Saturday morning, he woke up before dawn and wasn’t able to shut eye again. He couldn’t remember ever feeling this nervous about going out with someone before. That feeling below his ribcage, right above his injury line, kept coming back every time he thought about Isabel, which he had to admit was pretty much all the time. He hadn’t been able to get her out of his mind ever since they had lunch. He saw the sheets move and heard an all too familiar sound. He looked down to see his legs shaking under the covers. No, please. This was the last thing he needed. He couldn’t be having a bad spasm day. Not today. He tried to steady his legs with his hands, without any success. He used his arms as support to pull himself to a sitting position. Shit. He could feel the spasms in his abdomen too. Out of all the crappy things about being paraplegic, spasms were the one he hated the most. It was a tough contest; because he hated everything about being paralyzed, but spasms made it that much more evident that he had absolutely no control over his own body. When they happened in public, they caused all kinds of concerned and freaked out comments, because people could not understand why his legs moved all of a sudden. Sometimes they would look at him as if he had being lying all along about not being able to move his legs, others would look at him as if he was possessed or something, and some people had even attempted to call an ambulance for him. He hated having to explain what spasms were, so when he got them, he usually just stayed home and hid from everyone.
That option was looking pretty good right about now, while his legs shook uncontrollably under his palms that tried hopelessly to steady them. When the spasms finally resided, he used his hands to move and stretch his legs, because that, although it momentarily made the spasms worse, after a while helped to get rid of them. He also opened his nightstand drawer and took out a baclofen pill. Then he struggled to transfer into his chair. By now, a little over a year after his injury, transferring in and out of his chair was just a routine movement that didn’t cause him great effort. However, when his legs were being shaken by spasms, it made it considerably harder to get into his chair, specially, when his pelvis was also suddenly pulled forward forcing him into a straight position making it hard for him to sit down. It was the worst feeling in the world to be pulled out of his chair like that, as if an invisible force were yanking him, threatening to make him end up on the floor. He had, at the beginning, actually ended up on the ground many times when this happened, but not so much lately that he had gotten stronger and better at controlling his flaccid limbs with only his arms and chest.
When he was finally able to stabilize himself on his chair, he rolled to the bathroom and used a catheter to urinate, because –even worse than ending up on the floor – spasms, sometimes caused him to wet himself. He looked at his watch to check if it was a decent hour to text Isabel and cancel, but it was just quarter after seven. He took care of his morning routine, and transferred into the shower chair. By the time he was done, close to an hour later, he picked up the phone to call Isabel. He had decided it was bad taste to just send her a text to cancel. The phone rang a few times and he was sure it was about to go to voicemail when she picked up.
“Hi”, Isabel answered. “I couldn’t find the phone, sorry. Are you already on your way here?” she asked him.
“Uh, hi, no…I” he stuttered again over the phone.
“Do you want me to give you directions?”
“No… I know where it is, but I…”
“Did you have breakfast yet? I was told about this restaurant and was thinking maybe we could stop there on the way. It’s supposed to have really good coffee. What do you think?” She said into the phone and suddenly he couldn’t bring himself to cancel on her.
“Sure”, he said. “It sounds great. I’ll see you in a bit.”
“Perfect. Text me when you get here, so you don’t have to park”, she said.
When Eli hanged up, his hand was shaking, and this wasn’t a spasm. He ran his fingers through his hair trying to calm down. Why did this woman make him so nervous? He finished getting dressed and headed to the elevator and then to his car. He drove all the way seriously considering turning back at every traffic light. But at least his spasms seemed to be gone. He finally arrived at her street and pulled over to text her. He waited a few minutes and then saw her leave her building and head towards his car. He unlocked the door and watched her get in. She was wearing jeans and a simple white top, but she looked radiant; her long hair down falling across her back, her shiny blue eyes which he now thought had the same color of the Irish ocean, where he had taken that picture of the lighthouse. She closed the door and looked at him with a smile.
“Hi”, she said and he felt her tone was a little too candid, like they’d known each other for a long time and not just a week.
“Hi”, he said back with a nervous grin. “So, where’s this restaurant?”
“Oh…” she pulled out her phone and showed him a location on the GPS. He started the car and drove, happy he had an excuse to look straight at the road and not at her. He could feel his palms sweating over the wheel.
When they got to the place, he was pleased to see it was a small café, much like the one he had taken her to, nothing too fancy. She got out of the car and waited for him to take out his chair and transfer into it. The moment he pulled his legs out of the car, they started shaking again, and he looked up in fear that she would be watching. Again, she wasn’t. She was putting her cellphone back inside her small purse. He rubbed his thighs with his hands hoping the spasm wouldn’t last long. Fortunately, it didn’t, once his legs stopped bouncing he wheeled himself over to her. They got inside and once more, she pulled a chair out of the way for him to wheel under the table. He appreciated that she had only tried to help him with the one thing he actually needed her to do. People had a tendency to try to help him with everything, like pushing him in the street, or over ramps, or getting in and out of the car, or even nonsense things like opening a bottle, as if he couldn’t do anything by himself. Isabel, however, hadn’t tried to help him with anything, and yet she had pulled the chair without him having to ask her.
They both ordered coffee and then browsed through their menus. It took Eli only a moment to decide and he closed his menu and left it over the table.
“Let me guess”, she said. “Ham and eggs?”
“Am I that predictable?” He smiled.
“Well, a classic is a classic”, she laughed. “I’ll have pancakes.” She closed her menu too and put it over his; as she did so, her hand brushed his briefly. Eli felt a shiver go through his spine.
“Also a classic”, he replied.
“Yep”, she said looking him straight in the eye with the same intense look she had when she had complemented his eyes. Suddenly the table started shaking. Eli looked down embarrassed and put his hands over his legs to try and keep them from bouncing against the table.
“I’m sorry”, he apologized and pulled his chair back, away from the table to stop making it bounce. The clinging sound of the table stopped but now she could see his legs shaking. Shit. He held his breath, wishing to run away.
“You don’t have to apologize”, she said.
Eli looked up at her afraid to find a horrified expression on her face, but she was looking at him as if he had just apologized for nocking a spoon off the table or something else completely normal. At that moment, a waitress arrived with their coffees but instead of setting them down, she stared at his bouncing legs.
“Sir, are you ok?” she asked concerned without looking away. Eli sighted.
“He’s fine”, Isabel replied. “Just leave the coffee, please.”
The girl looked back at Isabel, finally taking her horrified eyes off Eli’s legs.
“Are you sure? Shouldn’t I call someone?” suggested the waitress probably thinking he was having an epileptic attack or something.
“We are sure, thank you”, Isabel insisted.
The waitress looked back down at Eli’s legs and set down the cups still staring, before walking away slowly. Eli, pressed his hands over his thighs harder, begging them to stop, too ashamed to look at Isabel.
“I… It’s just spasms”, he uttered without looking up.
“It’s ok. You don’t have to explain. I’m not that dumb waitress”, she hissed.
Eli looked up now. She wasn’t looking at him, but angrily eying the waitress who was still staring from the far. Then she looked back at him and casually picked up her cup and blew on it. Thankfully, his legs slowly stopped bouncing. He let out air relieved.
“So, where are you taking me? Or is it a surprise?” She said using her usual flirty tone.
Eli swallowed hard, equally surprised and grateful that she had changed the subject. He wheeled himself back under the table before answering.
“To the public garden”, he replied finally.
Isabel smiled widely at him. “Sometimes I’d swear you can read my mind”, she said.
Eli took a sip from his coffee, and then looked back up. “It IS really good coffee”, he said.
Isabel took a sip from her own cup. “It is”, she smiled drinking from it again. The moment she set her cup back down, the table started shaking again, making the coffee spill a little. Eli backed away from the table again. He was about to apologize but she spoke first.
“So, do you go there often?” She asked him.
“I do, sometimes, to draw”, he said trying to ignore his shaky legs.
“Oh, so you don’t only draw buildings?”
“No. I… draw all kinds of things. It’s my favorite thing in the world”, he said trying to relax.
“I’d like to see them”, she said. “Your drawings”, she added because he looked puzzled.
“Oh, of course”, he agreed wondering how she was able to maintain a conversation while his legs jumped like that, not staring and yet not looking away. Finally, his legs stopped, but this time he didn’t wheel back under the table. She took another sip of her coffee ignoring the small pool on the plate.
“Do you prefer to draw landscapes?”
“I like to draw people too, but landscapes are better at posing”, he said being able to speak better now that his legs had settled down.
“Have you ever had an exhibition?”
“Oh, no. I just draw for myself”, he replied.
“I bet they’re really good, though, your sketches are amazing”.
“Thank you”, he said pulling close enough to take a sip of his coffee. His mouth was dry.
The waitress returned to take their order. She was still staring at him, but he was grateful his legs had stopped shaking. She wrote their order down on her pad.
“Would you like me to clean that up for you?” Asked the waitress referring to the dishes under their cups which were wet with coffee.
“No thanks. It’s fine”, said Isabel.
The girl took another long stare at Eli before walking away. When she came back with their food Eli stared at his dish, too far away from him. If he wanted to eat, he’d have to wheel under the table again, but he was afraid to have another spasm. Although he had actually lost his appetite, he pulled towards the table and forced himself to take a bite. As if that was the trigger, the table shook once more over his spasmic legs. He rolled backwards again, starting to hyperventilate. Why the hell hadn’t he canceled on her? He knew he had to stay home. This was so damn embarrassing. Isabel stood up and Eli looked at her afraid she might be about to walk out on him. Instead, she pulled her chair to sit next to him rather than across him, and she leaned in towards him. What the hell was she doing?
“You were going to cancel on me this morning, right? That’s why you called?” She said as if it was her who could read his mind.
“Yes”, he confessed.
“Because of this?” She asked looking straight into his eyes while his legs shook. Eli nodded. “Does it hurt?” She almost whispered.
“No”, he denied honestly.
“But they make you really uncomfortable”. Eli didn’t answer, or even nodded, it hadn’t been a question. “Do you want to leave?” asked Isabel.
“No…, no, you haven’t even eaten yet”, he tried to refuse; surely he wasn’t convincing enough because she stood up, grabbed her purse, took out some money and put it on the table.
“Let’s go”, she said smiling. Eli looked at her without moving, so she grabbed his hand and pulled him a little, not enough to make his chair move. “Come on”.
He followed her out, his legs still moving a bit, and she stood by the car, waiting for him to get in. As he transferred, his legs shook harder; he didn’t wait for it to stop though, he leaned in to straighten her seat and let her in.
“I should at least pay”, he said taking out his wallet.
“Of course not. This way you’ll have to take me to a much more expensive place later”, she said smiling.
“Ok”, he replied happy she was still smiling at him that way.
He started the car and drove silently, while his legs settled down and shook and settled again intermittently.
“Hey, look”, said Isabel after about ten minutes of being quiet. “A Starbucks. I hate their coffee but they have a drive through”.
Eli turned his head to look at her. “Sure”, he replied.
“I don’t mind skipping breakfast, but I absolutely have to have my coffee”, she said as they pulled in at the end of a short line of cars. “Actually, since we’re already here, we should probably buy breakfast, right?”
“Sure”. He agreed although he wasn’t really hungry.
They both ordered coffees and sandwiches and then found a small street to park and eat. Isabel pushed her seat back and crossed her legs over it while resting her back on the door.
“So, Trump or Hillary?” She asked out of the blue while she unwrapped her sandwich.
It took Eli a moment to answer, not because he couldn’t decide, but because he was thrown off by her candid tone. “Oh, Hillary, of course.”
“I knew I liked you”, Isabel smiled. “Batman or Superman?”
“What?” Eli laughed.
“Answer the question”, she insisted in a playful tone.
“Ok. Definitely Batman”.
“Definitely”, she agreed. “Football, baseball, basketball…, any other?”
“Baseball. I love baseball”, held Eli.
“Really?” she asked as if she was up to something. “What’s your team?”
“Red socks of course”.
She gave him the most candid smile she had yet given him. “So, you’re perfect”, she said.
“What?” he laughed again.
“I don’t know if I could’ve stayed in the car if you’d answered differently”, she joked.
“What?” he repeated. His legs shook a little again.
“Well, I would’ve been very disappointed if you’d say Trump. Superman I could’ve lived with, although it says a lot about your personality that you chose Batman. Baseball makes you perfect and the Red socks are just the cherry on top of the cake, because I’m a big Red sock’s fan.”
“No way. You like baseball?”
“No, I LOVE baseball. It’s by far the best thing about this country”, she said as he pressed his right leg trying to get it under control.
“Really? I would have never guessed. I should take you to a game”, as soon as the words came out of his mouth he scolded himself for them. Why did he keep asking her out?
“That would be great”, she said before he could take it back.
“And what does Batman say about my personality?” he asked after a moment of silence.
“Well, they’re both superheroes, but Superman’s got it easy, he’s got all those amazing powers, laser eyes, super strength; the guy can fly for Christ sake. Batman, however, is just a normal guy, he doesn’t have any powers, he doesn’t have it easy, but he’s still super cool.”
Eli laughed. “That’s an impressive analysis, what are you like a superhero expert?”
“No, not an expert. I just like stories.”
“What kind of stories?”
“Anything from Ana Karenina to Spiderman. As long as they have good characters in them. What I really love are the characters”.
“So you like to read?” Eli asked.
“My absolute favorite thing in the world. I’m a coffee and a book junky”.
“What’s your favorite book?”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly choose. But I guess I could say Dostoyevsky is my favorite author”, she replied.
“Crime and punishment?”
“It’s a good book, but I actually prefer some of his less popular novels. Like Notes from underground”.
“Oh, that’s a good character”, said Eli.
“You’ve read it?” Isabel asked surprised.
“Of course, Dostoyevsky is one of my favorite authors too”.
They ate their sandwiches talking about books and then baseball, and suddenly Eli realized he had stopped thinking about his spasms, even though they hadn’t stopped. When they finished the food, Eli started the car and drove.
“I think you just missed our exit”, said Isabel.
Eli shook his head. “I’m taking you to the garden”, he said.
“Really? You don’t have to. I’d love to, but we could go some other day”.
“No, I want to”, Eli replied.
“But if you’re not feeling well… It’s ok, really.”
“I don’t feel sick or anything. I just…” he struggled to find the words. “Mostly I was just embarrassed”, he confessed. “But you don’t seem to mind, so”.
“Of course I don’t mind”, she said and touched him in the shoulder. He didn’t feel nervous though, he was actually starting to feel really comfortable around her.
They spent the entire day at the Public garden, talking about all sorts of things, they had lunch there and then she sat on a bench and they talked some more for a very long time. He had never spent so much time just talking to someone, without running out of topics to discuss. They covered everything from politics and art to favorite foods and hobbies. His spasms continued along the day, although not as bad, but surprisingly enough he managed to ignore them, and so did her. Finally they headed back to the car and he drove her home.
“Thank you for today. It was awesome”, she said as a goodbye and then leaned in and kiss him on the cheek. Eli closed his eyes for a second enjoying the feeling of her warm lips that lingered perhaps just a moment too long on his cheek. He hoped he hadn’t actually blushed. “I’m looking forward to that baseball game”, she reminded him before opening the car door.
Wow, Eli rested his head back on the seat once she disappeared inside her building. This girl was amazing. But then, suddenly, the warm feeling of her closeness faded away, and he felt sad. She wasn’t for him. She might have agreed to go out with him again, but there was no way on earth this would ever turn into something else. She was just been kind to him, but he shouldn’t think about her that way. She was perfect, extremely beautiful, smart; and he was… a cripple. There wasn’t even a chance she would ever look at him as anything other than… a friend maybe. He would consider himself lucky if they ended up being friends though, so he tried to shake the feeling away and drove back to his apartment.
To be continued...