Rollerboy Part 5
The second time I drive out to visit Rollerboy for the weekend, we take a trip to Bessemer Historic Village, one of those living history open-air museums. I'm a little surprised he even suggests it, because he clearly thinks anything educational is boring and lame, but I guess he feels we have to do date type stuff. Or maybe he's trying to humor me.
Anyway, I don't think too much about his motivations, because I have a great time. I love wandering through shops on the old-time-y main street: the cooper, the clock maker, the general store, the smoky smell of the blacksmith. At the dry goods store, we gorge ourselves on penny candy.
As we're going down the wooden sidewalk, we pass a teenage girl in a wheelchair, and a man who must be her father strikes up a conversation with Rollerboy. He asks all kinds of questions, like when he was injured, where he did rehab, where he gets replacement parts for his chair. Rollerboy is surprisingly patient with them. I've seen him give surly, short answers to these kinds of questions from strangers, but now he's being really friendly and helpful. The girl and her younger sister watch shyly, not saying anything at first.
The dad comments on how cool and sporty Rollerboy's chair looks, and the girl chimes in, "Yeah, it's stripped down to the bone."
I look more closely at his chair, comparing it with hers. It's true--he doesn't have armrests, push handles, anti-tip wheels in the back, or any extra frame parts. Under the seat, there's just the axle and the footplate, that's it. The seat is tipped back so his knees are slightly elevated, and the wheels angle sharply out. Not only does her chair look bulky and heavy, but it doesn't seem to fit her right. She's sitting awkwardly upright, looking like she might slide off to the side despite the seat belt fastened loosely around her waist.
Rollerboy takes the compliment about his chair graciously, pointing out some of the features of his chair. "I used to have the camber on the wheels even wider, but I narrowed it up to fit in her apartment," he says, waving a hand in my direction.
For the first time, they notice me. "Oh, you're his girlfriend?"
"Yes." I'm glowing with pride. Yes, that's me, the girlfriend of the guy in the wheelchair. I'd like to think they are impressed with how normal our relationship is.
"So how did you meet?" the dad asks. Suddenly this is more attention than I want. I'm certainly not going to tell them about devotees, or that we met on a devotee chat site. I don't even want to say we met online. Only creeps and losers date online. We've already decided not to tell people how we met, so I come out with our agreed-upon lie: "Oh, you know, through friends." As I expect, it's a good enough answer that doesn't invite further questioning. He's really not interested in me anyway.
Later on, in Rollerboy's car as he's driving us back to his place, I say, "It was really nice of you to talk to that girl."
He shrugs. "Yeah, I know who she is."
"I mean, I don't know her but I know of her. She got shot standing on her front lawn. It was all over the news here about a year ago."
"Oh my god, that's horrible."
"Yeah, she's only like fifteen or so. On the news they said it was some gang thing, probably they were aiming at someone else and she got hit by accident, but they never caught the guy."
"Wow." I'm reeling at the horribleness of it all. That poor girl, just minding her own business, getting shot out of nowhere. And so recently too, no wonder she doesn't have her chair set up very well. But still, it bothers me that she didn't get better help in rehab.
I look out the window, trying to ignore the way we're sliding in and out of lanes, leapfrogging ahead of all the other cars. I can't stop thinking about that girl. What would her father have said if he knew I was a devotee? What would she have said? How can I be attracted to something that causes so much suffering? I don't say any of this to Rollerboy.
The next weekend, he comes to my place and we have to go through the whole rigmarole of getting him up and down the insanely steep driveway so he can bypass the double flight of stairs and get in the apartment by the side door. It really hasn't gotten easier with practice--it's still traumatic for both of us. Every time, I'm grunting and whimpering, afraid we're both going to go rolling into the very busy street and get run over, and he's cursing me.
Usually he forgets about the driveway as soon as he gets in the door, but this time he's pissed off about something else. He wheels in angrily, washes his hands angrily, and throws himself onto the couch angrily.
"What? What is it?" I ask, but I have to pester him repeatedly before he answers.
Finally, he bursts out, "Those fucking devotees have posted my photos all over the internet!"
"Where? What sites?"
"Paradevo and one other, I think it was called Dev Girls."
"Oh yeah, those are my sites." It just slips out; I don't even think about how it sounds. His eyes go huge and his jaw drops open as his face is filled with rage.
"Those are YOUR sites?!"
"I didn't post those photos!" I try to reassure him, but it's too late. It takes nearly half an hour of arguing back and forth to convince him that I'm not the one who posted those photos, that I would never do that without telling him, and that there are other people involved with those sites.
And the thing is, I can't even remember seeing those photos. I certainly have wasted hours of my life looking at photos online, but since I starting seeing Rollerboy--no, even earlier, since we started emailing--I haven't felt like it. I just never looked closely at the photos on those sites. If I had noticed earlier, I would have told him.
Now I'm curious, so I dial up the internet and go to the photo page on Paradevo. There are a handful of photos, not that many. No Rollerboy.
"I don't see any of you." I turn to him, sitting behind me on the sofa.
"I wrote to that guy and he took them down," he says petulantly.
"You mean Lee? Ok then. He was the one who posted them. Did he say where he got them?"
"I don't know, some dude." He then tells a long, rambling story about a person he was writing to online who asked him for a lot of photos. He thought it was a girl devotee, but it later turned out to be a gay guy. He punctuates the end of the story with, "That fucking faggot! If I ever meet him in real life, I'll fucking kill him."
"Ok, ok." I try to calm him down. "Lee took down the photos, so it's ok now, right?"
"The one on the other site is still up."
I haven't looked at the Dev Girls website in ages, not since Cindy disappeared with the password, but I pull it up now. Sure enough, there is a photo of Rollerboy, one of the same ones he sent me. How did I never notice that before? I promise to try to get in touch with Cindy and get her to take it down.
It's no use, of course; she is long gone. The email I write to her bounces. I'm so angry and frustrated with her for being so irresponsible, just abandoning that site and not even telling me or giving me the password to work on it myself.
A week goes by, then another, and Rollerboy finally seems to believe that I didn't post the photos, but now every time we talk or get together, we end up arguing about devotees. It's this long, drawn-out fight in slow motion that is fucking exhausting. He keeps saying I'm only interested in him because I'm a dev. I admit that it's the reason we met but I'm dating him because I like him, not his disability. Not just his disability. He doesn't believe me. I don't know what I can say to make him stop doubting me.
"All you devotees are the same," he sneers at me over a dinner of take-out Taco Bell in his apartment. "You just want to see me struggle."
"What? When did I ever say that?"
"Diana said it. But you were thinking it."
"Who the hell is Diana?"
It takes some prodding but eventually he comes out with a mumbled, disjointed story about emailing with some middle aged married dev on the other side of the country. He sent her some photos but she has been pestering him for a video.
"'Send me a video of you struggling. Doing something hard for you,'" he recites in a mocking tone, waving his hands.
"When have I ever asked you to do that! I would never!" He listens to my indignant denial with narrowed eyes, still not buying that I'm not like that. "So stop emailing with her if it makes you so upset!" I continue. "You don't owe her anything. Just tell her no and block her emails." I don't understand why he he's so intent on writing to random devs. I'm not jealous, after all, I'm the one here in his apartment. But is he really that desperate for dev attention that he'll keep emailing even after being insulted? Even knowing that he might be tricked or have his photos stolen?
Eventually the message does seem to get through, and once he stops emailing other devs, the arguments about devs stop too. For now.
still November 2000
Rollerboy asks if I want to go to the Ability Expo with him. It's a weekend long convention for companies selling adaptive equipment, held in the industrial nowhere zone an hour south of Raser City. Hell yes I want to go. I take it as a sign that he's gotten over his resentment of my dev nature.
He comes to my place and we both drive down to the Expo together on a Saturday afternoon. The renovated warehouse space is filled with big vendors like Quickie and Invacare as well as small, specialized companies like Frog Legs. They're all giving out fliers, brochures and freebies, and I acquire a big collection, pleased with myself for learning all the brand names and the details of wheelchair design.
The one thing Rollerboy is really interested in is the hand bike. The company selling them lets him take one for a spin, riding around in a circle in a big open space at the far end of the warehouse. He takes to it right away, whipping the chair around in tight, fast circles, lapping a middle aged man who is struggling to work the hand pedals, even though he seems to be only a para. For the first time, I see a real trace of how physically gifted his is. Before his accident, he was good at sports and great with his hands, fixing cars and doing construction with his father. He's always talking about how frustrating it is not to be able to do any of that anymore.
"I NEED one of these!" the middle aged para cries out happily to his wife, even though he's still barely making it go.
The wife turns to me with a sickly sweet smile. "Were you married before his accident?" she asks me, out of nowhere.
I find it hilarious that she assumes this can be the only scenario in which we are together. "Oh no, nothing like that," I say breezily. "I've only known him a few months." She looks blank. "Actually I'm really only in it for the sex," I add for good measure.
She clamps her mouth shut and turns away. Rollerboy and I share a good laugh about it over hot dogs and soda at the concessions booth. We imagine their reaction if they knew about devotees, and I wished I had come up with an even more shocking reply.
Rollerboy doesn't even ask the sales rep about buying the hand bike. It's way too expensive.
Later, in the bathroom as I'm washing my hands, I see a very attractive, stylish young para woman at the sink next to me.
"My hands always get so dirty in here," she complains. I give her a friendly smile but suddenly I'm feeling bad about being a devotee again. What would she say? I'm sure she wouldn't like it.
When I get home, I stash the brochures I have collected in a drawer, like they were porno mags.
The next weekend Rollerboy comes to visit me again, and we decide to take a bath together. This is something I've been wanting to do for a while, ever since he admitted that he has not had a bath since his accident, only showers. At his place, he has a big padded shower seat like a sofa that takes up most of the bath. I don't have anything like that, but if we could just get him to the bathroom, we could take a sexy bath together.
"Yeah, I think I could scoot on my butt," he says, surveying the long hall, too narrow for his chair to fit. Using the bath mat for padding, he transfers out of his chair and onto the wood floor. He goes backward, pushing with his arms then pausing to grab his legs and pull them up, over and over. It takes a long time, but eventually he reaches the small, green tile bathroom.
"This is it," I say with a dramatic flourish. He eyes the rim of the tub, and even though it's not that high, decides to use a chair to get in. I grab my wooden chair, the only chair I own apart from my desk chair, and wedge next to the tub. He transfers up onto it, then takes off his clothes, and slowly, slowly lowers himself into the tub.
As soon as he is in, I realize that this tub is not really meant for bathing. It looks like a regular tub, but actually it's just a base for the shower--it's much too short and shallow for a decent bath. I try to get in with him but there's barely any room and the water only half covers us.
Still we try to make the best of it. He remarks how his butt floats, making him feel like he's about to flip over in the water.
"The water feels good," he admits. "Relaxing."
But soon the water is getting cold and it's time to get out. No problem, I think, he can get out the same way he got in. He tries to transfer up to the edge of the tub but can't quite make it.
"Here, let me help you," I offer. I stand behind him, one foot in and one out of the tub, hook my hands under his armpits and try to heave him onto the edge of the tub.
A second later, I'm doubled over in agony, an unbelievable stabbing pain my knee. I must have twisted it when I tried to pull him sideways. The pain is shocking in its intensity, and it's all I can do to collapse naked into the chair, unable to move. I'm stunned at how incapacitated I suddenly am, and for the first time, I start to seriously worry. What have I done? How the hell are we going to get him out of the bath?
Rollerboy watches me writhing in pain and curls his lip in contempt. "Fuck it, I can do it on my own," he snarls. I feel horrible, but I'm going to feel a whole lot worse if I end up having to call 911. I toss a towel over the edge of the tub and hold my breath as he slowly hoists himself up, arms shaking and butt swaying. It takes him a few tries because he can't get any traction with his feet in the water, and his legs keep kicking out in front of him like floppy anchors. But finally he makes it, and I help him keep his balance until he can transfer onto the floor.
By this time my knee has recovered enough that I can stand up, so I offer to help but he refuses. He chooses to scoot back down the hallway again, naked and wet, with only the bathmat cushioning his butt. It takes even longer this time, because now he's going backwards. With each painful slide, he's picking up more dust and debris. I never noticed how dirty the hallway is. So much for the bath, now he's dirtier than before he got in.
I follow behind him, wringing my hands and offering again to help, each angry expletive from him like a dagger in my guilty heart.
"Fuck," he mutters, resting between shoves and rocking from cheek to cheek. "This is fucking killing my skin. I'm going to get a fucking sore on my ass."
"I'm so sorry," I whimper, but he ignores me. Why did I talk him into this? I should never have suggested it. I'm so mortified at my stupidity and selfishness.
After what feels like a million years, he finally reaches the safety and comfort of his chair at the end of the hall, and once we're both dried off and dressed, I apologize again.
"Whatever, it's ok," he waves me off. Before going to sleep, he stretches out on the bed and checks his skin, but it seems fine, and my knee has recovered too. At least I haven't caused any lasting physical damage. We go to bed without talking much at all.
In between my classes and visiting Rollerboy, I've been attending weekly rehearsals with the Lester State University Adult Chorus. I'm enjoying singing real music again, the Bach Magnificat, but it hasn't been quite the source of new friendships that I had hoped. At least half of the other members are closer to my parents' age, and the younger women all seem to have formed a mean girls' club. Even though I can tell how fake they are being when they say, "Oh, we should all get together some time!" a big part of me still wants to be friends with them. I can't help sharing details about my life with them in the course of ordinary small talk, and as our Christmas concert approaches and we have extra rehearsals to prepare, there is a lot of down time as we sit on the risers divided by sections.
"Is your boyfriend coming to the concert?" one of the mean girls in the soprano 1 section asks.
"No, it's not his thing," I reply, trying hard to sound casual about it. I have already decided that it doesn't matter if Rollerboy comes or not. In fact, I would rather him not be there than force himself to go and tell me how lame and dorky it is. I offered him a ticket, but he said no in no uncertain terms. It's ok with me if he doesn't like classical music. We don't have to like the same things.
The mean girl doesn't reply, but just stares at me pityingly.
The concert goes great, and it feels so good to be really singing, just pumping out the sound with all my heart. I can't help but glance at the handicapped seating in the front row and imagining Rollerboy there. But it's ok that he isn't.
After the concert comes a blur of final papers and exams then somehow I've finished my first semester of my new graduate program. Following my now well-established pattern of avoiding my family during the holidays, I invite myself to fly out to Kara and Nam's house for Christmas and New Year's. After briefly flirting with graduate school on the East Coast, Kara dropped out and they moved back to the Midwest and bought a house. They were my best friends in college, and I can't believe it's already been seven years since we graduated.
Kara and Nam's house is impressively huge, but the tradeoff is that it's in the middle of nowhere, a two hour drive through desolate cornfields to the nearest small city where Kara works. They set up a big live Christmas tree in the living room under the stained glass window that Nam refers to as the Eye of Sauron. Kara and I spend several days preparing a lavish Christmas dinner. With the snow outside, the fire in the fireplace, playing with their cats, it all feels so cozy.
On the last day of the year, another friend from college, Borek, drives down from Central City to visit. I haven't seen him since I left College Town, since the humiliating end to my relationship with K.
Borek is a crazy artist, a true, inspired-by-the-gods creative genius. In college he labored over immense Renaissance-style oils on canvas of Lovecraftian subjects such as Huntress Riding Dogs and Sacrifice at the Altar of Eris. Now he's making polyresin statues to sell at Ren Faires. As a present, he gives me a 12 inch figure of a squirrel shaman with a staff and skull crown. I love it, but I can't help but remember him in college, worried that taking money for his art would be wrong.
"I thought you didn't want to sell out?" I ask.
He squints at me and shakes his head in disbelief, snapping his waist-length braid. "I said that? What was I thinking?"
We reminisce for a while about other friends, then he asks what I've been up to lately and I tell him about Rollerboy. I've gotten used to the way it takes a few minutes for the information to sink it, so I repeat myself.
"He's a quadriplegic. But not, like, full. He can still use his arms, just not his fingers."
"He's in a wheelchair?" Borek asks, still not quite getting it.
"Yeah, but not an electric one, a manual push one."
Borek's eyes get wider and wider. I can see him making the connection with K, my first blind boyfriend. I can practically see him connecting the mental dots. Beside me on the couch, Kara is shaking with silent laughter.
"And you... you..." Borek splutters.
"I think it's fucking sexy."
"Yeah she does!" Kara chimes in gleefully.
Borek stares at me, mind blown, but not in a bad way. "Whoa," he breathes, blinking. "Whoa."
I blush hard, simultaneously embarrassed and relieved to be telling him.
"So how did he...? why is he...?" he asks.
"Car accident," I reply flatly.
"Whoa," he says again. "You heard about my accident, right?"
I didn't, but apparently Kara and Nam did, and they all three fill me in. Two years ago, Borek was in a big pile-up on the terrifying loop around Central City while driving a clunky old van with no air bags. He smashed his face on the steering wheel and one of his eyes popped right out of the socket. An EMT put it back in.
"I have a metal plate right here," he says cheerfully, pointing to a small scar on his right cheekbone. I'm stunned that I had no idea. He doesn't look at all different to me.
"But no brain or spinal cord injury," I confirm. "You're super lucky."
"Yeah, but maybe if I had then you would be into me," he teases me.
I lean forward to swat him on the knee. "Oh stop it, it doesn't work that way." We all laugh.
Later in the evening, we go out to a bar to celebrate New Year's Eve. I wear a tight black sweater with a huge fake fur stole and matching gloves, which feels very elegant. Before leaving the house, we all take photos together, and Borek flings himself to the floor in front of me, laughing gleefully as I plant my shoe on his chest in full dominatrix mode.
For a moment I wonder if he was ever seriously interested in me. I doubt it, at least not enough to sustain an actual relationship. We're just too different. Sure, we like a lot of the same movies and art, but our personalities are really different.
And what about me and Rollerboy? Our personalities are also different, and we hardly like any of the same things at all. But somehow we've been making it work so far. Is it just about the sex? I'm really not sure any more. The more I talk about him with my friends, the more I feel like there's really a connection between us.