My shrink says that the first step to good health is learning to take the elevator, so I’m trying, I really am. I usually walk up and down the twelve flights in the morning and in the evening, and as a result I’ve been suffering from pretty bad knee pain. Every time I stand up, my knees feel like knives are sticking into them. The knives start just lateral to the kneecaps, then travels up the outside of my thighs in white-hot shards of pain. Then again, walking up the stairs is the only exercise I ever get. My job doesn’t exactly require me to be physical. So really, this is healthy.
It’s been at least two years since I last successfully tackled the elevator. I feel good when I press the button to call for it, but by the time I hear the gears shifting as it’s getting close, a cold sweat breaks out on my neck. When it comes, I see the other people in the elevator, holding their briefcases, waiting for me to get in, but I can’t move. I just stand there, smiling dumbly, until the doors close. The worst is when some polite asshole tries to hold the door for me, and I have to explain to him that I don’t want to get in. Then I run for the stairs.
I don’t know what was wrong with the person who invented the elevator. To me, it feels like a slightly large coffin. Five or six people stand in that tiny little space, our bodies pressed together, breathing the same air. I know all the different smells in the tenants in the building—Mrs. Kruger’s old lady perfume, the fat guy on the tenth floor who always smokes a cigarette before going to work in the morning. I can smell their stenches emanating from their bodies, the droplets hovering and mingling in the air before being swept into my lungs, into every cell of my body. I can see the shine of sweat on the neck of the person nearest to me, containing bacteria from god knows where. And all the while, the elevator rattles along, threatening to get stuck at any moment. I can’t hold my breath for the duration of twelve flights. I’ve tried. Longer than sixty seconds and I start feeling dizzy.
My shrink says the elevator is a good first step, but to be honest, I’m not ready.
I dreamed about Kevin again last night.
Why do I keep having dreams about him? There’s nothing so great about him. And I don’t like him like that or anything, so don’t get any ideas.
In this dream, Kevin and I were in a restaurant together and we were just like any other two people in a restaurant. I wasn’t worried about the food containing toxins and poisons and Kevin’s wheelchair was nowhere in sight. We were just two totally normal people.
Kevin wasn’t touching me, but he was looking at me in a way that felt like he was touching me, gazing at me through his thick glasses with a playful smile on his lips. It was just a dream, but it was so real that I could smell the food on my plate and Kevin’s aftershave. I looked down and saw my hands on the table, much too close to his own. Except in my dream, my hands weren’t shaking like they most certainly would be in any real life version of this scenario. I wasn’t worried about if Kevin washed his hands the last time he came out of the bathroom. All I wanted was for him to touch me.
When I woke up, I was covered in sweat. I felt so bad that I almost called in sick at work, but after a long, steaming hot shower I felt a lot better.
I don’t want to brag, but I have a great job. I’m six years out of college, without any advanced degree, but I’m making a lot of money. I don’t want to drop names, but some big software company hired me right out of college to do programming for them. It seems like I have a talent when it comes to computers. But like I said, I don’t want to brag.
My boss Earl sometimes tells me I’m lucky to have a job at all. I think he’s referring to the fact that he thinks I’m kind of socially inept nut job. I tell him he didn’t hire me to be a social butterfly. He’s finally accepted that after working together for six years. I’m mostly kept tucked away in a corner, doing what I do best.
I’m one of only a few women in the company right now. Most women won’t work for my company, because the rumor is that only way to get a promotion is to sleep with your boss. Well, I’m sure as hell not sleeping with anyone, and I just got a promotion last month. And the pay is really great. My family’s really proud of me for getting such a great job, because they all thought I was nuts and would never amount to anything.
I’m glad that there aren’t many women around. I hate women. From observing my sisters, I know that most women put dozens of artificial chemicals on their bodies each day. Between perfume and hair spray and make-up, you go near a woman and you’re likely to be breathing in pure carcinogens. And women have too much hair on their heads. No matter what, you hang around a woman long enough, and you’re going to have tons of long hairs polluting your space. It’s just plain disgusting.
Men aren’t too much better, but at least they have short hair. I crop my hair off in my bathroom at least once a week.
My shrink says it’s good that I want to get better. That’s the first step to recovery. Then again, she also said that the elevator was the first step to recovery, so maybe she’s confused. Or maybe wanting to get better is the zero-eth step to recovery. (That’s a little computer programming humor. Go ahead, laugh.). She says the key is taking small steps. What my shrink doesn’t know is that the only reason I’m seeing her at all is to please my parents.
“It’s not that I’m not happy,” I tell Karen. (That’s my shrink’s name.)
“But?” Karen prompts me.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not that you’re not happy, but…?” Karen lifts an eyebrow in an expression and peers at me over the edge of her half moon glasses. I think she thinks those glasses make her look intelligent. To me, she looks like a former high school cheerleader who’s struggling to be taken seriously.
Anyway, why does there have to be a “but”? I like my job. I like my apartment. Why is there this constant push for self-improvement? I’m good the way I am.
Even though I love my job, it isn’t perfect. Frankly, I find the working conditions at my company sloppy to say the least. I might leave if the pay wasn’t so great or if I knew that it was any better someplace else. The floor is cleaned once a day, at best, and usually by people I would swerve away from if I passed by them on the street. The management continually passes out these memos that have probably been handled by about a dozen people, touched by countless dirty fingers. Couldn’t they just use email or something? This isn’t 1985. Also, they have a pot of coffee, rather than a coffee machine that pours into the cup, so each person has to use the same damn coffeepot.
Last week at work, there was an Incident. It wasn’t good. I had to talk to my boss Earl about the project I was working on, so I knocked on the door to his office. He should have told me to just go away, but instead he invited me in and I came face to face with one of the big shots who had commissioned the project in question. “This is Helen Yates,” Earl told the clients. “She’s one of our best programmers and she’s been slaving night and day to get this done for you.”
The big shot in question was a man in his forties that I suppose you might call handsome in a traditional Hollywood kind of way. He was tall and lean with deep set brown eyes, a small chin cleft, and a dark suit that oozed money. I could smell his expensive cologne hanging in the air, and I instinctively held my breath. He smiled at me and stuck out his hand. “Very nice to meet you, Miss Yates.”
The thing is (and my boss knows this), I don’t shake hands. Honestly, I think that shaking hands is the most disgusting ritual ever devised, which people do without even thinking. God knows what germs people have picked up on their hands, if only from shaking other people’s hands, and in an instant, all those germs are transferred to the other person. By shaking this man’s hand, I would be shaking the hands of like twenty other people, maybe more. Probably much of the disease in this country would be wiped out if they just got rid of shaking hands.
So there was no way I was going to shake hands right now. I didn’t care how important this client was or if my job was at stake, I just wasn’t going to do it. Anyway, my hands were much too sweaty at this point.
“Nice to meet you too,” I said politely, ignoring his hand.
I watched as the realization dawned on the man’s face that his hand was not going to be shaken. He withdrew it, his high cheekbones flushing slightly pink.
Earl was livid. He called me into his office later to scream at me for about thirty minutes. Something about my needing to seek professional help. Well, I already am. So there, Earl.
I work with computers, not people. Computers don’t have unprotected sex, they don’t breathe in the air around them—they’re clean. And even the computers I can’t trust completely. Once I came in to my cubicle and found another person working on my computer. The nerve of him! He told me he just needed to use my statistical analysis software. I asked Earl for a new computer, but he outright refused. I considered quitting, but finally I decided to risk it. I went out and bought an antiseptic cleanser, and spent the rest of the day cleaning the keyboard and mouse.
In Earl’s rampage against me, he also brought up the fact that I wash my hands every half hour. Yes, this is true. But considering the amount of time people waste drinking their contaminated coffee, I really find it hard to believe that my staying clean is such a problem. I bring my own soap and paper towels and the process takes about five minutes.
He didn’t fire me though and I never really thought he would. Everyone at the company knows I work harder than anybody. I once overheard Kevin tell Earl that I put in more hours than everyone else combined. He sticks up for me a lot. “I wish everyone else stayed so clean,” Kevin told me. “People around here are real slobs.”
I know Kevin isn’t as good a programmer as I am, but he’s pretty good. He’s been here about two years, after being poached from some other company in the area. When I first saw him wheeling around the office, I thought maybe he had some kind of temporary injury like a broken leg, but I soon realized that whatever he had was permanent. He doesn’t have the kind of big clunky wheelchair that my grandmother used after she had her stroke, but something smaller and sportier without handles in the back.
I suppose Kevin has good hygiene, as far as people go, but I bet he doesn’t even brush his teeth more than twice a day. When I first met him, I worried about dirt on his wheels being tracked into the office. But they seem clean to me, and anyway, everyone wears the same shoes outside that they do inside, so I guess it’s no different than that. When he leaves for the day, he pulls a pair of leather gloves onto his hands, which I assume keeps them from getting dirty.
Kevin’s cubicle is all the way down the row from mine, which is in the furthest corner of the office, but he seems to need to pass by me a lot during the day. I asked him about it once and he explained that it was on the way to the copy machine. I’m not really anywhere near the copy machine and nobody else takes this route, but maybe because of his wheelchair, he needs more space and it’s easier for him to go that way. Although I’m still not sure why he needs to make so many copies every day.
Last year, Kevin was wheeling by my cubicle when I noticed a cup of coffee balanced between his thighs. It was the same kind of white ceramic cup that they keep by the coffee machine. I couldn’t stop staring at it when he stopped to talk to me. “How are you doing?” he asked me, like he always does.
“Where’d you get that?” I asked him. “The coffee.”
“It’s from the machine,” Kevin said. He gave me a worried look. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“You know how disgusting that coffee pot is, don’t you?” I said to him.
“It is?” Kevin’s eyes widened. His eyes are a dark brown color, but it’s hard to see them behind his thick glasses. It’s unfortunate for him that both his legs and his eyes don’t work very well.
“Think about how many people use that coffee pot in a given day,” I pointed out. “I mean, we might as well be pigs drinking out of a trough!”
Kevin nodded enthusiastically. “You’re completely right. That’s really disgusting.” He picked up the coffee cup and sneered at it. “I’m never using the coffee pot ever again.” He glanced back up at me. “Are the coffee cups okay to use?”
“Well, if you really think they actually wash them…” I said. “But I’m sure they don’t.”
“Right,” Kevin said. “I’m going to bring a thermos from now on!” He smiled at me. Kevin has pretty nice teeth, at least. They’re straight and fairly white. Not toothpaste commercial white, but you can tell he takes good care of them. “Thanks for the tip, Helen.”
When I pass by Kevin’s cubicle, I find myself looking at him lately. I don’t know why exactly. I’m certainly not interested in him. At all. I’m not interested in dating right now, but even if it was, I don’t think I’d pick Kevin.
Kevin is such a stereotypical nerd, he’s the kind of guy who ought to be living in his parents’ basement and only maybe emerging every once in a while to pick up fried chicken from KFC. Okay, maybe that’s not fair because I know he doesn’t live with his parents and I’ve never actually seen him eat fried chicken, but he’s definitely at least twenty pounds overweight. I get the feeling he spends more time with his computer than real people. I’ve noticed that people avoid Kevin the same way they avoid me, I guess because his disability makes people feel awkward. He and I are the outcasts of the office. But I think I’m probably more of an outcast that he is.
I can’t say I don’t wonder about Kevin a lot. Once or twice, I was sitting at my desk and I actually found my mind wandering and realized that I was thinking about him. But it’s purely intellectual curiosity. After all, most of the world, including myself, walks normally, so it’s only natural to wonder what’s wrong with Kevin. Was he born like that or did he have an accident? Or was it some kind of disease? He maneuvers his wheelchair so easily that I can tell he’s been using it for a long time. Years, maybe decades.
His legs look almost normal under his tan work slacks. They don’t seem twisted or deformed in any way, but they also don’t seem to move. He wears brown loafers that seem old and comfortable.
Kevin wheels by my cubicle every day. Sometimes he passes by and sometimes he stops to talk. More and more, he’s been stopping to talk lately, although he never really has much to say.
“Listen, Helen, I was wondering,” he begins. He lifts one hand off the wheel of his chair and scratches his head. His hair is very short, which is good, and so are his fingernails. And as far as I can tell, his fingernails appear clean. “I was wondering if maybe, if you weren’t busy tonight, if maybe you’d like to go to dinner or something. I mean, there’s this Thai restaurant that opened up and I was thinking maybe I’d like to try it out and… I could use some company.”
“I don’t eat at restaurants.”
“Oh.” His hands are shaking a little and he taps his fingers against his knees. He’s too close and I feel the familiar sweat breaking out on the back of my neck. “Uh, do you like movies?”
“Yeah, me too.” He coughs and doesn’t cover his mouth. “Like, uh, what kinds do you like?”
“I have a lot of work to do,” I say.
“Oh. Right, yeah, me too.” He wheels back a bit and I feel relief wash over me. His chair bumps into the wall of my cubicle as he makes his way to the copy machine, and he mumbles an apology.
“What about relationships?” Karen asks me.
She has a kind of obsession with this. She says that the second step to recovery (after wanting to get better and taking the elevator) is building relationships. Not necessarily romantic, she says, but just something. Make a friend, she says. “Have you ever had a friend?” she asks.
I don’t know what she means by this. I spent most of my life in school, surrounded by other people, so yes, I’ve had friends. I’ve never had a best friend. I’ve never been the sleepover with the girls, truth or dare, experimental makeover, etc. kind of person. Like that’s something to be proud of, right? I never had a person who I’d stay up late talking to. I’m not a big talker though. Big deal. What is there for two people to talk about, anyway?
Karen says I have to go out there and make friends. I should invite a coworker to dinner at my apartment. Go to a dance for singles or something. As really appealing as all that sounds, it’s not something I’m willing to do. I can’t believe she would even suggest it. You’d think my parents, smart as they claim to be, would at least suggest a half-decent shrink for their daughter.
“How about that man Kevin?” Karen says. She had to flip through her notes to remember his name. “The disabled one. You seem to be getting friendly with him.”
“I don’t think so,” I say.
“Perhaps you could go with him to lunch sometime?”
“He’d get the wrong idea,” I say quickly. Like I told Kevin, I don’t eat out at restaurants anyway. God knows what they do with food in the kitchens of these restaurants. They could be pissing in the soup, for all you know. And I bet they are.
“What’s the wrong idea?” Karen asks.
Boy, she’s dumb. “He’d think I’m interested in him. I mean, sexually interested.”
“And what’s so bad about that?”
Do I really need to answer that question?
I pack my own lunch every day, usually a sandwich. I pack it within a vacuum sealed bag, then put that in another bag, then I reluctantly store it in the refrigerator in the break room. I am not thrilled about putting food in that refrigerator, believe me. The refrigerator gets cleaned out only once a week and people just leave food in there for days. I once saw a moldy peach sitting on one of the shelves and I immediately called Earl to complain. Earl was characteristically unsympathetic.
Kevin brings his own food as well. I run into him in the break room sometimes and he goes to the communal table to eat. He always asks me to join him, but I prefer to bring my food back to my desk with me. He looks very disappointed when I say no, and I sometimes feel a little guilty. A lot of people go out for lunch, but Kevin always eats here and almost always alone.
“What are you having for lunch today?” Kevin asks me, eying my sandwich. He’s heating up his own food in the microwave. I would never, ever use the microwave in the break room. That thing is just swirling with germs. Nobody ever cleans it.
“Turkey sandwich,” I say.
“Oh,” Kevin says. “That sounds good. Healthy.”
“I try to stay in good health,” I explain. “I buy all fresh produce.”
“I should do that,” he says, nodding in agreement.
Kevin removes his food from the microwave. It’s a TV dinner: spaghetti and meatballs. Not one of those low calorie ones either, which is too bad because Kevin could definitely stand to lose a few pounds. Not that there’s anything wrong with the way he looks. But he’s several pounds over the accepted standard for male attractiveness. Although I actually think he looks better with the extra weight. I never thought skinny guys were particularly attractive.
“Are you eating here?” Kevin asks me, his eyes lighting up.
Without even noticing it, I’d sat down at the table in the break room while we were talking. I don’t know why I did that. But now I feel like it would be mean if I got up, especially since Kevin seems so excited that I’m staying here. I glance down at the table. “I would, but I’m not sure if the table is clean.”
“I think they clean it at night,” he says.
“Yeah, but are you sure?”
Kevin looks at the table thoughtfully. “Well, we could clean it.”
We get paper towels from the counter and use the dishwashing detergent in the sink. Kevin scrubs the table once and then I go over it a second time. It’s still a little damp, but it does seem fairly clean now. “Thank you,” I say.
Kevin smiles at me. “No problem. You’re right—it was pretty dirty.”
Just as I’m opening up my sandwich, Madison Kelly comes into the break room. If Kevin and I are the least popular people in the office, Madison is the most popular. But we’re really too old for that sort of comparison. I just know that everyone loves Madison.
How does a thirty year old woman end up with a name like Madison anyway? I know that right now, every little girl is named Madison, so I expect in maybe 25 years, there will be many 30 year old Madisons. But Madison is much too old to have that name. How did her parents figure out a trend that would come decades in the future? Or maybe all these new little baby Madisons are somehow being named after this Madison. I guess that’s possible, although it seems unlikely that anyone would want to name her daughter after an office manager, no matter how pretty and well-liked she is.
“Hello, you two,” Madison says. She scratches her nose, which I think is less because she has an itch and more because she uses any opportunity to show off the giant diamond on her finger. She got engaged three months ago. “Are you having lunch together? That’s so cute!”
I look at Kevin and he’s blushing.
Madison isn’t here to eat, because she always goes out. She only came in to grab a cup of coffee and then she’ll leave. I really want her to leave.
Unfortunately, it’s Kevin who ends up leaving first. Earl enters the break room and starts screaming that he wants something ASAP and poor Kevin has to scarf down the few remaining bites of his TV dinner and rush back to his desk. I still have about a quarter left of my turkey sandwich and I’m trying to finish as quickly as I can.
“So are you and Kevin dating?” Madison asks me.
“No, of course not,” I say.
“Why not?” she says. “He’s cute and he definitely likes you.”
This is entirely none of Madison’s business and I bite my lip to keep from telling her so. “He doesn’t like me.”
“Trust me, he does,” Madison says in this knowing voice. She acts like she knows everything there is to know about men, and she probably does since I suspect she’s slept with dozens of them.
I don’t know why this information interests me. Or why I keep having dreams about Kevin.
Don’t even get me started on sex. First of all, you’ve got to be out of your mind to have sex these days. Granted, I’ve never experienced the act, but I’ve got a pretty good idea of what it is from the movies and sex ed in high school. Basically, it’s two sweaty, disgusting, naked people exchanging bodily fluids. Every disease they have, from AIDS to syphilis to god knows what, is passed on to the other person. When I was younger, my sisters used to have sex with their boyfriends in their rooms, and when they were done there was this reeking odor in the room. I didn’t even want to get near their rooms anymore, because I was afraid the germs were just floating around in the air. And they probably were.
There’s supposed to be something romantic about it—sex, that is—but I honestly don’t get it. How do you express your love to someone by pounding your body against them? Is there anything intrinsically romantic about human genitals? You can’t disagree with me on this point.
Then there’s kissing, which is almost as bad, except you don’t do it naked. I’ve read that the mouth is the dirtiest part of the body, and I believe it. And people kiss like it’s nothing. You’re not even a slut if you go around kissing people. Every relative I have insists on giving me a kiss when they see me. That’s why I don’t see relatives anymore.
When I was in junior high school, my parents forced me to go to some party, where I got stuck in a game of spin the bottle. Not only did the people have to kiss, but they had to kiss on the mouth, with tongue. I was sick over it, but I kept hoping the bottle would never point in my direction and I wouldn’t have to deal with it. When greasy-haired Billy O’Keefe spun the bottle and it landed on me, I flat out refused to kiss him and I left the party. To be honest, I think he was relieved.
I think Kevin has probably had sex. If I had to bet either way, I’d say he has. Pretty much everyone has by his age, even guys in wheelchairs. At the very least, I’m sure he’s kissed a girl and felt her breasts. Maybe she sat on his lap and she put her arms around his neck as he pulled her in close for a kiss.
He’s probably been naked in front of a girl. I wonder what he looks like naked. He’s got a belly—I can tell that much through his shirt. I think he’s got a good amount of hair on his chest because on casual Fridays, I noticed some hair sticking out of the collar of his shirt. I hope he doesn’t have a hairy back.
I wonder if he has scars from whatever happened to him. Sometimes I think about those scars and what they might look like. I have no scars. I’ve lived a very safe life.
Karen is giving me that look again, the one where she looks like she thinks she knows what’s in my head. I think she became a shrink just so she could act like she’s better than everyone else. I know she’s not better than me. I probably make twice as much money as she does. Maybe three times.
“Did you dream about him again?” she asks, cocking a plucked eyebrow.
“The man from work,” she says. “Kevin.”
“What are you talking about?”
Karen uncrosses and recrosses her legs. Her skirt is much too short and it’s making me uncomfortable. There’s not enough clothing between her and me. I wonder if Karen’s ever had venereal disease. I bet anything she has. She and Madison would get along great. “You told me last time that you were having dreams about him,” she says in a knowing voice.
“I don’t really remember.”
She frowns. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.” God, she’s so pushy.
“You said that in the dream you were having dinner in a restaurant with him…”
“Listen, I said I don’t remember. Will you leave me alone already?”
Kevin has his coat on, a dark green jacket with pale lining, and he’s hovering by my cubicle again. I’m looking at my computer screen and he thinks I don’t see him, but I do. I like his jacket. I like the way it stretches over the curve of his belly. “Hey, Helen,” he says, followed by a cough. “You, uh…going home soon?”
I nod. “I just need to finish up some documentation.”
“Oh, yeah?” he says, his dark eyes widening behind his thick glasses. “Need any help?”
“I’m fine.” An ape could do documentation. I certainly don’t need his help.
He grabs the wheels of his chair and adjusts himself in the seat. “So what are you doing now?”
“I have to go to the supermarket,” I tell him. “I’m nearly out of groceries.” I go to the supermarket every other day. I don’t trust any dairy products to last more than one day. I’m actually pretty wary of dairy products in general, but I’ve read that women my age need large amounts of calcium, and I certainly don’t trust those vitamin pills, which contain god knows what.
“Really? I was going to the supermarket too!” Kevin says enthusiastically. I think he’s probably lying. “Which one?”
“Wow, me too,” he says. He leans forward more so that I can see my Perl script reflected in his glasses. “Maybe we could meet there?”
I’m about to say no, but something stops me. I bet Kevin doesn’t know much about how to shop for food. Maybe I could help him.
My shrink asks me if there was ever a time when I was normal. Of course, she doesn’t say it like that. She phrases it in some way that is supposed to sound nice, but comes out as patronizing. I don’t even remember what words she uses.
I kind of wonder what normal means. I have a high paying job and a nice apartment. I don’t drink or do drugs. I’m basically a nice girl, who likes to keep to herself. So I won’t shake your hand. Get over it.
Take Karen, for instance. I don’t know a lot about her life, but I’m positive she’s not married and she’s got to be at least forty. She seems like the type of person who was really pretty and popular, and nobody was good enough to marry her. I bet she goes to a lot of dinner parties at her friends’ houses and they drink wine and talk about books or movies. I’m sure Karen considers herself normal, but by some standards, she ought to be married and raising some little brat by now. I’m not going to throw that in her face though. I’m not a mean person or anything.
I guess that sometimes I’d like to be different. I don’t want to be a person like Karen, but I know there are problems. I mean, my knees are killing me and I’d really like to start taking the elevator again. And I’m not getting any better on my own.
I have a confession to make:
A month ago, I went on medication.
I didn’t want to do it. I mean, I really didn’t want to do it. But Karen called my parents and suddenly I had three people yelling at me to do it. My mother kept saying how I was getting worse, and I was going to wind up institutionalized someday.
It’s one pill each night, which I take with a glass of water. I don’t know when it’s supposed to start kicking in, but I still can’t take the goddamn elevator. I don’t feel any different. I don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed. I don’t want some pill to determine who I am.
If I take this pill and it turns me into some bubbly, friendly person, where will the old me go? Will it just be tucked away somewhere, ready to return when the drugs wear off? Or will it disappear completely?
Every night, I think about flushing the pills down the toilet. But I never wind up doing it.
Yesterday at work, I was watching Kevin. I pretended I was getting some coffee (ha!), but while I stood by the coffeepot, I stared into Kevin’s cubicle. I’ve never done anything like that before, and I felt like some kind of pervert.
Kevin had some kind of pattern that he followed. He would type furiously for several minutes, then stop and furrow his brow, take a sip of coffee from his thermos, adjust his butt in his wheelchair, then go back to typing again. I could tell that he types much faster than me, even though I’m a better programmer. I think he types faster than anyone I’ve ever seen.
He doesn’t have good posture. He slouches forward and peers at the screen through those thick glasses. I wonder how he’d look without his glasses. He’s got a decent-sized gut, which strains against the buttons on his blue shirt. I’ve always been skinny and I find myself fascinated by his stomach. I wonder what it feels like. I think I’ve had dreams where I touched it, but I can’t remember.
Sometimes he bites his lower lip while he’s thinking. The whole time I was looking at him, his eyes never left the computer screen. He’s like me when I program—the whole world around me just disappears. That’s why I love it so much. Maybe that’s why he likes it too.
His cubicle is tidy. He doesn’t store food in it, like some of the others do. He keeps his paper in neat stacks on his desk. His pens are in the top drawer and blank paper is in the bottom drawer. He has two pictures hung up. One is a picture of an elderly couple that I figure must be his parents. The other is a young woman that Kevin once told me was his sister. He made a point of telling me that.
If you weren’t looking carefully, you might not even notice that he’s sitting in a wheelchair. The chair is nondescript, all blacks and metallic grays. Sitting in his cubicle, he’s just like the rest of us. But in the break room or at the bar downstairs where everyone seems to drink after work, he’s different. He can’t hide being in a wheelchair, any more than I can hide the ways I’m different.
I was looking at him so intently that I forgot to wash my hands for a whole hour. They didn’t even feel that dirty, but I decided to wash them anyway, just in case.
My mother took me to the supermarket when I was a kid and I remember liking it. I rode around in the shopping cart and she let me pick the food items off the shelves. I must have been crazy to do that. Now I use my own basket to put the food in, which I keep in my trunk.
Everyone always tells me that I drive like someone’s grandmother, but if that’s true, Kevin drives like someone’s great-grandfather. Even though he knows how to get to the supermarket, his gray Camry lags a few car lengths behind my blue Ford. Neither of us goes through any yellow lights and we stay comfortably below the speed limit.
When we get to the supermarket, Kevin parks in the handicapped spot near the front entrance. I hang back for a minute, watching him grab his wheelchair out of the back seat, and pull himself into it in one quick movement. Even though he doesn’t look it, his arms must be pretty strong to lift himself so easily.
Kevin uses one of the baskets from the store, and places it in his lap. It’s actually not so bad shopping with Kevin. He’s lucky I’m here, because he really doesn’t know how to shop at all. I’m appalled when he goes straight for the fresh fruits (although I think that was partly for my benefit—he’s more the kind of person who goes straight for the potato chips). “Do you know how many people handle a piece of fruit?” I scold him. “With fruit you’ve got two choices: pesticides or insects. If you don’t see a big worm in your apple, then it means there are enough pesticides on it to kill a cat.”
“That’s disgusting,” Kevin says. “I’m never buying fruit again.”
He convinces me to allow him to put his grocery bag in my basket so that he could put the basket on his lap and carry it for me out to the parking lot. He puts the groceries in his car and says he’ll bring them to my apartment for me. Usually this is something I’d never allow, but it’s kind of nice not to have to carry that heavy basket. Especially since my knees are still so achy.
The items Kevin purchased are: two cans of clam chowder, a package of spaghetti, a box of macaroni and cheese, and a package of double-stuffed oreo cookies.
“Do you know what today is?” Karen asks me.
I want to say, Today is the day you’re wearing too much make-up. Because she really is. She’s got so much eye make-up on, she looks like a whore. “No,” I say.
“Today is the one-year anniversary of our sessions,” Karen says. She grins like this is the greatest thing in the world.
It’s kind of depressing, actually. A whole year I’ve been going to this office, staring at the fancy diplomas on Karen’s wall. As if all those diplomas are supposed to impress me, like I don’t make twice as much money as she does.
“I think we’ve made a lot of progress,” Karen declares. “Small steps. That’s the key.”
I can tell she really believes what she’s saying, but I don’t know why. A whole year. Nothing’s changed.
I park at a garage that’s two blocks away from my apartment building while Kevin gets a spot right outside the front of the building. When I see him, he’s got my groceries on his lap and he’s smiling at me. I glance at the large bag of food and wonder if it’s too heavy and might crush his legs.
“Are you sure you’re okay with carrying that?” I ask him.
“Of course,” he says.
I look down at his legs doubtfully. Then I realize I’m staring and my cheeks turn a little pink. It’s not appropriate for me to be staring at any part of Kevin.
“You can ask if you want,” he says to me.
“Ask what?” I say.
Kevin looks at me for a minute, then shakes his head. “Nothing. Never mind.”
I notice that my doorman gives us a funny look as we enter the building. I guess this is the first time he’s ever seen a man come in with me. For a moment, I’m worried he thinks I’m some kind of slut and my hands get a little sweaty.
“I’ll go with you upstairs,” Kevin says when we get to the lobby. “Okay?”
I don’t really want Kevin in my apartment. I mean, I don’t think I do. Yet I find myself smiling and saying yes. I don’t know why I tell him yes. It’s getting late already and anyway, I don’t want him to get the wrong idea. Besides, if he comes in, I’ll have to clean the apartment after he leaves. But for a minute, none of that matters.
Except then I realize that Kevin has pressed the button to call for the elevator. Of course he called for the elevator. He can’t walk up the stairs. Not even one step, much less twelve flights. I never told him how I feel about the elevator, and he doesn’t have any other options to get upstairs. So he can’t come upstairs—I’ll just have to tell him. That’s just what’ll have to happen.
“Listen,” I say, “I’ll be all right from here…”
Kevin’s not listening. The door to the elevator opens and he wheels inside. I hate him right now. I hate him so much. Doesn’t he know how disgusting the elevator is? It’s a thousand times worse than fresh fruit or coffeepots. “Come on,” he says, holding his hand in front of the censor so the door doesn’t close.
My knees hurt. I hate him so much right now. “Yeah, okay,” I say.
It’s just him and me inside the elevator. The doors close, and it’s like a coffin slamming shut. Why can’t I do this? Everyone else in the city does this at least twice a day, I should be able to do it. I make more money than most of the people in the goddamn city, why can’t I do this? I smell sweat and deodorant from every person who’s been inside the elevator in the last few hours. I’m breathing their air. I’m swallowing their germs. Mononucleosis, pneumonia, tuberculosis, diabetes, cancer… A cold sweat breaks out on the back of my neck and my legs feel weak. Soon I’ll start seeing spots in my vision.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” I murmur.
“What?” Kevin asks, looking very confused.
We’re on the eighth floor. I slam my fist on all the elevator buttons, hoping some of them will get pressed, so I can get the hell out of here. I bang on the door and mercifully, it opens. I run out into the hallway. It’s not my hallway, but I don’t care. I lean forward and try to catch my breath. My cheeks feel wet. A whole year. A whole year and nothing’s changed.
“Helen!” Kevin exclaims. I feel his hand on my back and I cringe. I wish he would leave. I just want to be alone. “What happened? Are you okay?”
I don’t answer him for a long time. I stand in the hallway, waiting for the feeling of panic to subside. I wipe my eyes with a handkerchief I keep in my pocket. Kevin has abandoned my bag of groceries right outside the elevator. I see the carton of milk peeking out. It’s probably gone sour by now and I should throw it out when I get home. “You should probably go,” I say finally.
“Did I do something wrong?” he asks nervously, his brow creased with concern.
I shake my head no. There’s no way I could ever attempt to explain this to another person. He wouldn’t understand.
Kevin bites his lip. “Can I…can I see you again sometime? I mean, outside of work?”
I stare at him. “What? Why?”
A deep flush rises into his cheeks. “I like you.”
I start to smile, but I stop myself. “Okay,” I say.
Kevin takes a deep breath. “I really want to kiss you.”
I step back. “Oh…”
“On the cheek?” he begs.
I shake my head. “No, I can’t.” For a moment, I’m afraid he’ll try anyway. I almost want him to. I’m glad he’s still here.
“What about on the hand?” he suggests.
Before I can say anything, he takes my left hand gently in his right. He bows his head down and softly grazes the edge of my sleeve with his lips. He looks up at me. I release a deep breath I had been holding. The back of my neck is dry. It’s probably the medication kicking in. “Is that okay?” he asks.
I nod slowly.
We head back to the elevator where I retrieve my grocery bag. I explain to Kevin about the milk and he takes it from me, saying he’ll throw it away downstairs. Kevin rings for the elevator, and I go to the stairwell and open the door, but don’t go inside. I wait in the doorway until the elevator comes and Kevin goes inside. He waves to me as the elevator door slides shut. I wave back, then walk up the rest of the distance to my apartment.
Maybe I’ll try the elevator again tomorrow.