Billy, part 1
My job search gets even more frantic and desperate. The job I have now is only temporary and doesn’t even come close to covering my bills. I only have a few months left on my contract. I don’t know what I’m going to do if I can’t find something real in my field using the degree I took so long to complete. The feeling of standing at the edge of an abyss only intensifies.
I start casting an even wider net, applying for positions that I’m not really suited for. I get a few more interviews, but now I’m getting questioned about why I applied. It’s infuriating. Why won’t anyone give me a chance?
At the same time, there’s a big convention in my field in downtown Raser City. I go to network and interview more, although that doesn’t seem to help. Hanging around with colleagues at the bar is fun at first. But then I end up at a restaurant with about ten of them, all men, and they can’t even look up from their work discussions long enough to order food. The server is literally standing next to them trying to talk to them and they don’t notice her. I’m dying of hunger and their obliviousness is driving me crazy. What is wrong with these guys? More importantly, what is wrong with me? Why do I want to work in a field full of assholes?
The same weekend as the convention there are also auditions for the next production of the Raser City Lyric Opera. I duck out of the convention long enough to get to my audition. I’ve done eight shows with them now so I’m feeling pretty confident—I’m sure I just have to show up and I’ll be cast in the chorus. I’m in such a rush that I don’t have time to warm up properly before I get there, so I run through my vocal exercises and a few arias in the car as I’m driving over. But the problem with singing in the car is that the acoustics are deadening, and it’s impossible to have good posture while hunched over the wheel. Also I’m not fully paying attention to my voice because I’m driving. Before I realize what’s happening, I blow out my voice by singing too loud with poor technique.
I try to rest, drink water, and do more exercises when I get to the rehearsal space, but it’s too late, my throat is fucked up. During the audition, my voice cracks more than once, to my mortification. Even after that embarrassing performance I’m still hoping that I’ll be cast anyway because the director knows me from so many previous shows and the competition isn’t that intense for the chorus.
Less than a week later, I get a rejection notice from the opera. I’m devastated and humiliated. But at the same time, it feels like a sign. I’ve been trying to juggle too many things at once, and something has to go. Besides, if I ever do get a job, I might have to pull out of the performance anyway. I’m heartbroken not to be in one last show, but I realize it means I have to focus more on my real work and stop playing around.
The next morning, I head out to my car with a load of laundry to take to the laundromat, and discover that the driver’s side window of my car has been broken. There’s nothing left, just a pile of shattered glass on the seat. What the hell? Was someone trying to steal it? What happened to the super annoying car alarm? It must not have gone off or I would have heard it.
As I’m scanning the neighborhood in disbelief, I happen to see a cop car cruising by and flag it down. The cops are supremely uninterested in my crime scene.
“Looks like someone threw a rock,” one of them says, pointing to some scratches and dings at the top of the window frame. “Probably just kids playing. You’ll never figure out who did it. It’s not even worth claiming the insurance.”
Well, that’s discouraging, and now I have to spend the day getting it repaired instead of washing my clothes. As I drive down the highway to the auto glass place with the freezing wind blowing wildly through the open window, tiny shards of glass from the edge of the frame pelt me in the face. I feel like my life has hit a new low.
I’m still spending hours every night posting on Paradevo and exchanging emails with a ton of guys, although most of the correspondence doesn’t proceed beyond a few get-to-know-you exchanges. They all live really far away, and especially after what happened with Tibo, I can’t get too excited about something long distance. I’m so sick of the misunderstandings when you can’t talk to face to face.
But I have sworn to myself that I’m only going to date guys with disabilities from now on. It feels so empowering to make that decision. I stay away from the regular dating sites with the boring, lukewarm dudes. Why not go for what I really want?
One night while I’m wasting time online even more intensely than usual, I notice that the most recent sign up on PD has the user name Rasercitypara. No way! Could it be that a para dude just joined who actually lives near me? I immediately send him a private message, even though he hasn’t even posted anything on the board yet.
It’s almost too good to be true—he is in fact a para who lives in Raser City. His name is Billy Nguyen. He gives me his email address. I send him my latest photos of me in a sexy red dress that I picked up from a sale at the opera costume shop. He sends me back photos of himself.
Oh my god, I know this guy.
Well, to be clear, I have never met him in person, but I’ve seen his personal ads all over OK Cupid, Yahoo, and every other local personals site. There are a bunch of photos of a good looking Asian guy with long hair in a nice sporty manual chair, posed at various tourist destinations. I’ve been seeing his ads for almost a year and never replied. The reason is that in the photos, he looks mean as a snake. There’s one photo of him that looks like it was taken at someone’s wedding reception. He’s dressed up but not smiling, and the look on his face speaks of nothing but contempt for everyone around him. He looks like an unrepentant asshole.
But now I’ve gotten to know him at least slightly, and it feels too late to back out without more of a good reason. Maybe I’m just being hasty in judging him by these photos. He seems nice enough over email, and he is cute. Without wasting a lot of time chatting online, I agree to meet him in person.
I’m trying not to get too excited about this guy. I’ve endured such a string of disasters, I can’t bear yet another one. And I’m still upset about the way things ended with Tibo. Maybe we weren’t as perfect for each other as he kept saying but it hurts that he flew off the handle and judged me so quickly. I keep kind of hoping he’ll message me again, but he doesn’t.
In an effort to streamline the whole getting-to-know you process, I just go ahead and give Billy my home address so he can drive over to pick me up. I realize after I do so that I probably should be more careful, but whatever, he doesn’t seem like a creepy stalker. Just to be sure, I let Sarah and Lulu know about my date.
At the agreed-upon time, Billy drives up. I’m waiting for him at the curb, because I know it’s a big deal for him to get in and out of the car, and I don’t want to make him transfer extra times. Also my street is always all parked up. I see him pull up along the parked cars, and I give a little wave, then hop in.
We stare at each other and shake hands nervously. It’s so weird to meet someone for the first time in their car. It’s way too intimate.
We go to the Starbucks by the university for our first date, because I can’t think of any other place that I’m sure will be accessible. As we drive over, we make very awkward small talk.
At Starbucks, I order a peppermint tea. I can’t have milk because I’m lactose intolerant, I can’t have caffeine because it gives me migraine headaches, and I don’t want something sugary because I’m trying not to gain weight. So herbal tea it is. I feel super boring and uncool.
I hold Billy’s latte for him as he wheels smoothly over to the one little table that isn’t taken by students. He pushes aside one of the chairs, and I sit down opposite him, so for the first time we’re looking directly at each other.
Billy looks just like his photos. He has a round face and a big round belly, so yes, he’s slightly overweight but it doesn’t look bad on him. His glossy black hair is pulled back in a thick ponytail. I like it. Except for the long hair, he looks like a business professional, with a neat polo shirt.
There’s no trace of the mean snake in his photo. He gives me a charming grin, and I start to relax. I shouldn’t have judged him by that one photo.
He tells me warily that he lives with his parents. It’s clear that’s been a deal breaker for some potential girlfriends, but I let him know I understand. Privately, I think of all the paras and even some quads I know who live on their own, but hey, who am I to judge?
Billy’s parents came to the US from Vietnam after the war. He and his two brothers were born here. His dad works for the police as an interpreter but his mom never really learned English. She works as a cashier at the Vietnamese grocery and other part-time jobs in the community. Billy was injured in a motorcycle crash when he was eighteen, and since then she’s been taking care of him. Like me, he’s thirty-three now, so he’s had a long time to adjust to his injury.
The more we talk, the more I get the impression that Billy is a study in contrasts. He’s like a motivated slacker. He works as a tax preparer so he’s coming up on his busy time of year, but after April he takes months off to go travel the world. He’s already been all over Europe, Southeast Asia, China, and South America, sometimes with his brother, sometimes on his own. I gather that part of the reason he lives at home is so he can afford these epic trips. He works hard during tax season, but after that is months of vacation. At least one of his clients pays him in weed. That’s a lot of weed.
My admiration of him ticks up as I learn all this. Ok, so he lets his mom take care of him, but he’s pretty independent and adventurous to be traveling like that. He’s planning a trip around the world next. He’s trying to figure out if he can get a visa to travel through Iran.
I tell him about my travel in Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan. These are also places he wants to go on his trip around the world.
It’s nice to chat about these interests we have in common, but eventually I bring the conversation around to devotees. Not that I want to, but I feel like it’s something I have to get out of the way. At least this time I’m not starting from zero, which is a relief.
“So how did you find Paradevo?” I ask.
He shrugs. “I dunno, late night googling. I was bored. I broke up with my last girlfriend six months ago, so I thought why not?”
“You’ve been reading the posts?” I ask. He still hasn’t posted anything himself.
“So what do you think?”
He shrugs again. “I dunno, it’s fucking boring. The guys all seem like a buncha whiners.”
“I mean about devotees. You’re ok with it?”
“Sure, why not? It’s kinda nice that you already know all the shit that goes with SCI. So you’ve been with, like, a ton of guys in wheelchairs?”
He gives me a significant look that I completely misinterpret.
“Oh yeah, a lot,” I say breezily. “I mean, like, a LOT. But don’t worry, they were all assholes. Like this one para who did bmx tricks in his chair, he went into the hospital for a UTI and never even called me after. Can you believe that shit? I thought he was dead!”
Maybe I’ve been hanging around the fetish scene and people like The Mantis too much, because I think experience is a bonus, something to flaunt, not hide. And I want to reassure him that it’s not like I’m still hanging onto feelings for these previous guys. But he definitely doesn’t take it that way.
Billy narrows his eyes at me, and there it is, that mean look from the photo. “What’s wrong with you?” he says. “I thought this was a date. Why are you talking about your ex-boyfriends?”
Shame slices through me like a cold knife in my belly. “What?” I retort defensively. “Am I supposed to pretend I’ve never been with anyone before now?”
“You’re not supposed to talk about it.”
“I hardly said anything! You talked about your ex-girlfriend.”
“Whatever.” He rolls his eyes at me, how stupid I’m being.
But he must think I’m cute because he asks me out again, and again, and pretty soon we’re dating, like for real. We go out for dim sum for brunch in Chinatown. It’s delicious but he teases me for not eating the chicken feet.
He likes to joke around about his name and the way white people don’t know how to pronounce it. “Just say Nguyen!” he shouts, making it sound like “when.” He also has a routine about Chinese President Hu Jintao that’s basically stolen from “Who’s on first?”
“Hu’s in town,” he says and we repeat it back to each other endlessly, laughing hysterically. Yeah, stupid jokes.
We go to the science museum together, which is like the most actual cute date activity I have ever done with anyone. We goof around on the exhibits and make stupid jokes together.
As we’re going through the museum we pass by a model of a space capsule that you can climb in. He takes a photo of me in it and tells me how cute I look. I guess I have a boyfriend, for the first time in years.
Billy has one of those cool new Razr flip phones that are so flat. I’ve been thinking of getting one, so I ask him about it.
“Ah, it’s a piece of shit,” he complains. “I wish I never bought it.”
But I ignore him and get one anyway, since it’s time to renew my cellular contract. I immediately realize he was right, it is a piece of shit that gets terrible reception and has fewer features than my trusty old Motorola. I should have listened to him, but no, I was taken in by sleek design.
By the third date, I’m ready to invite Billy to my place. I’ve finally solved the ant problem through liberal application of diatomaceous earth, so the house now feels presentable. But first there’s the inevitable negotiation over the three cement steps outside the front door.
He opts not to get out and slide on his butt, and I don’t blame him. If you spend all your time sitting on your ass, you’ve got to be super careful about even the smallest scratch. After some discussion, we decide to turn him backwards and I drag him up the steps in his chair. He’s a big guy; it’s not easy. There’s a queasy moment on the middle step when he’s balanced precariously back and I feel like I don’t have the strength to pull him up but I give one last heave and he’s inside.
I mention to him that I’ve been thinking that I could just put a board or something over the steps to create a makeshift ramp. The truth is this occurred to me years ago but I was never with a guy long enough to actually try it out. But Billy thinks this is a fantastic idea. He clearly doesn’t trust me to pull him up and down the stairs myself.
Billy is not messing around about the ramp. Before he comes over for the second time, we go to Home Depot together and pick out a big piece of plywood. It just barely fits in his car.
When we get home and slap it down over the steps, I suddenly realize why this isn’t the best idea. With nothing to hold it in place, it moves around a lot. If I put the edge flush with the top step, it will fall down when he gets to the top. The only way to set it is to leave about six inches sticking out over the top step, but when he rolls on the end, the bottom flips up. It’s also much steeper that I expected.
Still, it’s better than dragging him up the stairs. I give him a big push at the start, then stand on the bottom of the ramp to keep the plywood in place. He weighs more than I do, so there’s a seesaw moment at the end but it’s not too bad. Now the question is what to do with it. If I leave it outside to be rained on, it will rot away in no time, or get slippery or dirty or infested with insects. I have no choice but to stand it up against the wall in my living room. Not exactly elegant décor, but I’m pleased that my house now has a wheelchair ramp.
The other problem of course is that the bathroom is too narrow for him to reach the toilet. By now I’ve had so many wheelers over that I just tell him to piss in an empty bottle like it’s nothing, but he makes a face.
“Whatever,” I say with a shrug. “I learned that if you want to date SCI guys, you have to be ok with pee.”
“Well, you would know, Devo Girl,” he says, saying my user name like it’s an insult.
I just laugh, because I refuse to let him shame me over this, and because by now we’ve had enough fun moments together that I want things to work out.
“That’s right,” I say. “I’m Devo Girl, and you think I’m seeeexxxxyyy.” I do a little belly dance in his face, and he grabs me around the waist.
“Sexy freak,” he mutters, then kisses me.
“Lucky for you,” I tell him.
Of course Billy would be more comfortable at his place than mine but we have an unspoken agreement that we need to wait before introducing me to his parents. But by now we’ve been together for over two months and things feel pretty official. For a few weeks right before tax day, he’s working around the clock and I don’t see him but as soon as it’s over, it’s like he’s on a six month vacation. He calls me up and asks if I want to drive down to his place and stay the night.
Billy and his parents live far to the south of Raser City in a suburb made up almost entirely of Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian immigrants. The house is nice, a two story faux Craftsman type with a wheelchair ramp in front. I park my car in the street, which is lined with Japanese sports cars with elaborate, massive spoilers.
I’m super nervous about meeting Billy’s parents. I know that before me, he was dating another white girl for a few years and I kind of get the impression she didn’t get along great with his parents.
Billy meets me at the door and shows me around the first floor. The living room is decorated with gold, jade and teak knick-knacks. On the opposite side of the front door, what must have once been a study has been turned into his bedroom, with a private bathroom attached. There’s a second floor but he never goes up there.
It’s a Saturday so both his parents are at home. Billy takes me through the beaded curtain to the kitchen to meet them. Both his mom and dad are small and wiry, both with round faces like him. His mom has the standard Asian grandmother perm and she’s wearing a loose pajama-like outfit. She smiles at me in a friendly way and we exchange some awkward greetings. I shake hands with his dad, who also seems friendly but shy.
We sit down at the kitchen table, and his mother serves lunch. The kitchen table is covered with a lace tablecloth under a thick plastic cover—it reminds me of my grandmother’s apartment. I’m served a giant bowl; I have no idea what the dish is called, but it’s rice noodles with a giant, softball sized pork meatball, deep fried and delicately spiced, served with huge handfuls of fresh basil, cilantro and mint, with lime juice squeezed over the top. The taste is amazing.
We’ve gotten over the first hurdle—I like the food. As we eat, his dad asks me about my time living in Seoul and Taipei. He seems happy to hear about how much I enjoyed it.
“So you love Asian culture, right?” he asks.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
He nods, looking pleased.
I feel sort of weird about that. On the one hand, we both know that there is no “Asian culture.” All these countries are very different. But on the other hand, unfortunately it is kind of rare for white Americans to know anything at all about Asia. It doesn’t feel great to be getting over such a low bar.
So Billy’s parents seem to like me but I still heave a sigh of relief when the meal is over and we can retreat to the living room. I hate making small talk, especially with parents, I just feel so awkward. We turn on the TV and lay on the couch for a few hours, drinking Yeo’s soy milk from cans.
After we get bored of daytime TV, we get in Billy’s car and drive around. He shows me the neighborhood and we make a long stop at the local library. There’s really nothing else to do in this suburb but it is a very nice library.
Eventually we’ve killed enough time that we’re ready for dinner. He takes me to a little Vietnamese place in a strip mall. I’m baffled by the menu, but Billy won’t tell me what anything is.
“You said you like anything, so just order,” he says. Why is be being so passive aggressive? But rather than call him out on it, I just smile at take a guess based on the pictures. I think I’m ordering a rice noodle salad type thing, like what we had for lunch, but what I get is not that at all. It’s like a block of crispy noodles with shrimp. But whatever, it tastes good.
As we’re driving home, he says casually, “That’s where I was injured,” gesturing out the window at a circular freeway on ramp.
My friend Lulu has been dating a new guy who has a motorcycle, and has been talking about learning to drive one herself. I tried to convince her that it was too dangerous, adding that the guy I’m seeing right now was injured in a motorcycle crash.
“What happened?” she asked. “Did someone hit him?”
“No, he was taking a curve too fast. He only had his license for a few months.”
“Oh, so he was being an idiot,” she said dismissively, as if that would never happen to her. I feel like she’s just parroting back what her boyfriend said, as if motorcycles aren’t insanely unsafe. At least half the guys on the Mantis’s wheelchair basketball team were injured on motorcycles.
But I don’t say any of this to Billy. I can see that it’s just a regular on ramp, and probably he was being an idiot, but he was only eighteen.
“I remember flying through the air upside down, thinking ‘oh shit,’” he continues. “Then I landed on my back in the grass, and I was like, ‘that ain’t good.’”
I’m amazed at how laid back he seems about the whole thing, but he’s had almost twenty years to adjust. And I guess if he drives by this spot almost every day, the emotional impact must lessen.
“You’re lucky you didn’t land on your head,” I say. “It could have been a lot worse.”
“Yeah, I get that now, but at the time I was really angry,” he admits. “I took it out on my mom a lot. It took forever for me to get a new license and a car with hand controls, so she had to drive me everywhere and I would just be yelling at her the whole time. Like, you fucking bitch, haha!”
Again he talks about all this like it’s nothing. By now I’ve talked to so many SCI guys and seen a range of reactions and ways of talking about it but Billy seems the least emotional of any of them. I assume that means he’s well adjusted. It is a little disturbing the way he talks about yelling at his mom, though, like it’s funny, or even something he’s proud of.
“You were lucky,” I repeat.
“I don’t feel lucky.”
I shut my mouth, feeling guilty. I’ve had this conversation with many SCI guys also. I’m kicking myself because I know I shouldn’t say anything but it’s my dev nature that drives me to it. Really what I’m feeling is that I’m lucky I met a hot wheeler dude, because they’re so rare, but somehow I can’t say it, so I tell the guy he’s lucky. But SCI guys usually don’t feel like they are lucky people, just the opposite, a lot of them feel unlucky that they were injured. Stop poking that hornet’s nest, I tell myself. Who am I to tell him how to feel about his injury?
When we get home, there’s another awkward moment where his dad gestures upstairs and asks if I want to put my things in the guest bedroom. What the hell? Are we not allowed to have sex in their house?
I glance at Billy in confusion. “He’s asking if you want to sleep upstairs,” he says, which doesn’t clarify anything.
“Uh…I’d rather sleep with you,” I say. His dad just shrugs and walks away.
“What was that about?” I whisper as Billy rolls into his bedroom.
“Oh, my ex-girlfriend always slept upstairs so I guess he assumed you want to also.”
Ok, so this isn’t a morality thing? That’s a relief, but I’m still so confused. Why didn’t his girlfriend sleep in his bed? Billy made it clear that exes are not a topic of discussion so I don’t ask him about it. Was it the spasms? Thinking back to how Sean kept me up the whole night with his foot going like a metronome, I can understand that. But I can’t understand not wanting to sleep next to your partner. Having sex then drifting off to sleep together is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Having to get out of bed and walk upstairs instead would be annoying and lonely. Even more than that, as a dev curling up next to him, wrapping my legs in his is the greatest thrill. Well, obviously his ex was not a dev. Billy has a queen size bed, so I really can’t imagine what her problem was.
The bed though is like three feet off the floor. I’m still used to my cheap Ikea bed which is very low with no box spring. I feel like I’m going to get a nosebleed climbing up into this thing, and it’s crazy to think he has to transfer up from his chair. But somehow he does it with no problem, hoisting his butt up to the edge of the mattress then scooting over. I admire his bulging arms and shoulders as he does it.
Once we’re up in the bed, I tackle him and we start wrestling, rolling around like puppies. I nip his ear and he groans loudly, then flips me over. I love that we can be rough. I love his long hair, how it’s even thicker and glossier than mine. He goes down on me and goddamn but he’s good at it. I come over and over, pushing my face into the pillow next to me and trying not to make too much noise.
After that first visit, we alternate weekends at his place and my place. It feels good to fall into a routine, to know that we’re going to get together on a regular schedule. On the surface, it’s like we’re becoming a serious couple, but the truth is there’s nothing underneath. We’re both moving in different directions and I’m not sure what to do about it.
I’m still applying for jobs all over the country. I also applied for jobs in the area, but without success. Just as I’m starting to truly despair that I will ever be hired anywhere, I get an offer at a huge corporation in the Midwest. Actually it’s not really an offer yet. There’s something wonky about the job that makes me nervous about accepting but as I have no other prospects, I have to just wait to find out if this provisional offer will come through with a real contract. If it does, I’ll be moving far away.
“I’ve bought my plane tickets,” Billy announces over the phone. He’s finalizing his plans for his around the world trip. He’ll be leaving in June and coming back in August, so likely I’ll be moving away while he’s gone.
I’m gutted. I thought we would at least have three or four more months together, maybe more if I can’t find a job. I was starting to even question the whole career path I’m on, not for the first time, but to really make a plan for staying in Raser City.
But Billy makes it clear that he is not the slightest bit disappointed. This trip is a lifelong dream, and nothing is going to stop him. He’s annoyed that I’m being so sentimental about it.
“Two or three months, what does it matter?” he grumbles. Part of me wishes he would postpone the trip in a grand romantic gesture, decide that being with me is more important, but no, he’s already talking excitedly about all the places he’s going. I understand, and I would never seriously try to derail his trip. I stifle my selfish urge to want him to stay for me, but it just makes me want him even more. He’s cute and sexy and we have so many dumb jokes together. It’s just so easy to spend time with him.
Do I love him? Who knows? I can’t even tell how I feel about anything anymore. I want a job but this job search is killing me. I want to stay with my friends but I’m also so sick of the traffic and overcrowding here. If I have to move to find work, so be it.
While our future plans are slowly pulling us in separate directions but I’m pretending it’s not happening, we just keep dating like this relationship doesn’t have an expiration date. I think back to all the times I did the same thing, while I was living overseas. I don’t want to be dating provisionally like this, but what choice do I have?