The Smiley Guy
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.
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.