Through the impasse, I’m emboldened by the warmth of him, threads of our connection a delicate cushion against my perpetual insecurity – and I nurse my coffee while asking casual questions. I learn he’s 33, he’s got a master’s degree in Electronics, he’s a supervisor at work; he’s incredibly close to his family, is 3rd of four children; he hates French cars and Charles Dickens; he’s got a weakness for electronica and all its variants – of which, he informs me, there are many.
I absorb this, lapping it up while sipping sugary coffee, laughing when he does, leaning forward to listen when his voice dips. I notice his hand goes through his hair when he’s thinking, or is flustered, and doing so only accentuates the soft waves that sometimes flop over his forehead.
I tell him about California, the perpetual plastic facades people wear that I grew to loathe, the ridiculousness of high school culture, the inevitable trauma of growing up with a younger sister a million times more beautiful and effortlessly charismatic.
We’re exiting the café as I continue to explain the juxtaposition of her blonde hair and bikini body to my own dark shyness. It’s slow progress, he just can’t move quickly; there’s no doubt he’s struggling more than the previous evening, his lolling gait haphazard and jerky, and I do my best to facilitate our departure by shoving wayward chairs out of the way – yeah, some patrons seem offended, fuck ‘em – and holding the door open.
I don’t know if it’s acceptable, I don’t ask. But he thanks me every time.
Outside, the summer heat-wave (by British standards, anyway) lingers; add to it the high humidity, and the air feel obnoxious and tight. I slow enough to walk beside him, glaring at those whose eyes are roving up and down Ben’s body in barely disguised fascination, revulsion, pity – I find the act repulsive, demeaning, rude.
And I chastise myself for being so hypocritical – even though there’s absolutely nothing horrific about him. Quite the contrary.
God, I need a fucking cigarette…
In the midst of my latest diatribe about my sister, Ben shakes his head at me. “You’re just two very different people, that’s all. It’s the way it is with siblings.”
I glance away instead, wary of prying, and I force a sarcastic laugh to maintain our conversation. “Wait ‘til you see her picture, I’ll show you at some point. Everyone loves her at first sight. She’s beautiful.”
I meet his eyes to find he’s suddenly surveying me in the middle of a busy high street during rush hour; his eyes are mirthful, playful, and his brows dart up when I notice him staring.
“God,” I groan, tugging uselessly at my hair. “I’m sorry. I’m whining. It’s a shit bad habit.”
He laughs at me. “You can’t live in Britain if you’re not capable of moaning.”
I nod, smiling, biting my lip. “I thought you guys only complained about the weather.”
Ben attempts a half-hearted shrug. “Oh no, we’re accomplished moaners and groaners. Ask any public servant.”
I have to glance up, my brows drawn.
“Y’know,” he continues. “Nurses, teachers, policemen, traffic wardens, people working public sector jobs.”
“I worked in a gas station for a couple months once. Does that count?”
“Ha,” there’s a small pause as he struggles with his footing over a raised piece of concrete. “I salute you. You definitely qualify as a public hero.”
I laugh, my hand twitches as I go to playfully swat his arm but I think better of it.
Heavy seconds pass; we carry on walking. He’s focused ahead, I’m distracted by not-so-discreet backward glances from curious pedestrians. A few of them meet my eyes, some shamed in their discovery, others quizzical with my acquaintance.
Ben continues, either ignorant or impervious to it. “But anyway, from what you were saying earlier, I have to tell you that you’re beautiful too.”
“But I’m-“ I stop talking to glance up, the quirk of his small grin silencing me. His eyes bore into my own, imparting with them his silent sincerity, his quiet confidence, his altruism and calm. I feel tears again, and I turn my face away, chuckling mirthlessly at myself. I start digging desperately in my handbag, the draw of nicotine inevitable.
“There’s a quote I read once, something about your being a masterpiece.”
I choke back an unconvinced snort.
He moves back a step to lean against a shop, his shoulder resting against the wall as he fiddles with pushing up his shirt sleeves. He’s slow, there’s an awkwardness in his fingers, and I note a definite, though subtle, tremor his left hand.
I assume it’s not a welcome addition.
I look up at him again, my eyes catching harried fingers raking his hair and a glimpse of tattooed skin.
“Not quite said like that, I know I’ve ballsed it up but it’s about stop trying to be someone else, because you’re already a masterpiece and cannot be improved.”
My eyes widen. Masterpiece? Fuck no.
I light a cigarette with shaky, sweaty palms.
I’ve got to get a grip; people are swarming too close for comfort, cars driving too quickly, people shouting too loudly into mobile phones too small, too big; the impatience steaming off of hot, harassed workers trying to navigate around us is excruciatingly palpable, and I make myself as small as possible against the wall next to Ben.
I keep my cigarette as far as possible.
I dare meet his eyes again.
I whisper a tiny thank you, feeling that it’d somehow be impolite to argue – despite my sincere need to convince him that honestly, I’m not beautiful, not a masterpiece – I’m just awkward, weird, out of my depth here, now, yesterday, tomorrow, a master of falling to pieces.
He reaches out, shakily takes my free hand and I don’t mistake the subtle squeeze he attempts to
impart with icy fingers before a small wave of spasm fires and he pulls away from me. “That wasn't meant to happen,” He murmurs sarcastically, glancing at his fingers.
The tremor’s still there, and now that his sleeves are up, I note the ink trailing down from beneath the fabric – thick directional lines, culminating in circles shaded so beautifully on his forearms, they seem to lift from the skin.
I open my mouth to comment, but his hand drops away; the tattoos distance themselves, the lines seem to cruelly emphasise the thinness of his wrists.
Deflecting, he nods his head toward the busy street. “My car’s just at the end of the road. Where’re you parked?”
I smile nervously, making a great show of shifting my handbag higher on my shoulder and drawing long on my cigarette. I don’t know how desperate he is now to be rid of me, so suddenly after our small, wonderful, majestic moments, and the pang in my gut is sharp, acrid. “Across the street, in the car park.”
His eyes narrow, surveying the road, the crowd, and I see the slow, painstaking way he’s trying to force his hand into a fist, the other gripped quite tightly to the walker.
I realise then, what’s happening, what’s coming, and I put my hand over his loosely curled one, meeting his eyes. “Go, it’s all good, you don’t need to walk me to my car or anything stupid. It’s not 1956 or whatever.”
He chuckles, wanly, and shakes his head. “True. You’re no longer shackled to the kitchen with six children and counting.” A faint glimmer burns in his irises. “But common decency needn’t die a death as a result of the 21st century, should it?” The glimmer sparkles, igniting his eyes as he smiles cheekily.
I feel the crimson burn my cheeks, and I smile at him shyly, feeling somehow bold enough to let the next sentence out: “Ben, you’re, like, the epitome of common decency, trust me.”
A laugh escapes, and he grins. “Would you be willing to put that into writing?” he says, shifting his weight; I loosen my grip to accommodate his movements.
I shrug, smiling meekly before taking another long drag for courage, and I force out the question I already know the answer to: “Is it too far? My car, I mean.”
He stares across the street. “No. Well, it’s – Look, I know all this bollocks MS cripple talk isn’t too exciting, but I just need to be frank, so you know what’s happening. Trust me, it’s easier that way.”
That C word – the stinging sharpness it causes is austere, intense, fascinating… delightfully so.
Though it’s short-lived as I twinge painfully, guiltily at my own disturbance.
I debate tossing my cigarette away; I have a feeling he’s going to need my undivided attention.
“The thing is,” He pulls himself subtly straighter. “Friday’s generally my worst day, it’s the end of the week, I’m tired, my body’s tired. The legs and hands don’t work too well when I’m tired. Spasticity – the annoying spasms you keep seeing, and the stiffness – it’s always worse when I’m tired. And the tiredness is compounded by the heat and it’s a recipe for a rather embarrassing disaster.”
As he’s explaining himself – his body – again so nonchalantly, my eyes are boring into his, and I’m desperate not to impart the icy churning in my stomach, the strange tumultuousness that flips itself again at each sentence, at each description of what’s wrong.
I hate it.
I love it.
And I implore him: “Please don’t hurt yourself for my sake, Ben. It’s not worth it. You shouldn’t have even met up with me if it’s not, y’know, a good day.”
“Jo,” he breathes, taking a small, faltering step toward me. “Today’s been the best day in a very long time.”
Jesus… I can’t help the small, silly smile and I lower my head in an embarrassed flush. I toss my fag away, riding a high from those tiny, immense words.
“So, how about a compromise?” I look up as he just nods again to the road. “We’ll go to my car, if that’s okay, and I can give you a lift to yours? Hardly chivalrous, I’m afraid, but I’ll need ten minutes to cross that road and I don’t think the drivers will thank me for it.”
I quietly fall to his left side again as he moves forward. I note his left leg is barely cooperating, very stiff and awkward, and requires a momentous roll of Ben’s hip to bring the foot forward. Panic battles against uselessness in my chest; my hands feel useless, superfluous in my need to help, to do something to make this easier, but I daren’t overstep – I don’t know my boundaries yet, I don’t know if he’d welcome or resent any offer… “You don’t need to drive me, it’s okay, I-“
“I know.” He draws in a deep breath, briefly glancing my way before looking ahead again, and I can see his eyes dutifully scanning the floor, beads of sweat on glistening on his hairline. “But I want to. If that’s alright?”
I smile at that, gladly nodding assent, wanting nothing more than to rise to my tiptoes and kiss his cheek – and I probably would have, if I weren’t absolutely petrified that my suddenly touching him would send him careening over in some horrific fashion.
Today’s been the best day in a very long time…
I follow his gaze to the pavement, compelled to carry on our conversation, eager to maintain the easy rapport. “I got told once it’s a stupid insecurity thing to look at the sidewalk when walking. Like it means I’ve got low self-esteem. I mean, I do, I know I do, but seriously, I don’t think it’s ‘cause I’m overly scared of the public, it’s more like, I just don’t wanna’ step in dog shit or something.”
“Too right. Dog shit and chewing gum. Pain in the ass. And holes. Holes are lethal to one’s pride.” He smirks, glancing at me again.
I swallow, drawing my brows quizzically.
He laughs low, looking down again, giving me a sly wink. “I’m exceptionally talented at falling-over.”
I don’t know if I should laugh, smile, ignore the jest entirely. There’s this strange no-man’s land I daren’t cross, and he’s bounding straight into it – I can’t deny that I’m more than willing to be pulled along into it, I want to. I’m more excited by the prospect, overly keen, positively desperate to move beyond this strange semi-war-zone of should-I? shouldn’t-I?
But surely I’ve no right to impart humour into something there’s no way I could understand?
“By the way, I love how you said ‘sidewalk.’ It’s brilliant.”
There’s a short silence; I breathe in a mirthful smile at his quip.
Today’s been the best day in a very long time…
“And I can’t see any reason for you to feel so badly about yourself. I mean that.”
I inhale a sharp breath and hold it; twinges of disquiet tingling in my fingers. My teeth worry my bottom lip, and my hands wring themselves in a fierce battle against the suddenly mounting anxiety.
I carry on walking beside him, but daren’t raise my eyes, my head, and instead attempt to force reasonable breaths through my nose.
“I’m sorry,” he adds. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
“It’s,” I breathe slowly, slowing my pace as his falters slightly. “It’s a long, sick, twisted story that you really don’t want to hear because it’s not really that interesting,” My fingernails lay siege to my palms. “I was just… I was trained this way? I dunno how to explain. Pavlov’s dog maybe? Y’know, sometimes just the way I looked would send her into a frenzy and boy did you know it.”
I wince briefly at the shitty, oxymoronic metaphor.
I wince again as her eyes pound inside my skull with angry, ice cold ferocity.
I explain further, trying to weave some semblance of sense into my nonsensical ramblings because the whole fucking situation just never made sense. “My mom. I mean, but she’s not a mom. She’s…” I choke slightly. I feel myself turning to stone. “I’m sorry, I can’t-“
We’ve stopped, at some point, I don’t remember doing so. He’s got a hand buried under the seat of the walker, but he’s looking at me, green eyes boring into me, wide and etched with concern, empathy; kindness imparting; he shakes his head briefly, and his hand comes to mine for a moment.
His fingers are so cold, and I jump at the touch. “It’s okay,” he whispers. “You’re safe here.”
I freeze, blinking furtively as the words register.
I open my mouth.
Nothing comes out.
I focus on the coldness of his skin, long after he’s let me go.
The black car parked on the road next to us has unlocked itself, and he’s fumbling to open the passenger door quickly enough, the momentum obviously counterproductive to his ability to remain standing.
Still, he does it.
“Here, climb in,” He says quietly, resting a hand on mine again momentarily, offering a wan smile. I don’t jump this time.
I nervously smile my thanks, swallowing to force down the stalled emotional tide – safe? From what? – and my eyes fall briefly to his walker before meeting his. I could slap myself for being so damned shy, stupidly ignorant – how difficult is it to just offer help? My lips part to offer assistance, but words falter again and I start to chew my lip.
His eyes crinkle as he smiles gently back at me. “You get comfy.”
I pull my bag from my shoulder and as gingerly as possible, climb into the passenger seat.
I force myself to become entranced at the highly modern interior of his 3 door hatchback. Dashboard comprising the full works, digital display, USB ports, dual climate control, a push-button to start the engine. I wish I’d clocked the registration to see what year the car is. It’s an automatic, and there’s a weird ball contraption mounted to the steering wheel, though I can’t see much else as the driver’s seat is resting forward. I glance into the backseat and it’s clean, though not empty - a couple manila envelopes, a gym bag, an old towel, a hessian Tesco bag and a cardboard box are strewn precariously on the edge of the seat behind me.
Ben’s made his way around to the driver’s side, and the door opens only partially at first; I duck down slightly and I can see he’s eyeing traffic for a decent break before he lifts the seat of the walker to fold it down. The door opens wider, and Ben haphazardly manoeuvres the walker behind the driver’s seat; I can see he’s got one hand clutching the frame of the car, and I begin to feel slightly nervous as his left leg starts to quiver again, quite noticeably, and I’m plagued with visions of his falling into the road. Soon though, he’s pushed the driver’s seat back into position and begins to carefully lower himself down to sitting, panting slightly. “Good thing,” he murmurs, grinning ruefully at me, “there’s no need for a quick getaway.” His legs are still planted on the tarmac outside, and he uses his hands to slowly lever each one inside.
I exhale a breath when Ben finally closes the door.
Now we’re both safe.
Air is sticky and stagnant, and he’s quick to start the engine and crank the AC up. Weird, ambient noise trickles through the speakers; all I can recognise is the intermittent repetition of dull bass.
His left leg is jumping up and down quite a bit, and I notice the right is also trembling. He pushes his hands into his thighs, which quells them somewhat. “Changing positions, it’s what sets it off.”
“Is…” I swallow. “Does it hurt?”
There’s a long pause before he shakes his head, giving me a brief, shallow smile before returning his eyes to his legs. “Um, nah, doesn’t really hurt. Looks worse than it is.”
I remember the odd grimace I’ve caught since our acquaintance, and I’m disinclined to believe that. “Sorry,” I murmur, forcing my eyes away, conscious of my own paranoia, wary of the rules of trespass. “I didn’t-“
A dog barks, and he chuckles lowly. “You say sorry far too much-“
“Sorry,” I mumble automatically, and start to chuckle myself.
The car interior is soon thick with distraught silence as our laughter trickles away, fed instead by the rumble of forced air through the car vents. I hear him shifting before he speaks again, his voice gravelly with concern. “Are you alright?”
I inhale shakily, trusting myself to merely nod and say nothing else. My eyes bore into the back of the empty tax disc holder before words just blurt forth: “Are you?” I counteract.
“Wh-, yeah, I’m fine.”
I turn to stare at him.
I can hear a woman’s voice, tenuous and ethereal, vibrating between beats; the harmony is soothing, ghostly, gentle, inducing calm and clarity. I focus my eyes entirely on Ben, taking in the subtle parting of lips, the smattering of faint freckles over the bridge of his nose, the golden flecks of nutmeg in his irises. His fingers rake through his hair, quick and jerky, the muscle visibly taught in his wrists.
He swallows slowly, a nervously pained smile briefly contorts his beautiful face. Hands drop to force fists into his thighs, legs still trembling slightly.
The hair he shoved moments ago has fallen back over his forehead.
He sighs. “This is becoming a little bit-“
“You don’t need to sugar-coat, y’know.” I say, cutting him off. I grimace myself because it’s fool-hardy, rude, wholly unforgivable to accuse the man of lying, and I envision his quickly throwing me out – I lean toward him, placing my hand on his fist, recklessness riding the heels of my impertinence. “Sorry,” I murmur. “I didn’t mean…” but my voice trails off.
I can feel the slowing spasm of his leg, juddering lazily beneath our fingers.
His eyes devour mine, and I’m absorbed, wrapped up in their brilliance.
The erratic whoosh of vehicles passing outside, market-traders shouting, pedestrians talking, heels clip-clopping on concrete, a dog barking, a child’s cry – these worldly sounds, muffled, intransient, become momentarily louder before I’m deafened in the wake of Ben’s gaze engulfing me.
Pulling, drawing, reeling me toward him.
“Jo,” he murmurs, his voice an octave above a whisper.
His lips part again, but there are no words.
I hear his intake of breath, heady, shaky and I echo it.
His eyes are darting back and forth, up and down, as if to make me – this moment – a memory.
I fight the urge to crawl forward, and I resist the need to crawl away.
A weary heart pounds toward a surreptitious crescendo in my chest, and from somewhere, somehow, there are fingers, nails blackened in my own thick polish, furtively cupping his face. The flesh there is warm, softly stubbled.
Resistance useless, I lean, I coax – I meet my lips with his. Only a butterfly’s brush of wings, hesitant at the whisper touch of silky skin on my own.
No fireworks, no explosions, no drifting toward nirvana; instead, it’s the tenuous exploration of gentle, hesitant contact. His lips meet mine fiery warm, delicate softness juxtaposed by urgency and his stubble. We’re both conceding, we both relenting; and pressure mounts until our lips are parted together, exploratory with one another in newfound urgency. I taste his temerity and ferocity, swirling marvellously against my needy diffidence – the cocktail is bewildering, empowering. I tilt my head, my body pushes forward, one hand on the splayed on his left thigh, another scrambles into the depths of his hair – thick, wiry, dense.
He flails briefly, falling against the driver’s door, a strangled noise in his throat; I follow, refusing to be parted from him. A small snigger escapes his mouth, and I echo it.
“Shit balance,” he whispers into my lips, and I feel a fresh vigorous seizing of the muscle in his thigh, no doubt brought on by the sudden fall back.
I ease back, dubious and insecure now in my intensity. Ben scrambles, hooking his arm through the steering wheel to pull himself upright; the tremor quiets almost immediately. I feel his fingers graze my neck, cold, stiff, extremely hesitant, and a soft moan rumbles my jugular.
Lips parted, I have to meet his again.
The best day…
There are no more words.