"I went to a quad rugby practice with Rollerboy last weekend."
"Oh yeah? How was it?"
I'm sprawled on Sarah's blue velveteen couch, watching Buffy reruns. We're making the most of the few weeks of freedom left before the fall semester starts.
"All those guys in chairs, oh my god, it was like I'd died and gone to heaven," I joke.
Sarah laughs awkwardly. "No, really."
"It was cool to watch him play, and the other guys on the team seem like good guys, but they're not that skilled. Rollerboy complains that they always lose. Mostly he said playing just an excuse to ram his chair into people, to get his aggressions out."
"Really? They hit each other?"
"Yeah, they use special chairs that are built like tanks. It's fun to watch."
"It's good that he has a hobby."
"I don't know, he's not that into it. He always says it's pointless because he can't really compete and win at anything. He just doesn't have enough arm strength."
"Maybe he could do like wheelchair racing or something?"
"I don't know. I mean, a few weeks ago he let me borrow his extra chair and we were messing around in the parking lot of his apartment complex, racing, and I could beat him easily. Me! Look how weak I am." I pull up my sleeve to display my puny bicep. "His arms are partially paralyzed. No matter how much he trains, he'll never be that fast. I think he's just really frustrated."
We watch a few scenes in silence.
"Sounds like he's been frustrated a lot lately," Sarah offers nervously.
I immediately get defensive. "Well yeah, wouldn't you be? The doctor told him he's been losing weight, but it's not muscle or fat, it's, like, his bones."
"That poor guy," Sarah murmurs.
"Yeah, so, you know, it's hard." This isn't just an argument I'm having with a friend. I've had the same argument with Rollerboy, and with myself. It feels like he's short tempered all the time, and all he ever does is sit around and play Gran Turismo and watch NASCAR. I wish he had something in his life that made him happy, some reason to get up in the morning, something to get excited about.
"I know I can't make him happy," I say to Sarah for like the hundredth time. "You can't make someone else be happy. But I keep hoping I could, like, lead by example. He could see what it looks like to have a happy life with me, and maybe he would want to make those changes." I really, really want this to be true.
Sarah glances at me warily, not wanting to spark another argument. "He just seems like an angry person," she says carefully. "He's not the only guy in a wheelchair in Raser City. If you just look around more..."
"But I love him," I say, my voice sounding more whiny that I want it to.
The last weekend before classes start, I drive up to Bessemer to see Rollerboy. The weather is gorgeous, hot and sunny. We decide to go to the park for the afternoon, with me in his extra chair.
"You're probably, like, all turned on by this," he says, half joking and half sneering, as he pulls the extra chair out from the corner by the couch.
"No," I says seriously. Since this is the second time I'm using his chair (including that time we raced in the parking lot) I don't want him to get the wrong idea and think I'm a pretender or wannabe or something. I don't want to be disabled, and I don't want people to think I have a disability. This is just for fun. "This is your idea, remember? You said you wanted me to know what it's like to push."
"I'm just messing with you," he backpedals, smiling. He pops off the wheels and tops them up with an air compressor. It always makes me nervous to watch him to this, because the only way he can keep the pin in the hole is to hold the wheel across his lap and jam it against his belly, the flat of his hand pushing against the air hose. What if he overinflates the tire and it explodes?
"Relax, nothing's going to happen," he assures me. He pops the wheels back on and hands me an extra pair of gloves.
I sit down in the chair and he tries to show me how to pop a wheelie, but I can't do it. The front casters feel bolted to the floor.
"You gotta throw your weight backward a little," he explains, but I can't bring myself to do it.
"I feel like I'm gonna flip over backwards."
"That's why we're practicing on the carpet. Come on, back and up."
Very gingerly, I shift my center of gravity back, while pushing back on the rims with a small tug. The casters lift up a fraction of an inch.
"See, you got it! Come on, let's go."
At the park, I unload the extra chair from the trunk of the car while Rollerboy pulls his from the back seat. I feel silly setting it up while standing, then sitting down in the chair, but there's no one around to see.
Inside the park, on the walkway it's another story. There are tons of people out, and they all stare sappily at us, the crippled couple. A few people even go out of their way to come over to us and say how great we look together.
"Keep going, you can do it!" gushes an older dude on a bike as he rides by.
We laugh at all these dopes behind their backs.
Then we come to a pedestrian bridge over a small creek, and suddenly my casters get stuck in a metal rut, the join where the asphalt path and the bridge come together. Rollerboy pops a wheelie and glides over it easily, then turns to laugh at me as I struggle to lift my casters.
"Come on, back and up," he says, but I can't do it. As I'm rocking back and forth, trying to get unstuck, a small crowd forms.
"Do you need help?" asks a fortyish woman in jogging clothes. I stare up at her, not knowing what to say. I was just about to stand up and walk the chair over the bridge, but now with all these people watching, I somehow feel like I shouldn't.
"Don't help her. She needs to learn how to do it herself," Rollerboy instructs, but when I glance over, I can see he's about to burst out laughing.
"I'm ok," I insist, staring at my shoes and trying to will the footplate to rise up, just one inch.
But before I know what's happening, some dudes lift me up over the rut and deposit me on the other side.
"Um thanks, I got it from here!" I wave at them. The crowd beams happily at us before dispersing. Everyone is clearly congratulating themselves on doing their good deed for the day.
By this point, Rollerboy is dying laughing. "Oh my god, I can't believe you got stuck in that tiny rut! That's like, not even half an inch! And those idiots helping you! I'm like, no she has to learn to do it herself." He affects a patronizing tone that I can only imagine he has heard a thousand times.
I feel a little bad for fooling those people into thinking that I'm disabled. That was never my intention. But it all happened so quickly, before I had a chance to say, no it's ok, I can walk. And I have to agree with Rollerboy, it is pretty hilarious that I got stuck so pathetically, and had to be rescued by clueless do-gooders.
After that incident, though, I manage not to embarrass myself further. It's a beautiful sunny day, and rolling around the park together is fun. For the most part, the walkways are smooth, flat asphalt, really easy to roll on. It's kind of cool to both be on the same level for once. And it's so nice to be doing something low key and relaxing together, outside in the fresh air, rather than going to a mall or spending the whole day watching tv.
We spend a few hours at the park, but eventually Rollerboy starts to get tired and hot. He sprays himself with water to avoid overheating, because he can't sweat below the line of his injury.
"When I was first injured, the doctor told me to stay out of the sun because I would just cook," he says. "Those were his exact words: 'you'll cook like a steak in the sun.'"
By this point, we're both feeling a bit warm, so we head back to his car, where he cranks up the air conditioning as far as it will go. He doesn't say much on the ride home, but I don't think much of it. He often falls silent for long stretches, especially in the car. I quell my urge to fill up the space with constant chatter, to ask how he's feeling or what he's thinking. It's a bad girly habit to pester a guy like that to try to feel close, but I'm trying to break it. Instead I zone out, looking out the window and feeling happy that we had this fun experience together.
He pulls into his parking spot at the apartment complex, and I hop out and unload the extra wheelchair from the trunk, expecting him to pull his own chair out of the back seat like he always does. It takes me a minute or two behind the car to pop the wheels back on the extra chair, because I'm not very good at lining up rod in the hole. But when I come back around the car on the driver's side, pushing the extra chair in front of me, he still hasn't gotten out of the car yet.
"I have a headache," he says gruffly, leaning back in the seat. He's left the engine running and the air con still on, even though he's got his door open. "Can you get my chair out?"
"Sure." It's scorching in the parking lot, with no shade and the sun beating right down on us. I guess he's still feeling hot. I fumble around with his chair, struggling to get the wheels on while he grumbles at me to hurry up. I also grab his backpack out of the back seat.
"Do you want me to open the door?" I figure it will hurry things along if I go ahead while he's transferring. He grunts yes, so I take his key out of the backpack and sprint down the walkway to his door.
The single key is screwed into a big metal loop, to make it easier for him to get it in the keyhole and turn it just using the flat of his hands. I've seen him do it dozens of times, and he makes it look easy, but the lock on his door is kind of messed up and if you don't get the key in exactly right, it won't turn. I try it, but nothing happens. I pull the key out and stick it in again, but still nothing. I try a bunch more, but the lock is completely frozen; it feels like I have the wrong key.
Finally I give up in frustration and run back to the car, where Rollerboy is still sitting in the driver's seat.
"I can't get the key to turn," I admit apologetically.
"What the FUCK!" he shouts. "Jesus Christ! What is wrong with you? Just open the fucking door!"
"I can't get it! I'm sorry! Are you ok? What's wrong?"
"I'm having dysreflexia! Just open the fucking door!" He stretches his arm above his head, maybe trying to bring his blood pressure down. His arm and hand spasm, his fingers flapping robotically as I watch helplessly. Giant drops of sweat are standing out on his forehead.
"I'm sorry! I just think it will be faster if you unlock it yourself. Do you want me to help you transfer?"
"No I don't want you to fucking help me transfer." But I help anyway, holding the chair as close as possible to the seat of the car. He slowly edges to the side of the seat then hoists his butt in the air. For a second he hangs there, shaking slightly, then falls into the wheelchair seat.
I follow him to the apartment door and hand him the key. He gives me a dirty look then jams it in the lock and turns it with the side of his hand, using the metal holder as a lever, cursing at me the whole time.
"I don't see what's so fucking hard about it," he mutters as he bumps over the threshold.
He cranks up the air conditioning then throws himself onto the sofa and strips off his shoes and shirt, while I bring him a glass of water and the spray bottle. He switches on the TV and we sit there silently until the spasms stop and presumably his headache clears and spiking blood pressure goes down.
I feel terrible. He needed me to do a simple task and I couldn't do it. Why does this keep happening? I feel like I'm always running around frantically, trying to salvage some near disaster. This never happened with K. It was like I spent my whole life before I met him practicing for a blind boyfriend, and I knew exactly what to do, how to help him without making him feel bad about it. A mutual friend once told me that he seemed less disabled when he was around me.
But I'm still so clueless about Rollerboy. I feel like I'm always doing the wrong thing and pissing him off.
The next weekend I'm up at Rollerboy's place again, and the weather is still sunny and hot. His dad and step mom are out of town for the weekend, and they offered to let him come over and use their pool while they're gone.
I'm not sure what I was expecting, but his dad's house is really nice--big and new and in a nice part of town. The pool is even a real in-ground type. Whenever Rollerboy talked about his childhood, he made it sound like he was poor, but I guess his dad is better off since then. Also his parents got divorced when he was like 14 and he lived with his mom, while his dad married a woman who had three kids.
It feels weird to be in their house when they're not at home. If I was a normal person it might also feel weird that Rollerboy and I have been dating for almost a year and I have not yet met any of his family, neither his dad nor his mom, who is officially listed on his SSI forms as a live-in PCA but never seems to be around. I mean, I assume they know he's seeing someone, hence the invitation to use the pool, but he has never indicated that they want to meet me, or that he wants me to meet them. Which actually is fine with me, because I have no intention of having him meet my parents either, not after the way my mom freaked out when I told her about him.
The house is not fully accessible. There's only one step to get in so that's no big deal, but he can't get up to the second floor. There are tons of photos on the wall above the staircase and in the upstairs hall, the kind of posed portraits you get from school and at the mall. I creep upstairs to look at them, trying and failing to guess who everyone is. There are a lot of different people, so clearly the display includes some extended family. I try to pick out a photo of young Rollerboy, or spot any family resemblance with his dad, but can't be sure about anything, and I can't ask him because he can't get up the stairs. It seems so strange that he's never been upstairs in this house.
I abandon my moderate attempts at snooping and we head out back to the pool. It's another brilliantly clear day, not a cloud in the sky and the air hot and dry. The water looks perfect, warm and inviting. But there's no hoist or ramp or even stairs, just a flimsy looking ladder on one side.
I pull off my shorts and t shirt, revealing the bathing suit underneath, and pile up some towels on a chair, while Rollerboy clamps off his leg bag and parks his chair right at the edge of the pool.
"Um, have you done this before? Will you be ok getting in and out?" I ask nervously, flashing back to the near disasters in the bathtub, not once, but two times.
But Rollerboy seems unconcerned. "It'll be fine," he insists impatiently, directing me to lay a folded towel at the edge of the pool.
I get in first, then slowly, he transfers out of his chair onto the towel, then swings his legs into the water. As I stand in the water in front of him, he leans his torso against me, our arms around each other, as he slips into the pool.
I have a poster on my wall at home of a painting by Howard Pyle called The Mermaid. It's an embrace between a mermaid, half rising out of the water, and a sailor, draped heavily over her as he stands on the rocks, his leg at an unnatural angle. I feel exactly like the mermaid in that picture. Holding him in the pool is unbelievably sexy, for once effortlessly eye to eye. Not like when I stand him up from the couch, where he sags heavily against me. The water makes our embrace weightless, smooth and slippery. We laugh and kiss and bounce around, enjoying the new sensation. The sun glitters on the surface of the water, throwing off blinding shards of light.
"Do you think you could swim?" I ask.
"I don't know, I never tried. Maybe. Yeah, I guess so."
"Want to try?"
"Sure, why not."
"Ok, so I'm going to let go of you, ok? You're sure it's ok?" We're still right at the edge of the pool in the shallow end. He nods and I let go, stepping back one pace and watching.
Rollerboy flaps wildly with his arms, sinking immediately lower in the water, then rising slightly, his head sort of bobbing up and down. He seems ok even though he's working really hard, so I let him go for a minute or so before grabbing him again around the waist.
"What the hell!" he gasps. "I was drowning!"
"What? You were swimming."
"No, I was fucking drowning." But he seems only mildly annoyed. He can't have been that traumatized because five minutes later he asks to do it again, and this time he manages to balance a bit better, doing a kind of frantic dog paddle that at least keeps his head out of the water. I watch him more closely, feeling terrible that I didn't realize he was having trouble before. What is wrong with me? I grab him again, just to make sure I'm not misreading the situation.
"Hey, I was swimming!"
"Really? It was ok that time?"
"Yeah, but it's too much effort. Not worth it."
We spend the rest of the time floating instead, clinging to the edge of the pool.
Getting out is much easier than I had feared. I stand in front of him and help keep him from pitching forward as he hauls himself back up onto the towel. The pool seems to provide a lot more buoyancy than a bathtub, because he pops right up out of the water without too much difficulty. I drag over a plastic chair and he transfers into it to dry off and change out of his bathing suit, so he won't make his wheelchair seat wet.
The whole thing is so easy and fun, I wish we could do it every weekend, but of course it's not every weekend his dad is out of town.
The weekend after classes start, Rollerboy comes to visit me. We are both so sick of my miserable little apartment--the terrifying chore of pushing him up and down the insanely steep driveway, the fact that he can't use the bathroom. Not to mention the constant noise from the busy street, and the way I have to drive through downtown traffic whenever I want to go anywhere. There have been problems with the heating system as well that the landlord can't seem to fix. I really don't want to spend another fall and winter here. Even though I have another year on my lease, I'm so ready to move out.
Which brings up another issue. I mean, we've been together for almost a year. I've never lived with a boyfriend before, but isn't that what people do when they've been together this long?
As we're lounging on the sofa in my apartment, I list all the things I hate about this apartment. Actually we're just killing time until it's time to go out to dinner, because there's nothing in Raser City that Rollerboy wants to do and he hates pushing over the broken and hilly sidewalks.
"We should move in together," I suggest.
"That would be a terrible idea," Rollerboy replies in a rare moment of calm clarity.
We've been over this before, so I don't even bother rehashing the argument, because I know he's right. Neither of us can leave where we are right now, and in between Raser City and Bessemer is a vast wasteland of strip malls and farmland. There's no point in moving to some shitty little town in the middle of nowhere, where we will each have a two hour daily commute. But even though I despise the idea of leaving Raser City, I can't stop thinking about moving in with him.
"What about Cowtown?" I suggest.
"Ugh, no way. Cowtown? You've got to be kidding." It's one of the shittier towns on the way to Bessemer, but it is at least slightly closer to me. "Anyway, it doesn't matter because it would never work."
"But I at least want to tryyyyyy," I whine.
Ok, I can accept that we are not moving in together, but because I am truly sick of the craphole I currently live in, I start looking for a new apartment on my own. Not a place where we will live together, but someplace that will make the weekend visits more bearable. Someplace that is actually wheelchair accessible and that will make the commute to Bessemer easier.
Finding a wheelchair accessible apartment that is not too far from the university and that fits my grad student budget is surprisingly difficult. There are no high rises or sprawling condo complexes in this part of Raser City, just a ton of old houses converted to student apartments not even remotely up to code.
I look at one place that's the back half of a cute house that has been divided up into separate units. The main door of the back unit opens into the spacious back yard. There's only one step up, but the doorway seems suspiciously narrow. I like the apartment but I'm worried about that door. I stand in the middle of the doorway with my arms pressed up against the sides, trying to mentally judge the width.
"Something wrong?" the landlord asks.
"Uh, this door seems narrower than normal."
Instantly he's on the defensive. "The door is fine. See, it has a deadbolt. It's a normal door."
"Yeah, but it seems narrow."
"Why does that matter?" I can guess it really isn't up to code, because he definitely does not want to talk about this.
"Well, my boyfriend uses a wheelchair, and I'm worried he couldn't get in."
The landlord's whole demeanor softens. "Oh, yeah, well, that might be a problem. It is a little narrower than a standard door." By a little, he means a lot. It's crazy how he's relieved that I'm only turning down the apartment because it's not wheelchair accessible. I'm sad to turn down that place because it was otherwise really nice, but I'm determined to find something better.