p-i-v when it won’t make either of us come. I really wish we could dispense with it entirely at least sometimes.

The next Monday, I email Hot Wheels just before I go to bed at night, with the ironic subject line, “Good morning” (because he works nights—see, funny!)
Devo Girl: Hey handsome, hope you have a great day at work!
Hot Wheels: Thanks beautiful, hope you have a great day also. Have some bad news for next weekend. I have a poker game on Saturday. But if you would like to come in Friday and stay till Saturday, that would be ok with me, let me know. Thanks again for that back rub I still feel relaxed.
DG: Hey, if you don't want to go to that Chinese supermarket, just say so :P A poker game, sheesh, a likely story. So what time on Friday? Won't you be tired?
HW: There is nothing I want to do more than go to the Chinese supermarket. What time on Friday, well I get done with therapy at about two so any time after that. Are you driving in? Should we go out to dinner? As far as being tired you let me worry about that, I should have plenty of energy to keep you satisfied for the evening.

The next weekend, I take the train again up to Central City to see Hot Wheels. Things are still in that uncertain early "dating" stage and not yet in the "steady relationship" stage, but it feels promising. We’ve been talking on the phone a lot, generally getting know each other, and he's seeming a little less flaky and self-involved than most of the hipster douchebags of Raser City, a little more sincere and straightforward. He's a nice Catholic boy from farm country south of the city--perfect, right? Kara is always telling me I need to find a nice Midwestern boy.
Hot Wheels picks me up at the train station and drives to the brownstone he shares with his brother and sister-in-law. They have retrofitted the house to be accessible, with a ramp at the back door. His bedroom is on the first floor next to the living room, in what probably used to be the dining room.
“You don’t miss having a dining room table?” I ask.
Hot Wheels looks blank. “Why? We eat on the couch in front of the TV. Don’t you?”
The only table is actually a pool table covered with a piece of plywood and a tablecloth.
His brother is also a bro-y dude who looks just like him, and his wife looks like the kind of girl who would describe herself as “one of the guys.” They’re all watching college football when I get there, and are super into the game. They’re disappointed and tease me when they discover I know nothing about it, but otherwise they’re nice to me and seem happy that he’s seeing someone. They come from a big family, and the house is full of photos of kids who I assume are nieces and nephews.
We have takeout for dinner and eat it on the couch. It feels good, like we’re really a couple now. Before bed, he goes to take a shower, leaving me in his bedroom.
While he’s in the shower, I look idly around his room. Next to his bed is a desk, and sitting on top of the desk is an official-looking document, unfolded and open. I glance over at it. It’s a court order for child support, dated last month.
What the hell?
It feels like the ground under my feet is sliding, like everything I thought I knew about reality is shifting. Those photos of kids all over the house that I assumed were of nieces and nephews, I realize, most of them are of one kid. His kid. Some of the photos are in his room. I feel so dumb for not figuring it out sooner.
When he rolls back into his bedroom after his shower, I ask him, “Who's the baby?” pointing at one of the photos.
He stares at me defensively. “That's my son.”
“Yeah, he just turned two years old. He’s the greatest little guy, so smart already…”
In an objective way I can appreciate why he’s trying to spin this in a positive direction but I’m not having it. “Were you ever going to tell me?”
He shifts uncomfortably in his chair. “Look, it’s complicated, ok? His mother is a cocktail waitress I hooked up with a few times a while back. But I want to do the right thing, you know?”
We have a big fight, with me feeling very self-righteous that he was keeping secrets from me. Eventually he tells me the whole sordid story. The mother has refused to let him participate in the kid's life or even see him much. They don’t get along at all. He had to take her to court to get any visitation rights, but even now he only sees the kid occasionally. It’s a horrible story, and I feel sorry for him.
I calm down and apologize. I feel like I’ve backed myself into a corner and been a huge hypocrite for getting so angry at him for keeping secrets, when after all he still doesn't know that I am what Billy called a "chair chaser." It’s a big reminder that we still hardly know each other at all yet--he seems like a good guy to me, but who knows?
We make up, and the next morning he takes me to the huge Chinese shopping mall. It’s so cool to share with him some of my favorite junk food, and he seems to have a good time watching me geek out. I also introduce him to Black Black, the Japanese chewing gum with caffeine and nicotine. Since he works a night shift, he buys several packs.
He takes me back to the train station and we make plans to get together again the next weekend.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Devo Diary Chapter 63

Hot Wheels, part 2
September 2006
A few weeks into my new job, everything explodes. The administrative assistant finds my boss collapsed in his office. He has to take a temporary medical leave of absence, and step down permanently from his managerial position. I knew I was potentially stepping into a toxic work environment by taking this job, but at least my boss seemed like a rational person who would keep a lid on the bad actors. Now that he’s gone, essentially driven to a breakdown by the crazy people in the department, they start bullying me with impunity, telling me I’ll never last here, I can’t do my job properly and should never have been hired. The admin purposely withholds information I need as a form of hazing. When I try to call her on it, she says sarcastically, “You didn’t think things would be easy here, did you?” When I complain to senior staff about her treatment of me, I get a lecture on treating admin staff with respect.
The few people I thought of as allies in my department finally open up about all the bullshit that has been going on for years: multiple sexual harassment lawsuits swept under the rug, an Asian manager sued for racial discrimination against white people because he tried to make someone do actual work rather than just slacking off, endless petty backbiting, one-upmanship, and revenge. Things are so much worse than I ever imagined, and I’m angry at my former boss for hiding all this from me. It’s sickening and terrifying to have to see these horrible people every day.
As I’m freaking out over this, I call up Hot Wheels, hoping for some emotional support.
“That sucks!” he says when I pour out my tale of woe. “I understand why you’re a little pissed off at the old boss for not keeping you up to date on what the fuck is going on.”
“More than a little,” I grumble.
  “My advice is to get a bottle of wine and have some. Try not to think about it. Stuff like this has a way of working itself out.”
I try to explain why I’m so frantic about this, why I don’t think it will just work out. “You don’t understand. The new boss already told me she’s changing my entire job description. I feel like I was lied to when they hired me.”
Hot Wheels makes a dismissive noise. “Whatever! Besides, worrying about it won't change a thing.  Heeeey, forget about it. You won't, though, will you?”
I hang up the phone feeling worse than before. That last line pricks me like a needle. He thinks the problem is that I’m neurotic, not that I’m working with crazy people who have told me they’re trying to get me fired. My messy emotions are stressing him out and he wants me to stop bothering him.

One of the senior women in my department invites me to a dinner party at her house, as a friendly overture to win me over to her side in the ongoing power struggle. The only other people there are her much older husband (she’s the second, trophy wife) and a thirty-ish couple who both work elsewhere in the company. The wife is tall and super cool, while the husband is quiet and nebbishy.
From the moment I’m introduced to Cool Career Lady, I’m dying of jealousy. We’re the same age, but she’s way more self-assured than I am, much more advanced in her career. And she’s married, and expecting her first child. Essentially she’s living the ideal life I want but still have not attained. I have the job, but the husband and children feel even further out of reach than ever.
As if that’s not bad enough, the way the hostess has set up the dining room table makes me feel even more like the kid at the grown-ups’ table. There are matching place settings for four people, that is, one each for the two married couples—all four have the same placemats, napkins, dishes, and glasses, each seated on one side of the table. My place setting is the odd one out, a mismatched service awkwardly squeezed in beside the nebbishy husband, who ignores me.
Now this might seem like a minor thing, but I can’t help but feel like it’s on purpose. The hostess is one of the horrible, petty people in my department. When I arrived at her house, she greeted me at the door, looking me up and down judgmentally.
“Wow,” she sniffed. “Your dress is very…green.”
“Thanks.” I decided to pretend it’s a compliment rather than risk a confrontation with her.
“I could never wear something like that. But good for you!”
This is a brand new dress in a retro 1930s style and I had been very pleased with it until that moment. Now I’m humiliated and self-conscious.
I hang my head over my mismatched place setting, trying hard not to start crying. It’s clear the message is that I’m the odd one out because I’m not married. I barely take part in the conversation over dinner.
After dinner, we all go to sit in the living room. Cool Career Lady plops herself down next to me on the couch. I’m still hoping maybe she could be a new friend, but that’s not what she has in mind. She leans conspiratorially towards me and says in a stage whisper,
“I have a message from L---,” naming one of the women who left after her sexual harassment complaint was dismissed for lack of evidence.
“She was a good friend of mine, and she made me promise to pass along this message to whoever got hired after her,” Cool Career Lady continues. “‘Your department is psychotic and no one at this company will protect you.’ Ok, there, I delivered the message.” She sits back, making a dusting-off motion with her hands, like she’s literally washing her hands of me. Everyone laughs awkwardly and the hostess changes the subject.
I sit there, too stunned to reply. What is wrong with these people? What makes them think this kind of behavior is ok?

It’s not just my co-workers, everyone in this town seems deranged. My next door neighbors on either side are single men. On the left hand side is a fire fighter divorced dad of two teenaged boys. He seems like a nice enough guy. He’s bland and pudgy, rather plain looking, with kind of buggy eyes.
Our houses share a driveway, so he or his sons shovel the drive in winter and mow my lawn in the summer. He has a girlfriend, although she doesn’t live with him. I meet her very briefly when she’s visiting him, and she shakes my hand stiffly, giving me a death glare, like she’s certain that my nefarious plan is to steal her boyfriend away.
I’ve noticed this happening a lot: whenever I’m introduced to a couple, the wife starts acting all weird and possessive, as if my singledom is a threat to her marriage. Whatever, you skanky bitch. What makes you think I’m interested in your loser husband or boyfriend? And what kind of 1950s Stepford Wife behavior is this?
One night I come home late from work to find my neighbor in a tux trying to scale the fence to his backyard. As I unlock my back door, he explains that he went out to a fancy dress fundraiser at the firehouse, then realized after he got home that he lost his keys and he’s locked out. I notice as he’s talking that he’s pretty drunk.
I hesitate for a minute. If this had happened to any of my friends in Raser City, I would offer to let them sleep on my couch until morning, and it would have been no big deal, even with my guy friends. But something tells me that if I invite this guy in, he’ll take it as a sign that I want to have sex with him, and I absolutely, positively do not.
As I’m hesitating, he says, “It’s ok, I think I can get one of the windows in the back open.”
“Ok!” I say cheerfully as I go in my house. “Good luck!” I shut the door and lock it. His sexist ass can spend the night in the yard.
The next day as I’m chatting on the phone with Hot Wheels, I tell what happened.
“You did the right thing,” he says. “That guy would totally have taken it as an invitation.” Somehow it’s even more depressing to hear it confirmed from another guy.
My neighbor on the right hand side never introduces himself, never says hello even when I wave to him. He’s a fortyish guy with a fussy little goatee and two yappy little dogs. He lets the dogs into the yard at seven am every day, where they bark loudly directly outside my bedroom window. I hate him and his horrible dogs. He doesn’t seem to have a job, or at least, he never leaves the house at regular work hours. In the backyard, he has set up a child’s metal swingset even though he has no children, and regularly sits on it as the yappy dogs prance about. Also the light in his basement is always on.
I tell all this to Hot Wheels on the phone.
“What the hell! Is he a serial killer or what?” Hot Wheels says.
“I don’t know, but there’s something creepy about seeing that light on every night until two or three in the morning. What is he doing down there?” We both laugh about it.
Late one night, I’m sitting on the living room couch talking on the phone with Hot Wheels, even though it’s past midnight. As we’re talking, I see a black SUV pull up in front of that neighbor’s house.
“Who is visiting him at this hour?” I wonder out loud. I’ve never seen him with any friends or family.
“A hooker,” says Hot Wheels flatly. Just as he says this, I see a young, slender woman step out of the passenger side, while the driver stays in the car. She walks up the steps and rings the bell.
“Oh my god, it is!” I exclaim. “She’s gotta be an escort. She’s got a big duffel bag on her shoulder. What do you think could be in it?”
The door opens and she goes inside, while the driver stays in the car.
We joke around about what outrageous fetish items might be in the bag, but in the end I can’t blame him for it. If he wants to pay for kinky sex, I just hope he tips her well. Still, it feels weird that I lived in the sinful big city for years and never witnessed anything like this.
I’m also befriended by a thirty-ish couple across the street who invite me to their board game nights. It feels like hanging out with the Flanders. Their best friend who often joins us is a closeted gay man who manufactures candles decorated with Peanuts and Disney characters to sell at Hobby Lobby. All their friends except me are from their church, and I get the strong impression they are taking me on as a charity case. Who are these people? I’ve live in the Midwest before, but College Town was nothing like this. I truly feel like I have landed on an alien planet. I never felt this disoriented even when I was living overseas.
I get an email from The Mantis, which always makes me happy. He writes:

Nice to see you assimilating with the mid-westerners so easily. I on the other hand just got back from the Fetish Fair, where, I'm sure most of your neighbors there would recoil in sheer horror if they were somehow teleported to Raser City on such a glorious day. I shall share a story with you.
Titania and I were walking around the Fair taking in the sights and we both kinda noticed a group of people most of whom were saying out loud, "Oh my god..." A few minutes later we were behind a couple of gay men and realized that every once in a while someone would look at them and say, "Oh my god..."  That's when Titania said, "those guys were over by that group earlier..."  Now, of course, we're both curious so we hurried up a little to try and get in front of them and see what the fuck. Well, we caught up and "Oh my god..." that's the biggest fucking cock I've ever seen in my whole life. It was actually under a see through shirt, but there it was, all 300 inches of it or however big it was (fucking huge, was how big it was)  Oh my god!!!  Hey, let me know when your local Fetish Fair is and maybe we'll come out there for it.

I reply,
Yeah, right! People out here only know two things: God and football, and not really in that order either.

With all of this madness going on, it feels like Hot Wheels is the only normal person I know, and our developing relationship is the only positive in my life right now. We go to see the Jet Li movie Fearless, and it’s awesome. He comes over again, and gives me a bunch of potted plants to brighten up my still rather bare house. The plants used to be kept outside so they’re filled with bugs, but it’s still a nice gesture.
He also brings over a plastic shower chair. My house may not be the most accessible but at least the bathroom is big enough that he can get inside. He leaves the shower chair behind, saying it’s a spare anyway. I play it cool outwardly, but inside I’m jumping for joy. Leaving an extra shower chair here, is that the dev version of leaving a toothbrush or what?
We’re still emailing multiple times every day. He’s switched to working daytime shifts, so at least now we’re more nearly on the same schedule. Even when things are horrible at work, it’s so nice to get a “hey beautiful” from him every morning.

Hot Wheels: Good morning beautiful. How did you sleep last night? Bet you were cold and lonely. Just wanted to tell you again that I had a really good time with you this weekend, and that I'm still smiling.  Hope you have a great day and I'll talk to you later.
Devo Girl: Good morning! Hope you're less tired than yesterday. Do you have hockey practice tonight? Have a great day :)
HW: Yes on the hockey practice. I think tonight we should have at least five guys on the ice. Hopefully we can get a little game of two on three. I can't wait to hit Hector, that will make my week. Chat with you later. Have a great day.
DG: Yeah, smack him down!
HW: Ok I'm bored already and it's only five o'clock. I worked out yesterday and then went to the chiro. I woke up this morning and I could feel that my legs were sore. It wasn't as good as a sensation as I would have in my arms or upper body but I could tell that they were sore all the same. They burn a little and feel a little warmer than usual, not sure if that means anything or if I am making it all up in my head kinda like the placebo effect. Guess we’ll see only time will tell, I keep dreaming that I am running and when I wake up I swear that this has all been a dream and that I am fine, then I see the chair and I know that the running was the dream and the rest is reality.  Anyway I hope you have a great day chat with you later.
DG: Hi there, don't worry if it's the placebo effect, if it makes you feel better that's a good thing, right? I'm sorry to hear about the frustrating dreams :( Be strong, you know you have it in you.
I had a very annoying day at work yesterday, nothing was going right. Bleah.
Oh by the way, I watered the plants you gave me last night. I knew there might be bugs on them because they were outside, but when I put the smallest one in the sink, a HUGE centipede crawled out, it was so gross. Who knows how many more there are--it's like the gift that keeps on giving, ha ha ha. Thanks!
Ok, I know my problems are trivial, I just wanted to share. At least the work day is almost over, right?

Meanwhile, I’m getting to be friends with Roopa and Karl. Even though she’s my age, Roopa has some very old-fashioned manners. Like if we’re at a restaurant together, just before we start to eat she says, “I wish you a good appetite.” It must be a habit she picked up when she lived in Europe, but I find it charming.
I tell Roopa about my relationship with Hot Wheels, my doubts and worries about him.
“Take it slow,” she counsels me, not knowing how many wheelers I have dated before him. “When I first met Karl, he was also very hesitant about a relationship. It took him some time to get used to the idea.”
I nod, not saying that I can tell Karl is far better adjusted than Hot Wheels, and also further along in his recovery. I feel horribly guilty when Hot Wheels tells me about his dreams of walking, and how much he hates the wheelchair. I feel even more guilty that when I first met him I wondered if he was too able bodied for me. He talks as if he’s about to go into remission again but the physical evidence seems to suggest otherwise. I try to encourage him, but he doesn’t seem to want to hear it. I still haven’t told him that I’m a dev, and I feel guilty for that too.
I can’t tell any of this to Roopa.
Instead, I change the subject. I mention to her that I still have no furniture for my new house, and she offers to take me shopping and give me decorating advice. I clearly need help, since up until now my decorating skills only extended as far as buying the cheapest furniture at Ikea and shoving it up against the walls in rather cramped apartments. Now it's time to live in a real house, finally. Even though I’m just renting, I want to decorate my new house like a grown-up, and lately I’ve become obsessed with Arts and Crafts style. She knows just the place.
I meet them at a furniture showroom at the edge of town. I would never have found this place on my own. It’s exactly what I wanted, all real wood and flowing Art Nouveau lines. With Roopa’s advice, I pick out a magnificent sofa upholstered with a William Morris print, and a matching coffee table. She also convinces me to get a matching rocking chair, to complete the theme she says. I also get a dining room set, making sure to pick the table with the most open space underneath, to accommodate a wheelchair. It’s crazy how many tables have bulky, awkwardly placed legs.
The showroom is huge, and there is a big staircase down to a lower level with even more furniture. Karl seems just as interested in looking at everything as his wife. After he peruses the entire first floor, he parks his chair in front of the staircase and announces that he wants to see the lower level.
“And now for the miracle,” Roopa says, giving me a mischievous wink.
Karl scoots his butt to the edge of his chair, then grabs the handrail along the side of the staircase and slowly stands up. Very slowly, he goes down the stairs step by step, while Roopa carries his chair down for him.
Aha, I think, an incomplete injury. Roopa mentioned that Karl was injured in a car accident fifteen years ago, before she met him, but didn’t say anything more detailed, and I didn’t ask. I don’t say anything, because I don’t want to reveal how much I know about SCI.
When they’re done looking around downstairs, they repeat the performance again going up. I pretend to be surprised, although I do mention that Hot Wheels can also go up and down stairs. They say, not for the first time, that they’d like to meet him.
Yes, my dev heart says. Make it happen.
The next time Hot Wheels comes to visit me, we meet Karl and Roopa at the Coffee Co. This is a big, popular café, one of the few places downtown that’s still doing well. The food is mediocre but at least it has a big, open seating area that’s easy to negotiate with two wheelchairs.
So this is my life now, chatting in a café with two wheeler guys. And to think I was worried my dev life would be over when I moved here. I feel so lucky. But neither of them know I’m a dev, so I keep my thoughts to myself and do my best to let them guide the conversation.
Lucky for me, they both talk at length about their injuries, because Karl and Roopa just moved to the US less than a year ago and they still have lots of questions about what kinds of accommodations and support is available here. Karl asks Hot Wheels where he did his rehab, and Hot Wheels goes into great detail about the clinic in Central City that he went to, although he’s stopped going in the past few months. Still, he has nothing but good things to say about the PTs there.
When Karl mentions that he also has an incomplete injury, Hot Wheels gets very excited.
“You should go to that same clinic,” he says, giving the full name and all the contact details. “They would be so happy to work on you!”
“Sure, I’ll think about it,” Karl says politely, although perhaps a bit distantly.
“You really should. Oh man, they could do so much with you,” Hot Wheels enthuses.
I don’t say anything, but this feels to me like such a strange way of thinking about it. For the PTs, it’s just a job. I mean, I’m sure they’re very dedicated and emotionally involved in helping their patients, but it’s not like they’re sitting around hoping for an incomplete para to work on. Anyway Karl doesn’t seem like he needs more rehab; he seems pretty competent and satisfied. Maybe Hot Wheels has projected this enthusiasm onto the PTs to motivate himself.
Actually, I’m worried about Hot Wheels’s mental well-being. It seems like he’s assuming that he will start walking again soon, or rather, he had assumed that but then things got worse and he hasn’t really come to terms with it yet. All this talk of the wonders of rehab makes me nervous, especially since he’s stopped going, and is seeing a chiropractor instead. It’s not that I don’t want him to get better, but that I’m worried he has unrealistic expectations and is sliding into hopelessness.
Once again I feel guilty for not telling Hot Wheels yet that I’m a dev. Soon, I promise myself. I’ll tell him soon. Maybe in a month. If we’re still together.

October 2006
It’s Hot Wheels’s turn to come to my place. But then on the phone he says he just wants some time off to “relax.” Ok, whatever, I don’t say anything to make a big deal out of it but after I hang up, I’m really upset. Something tells me this is the beginning of the end. I mean, if he was really into me, he'd come over even though it's a two hour drive, right? I try to keep busy other things this weekend, trying not to let it bother me, but sheesh I really hate this half-assery. Either you're interested or you’re not. God, dating sucks so much!
Impulsively, I decide to attend another social event at work. It’s a “cocktail hour” in the late afternoon at which there is no alcohol, but there is free food, so I figure why not. I’m still trying to make friends here. Especially if Hot Wheels is blowing me off, I need to develop more of a social life that doesn’t involve him.
The event is sparsely attended, because of the odd hour and lack of alcohol. I gravitate towards a small group of people who are trading sarcastic complaints and generally griping about the company and the town. I have a few gripes of my own to add, and we all get along great. Finally, I feel like I’m meeting some normal people.
I fall into a deep conversation with a woman named Bebe who moved here from Philadelphia with her husband Mike. Mike is the one with the job, although Bebe also got hired as a part time admin. Bebe absolutely hates it here: the lack of good restaurants, clubs or bars, the terrible weather, the regressive politics, all of it. It’s like a breath of fresh air to meet someone who likes to complain as much as I do.
Bebe is even shorter than I am, under five feet, with springy black curls and a curvy figure. I like her style, kind of retro, like me. Mike is her opposite—tall and thin, blondish hair but starting to lose it on top, and black rimmed glasses. He seems blander and less fun than her, but I take it for granted that they come as a set. Bebe is just as interested as I am in living a glamourous life here, going out to art house movies, plays and fancy restaurants. Finally, someone here who gets me.
 We make plans to meet for dinner next weekend.

Just when I had nearly given up on Hot Wheels, he sends me this email:

Ok I have been neglecting you and I apologize.  I have just been wrecked from the weekend.  I fell asleep last night at about five. Woke up today and I'm still tired.  The party was fun, I spent most of the night in the pool, with a beer in my hand.  We played a little water volleyball, and my team won of course.  I didn't go to sleep that night till about four o'clock, then woke up at about nine, because my nieces were playing in the front hall. Some skip rope game. I could have killed them.  So are you the proud owner of a new couch?  What did you do all weekend?

I’m happy to hear from him. I write,

Oh, thanks, I was wondering where you were. I am the future owner of a new couch; it won't be here for 8-10 weeks. I went out to dinner with some new friends on Saturday then we all came over here and drank vodka and watched TV. They were very excited that I have cable. So do we have plans this weekend? My friends in College Town were asking me if they could visit, but I can always see them later in November.
Remember I mentioned that I'm going out of town the following weekend.

Hot Wheels assures me on the phone that he will come over, barring any major  disaster, which I try to tell him is an automatic jinx, but too late. Saturday afternoon he calls to say that he was getting ready to go, but just as he was getting out of the shower, the back of his  wheelchair broke off. D'oh! One of the screws that holds the bracket in place snapped in half, and he can't get it out. He called  everyplace he could think of, but because it’s a weekend no one is around to help. I offer to go visit at his house instead, but he decides it’ll be easier to make the two hour drive rather than clean up his room.
I’m so touched that he comes over even when his chair is broken. He could have easily used the broken chair as an excuse not to visit, but he makes the trip anyway. I was so worried that he was losing interest, but now here is evidence that he really does want to see me.
“Sorry I’m so late,” he says as he opens the car door and wrestles his chair out of the back seat. He pops the wheel on his chair, which looks more like a rolling platform with the back completely off. Luckily he has the ab muscles to sit upright without a backrest, but it’s rather awkward and funny-looking. Like most wheelchairs, the seat is not flat like a regular chair, but tipped back to keep your ass wedged in place--without a back it makes you feel like you are going right over backwards.
I watch him balancing precariously around the driveway.
 “Is it really ok to sit in it like that?”
“Sure, it’ll be fine,” he says carelessly. “It’s not like we’re going out offroading or anything. I figured we’d be staying in most of the time.”
I give him a lascivious grin. “Oh yes, I plan to keep you inside.”
His eyes light up and he gives me the cutest smile. “Oh, hey, I brought you some chocolate cake. It’s in the back seat.”
“A man after my own heart!”
A hot wheeler overcoming adversity to come see me, and he brings chocolate cake. What could be better? My little dev heart is bursting with happiness.
We stay in the whole weekend but we didn't have anything planned anyway, except to eat dinner and watch TV. I make tonkatsu, which he likes--who doesn't  like deep fried pork chops? I was sure our relationship was over but now I allow myself to feel tentatively hopeful.

The next weekend, I drive out of town on a trip for work on a Friday, but coincidentally, it’s where my old friend Phil lives, so I make some time after the work thing to visit him. It’s far enough away that I could have taken a plane, but I would have had to take two or three connecting flights to get there. In the end I realize it’s faster to drive, even though it will take at least six hours each way. This is another thing I hate about the Midwest, all the driving.
Phil is my friend from grad school who saw the large gardening shovel I kept by the door and asked if I hit guys on the back of the head with it as a form of BDSM play. He’s also the one I went to the SM club with when we were both living in Taipei. So yes, he’s always been a bit curious about BDSM but also clueless. I always sort of liked him, and I had a strong feeling he liked me too, but he never asked me out, and instead slept around with every other woman in our group of friends. He’s the kind of guy who was very sincere and a good friend when it was just the two of us, but rude and dismissive to me whenever we were in a group with other friends, especially guys. Once I realized this, I decided it was just as well I never acted on my crush.
Despite this, we’ve kept in touch, and he invites me to stay over at his house from Saturday night to Sunday, after my work is finished. He’s married now, and they just bought a house together. The house is adorable.
But the whole time, I’m also consumed by jealousy. Even though he’s a few years younger than I am, Phil finished his degree years before I did, landed a really good job in his first interview, got married a few years ago, bought a house, and now he and his wife are expecting their first kid. We’ve been on similar career tracks, but he’s been far more successful than I am, including the personal life stuff.
When we were in Taipei, we were both living a kind of crazy bohemian life. Some of the things I did were because he egged me on, living vicariously through me. He was sleeping around too, but after he returned to the US, he immediately settled down and found someone to marry him. Me, on the other hand, well, I feel like my dating life went even more off the rails, got even crazier and stupider after I got back.
So how is it that he was able to pull it together so quickly? Simple, I think it’s because he’s at heart 100% vanilla, despite his brief flirtation with BDSM, and as soon as he was ready to settle down there was a woman ready to snap him up. His wife basically says as much herself when they tell me how they met. As for me, I’m way kinkier than he knows, and that makes things more complicated.
I can’t tell him any of this. Not just because I don’t want to tell him about me being a dev. It’s even more than that. I feel like I’ve become a cliché: the mid-thirties career woman who wants a husband and kids. “Having it all.” Such a stupid, insulting phrase, as if a woman wanting what men take for granted, a career and family, is pathetic and laughable. I hate inhabiting that stereotype. It’s too embarrassing to even say out loud.
Phil’s wife is tough and no nonsense. I notice right away that she walks with a limp, a pretty severe one. I’m dying to ask why—is it CP? Or an injury? No one ever mentions it and it seems rude to ask, "Hey I noticed your wife is pretty gimpy, what's up with that?" So I don’t say anything. She has a huge surgery scar on her knee but she doesn’t use any brace or crutch. And she talks about running marathons. So yeah, tougher than I am.
I remember what Kara always says to me whenever I complain about how hard it is to find the right wheeler: “Can’t you just date someone with, like, a limp?”
Not really! Or I don’t know, maybe? But I have never met those guys either. Anyway I’m sure Phil is not a dev.
I was looking forward to catching up with Phil, but he’s surprisingly distant, especially given that he invited me to stay over. On Saturday, without saying anything he just gives up on all the plans we made to basically sat on the sofa from the afternoon until late at night, even though we had already made dinner plans. He makes it clear he doesn't want me hanging around bugging him. What the fuck? Was he just tired? Or did I do something to annoy him? Maybe this is just one more example of him acting weird around me. I’m so sick of it.
When it’s clear he doesn’t want to see me despite inviting me over, I excuse myself to go shopping and see the town on my own.
 Anyway, compared to where I live, Phil lives in a booming metropolis. I go to Whole Foods  and load up the trunk of my car with all the organic, natural, gourmet foods I can't  buy there. And because the weather is so cold, I can even buy milk, butter and cheese and leave it in the trunk until I got home. On the way home, I stop at the Chinese shopping center in Central City and buy even more food.
Also on the way back I stop to see Hot Wheels for a few hours in the afternoon, rather than wait another week to see him. When I mentioned this plan to him on the phone before I left, he was a little lukewarm about it, but I assumed it was just because I wasn’t sure exactly what time I would arrive. But it makes sense to me since I have to drive through Central City to get home anyway, and I’m dying to see him.
For once the traffic is not too bad. I call Hot Wheels from the road and let him know I’m on the way. He says ok.
I arrive at his house in the mid-afternoon. I can’t stay long, since I have to drive home so I can go to work on Monday morning. But I’m just so happy to see him again, even for only a few hours. When I arrive, he’s stretched out on his bed watching tv. He doesn’t get up.
I snuggle up next to him, kissing and cuddling him. It takes me a long time to realize that he’s not responding at all, but just lying there like a log. Ok, whatever. I don’t say anything. Maybe he’s just tired.
When it’s time for me to go, I ask him when we can see each other again. He says that he's busy for the next three weekends with family stuff and hockey games.
"Don't worry," he says, "I'll fit you in."
I ask for more details on how he plans to do this as I suspect what he really means is "I'll see you when I see you, whatever."
We get into a fight. Ugh, it sucks.
I'm sure he thinks I'm being naggy and demanding, but from my perspective, it seems like he's pushing me away every time we start to get close, and doesn't care if  he sees me or not. Bleah, I'm sick of obsessing over it. Whatever happens, happens.

I email him the next morning, trying hard to be casual and not demanding.
Devo Girl: Hey sexy! Good morning! How are you? Last night I pulled into the driveway at exactly 10 pm--you were right. I feel like I spent the entire day driving, bleah. But I'm glad I got to see you for a little bit.
Hot Wheels: Ya it was nice to see you also. How was the traffic? I could not fall asleep last night for anything. I wrote like five pages in my journal and then I was out.  Guess I had some shit on the brain.
DG: Sorry to hear you were so worked up last night, maybe you just needed a little more, ah, tension relief ;P Traffic SUCKED again it took an hour just to get to the freeway. But after that it was ok. I'm just so glad it didn't rain or snow at all when I was driving.
HW: What a slow work day. There is nothing to do. This is going to be a long day I can just feel it.

A few days go by while we email back and forth like this. I hold off on bugging him about the weekend, but he did say he would fit me in, and I want to know if he meant it or not. Finally on Friday, I ask:
DG: So what's your plan for this weekend? Is there time for us to see each other at all?
HW: Well this weekend is pretty full and next weekend I have that hockey tourney and the weekend after that I have my sisters 40th b-day party. The hockey tourney might get canceled, so maybe next weekend. With nationals coming up my schedule is going to be really full of hockey. Will you be able to cope? I hope so, but knowing you, you're already getting angry. Well on a lighter note I just got my order of Girl Scout cookies and I have finished a box of Do-si-dos, mmm mmm good.
DG: Well that's a hostile email.
HW: ?
DG: You said you were interested in making some time to get together, but in that email it feels like you're blowing me off.
HW: Just busy that's all.  Can't make time that I don't have.
DG: ok
HW: Classic angry woman response.

Why is he being like this? What did I do to make him so angry with me? My heart is pounding and my hands are shaking as I sit in front of the computer, but I’m at work, trying to keep it together and get things done. I hate how he keeps turning my emotions back on me, like I’m the unreasonable one for wanting to see him, for wanting any kind of definite plan. But I’m still not ready to let go yet, and I want to prove to him that I’m not a crazy bitch. I take a few hours to calm down, then reply,
DG: I really don't want to fight, and I get that you're busy. I just want a little reassurance, that's all.
He doesn’t reply that day.

November 2006

HW: Sorry about not responding yesterday I was at home playing hooky. Listen I want to apologize for being so distant here lately, I have been in some kind of funk. Haven't been sleeping very well and have just been depressed, not a very pretty picture. Not really sure what's going on with me, but I know I need to figure it out because I can't keep feeling this way.  Just wanted to say thank you for being so patient and understanding I promise I will make it up to you.
DG: Thanks for the apology, I couldn't figure out what was up--I was afraid I had pissed you off or something?? I'm sorry to hear you've been unhappy :( Are you feeling any better yet? And what's up with the hockey tournament in Arizona? Are you leaving today?
HW: No, Arizona was canceled.
DG: Hey, it's snowing here! Sorry to hear about Arizona. So you have practice, but are you busy the whole weekend?
HW: Pretty much.

What the fuck is this! Even when his plans are canceled, he still has other plans that don’t involve seeing me? How far down on his list of priorities am I? And what’s up with this vague “pretty much” bullshit? Now he can’t even be bothered to make up concrete excuses. It occurs to me, not for the first time, that he might be seeing someone else.

DG: And we're back where we started. I'm willing to be patient but my patience is not unlimited. I'm getting very frustrated with this "I like you but I won't ever see you or talk to you" kind of relationship. I understand that you're busy and feeling depressed, but this email communication which is incomplete and open to misinterpretation is making me crazy. We need to have a real talk.

Not surprisingly, he doesn’t call or email. A week goes by.

DG: Hey, how much longer do you plan on ignoring me?
HW: I will call you tonight!

No call.

DG: Liar! Seriously, what the hell is your problem and why are you avoiding me?

So it's totally over with me and Hot Wheels, which I suppose comes as a surprise to no one, but it's still irksome. He says he’s depressed, to the point where he’s taking days off work, but somehow he still finds the energy to be super busy every weekend, although the reasons become increasingly vague. It drives me crazy the way he’s always anticipating my negative feelings: I bet you’ll hate that, I know you’ll be angry but just deal, etc. etc. His fear of my emotions makes me feel like I’m the one who has to manage his emotions so he doesn’t get upset. He knows he’s pissing me off; commenting on it like that just makes it seem more intentional. When I try to talk about how I’m feeling in a real way, he’s always like just ignore it, let it go, why are you so upset, just forget about it. I can’t pretend I don’t have feelings just to prevent him from having a big sad about it.
I figure there are two possibilities: either he has been secretly seeing someone else and is too chickenshit to tell me, or he really has fallen into a severe depression and is cutting off all social contacts. Whatever, in either case it's hopeless, and I’m angry at him for jerking me around, acting all sweet one minute and distant the next. I try calling once or twice just to have the satisfaction of telling him off and making it clear that I’m breaking up with him and not the other way around, but he doesn’t pick up. Then even that seems rather pointless.
Finally I have a revelation that it doesn't matter; if I decide in my own mind that I’m through with him, that’s enough, and suddenly weeks of low-level tension and anxiety just fall away. But it’s still depressing to have to go through all that bullshit, on top of all the bullshit at work.
And he left his damn shower chair here! It's a huge ugly plastic thing. I hide it away in a corner of the basement so I don't have to look at it. Maybe I can donate it to a home for the aged or something but I don't think it will even fit in my car. It’s a good thing it’s just a spare because there’s no way I’m driving all the way back to his house just to give it back to him.
That fucking shower chair stays in my basement until I move out of that house, when I finally get around to donating it to charity.
I thought I had a boyfriend, that things were starting to get serious, but here I am single again. Fuck! Now what am I going to do? My prospects of meeting anyone at all in Craptown are dismal indeed. But whatever, for the moment I'm enjoying being single and not worrying about anyone but myself. I rearrange my living room with the new furniture according to the plan laid out by Roopa, and the house feels new all over again. I know it's just objects, but I feel sinfully pleased with how lovely it all is.
The next weekend I drive up to College Town to visit Kara and Nam, and other friends. It’s great to see them all and to be in a real town with a cultural life. I’m filled with longing to live there instead of Craptown.
Even though I’ve already told her a lot on the phone, I pour out my heart to Kara about my shitty co-workers, my break-up with Hot Wheels, my dev frustrations, all of it.
“You’ve been having a really hard time,” she says sympathetically. It feels so good to finally talk with someone who really knows me, knows everything about me.
“I mean, I’m actually relieved it’s over with Hot Wheels,” I say. “It’s not like I want to get back together with him. But I just feel like I’m never going to get married and have kids.”
“Well, if you really wanted that, you would have made it happen by now,” Kara says cryptically.
I love Kara but sometimes her Buddhist calm acceptance drives me crazy.
“What do you mean by that?” I ask defensively.
She shrugs.
“So should I have stayed with Mark?” I say, naming my first college boyfriend, who I dated before I met K. Mark dumped me for someone else when I went on study abroad, but when I came back he changed his mind and tried to get back together with me. By then, I had met K and had not the slightest interest in Mark any longer. I introduced Mark to a friend of mine and they got married a few months after we graduated. Now they have two kids.
“Well, you would have gotten married and had kids if you had,” Kara says.
“Ugh! If I had never met K, I might have, but we’d probably be divorced by now,” I admit.
“See?” Kara prods me. “You’ve chosen the life you really want.”
But her way of thinking still bothers me. Even after getting a real job and a real house, I’m still dating like before and I don’t know how to make it stop, how to move on to the next stage of my life, which despite what Kara says, I really do want.
I’m back to the depressing fear that I will never meet anyone in this small town, and I’ll be single for the rest of my life. I’m thirty-four years old, and I think I still look pretty good, but for how much longer?
Kara and Nam have four cats, and playing with the cats is relaxing and therapeutic.
“So how much longer until you get a cat?” Nam asks. He would adopt more but Kara always puts her foot down.
“I can’t,” I sigh. At the farmer’s market near my house, someone is always giving away adorable kittens. Every weekend, I have to avert my eyes as I walk past the corner where people hang out with cardboard boxes and pet carriers filled with adorable kittens, lest I be entranced. They actually thrust them at you, inviting you to hold one.
“I already feel like such a stereotype,” I tell Nam and Kara, explaining why I must resist the allure of the adorable kittens. “I’m this close to becoming a crazy cat lady. You know how it is, one cat becomes two, then three, then a dozen. Then when I drop dead at home alone, the cats will eat me.”
“It’s a possibility,” Kara deadpans.
I know she thinks I’m being silly, but I’ve decided even though I want a cat, I can’t get one while I’m still single.
Kara then delivers a long Buddhist lecture on how people who get too wrapped up in their careers and buying things and don't believe in anything spiritual are doomed to unhappiness. But whatever, I just can't go for that non-attachment crap. You can be involved in the world and still spiritual.
I see Kara again two weeks later when she very kindly invites me to join her at her parents’ house for Thanksgiving. It’s a nice, relaxing weekend. Her parents are very nice and her mom is an excellent cook. They are also into Arts & Crafts (the 1920s home decorating movement, not the lame wallets you made at summer camp), which is my current obsession. Kara can give away all the things in her house if she wants too, but I am determined to fill mine up. She gives me some lovely antique china, an extra set from her grandmother that she didn’t want.
As I’m driving home from Thanksgiving, I listen to the local classical radio station. They play the entire opera La Traviata. From the very first notes of the overture, I’m overcome with such a strong sense memory of standing onstage with the Raser City Lyric Opera in my costume and makeup, the hot stage lights, the orchestra and the audience, only dimly seen. I’m filled with such longing that I nearly start crying in the car. What am I doing here? I remind myself that even if I could go back, most of my friends have also moved on and are not performing with that company anymore.
I sing along to the entire opera as I drive home.