I found a new apartment! Woo hoo! It's totally perfect--on the ground floor without even a single step at the front door, so Rollerboy can just roll right in. It's a one bedroom, not a studio, so for the first time in years I will actually have a separate living room, and my bed will not be directly opposite the front door. The inside is all tile floors, no gross wall to wall carpet, and the bathroom is huge, easily accommodating a wheelchair. There's no bathtub, only a stall shower, but I bet I could put a shower chair in there and he could use it. Best of all, I will shave at least 30-40 minutes off my commute to Bessemer.
Ok, so it's not actually in Raser City, and it's pretty far from my university. I had to expand my search to one of the far outer suburbs to find anything affordable and wheelchair accessible. It's not as far as Cowtown, though; I'm at least nearish to the city, in a semi-industrial semi-residential area called the Iron Triangle.
When I mention my new address to chorus mean girls, one of them says, "Oh, that's where I'm doing my PhD field work!" She's studying the effects of oil refineries on low income minority communities.
Ok, so it is next to a giant oil refinery, but the new place seems so nice and quiet. It's a house that's been divided up. An elderly African American lady lives upstairs, and I'll be on the ground floor. It even has off-street parking.
I call Rollerboy right away to tell him I signed a lease on a new apartment. His reaction is neutral to moderately pleased. The landlord of my current apartment, on the other hand, goes ballistic, ranting at me over the phone for breaking the lease. I calmly point out that he has still not fixed the heat, and I'm not freezing my ass off through another winter. He mutters something about never being able to keep anyone in that apartment, and that's when I realize he has no intention of ever fixing anything, and the apartment truly is objectively unbearable. I decide it's worth the sacrifice of my deposit to be rid of this place. I set a move-in date and rent a U-Haul.
A week or so after I find the new apartment, but before I have moved, I wake up as usual at 9 am and start my morning routine, listening to NPR as I take a shower and get dressed. Normally I'm sort of half listening to Morning Edition, but today something seems to be going on. The announcers keep talking about breaking news and a developing story. I have to listen for twenty minutes or so before I can piece together what is happening--something about planes hitting the World Trade Center in New York.
I go through the motions of getting ready with a sick apprehension, but it still feels so distant and unreal. The announcer at the local affiliate rambles on breathlessly about rumors that Raser City could be next, but that seems like obvious hysteria. As I get breakfast, I can hear workmen painting the outside of the apartment building next door through the open window. They're also talking about the attacks.
"That's it, we're going to war," one of them men says grimly, but with a tinge of excited anticipation. It's only been an hour and already I can't bear to listen to people talking about it. The paranoia and aggression, it's just too much.
But all around me, it's all everyone is talking about. Some of my classes are suspended, but even in the ones that meet, the profs let people spend the whole class time talking about it.
It's not until the evening when I get a call from my mother that it starts to seem a bit more real.
"Your brother's ok," she says breathlessly.
Well of course he's ok, it never occurred to me that he wouldn't be ok. Yes, he lives in Manhattan, but at like 96th St. My grandmother and my mother's cousins all live in New York as well but I just assumed everyone is fine. I didn't know until my mother tells me that the restaurant where my brother works is less than a mile from the World Trade Center, and his girlfriend works in one of the towers. She wasn't in her office, because she was on her way to a meeting. She ran to my brother's restaurant and they both walked all the way back to his apartment. It took them the entire day, but neither of them were hurt. I'm relieved, of course, but it feels so strange to have such a personal connection to this tragedy, even if it's only a near miss.
For the next few weeks, it's like a dark cloud settles over everything. Everyone seems to be sleepwalking through their grief and anger, and no one can stop talking about it, all these emotions with nowhere to go.
Meanwhile, I'm in the middle of moving house. Every spare minute when I'm not in class or doing homework, I'm driving back and forth between the old and new apartments, the same boring stretch of road over and over. As I drive, I listen to NPR on the car radio, but every bit of news is so freaking depressing I want to bang my head against the steering wheel. Yet somehow I can't stop listening. It's hard to feel excited about the new place when it feels like the whole world is teetering on the brink of chaos.
Finally, it's moving day. Sarah volunteers to help drive the U-Haul, bless her, because I don't think I could manage it. The only other friends who offer to help are Vincent and Margo, a Chinese-American Mormon couple who are also in our graduate program. They seemed quite secular when I first met them; it's not until I got to know them better that I realize they are actually super religious. They wear the special underwear and everything.
I already have everything boxed up, so it doesn't take long to get most of my stuff out of the tiny apartment. Sarah is in the U-Haul arranging boxes while Vincent and Margo are helping me shift the last big pieces of furniture. Vincent lifts the mattress off my Ikea bed, revealing a dusty corner of floor I clearly have not swept in the year I've been living here. Also revealed: wads of tissues, an empty condom wrapper, a pile of rope, a vibrator and some batteries, which roll across the floor.
"How did that get there," I mutter unconvincingly, as my super religious Mormon friends pretend not to have seen anything.
After one big trip in the U-Haul, many trips in the car and much appreciated help from Sarah, Vincent and Margo, I get everything shifted over to the new place in one day. The first time Rollerboy comes to visit and pushes right in the front door without any assistance from me, I'm practically cheering. I show him the living room, then the kitchen with the bedroom and bathroom on either side.
"It's ok," he sniffs.
I suggest putting a plastic chair in the shower but he declines. At least he can roll up to the toilet himself to empty his leg bag. No more will I have to ferry the contents to the bathroom in a plastic jug. Things are going to be so much better from now on.
Rollerboy calls to tell me that he was given two free tickets to Six Flags, and do I want to go with him.
"There's a Six Flags near here?" I ask.
"Duh, yeah. It's halfway between Raser City and Bessemer."
"You go right past it every time you drive out here. You can see the rollercoaster from the freeway."
"Really? I never noticed."
"Oh my god, for real? How could you miss it?"
"When I'm driving, I just keep my eyes pinned to the road."
He laughs. "What is wrong with you?"
We both know the answer to that. I'm too tightly wound and a nervous driver. As I drive up to his place, again I somehow miss it even though I'm looking for a rollercoaster. It's not until he drives us both to the Six Flags that I figure out where it is.
As it turns out, Six Flags doesn't have that much to offer a quad. I ask Rollerboy if he wants to go on the giant rollercoaster, but he declines for fear of being ejected from the seat.
"I would flop around like a rag doll," are his exact words. Actually there was a case in the news recently of just that, an SCI dude who was thrown from a rollercoaster. As if that wasn't enough to keep us from wanting to try it, I can't even imagine how he would transfer into the seat. In any case, I get motion sick just watching a video of a rollercoaster, and the last time I rode one back in high school it was barf-o-rama afterwards, so I'm happy to skip it.
We wander about and gorge ourselves on elephant ears and cotton candy and corn dogs. We play the games on the midway, where we win a long, flexible glowing lightstick that I thread in the spokes of his chair. We get our photo taken together. I'm wearing a little plaid skirt and a tight little t shirt, with my hair in pigtails and big chunky shoes, my best riot grrrl look. He likes to smack my ass and feel me up a bit, even if people are looking. I love showing off this way. I swagger along next to him, proud to be seen in public as the hot girl dating the guy in a wheelchair. Even though Six Flags is honestly a bit boring, I'm having a great time just being with him. That photo is hot. I'm grinning like an idiot, my arm around his shoulders, and he's sitting next to me, wearing sunglasses and looking cool.
I take a ton of photos on my own camera as well. As we're getting ready to leave, I set my camera on the trunk of the car and use the timer to take a photo of the two of us together.
It isn't until a week later when I remember that I need to get the photos developed that I realize my camera isn't in my bag, or anywhere. I search the whole apartment but I can't find it. It isn't at Rollerboy's place either. I must have left it on the back of the car. Shit! How could I be so stupid?
I' really bummed to lose my camera. Not just for the thing itself, but for the photos still in it. When I was dating K, I took dozens of photos of him and when we were apart, I would take them out and look at them to get that little dev thrill. After he dumped me, I couldn't bear to look at them anymore, but I couldn't bring myself to toss them out either, so now they're sealed in a box the closet of my bedroom at my parents' house. Instead, I have dozens of photos of Rollerboy, and I do the same thing.
I imagine someone finding my camera in the parking lot and developing the film out of curiosity. It's what I would do. Whoever does that will find a roll full of photos of a cute young blond guy in a wheelchair, plus one at the end of his girlfriend sitting in his lap in a parking lot. In my mind I can see the photo of him with the lightstick threaded in the spokes of his chair. That would have been such a cool picture, and it kills me not to have it. At least I have the other photo, the one we paid for. I stick it on the refrigerator.
I'm still in the Lester State University Adult Chorus, going to rehearsals once a week in the evenings. The mean girls clique is still alternately lukewarm and bitchy to me, but apart from Sarah, they are my main social circle. We are having drinks one evening at the Vine when I meet Dorie, who used to sing with the chorus a few years ago but recently moved to one of the small towns halfway between Raser City and Bessemer. When I tell her I make the trip out there almost every weekend, she invites me to stop by and say hi sometime. She seems way nicer and more genuine than the rest of the mean girls, so I take her up on the offer the very next week, because I really want more friends.
I leave Rollerboy's place late on a Sunday morning, grabbing a Pop Tart on my way out because it's the only food he has in the house. I spread peanut butter on it to try to make it marginally more nutritious. An hour and a half down the road, I pull off the highway and follow the directions Dorie gave me to her apartment.
Dorie is a tiny, wiry ball of energy with short brown hair. Her clothes and apartment décor say "casual hippy" and her last name says "definitely Jewish." I'm excited because I feel like we are definitely going to hit it off. I make myself comfortable on the futon couch while she buzzes around making tea and self-consciously noting that her apartment is a disaster and she can never bring herself to wash a single dish. Then she says she has the personality of a golden retriever and my heart kind of sinks a bit, because one, I hate dogs, and two, I have the personality of the cranky, neurotic East Coast Jew that I am. Maybe Dorie and I are not destined to be BFFs.
As we are doing the get-to-know-you chat, I tell her all about Rollerboy, not trying to hide or gloss over his disability, but putting it right front and center. Instead of the usual blank confusion or pitying stare I have come to expect, she just smiles and says,
"Oh cool, I dated a paraplegic guy three years ago."
"Really?" I resist the urge to ask what his name is, where he lives and can I have his phone number. "That's so cool! I've never met anyone else who has dated someone with an SCI." Aside from other devotee friends online, but I'm not about to divulge that. "Everyone's always so weird or pitying, but it's like, he's just a person like everyone else."
"Yeah, I know! I was only with him for a few months but he was like, so inspiring." Ugh, well, forget it, she's definitely not a devotee. No self-respecting dev would use the i-word.
"Actually," Dorie continues, "I have a date with another paraplegic guy next weekend."
"No way! Really? I mean, what are the odds? How did you meet him?"
"Well, I have an ad on Yahoo personals, and under what type you're looking for, I checked the box for disability, along with everything else. I don't discriminate--any race, or body type or weight, anything is fine with me. Our society is so obsessed with looks but it's what's on the inside that counts."
"Uh huh. So he contacted you?"
"Yeah, I guess because I checked that box, he figured I would be ok with a guy in a wheelchair. But to be honest, I'm a little nervous about the date. It's been a while since I've been with an active paraplegic. I'm not sure if I can keep up, haha!"
Well, shit. Not only are we not clicking like I'd hoped, now I'm a bit jealous of her. It's so unfair! How does she just fall ass backwards into dating two paraplegic guys? And she doesn't even appreciate how incredibly lucky she is! She's treating it like some social experiment or a chance to demonstrate her open-mindedness and progressivism to the world. It's pretty clear from the way she talks about them that she doesn't get how truly, irresistibly sexy they are.
I don't get a chance to ask Dorie later how her date went, but the next time I see her at another mean girls party she isn't dating a hot para. She's back together with her nebbishy ex, who is very much able bodied. Boring.
I keep thinking about what Sarah says, that there are other disabled guys out there. Clearly there are, since Dorie met two of them with zero effort. But I feel like now that everyone knows I'm with Rollerboy, I couldn't possibly date another guy in a wheelchair. It's one thing to tell close friends that I'm a devotee. But dating a second one, that would be like announcing it to the entire world, and I'm not ready to do that.
I'm starting to think that this apartment isn't as great as I had hoped. Even though the front door is on the ground floor level and the windows are normal size, I can't deny that actually I am in the converted garage of the house, and the real rooms are above me. The living room only has one window, because I'm not even in a two-car garage. The other half belongs to the car of the upstairs tenant.
I had been pleased that the elderly black lady upstairs lived alone and seemed quiet, but her daughter just had a baby and leaves it with grandma almost all the time. I hear the baby crying constantly, especially when I'm lying in bed. Every morning I wake up in a sweat, after a recurring dream of chasing a baby that won't stop crying.
When I drag myself out of bed, I see weird shimmery stuff all over the carpet in the living room every day.
"Slugs," Rollerboy declares when he comes to visit.
"Are you sure? I haven't seen any. Where are they coming from?"
"I dunno." He uses his arms to lean down in his chair and poke at the carpet with a limp finger. "Sick." He pushes himself back up again. "Definitely slugs. And ugh, what's that smell? Did you get a cat?"
"Well it smells like cat piss."
I guess this is the downside to having a ground level apartment. The slugs must be coming in under the door. And apparently some neighborhood cat has been peeing against the outside of the door. I spray some cleaning fluid and try to forget about it.
But the smell just gets worse, until it's like a physical presence that nearly knocks me back on my heels. It's hard to believe it's actually on the outside. Rollerboy refuses to come over until I do something about it. And since the table where I eat is right next to the door, the situation has become quite dire.
I go to a pet store to get some industrial grade cleaners and scrub the door and doorframe. I discover that the threshold isn't even bolted down. It's just a piece of metal that's been held in place by years of collected dust and grime. I scrub out the whole reeking thing. How do I always end up in these jury rigged apartments?
Not to mention that every few weeks the air raid siren goes off to alert us to a leak at the oil refinery. But I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do about that.
On the plus side, though, I have free cable. Not just basic, but all the premium channels too. There was a cable sticking out of the wall, so I plugged it in to the TV, and voila, there were a hundred channels, like magic.
Because we're both kind of grossed out by my apartment, I spend the next few weekends at Rollerboy's place. One evening we go out to dinner together, with me driving. When we get back, I pull up in front of the walkway to his apartment, behind the row of parked cars, so I can let him out. I don't park because there's only one handicapped space and his car is in it. Also all the spots nearby are assigned; guest parking is really far away. I'm planning to drive over to a guest spot after dropping him off, but I discover after he gets out that I can't get the car out of park. The button on the gear shifter won't go in, like it's frozen or something. I'm stuck.
A woman pulls up behind me and lays on her horn. I'm blocking her spot. Rollerboy wheels over to her car to explain that I'm stuck, but she is not having it. She immediately starts screaming that I need to move my fucking car. He yells back at her. I'm sweating bullets, trying to move the gear shifter, wondering if I should call a tow truck and how the hell I am ever going to get back to Raser City.
Rollerboy pushes back over to me. "Just move the fucking shifter!"
"Push harder! God dammit!" Now he's getting frustrated because he thinks that if he weren't paralyzed, this wouldn't happen. He would be able to fix it, or have the strength to push in the button.
But I know it's not a matter of hand strength. This is not the first time this has happened, and it's always at the worst possible moment, like when I'm filling up at the gas station or late for school. Usually I just try a lot and eventually it works. This is by far the longest I've been stuck.
Just as both the woman and Rollerboy are really screaming at me, suddenly the car goes into gear as if nothing were wrong. Great, so now they both think I'm just an idiot who doesn't know how to drive.
The next week I take the car in to be serviced, but it doesn't happen when the guy is looking at it. He asks when I spilled soda in the gear box and I say never. He looks at me like I'm lying and shrugs his shoulders. I get in the habit of leaving the car in neutral and using the emergency brake instead.
Rollerboy calls me on a Friday afternoon, which is unusual for him. Even before I pick up the phone, I know something is up.
"Hey, what is it?"
"Uh, I think you shouldn't come up this weekend. My mom, like, had a stroke yesterday."
"What? Oh my god! Is she ok?"
"Yeah, she's ok. I mean, I guess, I don't know. She's in the hospital but she's not like a vegetable or nothing. She's awake and everything."
"Oh, that's good!"
"Um, the doctor said he doesn't know yet how extensive the damage is but so far it seems mild."
"Wow, I'm so sorry. Is there anything I can do?"
"Nah, it's fine, but maybe you don't want to come up this weekend."
Ugh! Why is he pushing me away? This is exactly the moment when I should be there for emotional support. But I can't tell him that he should want me to be there. Instead I say, "It's ok, I understand. Are you going to visit her in the hospital?"
"Yeah, I already went once but it's not like I'm going every day. I hate the fucking hospital, you know? Reminds me of my accident and rehab. Anyway she has my aunt there for company."
I assume this is the same aunt who after his accident urged him to come to Jesus because "that's all you have left now." I don't ask any further about that.
"Well you shouldn't just sit around and worry the whole weekend," I suggest. "Are you sure you don't want me to come up? We can just take it easy if you want." I don't mention going to the hospital together, because I still have not met his mom, and now is not the time to get into that whole conversation.
"Come on, I'll help take your mind off things. We can watch TV."
"Ok, I guess."
I arrive as usual on Saturday just before lunch. He's looking pale and worn out, but insists he's fine. So far the news has been good--his mom seems a little forgetful and distracted but otherwise she's doing ok. We decide to go out for lunch at Chevy's. I volunteer to drive us there.
We each order sandwiches with fries, then for dessert we splurge and get a huge ice cream sundae. The conversation wanders here and there, just filling space and trying to stay positive. He repeats what the doctor said about how it's too soon to tell but so far the prognosis is good. Her legs seem a little weak so she's scheduled for rehab to work on walking. I'm thinking about the sad irony of the mother following the son through rehab and wondering if he is thinking the same thing, when Rollerboy abruptly puts his spoon down.
"Oh no," he says, his face going white, his eyes suddenly hollow.
"What?" I sit up, worried.
"What's wrong?" Now I'm really worried.
"My stomach...I shouldn't have eaten that ice cream...."
"What do you want to do? I'm sure there's a handicapped toilet here. Do you want me to help you transfer?"
"Ok, let's go home then." I grab my purse and the bill.
He grimaces suddenly, then his face shuts down. "Too late."
"Wha...really?" I sputter, momentarily thrown off guard. We sit there for a second, staring at each other in horror, wondering what to do next. A moment later I snap into disaster management mode.
"Let's go," I say calmly, picking up the check. I pay as quickly as possible. He waits by the door while I run to the bathroom. Luckily there is a paper towel dispenser, not just an air dryer. I yank out as big a stack of paper towels as I can grab. A middle-aged woman behind me tsks disapprovingly but I ignore her. If she only knew.
I run back out to the car and spread the paper towels all over the passenger seat as best I can. It doesn't work very well because they don't want to unfold and I don't have time to make it neat. Rollerboy transfers onto the seat, cursing under his breath. I grab his chair and toss it in the back seat without even taking the wheels off.
Once we get back to his apartment, he makes a beeline for the bathroom and slams the door shut. I take some spray cleanser from under the kitchen sink and a roll of paper towels and go out to survey the damage in the car. Surprisingly, there are only a few tiny spots on the back of the seat, otherwise his jeans and the paper towels seem to have contained the mess. I clean up and scrub the seat as best I can.
I go back inside and turn on the TV, to give him some privacy in the shower. After about thirty minutes, I hear the water turn off, and I knock on the bathroom door.
"Yeah, can you take care of my clothes?"
I get a black plastic trash bag and open the door. He indicates his jeans and t-shirt lying in a wad on the floor.
"I can wash it if you want."
He wrinkles his nose. "No, just toss it all."
I feel bad throwing his clothes away. He wears these jeans almost every day. On the other hand, he's not one to get overly attached to a favorite article of clothing, like I do. I throw bag containing the jeans and t-shirt in the dumpster outside.
I come back in to find him stretched out on the bed, looking drained. I lay down next to him and he puts his arms around my shoulders.
"Does your stomach still hurt?"
"No, that's finished."
We're quiet for a while.
"Thanks," he says gruffly.
"I mean it," he elaborates, in a rare fit of talkativeness. "I really appreciate that you didn't freak out."
"Of course," I say, and kiss him on the cheek. What can I say? For him, it's the most horrible, humiliating experience, but it doesn't make me not love him. What kind of monster would I be to leave him in the lurch, or act all grossed out? These things happen. You just have to deal with it. I feel bad that he had to go through all that, but at least I was there to help.