I'm standing next to a wheelchair ramp when I see this guy roll down in a power wheelchair. I don't know what his disability is, but it's clearly congenital. His body is kind of small, which makes his head look huge, even more so because of his pouf of frizzy hair. His chair is tipped back like a lounger, and instead of bending at the knees, his short legs stick straight out in front of him. Just below the cuff of his pants, white thermoplastic braces are visible at his ankles. But it's his hands that really catch my attention. At the end of his thin, stick-like arms, his wrists are sharply contracted, his fingers curving inwards. He still has enough strength to use the joystick on his chair, though.
I have been staking out this particular ramp hoping to see this guy. I don't just hang around ramps randomly. Well, most of the time I don't. My excuse for being here is my friend Rachel.
Rachel works at the Raser City Museum of Science, which despite the stuffy name is a hands-on museum for kids. Now that I'm working at Sharon's office downtown, I'm pretty nearby, so I sometimes stop by for lunch or after work to say hello to Rachel. That's how I first noticed this guy coming out the employee entrance. Now I've been visiting a lot more often.
I stand there, staring at him shamelessly, but he doesn't notice me. Before I can say anything, he's gone. Those power chairs move really fast.
It takes a few more near-misses before I work up the courage to ask Rachel about him. She says his name is Tim, and he's a volunteer, but she doesn't know any more than that. "Forget it," she suggests. "I think he's really young."
But I can't forget it. The next time I see him by the employee entrance, I say hello.
"I'm looking for my friend," I say boldly. "Rachel? Have you seen her?"
"I think she's in a meeting," he says, then takes off, leaves blowing in his wake.
The next time, I get lucky. I come by early, when I know Rachel isn't off yet, and there he is, sitting by the employee entrance. Now he knows who I am, sort of, so I say hi and introduce myself. It turns out he's waiting for his brother, so I sit down on the concrete steps to chat. Lucky for me his brother is late.
I find out that Tim is twenty years old, which is kind of a gray zone to me. He's definitely a legal adult, not a teenager like Rachel thought. I'm six years older than he is, which doesn't sound like a lot, but there's a huge gap between twenty and twenty-six.
As we're waiting, another guy comes out of the employee entrance. "Hey Tim, you forgot your schedule," he says, waving some stapled copies at him.
Tim can't grasp the papers with his hands, so he just waves stiffly with one contracted arm, indicating that the guy should tuck them beside the armrest of his chair. And that's it, I am completely undone. I don't care how much younger he is. I have to make something happen between us.
I give him my thousand-watt smile and ask him to tell me more about himself.
As it turns out, Tim is a smart, outgoing kind of guy, so it's very easy to talk to him. He tells me all about his blog, and I promise to take a look. When his brother finally shows up, I wave and smile. I don't tell Rachel about all this.
Back at home, I look up Tim's blog. A lot of the entries are kind of trite and silly. There's some poetry he's written too, ugh. But on the whole his writing is not bad and a few of the entries are genuinely funny. And there, along the side of the page, is his email address. I send off a quick note and he replies. Suddenly we're chatting over email as if we're real friends.
We're talking about movies, and Tim mentions that he wants to see the new film adaptation of Titus Andronicus. I'm always down for some Shakespeare on film, even if it's a play I don't really know. So without reflecting at all or even looking up any reviews or trailers, I suggest we go see it together at a matinee the next weekend. He tells me his address and I arrange to pick him up. And that's it, suddenly I have a date with Tim.
Despite my resolution to be more open with Rachel, old habits die hard. I still can't bring myself to tell her, especially after she told me not to pursue him. Instead, I tell a devotee woman I've become friends with online. Her email is MsHotWheels, but I don't know her real name. Or if she really is a woman. Since Angelo, I've become suspicious of everyone. But we only talk online, so I figure it doesn't really matter. It's so fun to have someone to compare notes on our favorite fictional devo crushes (mine: Luke Skywalker and Matt Murdock).
In addition to being a devotee, MsHotWheels is also a pretender. On her frequent business trips, she likes to spend a few hours wheeling around in a city where no one knows her. She tells me about these expeditions in detail. I'm not sure how I feel about pretenders, but all she does is push around on the street or maybe go to a café. It doesn't seem like she's hurting anyone. Recently, though, she's bought a house and now all she talks about is interior decoration. It's seeming less likely that she's a dude in disguise.
I tell MsHotWheels all about Tim and our upcoming date. When I mention that his hands are curved like claws, she fixates on that one detail and wants to talk about it endlessly.
"I wish he would pinch my nipple with one of those claws," she writes, not just once, but every time I mention Tim. Ew, why did she have to make it sound so dirty? But I'm turned on despite myself. Those tiny, curved hands are freaking hot. For the thousandth time, I kick myself for being taken in by Angelo. This is the real thing--there's no faking that kind of severe deformity.
The day of our date, I drive over to Tim's apartment complex. I'm wondering how he is going to fit his monster power chair into my economy-size car, but he didn't mention anything about it, so I figure he has some plan in mind.
When I drive up, I see Tim standing by the curb, no wheelchair in sight. For a second, I'm thrown for a loop, but then I remember the thermoplastic braces. Obviously, he wears them for a reason. Even with the braces, he can't walk very well. It's more like swaying from foot to foot on stiff, unbending legs, gradually inching forward. But he doesn't need the chair, which is good because there's no way it would fit in my car.
I get out of the car and open the passenger side door for him, then stand there awkwardly wondering how he is going to get in.
"Just lift me up under my arms," he instructs me matter-of-factly. I do what he says and wedge him into the passenger seat, then fasten the seat belt for him. It's an oddly intimate way to start a first date, but I'm feeling more uncomfortable than turned on.
At the movie theater, I pick him up the same way again to take him out of the car, then follow behind him as he slowly, slowly sidles up the wheelchair ramp. Because his legs are braced and his arms are too weak for crutches, there's no way he can climb stairs.
Inside, I pay for the tickets and buy us a huge tub of popcorn. Even though we're the only ones there, we take the very last row of seats, again because of the stair problem. Once inside, instead of sitting down, Tim just leans his butt against the folded-up seat. It occurs to me that he can't sit properly--there isn't room for his legs to stick straight out in front of him.
"Do you want some popcorn?" I ask.
"Sure," he says. I feed him a few kernels, but he seems a little embarrassed. I wonder, does he need help eating all the time? I know he lives with his brother who helps him out with stuff. It sounds like they get along great. Does his brother feed him every meal? I don't ask, because it feels intrusive, and because the movie starts.
Oh my god, the movie.
Even though it's an impressive piece of cinema, Julie Taymore's Titus has got to be the worst date movie ever. I had no idea it would be so rape-y. And gory. There are severed limbs everywhere. So many characters getting hands cut off, but it's not even remotely sexy to me. And it's almost three hours long.
Despite the horrors onscreen, I'm distracted the whole time by Tim hovering over the folded-up seat next to me. Because he's basically standing and I'm sitting, the distance between us makes it impossible to casually lean over and touch his arm flirtatiously, as one usually does on a movie date. If I want to feed him more popcorn, I have to practically stand up myself, and he doesn't seem to want it anyway.
Three hours later, we stumble out of the theater. I'm a bit shell-shocked, but Tim's going on and on about what a genius film it is and how Anthony Hopkins is the man. This date isn't going anything like I envisioned, but I'm still determined. Even though the movie was so long, because we saw a matinee, it's only late afternoon when we get out. I ask Tim if he wants to come over to my place for a little while. He says yes.
Back at my apartment, I park the car in front on the street, rather than in my spot at the back like usual, to avoid the stairs. Even so, there is a single step down on the walkway in front of my entrance, and I have to lift him again. If I had read about it in a novel, all this lifting might have seemed sexy, but in real life, it's too reminiscent of how parents handle small children. It doesn't help that Tim's much shorter than I am. Just to be clear, I'm not the kind of girl who gets hung up on tall guys. I'm only five foot three, so like 95% of guys are taller than I am. But it does feel a little strange when I'm with a guy who is significantly smaller.
Once inside, the first thing Tim does is ask to use the bathroom. I gesture down the hall and he slowly sidles in, then comes out again a moment later.
"Can you lift the seat for me?" he asks, his face bright red.
I smile and say, "Sure, no problem," trying not to make a big deal out of it. He still avoids looking me in the eye during this exchange.
As soon as he finishes, I have to go too. I notice that he hasn't flushed, which makes sense, if he lacks the dexterity to lift the seat. But how, I wonder, did he get his fly down? He's wearing regular jeans. His bent arms barely extend to his waist and it's hard to imagine he could open a button or pull a zipper. It's a mystery, but I am glad for his sake he didn't have to ask for help with that.
I wash my hands and return to find Tim perched on the edge of the bed, because it's a studio and there's nowhere else to sit. I sit down next to him, close, finally.
"Thanks for coming out with me," I say, looking into his eyes.
"You're welcome," he says blandly. "My brother is totally jealous, you know. He says you're hot."
"Oh, ah...thanks," I stammer, surprised. There's a moment of silence, but I keep staring at him.
"So what do you think of the 'fro?" he asks, shaking his head, his huge mop of frizzy hair bouncing around, making his huge head look even huger, atop his tiny body.
"It, um, looks good," I lie. It doesn't look good. It looks unkempt and ridiculous. As I stare into his face, I realize he also has a big, oddly-shaped nose and quite a bit of acne. Wait, what am I doing?
He takes my compliment at face value. "Ha! See! Everyone's trying to get me to cut it, but I think it looks cool."
I'm starting to lose my nerve, but because this is the moment I have been waiting so impatiently for, I move a little closer and take his hand in mine. It's tiny and the palm is sort of folded in half, with the outside edges facing each other. His fingers are all curved inward, not just at the joint, but the bones too. His hand lays in mine like a little bird. I insert my thumb under his fingers and gently rub his palm. The skin is amazingly smooth.
"It's so soft!" I blurt out. Tim just kind of looks at me uncomfortably.
"So, um, why..." I can't find a polite way to say it, but Tim anticipates me.
"I have arthrogryposis," he says, then spells it out spelling bee style. "Ever heard of it?" I shake my head, even though it sounds vaguely familiar. Perusing medical texts and websites is a favorite pastime of mine. "No one has," he continues. "But it's cool. My brother helps me out. I do ok."
As he's talking, I'm still holding his hand, stroking his palm with my thumb. I really wish MsHotWheels had never said that thing about wanting him to pinch her nipple with his claw, because now I can't get it out of my head and it's making me feel even creepier than I would have anyway.
But my dev senses are in high gear and all my misgivings are just so much background noise. I desperately want to kiss him but I can't quite bring myself to do it, because he's not giving me an opening. He just keeps chattering until eventually I let go of his hand. After about half an hour of random small talk, he says it's getting late and I offer to drive him home.
When we get to Tim's apartment, I pull into the parking lot and help him out of the car. I stand there uncertainly by the back door of the apartment building for a minute, but at least there's no chance of an awkward hug or handshake.
"I had a great time today," I say.
"Yeah, me too. The movie was incredible. Thanks for seeing it with me."
"Sure. If you want to get together again, just let me know."
"Ok, yeah, I will," he says, but makes no move to go inside. Finally he says, "Can I ask you to help me with the door?"
"Of course!" I smile gamely.
"The keys are in my pocket. If you could just pull them out..."
Again feeling like I'm being inappropriately intimate, I reach into his jeans pocket and pull out a key ring. For some reason I'm reminded of the keys scene in There's Something About Mary (totally hot by the way, even if the guy was faking). I dangle the keychain in front of him, but realize suddenly that there's no way he can grab them.
He tells me which key to use and I unlock the door, then prop it open with my butt while he sways from foot to foot, slowly making his way inside. Once he's past the threshold, he pauses and I drop the keys back in his front pocket.
"Thanks again!" I call out as he sidles down the hallway. "Call me!"
"I will," he promises.
But he doesn't call. Not that I was expecting another date right away or anything, but I was hoping we could at least hang out again. He said he wanted to, right?
I try to talk about it with Tovia over dinner at my favorite Thai restaurant, but he's obsessed with this new girl named Elisa right now. And get this, she's a paraplegic.
"We were at a dinner with a bunch of other people and everyone was going around the table and saying one thing they regret in their lives. She said she wishes she had been wearing her seat belt, haha!"
"Wow, that's intense," I say, even though it seems like an inadequate response. But he just laughs, clearly enjoying that quote from her.
"Yeah. She said she wants to keep things casual between us, but I told her she doesn't have a casual bone in her body." He likes that quote even more, so much so that he repeats it two or three times over the course of our conversation. On the third repetition, the penny finally drops.
"Wait, did you sleep with her?" I ask. He looks evasive. "Shit! You totally did! What the hell! You told her you didn't want to be serious, then admitted she can't do casual, and you had sex with her anyway?"
"Yeah. So?" He takes a big sip of his Thai iced tea.
"So now what?"
He shrugs. "I dunno. We'll see."
"Yeah, right." I roll my eyes at him.
Since Tovia won't give me any advice about Tim, I finally bite the bullet and tell Rachel. She has a typically chill response. There's always some drama going on between her and Ewan, but when it comes to other people's lives, Rachel's very laid back.
"Oh yeah?" she says when I tell her I went to a movie with Tim. "That's nice."
"Has he said anything about me at work?" I prod her.
Ok, so our date was kind of awkward and we clearly didn't have an instant connection, but I just can't stop thinking about him. It's those freaking hands, dammit.
I actually see Tim a few times again at the museum, but he's always in a big hurry, so I don't have a chance to say more than hello. I check his blog too. For a week or so he doesn't post anything, then suddenly he posts a whole bunch of poems at once. They're pretty dark. One is about a girl pushing him down the stairs and laughing at him.
When I see that poem, I have to call him.
"Are you like psychic or something?" he asks. "My brother was just saying that every time I turn around, there you are. The minute he said that, you call. It's creepy!"
Great, he thinks I'm creepy. But since we have already started down this path, there's one thing I have to ask him.
"So I saw the new poems on your blog," I say. Even though I know it's a stupid, narcissistic thing to ask, I still force myself to say, "That one about the stairs--that's not, uh, that's not about me, is it?"
"Whew, I mean, I figured it wasn't, but I just had to make sure..." Now I'm feeling like a moron in addition to a creep.
"That was some girl I knew at school," he clarifies. "It's kind of an in-joke."
Of course. He has a life and I'm definitely not part of it.
"Sorry. I won't bother you any more," I say and hang up the phone.
I erase his email, his blog address, his phone number, and I stop hanging around the Science Museum. Within a month, Rachel quits her job to go to homeopathy school. I don't see Tim again.