Birk part 3
It’s the height of summer, my favorite season. I love the stifling heat, the humid, heavy air, the buzz of insects. In the evening there are fireflies on the lawn. I choose not to get an air conditioner for my house, preferring to sweat it out with fans.
At work I do my best to avoid my hateful colleagues, mostly staying in my office as much as I can. In the evenings, I unwind by riding my bike on the bike path along the river. Even in this crappy, ugly industrial town, the wildflowers and long grasses along the riverbank in the golden light of the evening are gloriously beautiful. If there’s no one around, I sing at the top of my lungs as I cycle along.
Shortly after I return from my trip to Seoul, Bebe calls me with some shocking news—Mike left her very suddenly at the beginning of June. They had been going to couples counseling since he admitted to his affair in January. But unbeknownst to Bebe, Mike had still been sleeping with Slamantha the whole time. Now Mike and Slamantha have moved into an apartment together.
“Wow, poor Calpurnius,” I say on the phone to Bebe. I ran into him outside our office building just a few weeks ago, the day after I returned from Seoul via Raser City. I was still jet-lagged and disoriented. When he said hello, I barely remembered who he was and gave him a kind of groggy greeting as I went to pick up my accumulated mail. I think back to that meeting and feel sorry for him. He was the last to know.
Bebe makes a dismissive sound. “Who cares? What about meeeeee!”
At least she seems to have moved on from sadness to anger, which she’s channeling into action. Without Mike, there’s no reason for her to remain in Craptown, and she’s planning on how she can move to Central City to go to culinary school.
A few weeks later, I pass by Slamantha at work. She’s leaving our office building with a friend just as I’m coming in, but I’m far enough away that I don’t have to say hello, thank goodness.
She tosses her blonde hair in the summer breeze, looking every inch the high school mean girl. “Oh my god,” she’s saying to her friend, “everything in my life is. So. Much. Better now!”
I turn slightly and cut a wide path so I can avoid talking to her, but she doesn’t even notice me. I dislike her even more now. If she didn’t want to be married to Calpurnius anymore, there are kinder ways she could have ended it. But at least now I won’t have to hang out with her anymore.
Birk and I are enjoying the summer together. Commuting is a hassle and we still have to work during the week but we still find time for dates. We go to the art museum together, although he never did manage to arrange for the tactile tour. He suggests that we should just go on our own, with me describing the art to him, even though he’s not allowed to touch anything. I’m happy to do that. He says doesn’t mind not being able to touch things.
Regretfully, I skip over my favorite gallery, which contains nineteenth century sculptures. While they may be interesting to touch, they’re not very interesting to describe: a man, a woman, a reproduction of a Roman goddess. At Birk’s suggestion, we opt instead for the contemporary installations on the theme of migration. This proves to be even more abstract, and as it turns out, I’m not as good an art describer as we both might have hoped.
“Um, this is like, a really huge thing…? I’m not sure what to call it. It’s like a… what’s the word? … uh… a stockade out of cardboard that takes up the entire room. Oh wait, the tag says it’s papier mâché. Anyway it’s cardboard-colored, but with, like, dots along the edge. And the top is what do you call it, the inny-outy things….crenellated? Is that the term?”
Despite my utter failure at painting a picture with words, Birk is good natured about the whole experience, and seems genuinely interested in the art. It’s fun to wander the galleries with him on my arm and talk about what I’m seeing.
On another date, we go to a taping of the radio quiz show Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me when they’re touring through Central City. This is peak NPR nerdery but I don’t care; I’ve fully embraced my white liberal intellectual status. I listen to NPR constantly, in the car, at home, especially the weekend lineup as I go to the farmer’s market and cook myself fancy gourmet food. If I’m going to inhabit a stereotype I might as well go all the way.
Birk enjoys the show too, so he’s happy to go with me. The taping is a free event in a big outdoor amphitheater in a park downtown. It’s the perfect event to go to with a blind person, because there’s almost no visual element at all, just people sitting onstage and talking. We sit outside on a beautiful summer afternoon and whisper to each other our guesses for the questions. It’s fun.
As we planned months ago, we attend the Disability Pride Parade together. Birk is required to be there as his office helps with the organization and runs an informational booth at the festival at the end of the parade. He’s pretty jaded about the whole thing, though. He’s gone in previous years with his kids but always ducks out as soon as he can.
“I’m not sure a parade is the best way to build support for people with disabilities,” he says. “I’m not really into that rah-rah self-congratulation deal, you know? I’m just living my life. I don’t feel like I need a parade about it, but I don’t know, I guess some people do.”
“Yeah, ‘pride’ seems like a weird kind of frame,” I agree. “It’s trying to be like gay pride, but it’s not exactly the same kind of identity.”
“Well don’t say anything like that when you meet my co-workers,” he warns me. “Some of them are super into this event.”
The parade itself is fun but a strange experience. It’s organized like any other massive parade in a big city, except no one comes to watch. A group of a few hundred people of all ages with various disabilities and their families gather at the starting point. Major streets are blocked off downtown and traffic rerouted. There’s recorded music playing and some chanting and singing, but other than that, we walk down silent, empty streets. There’s something really bizarre about marching in a parade of people trying hard to pump each other up in a total vacuum, waving to a non-existent audience. The only spectators are the cops on traffic control and a few bewildered looking foreign tourists. I've never seen downtown so deserted. I suppose disability is the one thing you could throw a parade for and no one will come to watch.
At the end, there’s a festival with information booths on various disability services and companies, and performances by disabled musicians. That part is well attended by people with disabilities and seems like a good networking/social event for a lot of people. We hang around for a while, as Birk introduces me to some of his co-workers. I feel like this should have been the entire event, building community, rather than pissing off the uncaring able-bodied by blocking traffic downtown. Just have the festival and skip the parade.
As instructed, I say nothing but good things to Birk’s co-workers, all women with various mobility impairments. They all seem very nice and earnest.
“So what do you think?” Birk asks as we walk to the train station. It’s a Sunday afternoon I so can’t stay over; I have to get back for work on Monday.
“I don’t know. The whole concept of disabled pride seems like it might be useful for some people. Not the whiners like that asshole who yelled at you on the phone. But for someone who’s feeling isolated and needs a little push in the form of group reassurance.”
“I meant, did you get all hot and bothered being around so many disabled people?”
“No!” Despite myself, I blush a little. “Come on, you really thought I’d be hitting on other guys right in front of you?”
“Haha, I didn’t really think that, no. But maybe you might need to blow off a little steam?”
“Whatever, you do realize most of the people there were children or women or otherwise not my type, right? The young hotties are not the sort to show up for an event like this. Anyway I was there with you, not to check out other dudes.”
Birk snakes his arm around my waist and murmurs, “I wish we could go back to my place right now.”
I wish we could too, but maybe not with the same obsessive intensity as I used to feel. Are we falling into a rut? Or maybe it’s just me. I’m mildly surprised that I didn’t get devvy feelings at all from the parade, but like I said, there wasn’t anyone there who was even remotely my type. Also my dev feelings go in cycles; I guess I’m in a dev low at the moment. I’m just not feeling it.
Back at the train station, we stand against the wall in a busy hallway, saying our goodbyes as travelers rush by all around us. We make plans for Birk to come visit me next weekend at my place, then part ways. I watch as he walks in the opposite direction toward his train, using the metal guard rail that runs along the floor of the hallway as a guide, tapping with his cane until he finds it then following it down the hall. People jump out of his way as he taps along with a rolling gait, his cane making a syncopated rhythm against the metal guard rail.
I try to imagine what he experiences as he walks along, what it’s like for him, but unusually for me, I come up empty. I’m not as captivated as I usually am.
When Birk comes to visit me the next weekend, we talk again about the idea of him moving closer to me.
“Are you sure?” I ask. “I don’t want to take you too far away from your kids.”
Birk smiles. “They’re fine! I can still see them on the weekends. I told you, I’ve been thinking of looking for a new job. I’m so fed up with the rude people I have to deal with.”
I’m not sure what kind of job he could find in Craptown, and moving here would be a huge change for him. He’d be fully dependent on me to drive him everywhere, since unlike in Ogdenville, there is no public transportation here, and barely any taxis. There are no good options to live anywhere between here and Central City—it’s just farmland, a prison, and railway tracks until you get to the city.
Birk complains some more about his job. I’m totally there for work-related griping; I still have plenty of gripes about my own job too. But something about the way he talks about it is off-putting. It’s like how he got so upset about the lady at the art museum not calling him back: the ineffectual anger at trivial things makes him seem kind of sad and pathetic.
That night, we have sex again. We go through the motions but I realize halfway through that I’m not that into it. I’m lying on my back with him above me thrusting away, but his belly is so huge it gets in the way; he can’t even lean down to embrace me. I’m trying hard not to be fat-phobic but I find his big gut unattractive.
I look up at him. His expression is abstracted as he concentrates, his scarred over eyes pointing in slightly the wrong direction. But I don’t feel that dev rush. I just want it to be over.
Afterwards, he rolls over and goes to sleep, but I’m awake for hours. He brought along the snoring cure, a little piece of plastic that goes in his nose, but the effects, if any, are minimal. He still sounds like a freaking buzz saw.
As I lie there in the dark, I wonder if maybe I’m over him. But no, I tell myself, he’s everything I want: loving, kind, wants a family, a highly independent blind guy. That’s almost impossible to find. I’m not ready to break things off yet. Besides, it feels so shallow to judge him by his appearance. He’s a good person—I should be able to see the person he is on the inside, even if he is short, fat and bald. And he wears knee socks with shorts, and a really dorky trucker hat. Unwillingly, I’m having to admit I’m not that attracted to him.
Birk invites me to Sunday afternoon lunch at his mother’s house. He’s not religious but his mother is a staunch Catholic, so Sunday dinner with the family after church is a still a thing for her. I feel very nervous and awkward about this. Are they going to hassle me about being Jewish? I really don’t feel like putting myself in the way of some casual anti-Semitism. On the other hand, since moving to the super religious Craptown, I’ve learned that people here are more judgmental when I tell them that I’m an atheist. It’s fine to be of another religion as long as you’re still on Team God. Secular humanism is the real devil to them.
“It’ll be fine!” Birk assures me. “I’ve told them so much about you! They really want to meet you.”
Birk and I take a taxi to the older, less nice part of Ogdenville. His mother lives in a small suburban ranch house that appears unchanged since the 1970s—plastic covers on the sofa, brown shag carpeting, ceramic figurines of big-eyed children, shamrocks and Jesus knick-knacks everywhere. She’s a tiny, soft-spoken woman who greets me warmly. His two brothers are also there. They joke around and tease him a bit but they’re polite to me. His brothers look exactly like him, the same pasty round faces.
“Lunch is nothing fancy,” his mother says self-effacingly. “Just sit down. We’re all pretty casual here.”
Lunch is sandwiches of bologna on white bread, tubs of ready-made coleslaw and potato salad, and sheet cake for dessert. I smile and thank her because I don’t want to act like a snob but this is not the kind of food I like to eat and everything about this suburban setting is depressing to me. I try not to show it.
Just before we sit down to eat, both Birk and one of his brothers excuse themselves to check their glucose and give themselves an insulin shot. I’m stunned. I had no idea his brother also has diabetes.
The other brother cracks some jokes about always having to wait for them, so since it seems like not a big deal, I venture a comment about both of them being diabetic.
“Oh yeah, both of them and our dad too,” he says, gesturing towards a framed photo on a shelf. “He passed on ten years ago.”
The photo is a Sears portrait of an older man in a brown polyester suit, seated on a mobility scooter, smiling into the camera. Birk looks exactly like him—same big round belly, round cheeks, bald head.
I’m horrified. I know type I diabetes is an auto-immune disease that starts in childhood but I had no idea how much it runs in his family. How old was his dad when he died? In his fifties? Maybe Birk is not the best person to be starting a family with.
But again I feel shallow for thinking that, so I don’t say anything. The lunch goes fine. Everyone is polite to me and I do my best to make cheerful small talk even though I’m feeling awkward as hell.
After meeting his mom and brothers, now Birk wants me to meet his kids.
“Are you sure?” I ask uncertainly. “Isn’t it a little early?” Somewhere I heard that you should wait at least six months before meeting the potential future step kids. But what do I know?
“Ah, it’s fine!” Birk is not the slightest bit hesitant. “I want them to meet you. It’s not a big deal. We’ll go see a movie together or something.”
Well, ok, he’s the parent. If he thinks it’s fine, I’ll trust his judgment.
Birk also convinces me to take the train rather than driving. I hate to drive, and the long commute stresses me out, so I think it might be relaxing to take the train instead, even if it’s slower. I can read or listen to music and not arrived all frazzled. It seems like a good plan.
I arrive at his apartment on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Shortly after I arrive, his ex-wife’s father drives up with the kids. They have ordinary names but for the sake of privacy, let’s call them Birk Jr. and Birkette.
I get introduced all around. The kids stare at me shyly without saying anything. They’re cute, with blond hair and blue eyes. Birk Jr. is thirteen, lanky and awkward, and Birkette is nine, a sweet girl in a sundress with long hair. As soon as they walk in the door, Birkette is complaining that she’s itchy. Her arms, legs, and chest are covered in large, flat pink oval-shaped welts.
“I think it’s hives,” her grandfather says. “It’s been like this since yesterday.”
Birk seems unconcerned. “Do you feel ok?” he asks her.
“Been rolling around in the grass or something?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know what’s causing it. I’ll get you some calamine lotion.”
Birk Jr. leans over to her and hisses, “There’s something really wrong with you,” with the kind of pure malice and contempt only shared between brothers and sisters.
After Birkette swabs pink lotion on her itchy spots, Birk asks her, “Have you checked your blood sugar yet?”
“No.” She goes to her overnight bag and pulls out her kit.
Oh my god, his daughter is diabetic too. I had no idea. I really can’t have a child with him, no matter how enthusiastic he seems about it.
While Birk helps his daughter with her glucose monitoring and Birk Jr. disappears into the bedroom, I’m left to make awkward small talk with Birk’s ex-father-in-law as we stand stiffly in the living room.
He’s a dapper older gentleman with silver hair immaculately cut. Everything about him says wealth and privilege, from the red sports car he drove up in, to his pressed chinos and well-fitting polo shirt. I assumed the ex-wife would be lower middle class like Birk’s family, but her father gives off the casual self-assurance of old money. He looks like he should be sporting an ascot and pipe.
He asks me about my job while he gives me a semi-benign once over. I seem to make the cut by whatever metric he’s imagining. Thankfully he stops short of asking what I’m doing with Birk or how we met. I should have asked Birk what he’s been telling people.
Birk suggests it’s time to go, sparing me from the mental calculus of explaining why I was on a dating site for disabled people versus trying to come up with a plausible lie.
The grandfather kisses the kids goodbye and drives off while Birk calls a taxi. We’re going to see a matinee of the latest Harry Potter movie at the local cineplex.
We walk down the hall of the apartment together, Birk on his own and the kids trailing behind. I watch as Birk uses the tip of his cane to follow the edge of the wall, tracing the entry of each apartment we pass. Normally this is the kind of thing I like to watch, but somehow I feel nothing. No dev thrill, no twisty gut feeling, nothing. I feel like I’ve lost my dev touch. I used to pride myself on being the perfect companion for a blind person, helpfully but unobtrusively offering assistance in a way that is appreciated, never overbearing or clumsy. But now I feel awkward around Birk. Should I offer to hold his hand as a sign of affection? Of course he doesn’t need my assistance in his own home, and I realize I really don’t want to. What is wrong with me? Am I not a dev anymore? Or is it just that I’m not into him?
The way he’s dressed doesn’t help. He’s wearing shorts, revealing pasty white legs, with white tube socks pulled up all the way to his knees. I’ve never seen him wear anything but a polo shirt, but it’s loose and not well-fitting. To protect his bald head, he’s wearing a trucker cap with a flat brim, sitting high up on his head so there’s big gap between the top of his head and the top of the hat. I’ve got nothing against baseball hats but the brim should be curved and the cap should be small, fitting tightly against the top of the head. Bonus points for having it rakishly pushed back a bit. Basically the opposite of how he’s wearing it.
All these thoughts flash through my mind wordlessly in a moment. I feel intensely guilty for even thinking it. I hated it when guys I’ve dated criticized me for letting my nail polish get chipped or not shaving my armpits every day (looking at you, Rollerboy). It feels so petty. I know I shouldn’t be doing the same thing myself.
K used to scold me all the time for being too lookist and visually oriented. I think back to that moment when I nearly broke up with K for shaving his head and beard all at once. He accused me of only thinking about superficial things, not caring about who a person really is. That hurt a lot, and I tried to change my thinking. But attraction has to be a part of any relationship, especially at first, right?
To be honest, I really hate the way Birk dresses. I wish he looked different. Again the image of the younger, thinner Birk in his ID photo floats up in my mind.
While we stand together at the front door of the apartment complex, facing the parking lot, waiting for the taxi to arrive, Birk lumbers about, playing tag with his kids. He grabs at them, tickling them, as they shriek with laughter and dodge out of the way. I should be more interested in how he lunges at them, guessing their location by their laughs. But I’m still watching dispassionately, not getting a big dev thrill like I usually would. I stand awkwardly by as he plays with his kids, feeling it’s not my place to join in.
The movie is ok. We all enjoy it, although since we’ve all read the books we know in advance what will happen. We emerge from the movie theater into the afternoon sun to wait for the taxi to come pick us up, talking over details of the movie and how it’s different from the book.
The taxi doesn’t come. The theater empties out, the big crowd quickly dispersing to their cars. The last few stragglers are picked up by their parents but still we’re waiting. Utter silence descends on the parking lot, with no sign of a taxi.
After waiting what feels like forever, Birk calls the taxi company, and they assure him that the taxi is coming, just wait a little longer. Thirty agonizing minutes go by, sitting on the edge of concrete planters outside the theater. I stare at the alien forms of the giant streetlights in the parking lot, beyond them the blue summer sky. The kids sigh and fidget restlessly.
Birk calls again, and again is told to please just wait. After another fifteen minutes, he calls again.
“Excuse me, but we’re still waiting.” And there it is again, that whining, impotent tone. I want to rip the phone out of his hands and lay it on the line with that incompetent dispatcher. Instead Birk is testy but not insistent. There’s a protracted back and forth, then he snaps the phone shut with a frustrated sigh.
“Apparently there was a mistake or something. The taxi was never actually dispatched. They’re sending another one but they said it will take twenty to thirty minutes to arrive.”
“Oh my god!”
The kids look limp and miserable. Birk sags against the planter, frowning.
I feel like this is entirely my fault. If I had only come by car to his place this weekend like a grown-up, I could have driven us to the cineplex and we would not be in this situation. I’m filled with frustration and regret, thinking of my car sitting uselessly in the train station parking lot back in Craptown. What was I thinking?
This is the reality of living with a disability. Being stuck somewhere for hours, in a situation that would never happen to an able bodied person, a situation I could have prevented if I only had my shit together and wasn’t such a baby about driving. But it’s too late for regrets about the car; we are languishing here in the desert of the real in a movie theater parking lot, watching lucky people with their own transportation come and go around us. There’s nothing to do but wait and hope that this time dispatch has actually sent a car.
Forty minutes later, the replacement taxi finally arrives.
Birk whines at the taxi driver, but the driver insists he doesn’t know anything about it. This was a dispatch problem.
Everyone is exhausted but at last we finally make it home. The minute we cross the threshold, it’s like there is a silent pact among us to never speak of this ordeal again.
The kids help Birk to prepare spaghetti for dinner while I stand awkwardly by. I’m impressed by how well-behaved the kids are, and the close bond Birk clearly has with them. But Birk doesn’t make any effort to include me in the conversation. Not for the first time, I feel like an intruder, like I shouldn’t be here.
After dinner, the kids watch tv as we clean up, then drift off to their room to put themselves to bed. Birkette is feeling itchy again and puts on more calamine lotion.
“What do you think is causing her rash?” I ask Birk when we’re alone.
“I dunno, it’s probably nothing,” he says, unconcerned. “Kids get weird reactions to things all the time, then it goes away.”
“So she’s diabetic too, huh?”
“Yeah, just like her dad, haha! About a year ago, she had a seizure in the middle of the night while she was sleeping from low blood sugar, but it was ok. We called the paramedics but she was fine as soon as we got her balanced again.”
“Oh my god, that’s horrible. Poor kid.”
“Well, we just deal with it the best we can.”
As we’re talking, I’m getting ready for bed, changing my clothes and brushing my teeth.
“Yeah,” I continue after finishing in the bathroom. “It seems like you have a good routine with them, seeing them on the weekends.”
We climb into bed together.
“It’s worked out really well,” he says. “I want to be involved in their lives, you know? Not just sending a check every month.”
“Wait, what? You’re paying child support?” I turn to face him in the bed.
“Yes, of course, every month until they’re eighteen,” he says defensively.
It’s nice that he’s so supportive but it seems wildly unfair to me. His wife was always the breadwinner in the family, even before they divorced. Now she’s remarried, to a man who presumably is also working. Why is Birk, on his meager public employee salary, paying child support to a much wealthier, two income family? But he seems entirely happy with the arrangement and makes it clear it’s not up for discussion, so I don’t press him for details. I suppose it’s a point of pride for him to pay it. I haven’t met his ex-wife yet, and I’m trying not to be prejudiced against her, but I can’t help but feel judgmental of her for leaving him because he went blind, then happily taking his money. But it’s his business; I’m not going to say anything.
I drop it and move on to pleasanter subjects. For weeks, we’ve been making plans to go on a short trip together to a local resort area near Squirrel Lick State Park. I’ve been spending hours looking at various hotels online, trying to pick one that is nice but not too expensive. I list a few options, and Birk promises to make the final choice and take care of the reservation. He’ll take the train to my place, then I can drive us there. It should only take about an hour and a half to get there. We can spend the time there swimming in the lake, walking on the nature trails, and eating in nice restaurants. I’m really looking forward to it.
The next morning, the kids’ grandfather comes to pick them up, and I take the train home. It’s not until I get home that I realize I left my panties in Birk’s bedroom. The sexy leopard print ones, which I wore even though we ended up not having sex. It just felt too weird with his kids right there in the apartment.
I call up Birk to warn him that the panties are on a chair in his bedroom, so he can put them away before some sighted person spots them. He laughs and promises to return them next time he comes over.