CHAPTER VII — The White Chucks Society
She’d come to notice that there were two Elliots—the one from after work, who wore impeccable white dress shirts and a tie she had no idea how he tied, who had a crease between his eyebrows 70% of the time and looked absolutely deadly. And there was the casual Elliot, and honestly, the only difference between the two of them were the Chucks.
“I love your shoes,” she’d told him once.
Elliot looked down, as if to check what shoes he was wearing. “I must have had them for a decade.”
And she had to check again. There was no way that pair of Chucks was even over a year old. It looked like it had just left the box, white as if it’d never seen anything even remotely close to mud. And yeah, maybe it hadn’t. Maybe it hadn’t even met the floor, maybe he’d never even walked on those shoes. Again, it made her wonder just how long he’d been paralyzed—and honestly, she was starting to feel like someone in a Game of Thrones forum, making up theories about the next season, scraping for details. She wouldn’t ask, though.
Because his shoes had become some sort of internal joke to her—and because Marie Kondo’s tidying up show on Netflix made her feel guilty—, Alex decided to go down her closet and dust off her retired pair of high top Chuck Taylors converse. It’d once been white, you could just barely tell, and it was covered in paint smudges. When had she stopped wearing those altogether? Was it when she retired the bandana? She had a boring hairband now.
Alex decided she’d make the effort to clean them and when she left for volleyball practise on Friday, she looked between the reliable trainers and the Chucks and opted for the latter.
“Are you painting again?” Callie asked after they’d left the locker room and lingered their usual fifteen minutes to catch a glimpse of the guys’ team.
Alex snorted, surprised both by the question ans the absurdity of it. “No.”
Callie shrugged. Alex’s phone buzzed in her hand with a message from Elliot.
>You still at the gym?
>Are u finshd?,
When they first met and would text for hours uninterruptedly, he took forever to type short sentences and he never made any spelling mistakes. He even used commas. As they grew closer, however, and messages got less demanding, for practical reasons, he abbreviated whenever he could, making his texts much faster and their exchanges more fluid. He’d still rather call her, though; whenever they couldn’t have lunch together, which had become their regular thing, they’d stay in the phone after she’d gone to bed—sometimes for hours. Sometimes even when they had met for lunch.
Yep, she texted back.
>Callie’s taxi service.
>Thn Im pickng u up
“Elliot is coming.” Alex told Callie as she texted Ok back.
“Oh, I’m finally meeting Mr. Perfect?”
“He’s just picking me up.”
“Then I’m meeting him.”
“He’s not going through all the trouble of getting out of the car just to meet you.” Callie eyed her suspiciously. Maybe Alex should’ve toned down her voice, but she got nervous about them meeting without her being prepared. “Look, I’ll just set up a dinner or something. Soon.”
“Who’d you bring?”
Her friend stuck out her tongue.
“I don’t know, maybe… Max?”
“Max?” Alex snorted. “That’s more like a police interrogatory than a double date.”
>Im almst there.
Alex swung her bag over her shoulder and took her cold water bottle, killing Callie’s cheek. “I’ll wait outside.”
“I’m gonna wait until one of these guys call me out on a date.” She winks. “It’s been long enough.”
As she waited outside, Alex was so lost in thoughts—of her and Elliot, Callie and Elliot meeting— that she didn’t even notice the car until it honked twice. Elliot lowered the window and her heart jumped merrily inside her chest, like it did every single time she set eyes on him.
“Hey there, beautiful.” He lowered the window and poked an elbow out. “Waiting for someone?”
“I really shouldn’t be talking to strangers.” She batted her eyelashes.
“Yeah, I bet your boyfriend wouldn’t like it.” He had this mischievous gleam in his eyes, the way it wrinkled at the corners behind his glasses.
Alex jumped the curb and gave a few steps toward the car, leaning over the window to kiss him. They were both smiling when she playfully bit his lower lip. Boyfriend.
“No, he wouldn’t.”
She circled the car and hopped inside, stopping for a proper kiss before buckling herself onto the seat.
“Alexandra Harrington!” Alex separated quickly from Elliot when she heard Callie’s voice, standing right beside his window with a wide grin. “You forgot your water bottle.”
Alex narrowed her eyes and raised the bottle she was holding. “Did I?”
“Whoops. My mistake.” Callie shrugged, not at all apologetic. “I’m Alex’s best friend. And you must be Mr. Perfect.”
Heat crept up her face and she rolled her eyes, staring between her best friend and a mildly confused, widely amused Elliot. Callie’s smug look was the one of a true machiavellian. I’ve put you in a spot, haven’t I?
“Elliot, this is Callie.” Alex gave in, unable to do anything else.
“Tinder Date Girl.” He smiled, raising his fist for a bump, which didn’t seem to put her back as a strange greeting gesture at all. Alex wondered if she could see the parts of his wheelchair in the backseat. “How did it go with Tinder Date Guy? Alex never told me.”
Callie grimaced, “More like Underaged Tinder Date Guy.”
“I’m sorry about that.” He chuckled.
“Yeah.” She quickly recovered. “Oh well. I’m glad to finally meet the guy who has got Alex painting again.”
Elliot looked back at her with an expression of a newfound pleasure. Alex raised her hands in the air, pleading not guilty before the wolves came for her. “I’m not.”
“Your shoes don’t lie.” Callie shrugged. “Anyways, Alex has been so secretive about you, I was starting to think you had some hideous facial abnormalities. But no, here you are, Clark-Freaking-Kent. Just perfect.”
Elliot smiled and Alex made the mistake of thinking he hadn’t noticed the hint in Callie’s last words—but the look he quickly shot her sideways, hiding his hands in his lap almost instinctively, something among the lines of surprise, disappointment and annoyance, made her throat close with something she couldn't identify. Like some sort of anafilaktik shock.
“Thanks.” He rubbed his knuckles against the back of his neck, and if it was out of tension or distress, she didn’t know. Both.
“You even drive the same goddamn car. If it wasn’t for the…”
“Cross?” Elliot said, a throwback to their first date that would’ve been a fun private joke but felt more like an accusation right now as he eyed Alex. Betrayal? She wished she could hide somewhere and just never ever get out.
I’m killing you, Callioppe. I swear I am.
“Yes.” Callie smiled charmingly. If Alex didn’t know her any better, she’d say it was a flirty smile. “By the way, I have a party coming up this Sunday-”
And as she talked, Alex felt sicker and sicker.
“Well, actually more like my sister’s party, but I’m in charge of everything and I’m inviting you.” She pretended to whisper the last part. “You can bring Alex if you want, but I personally wouldn’t. She’s a pain.”
“I’ll think about it.” He offered Callie a polite smile, placing one hand in the black lever next to the steering wheel. “Nice to meet you, Tinder Date Girl.”
She took the cue out and stepped away from the car. “See you two on Sunday.”
He started the car. Neither of them said anything. Alex didn’t avert her eyes from the window, but felt a little worm eating her from the inside out. The air around them felt tense, wrapping them in a bubble about to burst, so she didn’t make any sudden movements. Staring out the window, she noticed with a pang to her chest where he was driving her.
“Are you taking me home?” She asked with a startle.
The rear lights of the car in front of them was just barely enough for her to make out a simple nod—maybe his jaw was too tightly closed for him to mutter anything back. Alex pursed her lips and tightened her grip around her water bottle.
“I thought we were going to the movie theater.”
He didn’t look at her. “Maybe another day.”
“Elliot-” She tried.
“I’m tired,” He interrupted with a sudden burst, his words harsh. Maybe trying to soften his tone, but instead only making her feel like a reprimanded child, he added: “...Alex.”
She backed off and looked down at her lap. There were two ways she could possibly handle this—she could let her pride win, and Lord, did she want to let it take control of her, that red little beast that told her she didn’t have to take shit from anyone, anywhere. It was vengeful, ready to fight whatever, whomever, before it could hurt her. You think you can bark? I can bark louder. But she couldn’t let her pride win over this one; she knew he was at least a little bit hurt and it was all her fault. So she swallowed hard and tried to work on solving the conflict. Admittedly, not something she was very good at.
“Elliot.” She insisted once again. “What’s wrong?” He braked milliseconds before running over the red sign. Alex held onto the headboard; she felt the storm coming and knew she would have to face it. “Jesus.” She heaved.
Elliot lowered his head until it almost touched the steering wheel, hid between his outstretched arms.
“Sorry,” he said after what seemed to be the longest two seconds she’d ever experienced. “I’m sorry.”
The only indication she had she was even alive was how loudly her heartbeat was in her ears. Alex reached for his shoulder even though her first instinct was to go for his thigh, but she knew the gesture would possibly go unnoticed, so she tried to stick to the parts he could feel. When his shoulders sagged, her first thought was that he was crying.. Then she noticed, a fraction of second later, that he was actually laughing.
“What’s so funny?” She retreated her hand.
“It’s just...” He brushed his eyes with the back of his hand. “It’s stupid.”
“I keep forgetting...”
“Forgetting..?” Alex bit her tongue.
“Nothing,” he shook his head.
“What?” She insisted.
“That I couldn’t be farther from Callie’s Mr. Perfect.”
He said it with a jokingly smile, with the self deprecating kind of humor she could appreciate given a certain playful context. But this was different—those words felt like a knife, cutting everything from her belly button to her heart. She wanted to scream, you aren’t! But all she could do was lean forward, against the seatbelt, placing a hand against his chest and pressing her lips against his. She hoped that kiss could tell him everything she couldn’t physically bring herself to.
“Yeah, that is stupid.” She said once their lips parted, just in time for the light overhead turn green.
She hadn’t been to the movie theater with a boy in ages. It was funny that she thought of Elliot as a boy in that particular context, because really, she had never been to the movie theater with a man. Aunt Elida was her standard companion—she never got tired of 3D and she talked through the whole movie, but Alex didn’t mind. Usually they sat two rows from the back, right in the chairs of the middle, but that simply wasn’t an option now.
“Stadium seats are the bane of my existence.” Elliot complained as they entered the room.
“Why?” Alex asked absentmindedly.
He didn’t bother to answer. Soon it became pretty clear why; they were confined to one of the two only wheelchair spaces, and the seats in the back, thanks to the stairs Alex only really noticed the times she tripped over herself in the dark and made a mess with the popcorn, were absolutely out of reach. She liked stadium seats because it was far more comfortable, but hadn’t thought about the downsides of it accessibility-wise, which made her slightly disappointed in herself.
Elliot positioned himself in the blue wheelchair symbol and Alex took the chair next to him. The last time she was in the movie theater with a guy, they used their tickets as an excuse to kiss during the entire session. Back then things like that were excusable, but now she was a grown up. They weren’t going to use the movie theater to make out… right? She looked at Elliot next to her and gave him a nervous smile.
“My aunt is dying to watch this movie.” She told him during the initial trailers.
“Maybe next time we’ll bring her.” He said, with a wink and a playful smile, but an implicit threat still hovered over her head.
First Max, then Callie, now Aunt Elida… Next time she’d be leading him to her father’s grave. She tried to flip the arm support up, but it didn’t move. Ugh. She leaned over it slightly, only enough so that she could easily reach him—y’know, in case they did decide to make out.
“Popcorn?” She offered him, even though he’d paid for it.
He eyed her lap but was quick to shake his head. “Nah.”
How he pulled his hands to his lap didn’t go unnoticed. That was one of the many times she saw him do exactly that, as if putting his hands away or simply hiding them, an unconscious gesture she was already quite familiar with. She felt something tug at her insides; did he want popcorn? Was it a purely practical choice, an aesthetic one or did he simply didn’t like popcorn? She fiddled with the straw of her soda—he hadn’t gotten himself one of those either. Maybe it had something to do with drinking too much and having to go to the bathroom, and therefore he knew eating salty things was a bad choice. Maybe he thought she’d be put off by how it looked go have popcorn when you had no grip, maybe the butter made wheeling a fucking pain and maybe it was a little bit of everything. Whatever it was, it only made Alex realize how much thought went into doing something as simple as popcorn.
“Is this the movie or the trailer?” He asked into her ear. She shrugged.
Alex entwined her fingers with Elliot’s as the lights around them dimmed and the movie started. Somehow, the darkness made her bold. She laid her head over his shoulder and took a handful of popcorn from the bag, ate some and then lifted it to him. She could feel him looking at her, perhaps trying to figure it out just as much as she’d been just a few seconds before. Alex hoped he could interpret the act as a natural thing a couple, any couple, might do. And thank God, he accepted it.
Surprisingly, they didn’t make out. At some point and he laid his own head over hers. At some point, she fell asleep—not that the movie was particularly bad, she just felt that exterior force pulling her eyelids down until she didn’t fight anymore and felt her consciousness vanishing into the dark.
She did dream, though. The kind of dreaming that felt so vivid at the time she never once questioned if it was real or not. She was having sex with Richard. Wild, pinned-to-the-wall kind of sex. They were at her apartment, which felt slightly out of place even in the dream, considering that wasn’t his usual scenario. He hobbled with her glued to his waist to the granite countertop. When Alex opened her eyes, Richard was no longer Richard, but into Elliot—and the biggest discrepancy, so big that it threatened to wake her up, was that he was standing in front of her. When he leaned over her and grabbed her hand, she noticed, they were his hands, with the curled fingers and deep creases where there weren’t any muscles anymore. He moved his free hand, the one he’d told her he couldn't feel—and for some reason she was so aware of that at the time—, between her legs and caressed her clitoris with his bony knuckles. In the dream, oh my God, she exploded.
Had she been a man, it would’ve been so much harder to mask what kind of dream she’d just had. Her head rolled off his shoulder and she sat up straight like an arrow in her seat, managing to knock Elliot’s jaw in the way with the top of her head in full force.
“I’m sorry!” She grabbed his shoulder, “I’m so, so sorry!”
Elliot was leaning forward, massaging his face. “Ouch,” he heaved. “Ouch.”
The people moving toward the exit and the credits on the screen told her she’d woken up just in time to leave. Maybe Elliot had called her, startling her awake instead of the embarrassing wet dream. Alex kneeled in front of him and leaned over his legs to meet his face.
“I’m sorry.” She pleaded, kissing his chin.
Still pressing the place she’d knocked her head, his face still twisted into a half-grimace, with a chuckle, he said: “That… gives the word headstrong a whole new meaning.”
Despiste herself, Alex chuckled. “I guess it does.”
Elliot tested his jaw, opening and closing his mouth. He pushed his glasses up his nose with his wrist and kissed her lightly on the lips. “Let’s go.”
As they left, Alex right beside him and with a hand over his shoulder, she could feel the quick looks he attracted. She supposed he was immune to it by now, but she wasn’t. And surprisingly, it wasn’t anger she felt, or anything in that spectrum—Alex felt butterflies. She kept her head raised high and didn’t hesitate to display enough affection that showed she was neither a sister or a nurse, as if shouting loud and clear, to the people who were wondering about her status and to the people who couldn’t care less, he’s my boyfriend!
As he wheeled to the car, Alex noticed how his strokes were slower, more deliberate. He wheelie-d through a sidewalk imperfection and as soon as he set the caster wheels in the pavement again, both of his legs started shaking. She heard a muffled sound coming from him, maybe holding back a curse, and stopped by the car parked in the handicapped space. He tried rearranging his legs in the footplate, and that usually got rid of them but not now. He pressed his fists down his thighs and the pressure seemed to quiet them down, but as soon as he moved his hands back to the wheels, the spasms were back.
“Shit.” He said under his breath when his right hand began spasming too, moving his wrist back and forth uncontrollably.
“Is everything okay?” She asked, walking reluctantly in his direction.
He looked up at her, his lips pressed into a thin line.
“Y...eah. Jus...t,” he heaved a sigh, his breath getting caught by a hiccup-like sound, like he was fighting his own diaphragm.
He didn’t finish the sentence and instead leaned over his own legs, his right arm pressed between his chest and thighs. It didn’t take long before he pushed against his knees and sat back again, though his legs still bounced. He let out a frustrated sigh, pressing his eyes closed.
“This fucking sucks,” Elliot said under his breath.
Alex gave a few hesitant steps in his direction after deciding she wouldn’t just get in the car and pretend it wasn’t happening, that she didn’t see it. She touched his hair, making his stare up at her above his glasses and swung a leg across his lap and sat down facing him. Elliot frowned, his lips pressed into a thin line and his jaw set. Alex tousled his hair, soft between her fingers, and felt his legs calming down with her weight.
He finally wrapped his arms around her waist and dropped his head to her chest and leaned into her. He inhaled and exhaled deeply as she caressed his head and they stayed like that for a while before Alex held his face and lifted it until he he was looking at her. She adjusted his glasses and smiled encouraging at him. Their kiss was slow and sweet instead of deep and hungry, full of tenderness.
Elliot pecked her cheek playfully and his stubble tickled her skin, she wondered when he’d last shaved. At least a couple of days. She rather liked that look and was rather surprised at how light his facial hair seemed to be—was his hair actually dark blond instead of brown? She’d pay attention to that the next time.
“Better?” Alex asked, her hands over his chest.
He nodded and brushed a strand off her face, the corners of his eyes wrinkled with a faint smile.
“I like your shoes.” He chuckled, looking down at her feet at the sides of his chair. Alex had long legs, enough so that when she straddled him like that, the tip of her toes touched the ground. “Though a tiny bit dirty.”
“I’ve had them for over a decade now.” Alex said playfully. “Don’t judge.”
His eyes longed there before he looked back at her, and when he did, his face didn’t hold a single trace of joke.
“I’ve had mine for seven years.”
When he says it, Alex knows. She knows he isn’t talking just about converse shoes, so she nods acknowledgingly and doesn’t say anything else. She kissed him, this time longingly, deeply, until he pulled back by gently placing one hand against her neck and sitting back.
With their foreheads and noses touching, his eyes were cryptic and she couldn’t seem to decypher whatever message there was behind those blue irises.
“Just tell her.” He asked, his voice so low had she not been already so close, she wouldn’t be able to hear. “Okay?”