Many thanks for reading
It’s amazing how the culmination of momentous events cascade together, imperceptibly mating with the tiniest of choices to force us down paths never even considered.
If I hadn’t decided on going through with college in England, I’d have remained buried and forgotten in California.
If I hadn’t been late to that one mediocre lecture in the entirety of my three year course, then I’d have never hurriedly wedged myself next to Amanda.
But I did. And she said hello.
And nearly six years later, we’re sharing a prissy little flat while she’s successfully pursuing an insane Quality Control career… and I’m merely biding my time working shitty hours for an insurance company because I’m too afraid of failing at being a teacher.
Pathetic, isn’t it? Seriously pathetic. I’ll quite happily set myself up in a foreign country halfway across the globe, and yet monumentally fall apart when it comes to something so simple as a career.
At this particular juncture in all my 27 years of [primarily idiotic] choices, I’ve lost the confidence for practically everything.
Funny how quickly things can change.
On a mediocre Thursday night, I receive a text message gently reminding me of a promise to meet Amanda for drinks with a few of her work colleagues.
Amanda>>> drinks. u promised. queens head @ 7.
Amanda>>> wear the dress
Amanda>>> and makeup!!
Me<<< You owe me. Make-up, okay. No dress. Haven’t shaved and can’t be bothered now.
Me<<< Maybe. See you there.
My tiny red car carries me safely away from the monotony that is a home insurance call centre, though no matter how high I turn up the radio, that strange grinding noise is still distinctly audible each time I turn a rather sharp corner – and of course, this being England, there are fucking loads.
But no matter, I’ll call for help when I actually break down. My dad would murder me. Which is probably why I keep telling him that the car is A-OK, despite the fact he’s insistent that the steering wheel is on the wrong side.
Inside, I wash my face and take my time with my makeup, knowing that a rushed job just sets me up for all things bad. Perhaps that’s a little bit nonsensical, but experience has proven to me time and time again that a bad bit of makeup just makes for bad days. Uneven eyeliner is obviously a mega insult to the gods of beauty and perfection.
Or, as Amanda is always reminding me, I’m just slightly OCD about perfect cat-eye flicks.
And I know deep down, she’s right.
In high school, I went through quite a major goth phase, and even though I don’t exactly stalk the office in black PVC bodices and excessive, cheap lace (yeah, I cringe too), I still maintain elements: as-dark-as-possible-without-being-black hair, black eyeliner, accessorised with a primarily red and black wardrobe.
I suppose that after ten years, colour’s just downright scary. I mean, it’s expressive and draws attention. Ten years ago, I loved the attention of my “look.”
Now, I need to fade into the background for ultimate comfort.
Strange, isn’t it?
So the dress is a dark, bloody coloured velvet, is modestly cap sleeved, and skims nicely off of my size 14 hips to my knees. I love it, I even sometimes feel pretty in it. Black tights, despite the warm July weather because shaving is such a pain, and black flats – because I can’t tolerate the fussiness of heels.
Hair shoved up in a high ponytail, I take the bus, intent on a drink. Or three – at least three are required for me to relax enough to actually maintain conversations with strangers.
I hate meeting strangers.
The Queen’s Head is one of a few upper class gastro-pubs in the area; it tends to draw well dressed men in posh suits and hordes of desperate housewives intent on a night off from home. It’s also quite near where Amanda works.
Once inside, I stroll around until I spot her in the back of the pub, at a large rectangular table made of smaller ones pushed together. People – strange, new people – are arranged in a precarious clusterfuck arrangement and Amanda is annoyingly in the middle, against the wall. I inhale deeply, close my eyes and form fists.
Since my diagnosis, I’ve become even more aware of my own silly awkwardness, this painful habit I have of making a mess of social situations. It’s starkly apparent in my lack of friends, my lack of a social life, my distinct lack of a significant other.
I quash the bile rising in my throat, recite the mantra repeated countless times in therapy – Jump in - and gingerly approach.
Thankfully, Amanda’s on the ball and rises as she sees me approach. She waves, smiles way too brightly and easily, and shimmies out from her spot at the table. People rearrange themselves, though they’re all a blur as I struggle to assess the situation.
Six people, including Amanda. Five strangers. Three men and two women.
I can do this.
Amanda clutches my hand, and squeezes. I’m immediately bolstered by the moral support because she’s fantastic like that.
She clears her throat. “Heya, people, this is Josie, my Yankee roommate.”
I roll my eyes.
But they smile. And say hello. A couple of the guys even shake my hand and say it’s nice to meet me. The girls don’t give me some evil death glare as if I’m infiltrating on their patch, or worse, their men.
One of the girls approaches and launches into a diatribe about Amanda’s habit of making everything a drama, and I have to giggle and agree, because it’s absolutely true. I learn her name is Cathy and she works in accounts.
She’s nice to me.
It’s going to be okay.
After further introductions to those nearest me, Amanda drags me back to where she was sitting, and pretty much forces me beside one of the guys. My hands nervously twist the handles of my handbag. “That’s Ben, engineering. He won’t bite. Drink Jo?”
I glance at Ben and he’s… lovely. I’m immediately struck not by his appearance, but rather by an aura of gentleness emanating from him; there’s none of the usual pompous arrogance I’ve experienced in other career driven men (I mean, engineering, that’s career-driving, right?). He’s wearing a black and white chequered button down, open at the neck and – I do glance down – un-tucked and creased. So he’s obviously come straight from the office. At this time of night, definitely career-driven.
I squeak my reply to Amanda: “Um, uh, rosé spritzer, with lemonade.” I start digging in my handbag for cash, a sinking stone settling in my stomach as I suddenly can’t remember physically taking the money from the cashpoint I visited earlier.
Peripherally, I see Ben hand some money to Amanda. “On me,” he says, the placid aura confirmed by the beautifully genial tone of his voice – and paired with a quintessential British accent, I can’t help but feel the urge to melt to the floor.
“Could you get me another too?” He says to her.
But I’m drawn to my senses almost instantly and turn to him. “Oh no,” I say, finally locating a £20 note in the zippered compartment. “I got it.” I wave my cash at Amanda but she just shakes her head, a small grin forming.
“You get the next one.” Ben says, and I blush. Dark brown hair flops lazily at his temples, and curls gently over ears, as if he’s not had a hair cut in a while. Thick stubble darkens his square jawline, harbouring full lips . Hazel eyes nearing on green bore into me.
They’re warm. Inviting.
Amanda departs – with his cash, not mine – and I dread the impending awkward silence that I know is imminent. It’s a scourge of mine.
But then something amazing happens: Ben fidgets a bit and turns to me.
He’s smiling wickedly and it’s fucking beautiful. “I don’t know how you’ve done it, but flat-sharing with Amanda must be a full time job in and of itself.”
I exhale a quick laugh, nodding my head in quick agreement.
“Not that we don’t love her,” He continues, “we do, but she’s a pain in my ass at work.”
I blush again, purely because he’s making such exquisite eye contact. Keen to ensure that this conversation doesn’t die a death worthy of any martyr, I pick at the easiest thing.
“Sooooo, uh, you’re engineering? Like, what exactly?” And I immediately cringe because I just sound stupid, naïve, blonde, ditsy. I want to smack my forehead in frustration. “Sorry,” I mutter, “Ignore me, I’m a bit of an idiot.”
“No, not at all! I mean,” and I can sense that he’s suddenly become a little bit flustered because he runs a stiff hand through his hair. I note his wrist jerks haphazardly, and I find it momentarily quizzical but whatever, nerves do strange things.
I know it’s awful but I’m actually relieved. He’s human. Normal.
“Um,” Ben continues. “I’m a design engineer. I design the, uh, electronic stuff. The instruments we – the company – make.”
My eyes go wide, because I know Amanda’s company design and manufacture health monitoring equipment. Because this guy’s smart as hell, and gentle, and kind, and he’s talking to me.
“Wow,” I breathe. “I’m afraid I’m just an insurance lackey. Hardly amazing. Or important. Or…” I swallow. “Yeah.” My accent begins to grate on me. I can’t seem to school myself against the exaggerated long vowel sounds that are so blatantly American of me.
He smiles at me, and gently – yes, that’s exactly how it is – shrugs. “No, don’t put yourself down. To be honest, I’m highly admirable of anyone who works with the public. I sure as hell would commit murder within a week.”
I can’t help it, I laugh a bit, and I blush again. And I can feel unbidden tears urging to form because it’s been – Christ, I don’t know – so long since any stranger has been so darn kind. And as beautiful as it is, to be so complimented, to be seen so normally by someone, I’m beginning to feel the usual nervous discomfort, because I’m just incapable of taking compliments.
I’m always anticipating the backlash. I learned very early that good things always have a price.
I look away, at the table, tongue-tied with embarrassment, waiting for the penny to drop with Ben. The background noise of excessive talking, laughing, people having a good time, seems suddenly too loud, and I’m almost desperate to get out.
Thankfully, Amanda’s approaching, and she shoves a large glass of lemonade-fused rose at me, which I immediately gulp from. A half pint of coke – whether mixed or not, who knows – is placed in front of Ben.
She sits across from us, and launches herself into our conversation – well, what was left of it. “So remember that time last year when my phone charger stopped working? And I took it to work and brought it home working the next day? It’s ‘cause of this bloke. He saved me.”
“It wasn’t the charger,” he mumbles, and peripherally, I see him move a straw from an empty glass in front of him to the now full one.
“And it’s hardly life threatening to be without a phone.”
I chuckle. “To her, it’s a bloody emergency.” I look back up at him, daring to grin slightly. “You saved her. And me. So thank you.” I raise my glass, the effects of my few large gulps already manifesting themselves. “Cheers. You any good with cars?”
Amanda giggles at me and clinks her glass against mine. “Jo’s car makes a weird noise when you turn.”
Ben meets my eyes. “Like what? Screeching? Grinding?”
“Groaning.” I gulp again. “It groans. But seriously, you’re not responsible for fixing my life as well.” I want to slap my face again. Instead, I stare into my glass. “Well, not my life, I mean, you can’t really fix someone’s life, y’know, but I mean, like, my car, you don’t have to fix my car.”
I glance under my lashes at Amanda, dismayed to see she’s giving Ben a look, a knowing look. “What?” I ask pointedly.
She startles, shrugging. “Nothing! Just – you know, the car.”
I groan, squeezing my eyes shut, intent on keeping the tears at bay.
I stand up, murmuring about the need for cigarette, and shimmy out from the confines of the table. Marching outside, the coolness of the air is a welcome break from the confines of the table. Other people are outside, smoking, vaping, talking, laughing, generally being merry while I’m struggling to contain the mess of emotion threatening to escape.
I don’t make eye contact with anyone; instead, I lean against the brick of the building, my back turned. I light a cigarette with shaking hands, after a desperate search in my bag for a lighter. I always lose the damn things. Always.
A harrowed victim of this century, I have to pull out my phone – look busy, look occupied, not like a freaking loner loser. Playing with my phone sends the message I’ve got people, okay?
Facebook is disinteresting, just an endless scrolling diatribe of friends who know nothing about me. Friends with children, friends with pets, friends buying houses, friends complaining about pointless, inane things like phone contracts, idiot drivers, and tile colours.
I’m almost certain it’s Ben. Seriously? I stiffen. I swallow. I’m not prepped for this scenario. I mean, these silly film-script situations don’t happen in real life, surely.
No one’s ever sought me out like that.
So I turn around, trying to force myself to smile.
It’s Ben. Beautiful, gentle, sweet Ben, with gently curling hair, with green-amber eyes looking at me so intently, with a scruff of facial hair I’m desperate to run my fingers against.
He’s holding a walker. No, scratch that, he’s leaning on a walker. Leaning quite heavily; it detracts from his obviously rather tall physique. It’s got wheels, four to be precise. And a padded bit recessed in the middle, which I assume is a seat. He takes a couple of steps toward me – excruciatingly stiff, awkward. He’s not stepping, more like swinging his legs from his hips. His knees are bent, something like 90 degrees – but don’t ask me to quantify that because I hate math.
The toes of his shoes briefly drag against the floor with each step.
I have to force myself to stop looking at his feet, but it’s goddamned difficult – I won’t deny the intense need to see.
God, what the hell?! Why the hell do I have to be so freakishly abnormal?
I swallow again, and words just tumble out as he’s nearing me. “I-I-I’m sorry, rude I know, I just – she’s got a big mouth, I hate people knowing, like, I’m seriously not a freak, I just, I-I-I just-“
I want to cringe at my own hypocrisy, because here I am trying to convey to him my utter normalcy, while my eyes are desperate to drink in his obvious disability.
“Hey, I understand that. Believe you me.” He stops, and I finally raise my eyes to his – I’m bewildered that he’s offering a gentle smile. “I was off home actually, and just wanted to let you know, the car? Top up the power steering fluid. It sounds like that’s the issue.”
So the guy drags himself all the way out here to tell me that? Wow. “Um, yeah, okay. Just, under the hood – bonnet – I mean bonnet, right?”
He smiles at me, again, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “Yep. There’ll be a container for it. Plastic. With a level marker. I’d bet 100 quid it’s low.”
I nod. I flick my cigarette, careful to keep my hand away, the smoke away. I flick again. And again. Obsessively flicking, it’s a nervous thing.
Amanda knows it’s indicative of impending panic – impending doom.
“Look, Josie, I don’t – I never for one moment thought you were a freak, or anything even remotely similar.”
If only you knew.
I close my eyes; the intensity of him is overwhelming, the sincerity of his kindness hits me like a tonne of bricks. “I’m sorry, I’m a mess,” I murmur, and the familiar sharp sting crawls up my nose that precedes tears. God, how embarrassing.
“What? No, god no. Don’t be. Please.”
I can hear him nearing me and I open my eyes, meeting his. I can’t help it, the tears form and he’s a distorted mess, colour streaking everywhere. I blink rapidly. Rivulets cascade down each cheek. “It’s obvious you know. It’s cool. But yeah, I’m a bit of a freak, okay? Well, make that a lot of a freak. But I tried. I mean, I do try. To be – to be normal. You know. But still, it’s like, people have this thing, when they know, and I can almost hear them thinking there’s the crazy chick who got committed, stay away from her, she might lose it and I-I-I know that’s extremely paranoid of me but it’s just – I know it’s what happens. You just, you see it in their faces.”
I lower my gaze, desperately pulling a long drag on the cigarette, awkward with my silly confession. What the hell have I just done? But I can’t answer, I can’t rationalise it, make sense of it. My brain’s become fizzy, scrambled.
“Did you see it in my face?”
I look up. That was left field and then some. “What? Uh, I-“ I shut my mouth.
No. I didn’t. Not once. I inhale a shaky breath.
He shifts his hands, his weight, I don’t know. He’s shifting. He looks uncomfortable. Whether it’s his body, his legs, or me, who knows, but he continues talking as if nothing’s amiss. “Like I said, I get it. Except in my head, it’s more along the lines of oh god, he’s walking weird, he’s got an old person walker, shit, what the hell is wrong with him, what if it’s contagious, what if he’s retarded…”
I smile, I can’t help it. It’s comforting, this shared paranoia. Over two different things, of course. But I’ve never had anyone share my suspicious mistrust of people.
I toss my cigarette aside when I feel it threaten to burn out against my fingers.
And immediately light another, and speak as I exhale, plumes of smoke escaping in warped clouds as my lips move. “I have a disorder. A mental disorder. A personality disorder. Not like, schizophrenic or anything. I don’t hear voices. I just don’t… deal with things too good. I-I just, I was sick. So, yeah, hospital. But, y’know, a certain type of hospital.” I meet his eyes, a dare, daring him to laugh, run (okay, bad one there), hide, scoff, anything.
React. I need the reaction. I can then appropriately handle it. I can gauge how best to appropriately withdraw myself.
He just opens his mouth and speaks, never once breaking eye contact. “Eight years – no, Jesus, - nearly ten years ago, I started getting weird pins and needles in my right foot. Doctors, hospital, all that bollocks. Took ‘em a good year, but I was eventually diagnosed with a rare type of MS. It’s a neurological thing, hence the shambling walk. Well, walk may be stretching it; I’m an engineer, I don’t do words very well.”
I know he’s trying to disarm me, relax me with self-deprecation. I know it because I do it.
But I can’t let go.
I can’t speak.
I stop flicking.
I look down, at his hands, his feet, I notice his left leg is quivering slightly. I suddenly feel painfully aware of the fact that I’m effortlessly standing on my own perfectly straight legs, effortlessly using my hands to fill my lungs with carcinogenic smoke, effortlessly in control of my body. I look up again and he just offers a wan smile, and I get it – I did it, I had the look. I know I did.
I see him swallow hard and reposition his hands on the walker. “Anyway, yeah. I’d better go. Got a meeting first thing about a new project. On a Friday. Ridiculous, right?” He starts to turn around, the shaking leg obviously recalcitrant. He then stops to look over at me. “It was good meeting you.”
Ha, yeah right.
How do I respond to that? “You too,” I mutter. “Seriously. And thank you.” And I want to continue, I want - I NEED – to tell him, tell him everything, tell him that I didn’t judge him, like he never judged me.
I watch him go. I relent and watch his legs, he’s even slower than earlier, the shaking one drags more than the other. His knees seem locked together. He pauses briefly a couple of times, like he’s having to wait for his legs to respond.
Each step seems to require a herculean amount of effort.
And the painful, weird, disjointed step he makes adds to the strange quivering between my own legs. God, what the fuck? That’s awful. It’s awful. I’m awful. A quick glance around confirms other people are watching him go and I’m suddenly intensely ashamed of my fascination.
I know what they’re thinking – precisely as he’d intimated earlier.
Except I’m not thinking that. I’m thinking I need to run after him. I need to catch him. I need to have this beautifully gentle person in my life.
But I don’t move an inch.