The smell of my mother’s cooking reminded me that I’d been living on hospital food for the last six months, and before that mostly living on ramen noodles. Even though it had been a long time, I could recognize the smell of chicken cutlet. My stomach actually started growling.
When I was a teenager, I really hated doing chores. My parents pretty much had to threaten me and drag me by the ear in order to do anything. Taking out the garbage was my least favorite chore, mostly because it smelled bad and my hands got all dirty doing it. But setting the table was up there. Mom had a particular way she wanted the dishes and utensils put on the table. It drove me fucking nuts.
Anyway, there was no way I was going to ever get asked to set the table or do any other chores ever again. Actually, not just that, but I had actually become one of the chores. Mom asked Sean to get me ready for dinner, which meant she wanted him to wash my hands with a washcloth, stick a napkin on my chest, and also to put on my hand splint that had a fork attached to it. He obliged, like the good son he is, and I watched him set the rest of the table. He did it fucking perfectly, just like Mom likes. He’s such a tool.
They had purchased special plates for me to use. The plates had a really high rim, so that I didn’t push the food off the plate while I was trying to eat. Believe it or not, feeding yourself when you have no movement in your hand or wrist and only limited elbow movement is not that easy. Actually, it’s really hard. But it’s a hell of a lot better than being fed by someone else.
I took some secret pleasure in the fact that my special plates didn’t match the rest of the dishes, which I’m sure drove my Mom a little crazy. She’s OCD like that. If I’ve got to dress the way she wants and go to fucking church with her, at least I’ve got this.
Mom cut up my chicken into very small pieces for me. For the hundredth time today, I felt about five years old. But since I only had one hand to work with, it wasn’t realistic for me to cut the chicken myself. I stared down at my plate and my splinted hand with the fork attached and I suddenly felt really, really disabled. It’s like, sometimes I almost felt like I’m not THAT bad, but then there were moments like these, where I just felt so limited.
Everyone else dug into their food and I struggled to spear my first piece of chicken. It was too small, I think, and I was having a lot of trouble getting the fork to stay in it. I almost got it like five times then dropped it right as I was getting my fork off the plate. I’d been feeding myself for over a month now, so I knew I could do it. I guessed it was just that I was nervous or something, having my first dinner at home.
“Ryan, honey, what’s wrong?” Mom asked me. “Do you need help?”
“I think my splint is loose,” I said. I didn’t actually think that, but I wanted to come up with some kind of excuse why I was sucking so bad at feeding myself. I mean, I was usually slow, but not that slow.
My mother adjusted the splint and I had more success with spearing a different piece of chicken. After that, it was faster going, although I still hadn’t even finished a quarter of my meat by the time everyone was done. And about half of the meat I had removed from my plate was currently in my lap. And the napkin on my chest was covered in mashed potatoes. I was really making a ridiculous mess.
My family is nothing if not polite though, so everyone stayed at the table while I worked on trying to eat. When about half my food was gone, I finally gave up. I was still kind of hungry, but I wasn’t spending the whole goddamn night trying to eat my dinner. It was late enough.
As Mom was clearing the table, the doorbell rang. Dad got up to answer it and my ears perked up when I heard a familiar voice. I turned my chair around and saw the face of Ali, who was my best friend and roommate for the last three years.
“Is Ryan around?” Ali asked. “We heard he came home today.”
I felt all warm and squishy inside. Ali drove all the way out to fucking Long Island in order to see me. That’s friendship, I tells ya.
“Hey, Ali,” I called out. I approached the door in my chair.
Ali had seen me a few times since my accident, but not much since I’ve been mobile in my wheelchair. He looked a little surprised by the sight of me in the chair, but he recovered quickly and flashed me a big smile.
“I’m sorry,” Dad said. He was blocking my path to get to the front door. “You’re going to have to leave, young man.”
Ali frowned. “What?”
My father crossed his arms. “Look at my son. This is your fault. You and your… your drugs.”
“Dad, come on,” I said.
“Ryan, go to your room,” Dad ordered me. “We’ll discuss this later.”
“I’m not going to my fucking room,” I spat. “I’m 24 years old. I can do whatever the hell I want!”
My father’s face turned bright red. That was not the first time I’ve talked to him like that, not by a long shot. But it was the first time since I broke my neck and swore to him to be a good son. For a moment, I actually felt seriously scared. I thought he was going to reach out and break my neck all over again.
Before I knew what was happening, my father had slammed the door in Ali’s face. He locked it and then looked me right in the eyes. “You want to leave, Ryan?” he said. “Go right ahead.”
I think of all the times in my life that I hated my father, I never hated him more than I did at that moment. I could feel my mother and my brother staring at us, wondering what was going to happen. I wanted to hit him. I wanted to break his fucking face and storm out. But that wasn’t going to happen. There was nothing I could fucking do. I was trapped. And the thing is, it was my own goddamn fault. If only I hadn’t been an idiot and crippled myself. Now I was going to spend the rest of my life paying for it.
Dad knew he had me. There wasn’t a fucking thing I could do.
“Instead of being an ungrateful spoiled brat,” Dad said. “Why don’t you go to your room and think about what you just said to me? And when you’re ready, you can apologize.”
Dad followed me to my room, where he unplugged the computer from below so that I wouldn’t be able to use it. I was really angry. I mean, really, really angry. Except when he left the room, the first thing I did was burst into tears.
If you’re wondering what happened, the answer is that yes, I apologized. Dad came into my room when I’d been sitting there over an hour and asked me if I had anything to say. I sucked it up and said I was sorry. I’d been crying for almost the entire time and I was sure everyone could hear it and my face was a mess anyway. Dad wiped my face off and helped me get ready for bed.
I knew things weren’t going to be like this forever. The first day was going to be hard, I should have expected that. Eventually, Dad and I would start getting along. I was sure of it.
The next few days involved getting into a sort of routine. Mom got me up in the morning, used my sling to transport me to my chair, then we went into the bathroom. She’d empty my leg bag into the toilet. If it wasn’t a shower day, she would help me put on a splint so that I could brush my teeth. She generally brushed my hair and washed my face for me, even though I could have done it with unlimited time (and her helping me). She’d make eggs or pancakes and help me get set up to eat, then we’d have a “nice” family breakfast.
Days were kind of boring. Back before I got hurt, I used to work intermittently and get high, but I couldn’t do any of those things anymore. So mostly I just hung around the house and watched TV or messed around on the computer. Very rarely, Mom bribed me into going outside, but I wasn’t excited about that.
Then in the evening, Dad and Sean would come home, we’d have dinner as a family, then watch more TV. Before bed, Mom would do my bowel program for me, which was how I stayed continent. She did it while I was in bed, then after she got me cleaned up, she’d roll me over and I’d go to sleep.
So no, my life wasn’t too exciting. But it wasn’t awful. Being crippled was better than working some shitty job eighty hours a week. I guess.
By Sunday, believe it or not, I was actually looking forward to going to church, just to have something to do. My mother had purchased a new suit for me, which made me feel like a huge tool. I’ve been generally trying to avoid mirrors since I got injured, but I passed by a mirror when I was wearing my suit and I think I threw up a little in my mouth. The material of the suit was thin enough that it made my skinny legs really look like sticks and that in addition to my two curled up hands and my gut that bulged through the thin fabric of my white shirt, I looked as disabled as I’d ever seen myself. It was like every day I got a little more crippled looking.
Seeing myself in the mirror didn’t make me feel like going out. It made me feel like isolating myself in the house and never leaving again. But it wasn’t like I had a choice in the matter.
Well, at least my new crippled status got us a great parking spot. We got a spot right in front of the church, where everyone could get a nice view of me getting lowered out of the van. It seemed to take forever, my body bouncing helplessly with each jerk of the ramp.
I recognized a lot of people in the crowd in front of the church. The girls holding babies were girls I went to high school with. The older women were friends of my mom, who came over for Bunco once a month. (What the hell is Bunco anyway? I still don’t know.) I’m sure all the parents were whispering to their kids: See? That’s what happens when you do drugs and don’t listen to your parents!
Well, fuck them. I was still alive, at least. And I could still live my life the way I wanted. This was just an adjustment period. My parents and I would work out an arrangement eventually.
I had forgotten there was a nice big flight of steps to get into the church and for a second, my stomach tightened into a knot. I wasn’t going to have to be carried into the church, was I? That would be too much. But no, there had to be a wheelchair entrance somewhere. It was required by law, I think.
I waited for my parents and Sean in front of the van and finally the came out to join me. My mother said that the wheelchair entrance was out back, so we started moving toward the back of the church, but were stopped by the fattest family I’d ever seen.
It was a man and a woman my parents’ age and their daughter, who was about my age. Together, the three of them must have weighed several tons. They were almost revoltingly fat. Like, if I’d been eating something, I would have had to spit it out after looking at them.
“Hi, Stella,” the fat older woman said to my mother. She looked down at me and said in a slow, deliberate voice. “Hello, Ryan. It’s good to see you again.”
“Thank you,” I said. I had no fucking clue who she was. I would have thought I’d remember someone so fat. “FYI, I’m not retarded or anything. You can speak to me normal.” Mom gasped. “Ryan!”
I felt my father’s hand on my shoulder, giving me an uncomfortable squeeze. “It’s still an adjustment period,” he said apologetically.
The woman seemed a little embarrassed, at least. She nodded at her daughter, who was as fat if not fatter than she was. “Ryan, you remember Whitney, right?”
Actually, now that she mentioned it, yeah, I did sort of remember Whitney. I mean, like I said, how could I forget someone so huge? I think she was in my class in high school, although I hadn’t known her very well. Obviously, we traveled with different crowds. “Hi, Whitney,” I said, making an attempt to be polite.
She just nodded at me, which was pretty fucking impolite, considering what an effort I was making. Well, fuck her. It wasn’t like I was all excited to talk to the morbidly obese girl.
It turned out that the handicapped seating in the church was in the back, which was great. It meant I could doze off or something and nobody could give me shit about it. It also turned out I wasn’t the only cripple in the church today. There was also this guy named Alan, who I remembered from when I was a kid. I think he was two or three years older than me. I think he had cerebral palsy and he was kind of like me in that he could just control his wheelchair with one hand and he had his parents with him helping him, although he was worse than me in that his face and speech were kind of affected.
Alan seemed like he must have been severely retarded from the way he looked and talked. When I was a kid and got dragged to church by my parents, my friends and I used to make fun of him a lot, sometimes to his face. It seemed really funny at the time, although now that I was sitting next to him in my own wheelchair, like a foot away from him, I felt really awkward about the whole thing. I actually heard that Alan wasn’t retarded and was some kind of genius or something.
“Hi, Ryan,” Alan said to me. “Welcome to the back row.”
I didn’t say anything to Alan. People were filtering into church now and everyone was staring at us. I mean, how fucking rude.
These two boys who were about thirteen came in with their parents and they were actually pointing at us. And giggling. I felt my face getting red. One of the boys nudged the other one and then made a retarded “duh” noise and the two of them dissolved into laughter.
“Hey, fuck you!” I screamed at them, before I could stop myself.
A bunch of people turned to stare at me, including Alan. “Ryan,” he said. “You can’t be so sensitive.”
“Yeah,” I mumbled.
“That’s what kids do,” Alan reminded me.
“I hate kids,” I said.
“Me too,” he said, managing a crooked smile. “But you learn to forgive them.”
The way he said that, I was wondering if he meant he forgave me for being such a dick to him when we were kids. I wasn’t sure if I wanted him to. If he forgave me, that meant we were going to end up being friends, by virtue of being the only two disabled guys in the room. And I didn’t know if I wanted to be friends with Alan. I mean, look at him. Then again, I couldn’t really talk. Still, it was more reason for us not to hang out. Two badly crippled guys hanging out together? They’d have to charge admission for people to see us.
“So how’s it been at home?” Alan asked me.
“Pretty fucking bad,” I admitted.
Alan laughed. “Yeah, I could see that. I’m sure it will get better.”
“It’s not as bad as you think it’s going to be,” Alan said.
“Huh,” I said.
“I actually have a pretty good life, Ryan,” Alan told me. Shit, I hated the fucking motivational speech. I rolled my eyes, but I don’t think he noticed. “I’m going to school to get a masters degree in computer science, I’ve got friends, and I know how to have fun.”
“Have you ever gotten laid?”
That stopped Alan in his tracks. “What?”
“Has a girl ever fucked you?” I said, in a slow and deliberate voice. “Better yet, has a girl ever even kissed you?”
Alan didn’t answer.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” I said. “So don’t tell me what a great life you have. We’re both just losers who can’t get laid.”
“There’s more to life than sex, Ryan,” Alan said. “Besides, can you even feel your penis?”
I was shocked Alan said that to me. I looked around to see if anyone else had heard. “No,” I confessed.
“So what the hell do you care if you’re getting sex?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
Alan shrugged. “You know what? Maybe I’ve never had a girlfriend before, but I think that someday I will. Someday I’ll meet a great girl who loves me.” He added, “I’m not so sure about you, though.”
“At least I’ll never be a thirty year old virgin,” I retorted.
Alan’s jaw fell open. I turned my head away from him, glad we were finally on the same page about hating each other.