Rollerboy, part 2
Everything is different now. I'm being forced to move to a new apartment, because my beloved old house is being torn down. I've quit my easy but boring, dead-end job to go back to grad school.
But it's not just me. My friends are changing too. Sharon and Cyril finally broke up, with less drama than we had all expected. Sharon just announced one day that she was moving to Hawaii to go live on an organic farm, or maybe a cult. Whatever, I've had it with her super critical food obsessions and snide little comments. I haven't forgotten how she threatened to fire me when I was sick. Ironically, she was angry at me for quitting, then turned around and announced she was leaving herself, putting her former assistant in charge. Whatever, I am so done with that office.
I sort of had a falling out with Cyril myself, about the Renaissance singing group. I did a few performances with them, not just the Christmas caroling, but when I suggested we polish up our musical skills, Cyril accused me of being too bossy. True, it is his group, not mine, but why doesn't he want to improve? He made it clear that the Rapier Academy is his priority, but I stopped attending that months ago. So no more fencing or singing.
Tovia moved back east to our hometown with his paraplegic girlfriend Elisa. I'm pretty sure they're going to get married soon, but I'm not invited to the wedding. Actually Tovia and I fell out of touch immediately after he moved. I'm not sure why. Maybe because I accused him of being a devotee, or maybe because we started bickering too much. I admit I was bitchy to him a few times. Or maybe it's just that our lives are moving in different directions, and I'm really bad at keeping in touch.
And I broke up with Doug. Or whatever, told him our friends with benefits arrangement is over. I'm starting to feel like I'm just using him, and it's not fair to keep him hanging around when it's clear he likes me more than I like him. Actually the more time we spend together, the less I like him. He got fired from his copy shop job after only two months, and the way he tried to blow it off like it was no big deal while clearly repressing a huge amount of anger and resentment seems like a waving red flag. He never told me exactly why he got fired, but from the hints he dropped, it seems like he screwed up somehow. Ewan was right, Doug has issues. I'm not going to be the one to save him.
So in the end the only ones who help me move are Rachel and Ewan. With great effort, I pack up everything from my wonderful, awesome, beautiful apartment into a truck and they help me drive across town to my crappy, cramped, lousy new place.
I selected the new apartment mainly because it's in a building constructed in the 1920s with a fake Spanish façade, and because it's the only place near to the university that I could afford. The only redeeming features are the old-fashioned black and white tile flooring in the kitchen and really pretty blue-green tile in the bathroom.
The downside, however, is that it's a studio, even smaller than my old place, and poorly laid out, so it feels even smaller than it is. It's designed shotgun style, with the main room in front, then the kitchen, then the bathroom at the end of a long, narrow hall. And it's on the ground floor, facing the road. A very busy road. Just after I sign the lease, as I'm feeling triumphant at actually securing something semi-affordable that isn't in a crackhouse, a random stranger passing by glances at the lease in my hand and the landlord taking down the "For Rent" sign and mutters ominously in my direction, "You know, this street is really fucking loud."
I realize what he means the first night I try to sleep there. It's not just that there is a ton of traffic. Something about the way the street is paved with concrete slabs rather than asphalt makes the cars even noisier than normal, with the tires thumping in uneven rhythms as they go over the gaps between the slabs. I make a mental note to buy ear plugs.
Another downside is that my off-street parking is a narrow gravel pit along the side of the house, at the top of an insanely steep driveway. I have to gun the engine for like 20 seconds to get up it, then immediately stop and maneuver the car off the concrete and into the gravel without hitting the side of the building. The first time I try it, it takes me almost half an hour. Parking on the street is not an option because it's all a two hour zone.
And that's not even the worst. I realize with a sinking feeling, as Ewan helps me carry in the last of my Ikea furniture, that I have neglected to find a wheelchair accessible apartment. This place is about as far from accessible as you could get. It's on a very steep hill, and there are about 40 steps leading from the sidewalk up to the front door. Of course, I'm on the first floor, so once you get in the door, my place is directly on the left, but how to get to that point?
I'm not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, I'm really excited to meet Rollerboy, my internet crush who lives three hours away. On the other hand, it was almost impossible to get even this crappy place. Wheelchair accessible apartments are in very short supply, especially near the university because most buildings are so old. It seems like madness to look for an apartment to suit someone I haven't even met yet. We're still emailing a lot but it's not a sure thing until we meet.
The first week in the new apartment is rough. I try to be positive, but I don't like the new place. I miss my old house so much. Ewan and Rachel leave for a two month trip to Bali, and suddenly I feel like I have no friends. I decide to buy a cell phone for the very first time, but I barely have any numbers to program in. School hasn't started yet, and I feel unmoored from any familiar routine. So far it's like I upended my life for nothing. The only thing I have to look forward to is meeting Rollerboy.
The second week after the move, we finally set a date to meet. He volunteers to drive down to Raser City one afternoon, but I'm not sure where we should meet. I can't invite him over, obviously, but I don't want to do the standard 45 minute coffee shop date, especially since he's driving so far. I want it to be nice--someplace cool and relaxed where we can have a tasty lunch and get to know each other. Preferably walking distance from my new apartment, partly because I don't want to deal with parking my car, and partly to make it easier to keep hanging out together after lunch. But I don't know my new neighborhood that well. I spot a small restaurant that seems like a hipsterish kind of place and settle on that, even though I've never been there before.
I give Rollerboy the address of the restaurant and hope for the best. The morning before we meet, I change outfits at least ten times, trying to strike the right balance of sexy and casual. I'm not the kind of girl who wears makeup every day. I don't want to seem like I'm trying too hard. Eventually I settle on my most flattering jeans and a tight-fitting tank top that shows off my boobs. At the last minute, I throw a button-down shirt on over the tank top.
I walk over to the restaurant, only to discover that it's closed. Not just closed at that moment, but permanently out of business. How did I not notice that before I picked this place? God, I'm an idiot. This is not an auspicious start to our date.
I hang around the parking lot, which is full of cars from the office building next door, giving the illusion that the restaurant is hopping and not a desolate shell. After a few minutes, Rollerboy pulls up, right on time. I recognize the car by the blue handicapped tag hanging from the rear view mirror.
We wave to each other a little shyly through the window, then he flings open the car door. As I watch, he reclines his seat all the way back then pulls a rigid frame wheelchair from the passenger seat and tosses it on the ground next to him. It's missing one wheel. With the seat still reclined, he pulls the other wheel out and in a second pops it on, then with an arm around the steering wheel to give himself leverage, he pushes the seat back upright. Now is the actual transfer. He pulls out first one leg then the other, and using his feet as a fulcrum, slides his butt from the driver's seat onto the wheelchair. Then he pulls his legs up so his feet are resting on the footplate and bats his jeans smooth with a few careless slaps. The whole time I'm just watching curiously, standing far back and trying not to stare too obviously.
Once the transfer process is complete, I finally go over and introduce myself properly. He swings his arm up from the shoulder and I shake his hand. I'm kind of shocked at how his hand just rests limply in mine, not squeezing back. Yes, I know, he told me he's a c7 quad but I'm still not totally sure what that means exactly, and instead of explaining in detail, he just said he's basically like a para. I guess I thought that meant he could move his hands a little, or something.
In the brief moment we shake hands, he smiles and his whole face lights up. It's another shock, and it takes me a while to figure out why--he never smiled in any of the photos he sent me. He was always scowling. He actually looks even better in real life than in the photos, with his spiky yellow hair and pale blue eyes. He looks happy to see me too. So far so good. I take a deep breath.
"Um, I'm really sorry but it looks like this place is closed," I say.
"What!" The smile disappears, replaced with a sour glare. "Why didn't you tell me that before I dragged my ass out of the car? Now I gotta transfer again."
"Oh! I didn't think about that. I'm really sorry." I feel terrible. How could I have missed that? Part of my dev pride is being more sensitive to things like that than the average clueless able-bodied person, but so far I am striking out.
He wheels back to the car and yanks the door open then starts the whole process again in reverse, cursing under his breath. This time instead of the passenger seat, he flips his half disassembled chair into the back seat. Once he's finished, I get in.
"So where to?" he asks, gunning the engine.
"Uhhh..." I really have no Plan B. There are some shitty restaurants closer to campus but I'm not sure on the accessibility of all of them, and honestly I was hoping for something a little classier. Besides the parking situation sucks.
Rollerboy steers the car towards the maze of one-way streets around campus.
"That looks ok. Let's go there," he says, indicating a student bar with a green awning. He sees a rare free spot on the street and pulls in.
"But it's a 30 minute zone," I warn him. "If you're even a minute over it's a $300 ticket."
"Nah, I get unlimited time with this," he explains, batting the blue placard with the back of his hand. "Don't have to feed the meter either."
"Oh, that's cool."
Getting out again is another near disaster. The curb is high, so he can't swing the car door open far enough to get his chair in exactly the right spot to transfer. For a minute it seems like we might have to give up the spot and circle around some more, but after some scraping of metal on concrete, he finally manages to make it work. I apologize again, but he just nods curtly.
As he wheels into the restaurant I follow behind, checking out his chair. Low back, no armrests, no handles. Across the black nylon back is the word "Quickie." I remember a while ago seeing a post on the devotee listserv that said "Quickie is the sexiest of chairs." It had never occurred to me before that moment to look at the wheelchair itself and not the person in it, but I soon realized it was true. Old, clunky folding chairs with wheels straight up and down: not sexy. A low-slung sporty chair with wheels angled in at the top: sexy.
Luckily for us the restaurant is not crowded, as the students have not yet returned for the new semester. I pull a chair away from an empty table for him then sit down on the other side. I'm all set to go on a tirade if the waitress talks only to me and not to him, but she just smiles at him and asks what he'll have.
Rollerboy orders a burger and I get a club sandwich. I try to concentrate on the conversation, but I'm totally distracted watching him eat. To pick up the burger, he rests his hand on top, then works his thumb underneath until the burger is wedged between his thumb and forefinger. With the bottle of Coke, it's the same thing, resting his hand over the top until his fingers are wrapped around it. I still can't figure out if he can use his fingers or not. He seems to be moving them, so maybe?
Even if I wasn't so distracted, the conversation is heavy going. We really have nothing in common. I'm a super nerdy East Coast Jewish princess who likes classical music, yoga and organic artisanal foods. He is self-described white trash from Bessemer. Before his accident, he was set on going into construction like his father, now he's just getting by on SSI and going to community college part time even though he hates school. Over email, when I first asked what he did for a living, he told me he was a "day trader." Now I realize that means he occasionally trades stocks over the internet, but what it really means is "self-unemployed."
But he's cute and it's exciting to be out with a guy in a wheelchair. After lunch, I show him all around campus. It's still quiet and mostly deserted, and the big leafy plazas and walkways are easy to roll around.
I don't ask, but he tells me anyway about his accident and rehab, I guess because he thinks that's what I want to hear.
"They say it takes ten years to adjust to spinal cord injury," he says.
"So it's been just about ten years--are you adjusted?"
He shrugs. "I dunno. I guess, sorta. It was so weird how in rehab the PTs knew more about how my body worked that I did. It was like they had to teach me everything. But now I'm, like, an expert. I can MacGuyver my way out of just about anything." We laugh, and again I see that fleeting, charming grin. "People ask me if I know about Christopher Reeve, and I'm like, shut up--I've been a quad longer than he has."
"You must have to hear a lot of dumb shit, huh," I sympathize.
"Yeah. When I was first injured, lying in the hospital, my Mom said, 'Now you have to accept Jesus into your heart. It's all you have left,'" he recites in mocking tones, gesturing with his hands in between pushes to convey his utter contempt. "I was like, fuck that shit."
Then he backs up and tells me the whole story of how he got injured, drunk driving when he was eighteen. The car rolled into a ditch and landed on the roof, while he was thrown out the open window and crashed onto his shoulder on the grass.
"In the ambulance, I heard myself flatline twice," he says with a kind of morbid cheerfulness. At the base of his throat is the prominent trach scar. It moves up and down, in and out when he talks. When I walk behind him, I can see the scar at the back of his neck, almost an inch wide, going down into his collar and up into his hairline. "At least they never put a halo on me," he continues. "I should've had it but I dunno, they just didn't. At least I don't have scars from that. I see these quads who have huge dents on either side of their forehead--so gross." He slides his eyes over to me and gives me a sly grin. "But you probably like that."
"Don't all girls think scars are sexy?" I deflect.
"Yeah, it means you've been through some serious shit," he agrees.
But then, because I have to know for sure, I ask, "So are you ok with me being a devotee?"
I realize immediately that this is a pronunciation problem. He knows I'm a devotee and what that means; we've emailed about it often enough. But this is the first time I have said the word aloud to him. I'm pronouncing it in the fake French way, the way one might say "a devotée of the arts" or whatever: day-voh-TAY. I say it again.
"Oh, you mean devotee?" He says it like an English word: duh-VOH-dee. "Why are you saying it like that?"
I'm already painfully aware that he thinks I'm a snobby princess, so I don't want to give him a language lesson, even though I know I'm right. But I also think it's incredibly pretentious to insist on a fake French pronunciation of words that are nothing like real French, words like lingerie and connoisseur. So I'm not going to push for my pronunciation of devotee. On the other hand, the way he's saying it is just wrong. We trade the word back and forth for a minute, and eventually settle on a compromise: dee-voh-tee. But somehow he never quite answers my question.
By this point, we've been walking/wheeling for a while, so as we come to some benches, I sit down and take off my outer shirt, leaving only the tank top.
Rollerboy leans over and glances at my shoulder. "Nice tattoo."
"Thanks," I smile. "I just got it a few months ago."
"Can I take a closer look?" he asks. I nod, leaning forward. His limp fingers brush my skin lightly as he pulls the strap away to see the butterfly on my shoulder blade. I shiver a little bit at his touch. For the first time today, I let myself relax enough to get turned on. It only lasts a second, but the way he touches me feels so intimate.
"Nice," he says again, dropping his hand away. For a minute I wonder if things will go further, but instead there's just an awkward silence. Then he says, "I gotta use the bathroom."
I show him in to one of the accessible campus buildings nearby. When he's done, he says it's getting late and he should start heading back.
The conversation peters out again as we return to his car. He goes through the whole transfer routine while I wait outside, only hopping in once he's finished. I give him directions back to my apartment, and for once there's an empty spot right in front. He pulls in but doesn't shut off the engine. We stare at each other.
"Uh," he says.
"Um," I say. Neither of us moves.
Normally this is the point in the date where we would kiss. I look at him, weighing my possible moves. He's turned towards me in the driver's seat, but he's got his left arm raised above his head, his hand resting against the top of the window. It's a big two-door American car, like a boat, so he's really far away from me. The way he's plastered himself up against the window, it's like he's trying to get as far away from me as possible. He's giving me that sour look again.
So ok, no kiss then.
"Well, thanks for coming all this way. I had a really nice time," I say, trying to smile.
"Yeah, me too," he mumbles.
"Uh, ok then, I'll call you."
I get out, feeling defeated. After all that, he doesn't like me. I try not to think about it too hard.
The next evening, as I'm trying to get organized for the start of the semester, I get a phone call.
This has been going on almost every night since I moved here. Someone calls but doesn't say anything. Even though the caller ID number is blocked, I know it's not a telemarketer or a wrong number because whoever it is doesn't hang up. I can hear faint breathing at the other end of the line. The first few times it happens, I hang up right away. But as it goes on, I realize who it is.
He hangs up.
The next day, the same thing happens again, but this time when I say his name, he doesn't disconnect.
"Doug?" I ask again. No answer. "Look, I know it's you." Still no reply. "If you want to talk, then talk, but this silent calling is fucking annoying, ok?" I go on like this for like five minutes, and eventually he gives in.
"What do you want me to say?"
Ha! I knew it was him.
"Why are you doing this? Is something wrong?"
"No, I'm fine," he says tightly. Obviously something is wrong. I try to draw him out, but every time I ask a personal question, he snaps, "Don't pry!" The only bits of information I can glean are that he got a new job finally and that he's still hung up on me. He keeps steering the conversation in morbid directions, making cryptic comments about dead bodies and how he has to see them too much lately.
"What are you talking about? Are you working in a morgue?" I ask.
"Don't pry!" he snaps for like the tenth time.
The conversation goes on like this for over an hour. I would have hung up sooner but I stick around long enough to make sure this isn't some bizarre suicide attempt. Despite the creepy way he's talking, he doesn't threaten to hurt himself. Eventually I've had enough.
"Ok, it's getting late. I have to go."
"No! I need you!"
"I'm sorry, but no. You don't need me."
"You're just like all the others," he whines. "Everyone always lets me down."
"Ok, good night!" I chirp and hang up quickly before he can say anything more.
What the hell was that? Once again I realize my friends were right about Doug. I should never have gone out with him. I'm a little worried he might call again or even come to the apartment, but he doesn't.
I feel bad for Doug, but the truth is after that horrible phone call is over, I hardly think about him at all. I can't stop thinking about Rollerboy. Ok, so we don't have much in common and he lives far away. But he is really cute, and I like his no-nonsense attitude. After all the angsty emotions with Patrick and Doug, it's kind of refreshing to be with someone who isn't so caught up in his feelings all the time.
But mostly I think about what it would be like to lie next to him in bed. I lie in my own bed, in my shitty, noisy apartment, imagining him beside me. What would it feel like to have sex with him? I have to find out.
I wait a week after our first date then call him. He sounds really surprised to hear from me, but in a good way.
"I thought for sure you would never call," he says. "I thought you hated me."
"What? I thought you hated me!"
"Nah, you're cute."
I feel a little warm glow. "I think you're cute." My voice goes lower as I say it. Then I take a deep breath, my heart pounding as I ask, "So do you want to come down to Raser City again next weekend?"