Hot Wheels, part 1
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.
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.