Perfect. Yeah, not quite, I say to myself more than once as the GPS guides me to where Lorna lives. I hate thinking about the long list of imperfections, that reads like the cautionary fine print of a pharmaceutical ad. That’s probably why up to now I’ve kept my emotional distance from women even when I’ve slept with them. Things are just easier when the situations don’t matter so much, when the next morning it’s all over even if it is repeated again. Maybe that’s all I need this time too, an in-the-morning-it’s-over kind of encounter, just to get her out of my system. Why deliberately make things more complicated?
Lorna’s neighborhood has got this run-down but coming-back look, with a haphazard collection of residences and small restaurants, and coffee-houses and pubs, alongside auto-body shops and antique churches, with a number of artists’ boutiques and second-hand shops thrown in for good measure. I imagine Lorna walking to get coffee on Saturday mornings, perhaps on Sunday mornings walking to one of the small churches I pass. She could probably afford better, but I bet she loves living here and takes pride in the fact that she does.
Before the night I was turned into a redevelopment project myself, I frequented neighborhoods like this, and worse, for the adventure, the walk on the wild side. As the rather privileged son of a diplomat and a French Literature professor, I had grown up in a world of international assignments and private schools. My renegade and progressive parents had done what a lot of people like them do, I guess, given their children every advantage they could, while ensuring that we at least had field-trips into the world of those less fortunate. Dad is one generation away from the Delta, and Mom’s been a minority in every setting of her life. They wanted to shelter Nancy and me, but they also wanted us to understand where we came from and know all of who we are.
So it was no wonder that I, at least, was always looking for ways to keep it real. Me and my crew would drive in from our high-rise office buildings and gated communities, and park our expensive vehicles along the various side streets to avoid the parking meters that dotted the main drags. Then we’d party all night, dancing to bands and DJs who could only afford to advertise themselves by word of mouth, or by plain paper flyers stapled to telephone poles. In our fashion designer street uniforms, we’d come for the music, the booze, the drugs, flashing our no-limit credit cards, often issued in our parents’ names, and rub shoulders—and bodies—with the blue-collar and unemployed classes who paid cash until their money ran out and then they’d spend ours. By dawn of course we’d be back where we belong, sleeping it off on the other side of town.
That was my life then. A fearless, at times careless, existence. Confident in my plusses, contemptuous of the minuses. Cindy was right. I was young and dumb. Until consequences caught up with me. Wiser now, I cling to the parts of town that are smoothly paved over and predictable. An uneven sidewalk is a hassle I do not need. I make it a point to avoid crowded clubs with their narrow passage ways that make crossing a room a gauntlet for a cyborg. I’m aware of my vulnerabilities and usually act accordingly.
Except here I am, in pursuit of a perfect stranger. A woman I’ve known a week today, who, if I’m honest with myself, I want to know for the rest of my life. It’s not making sense to me, and yet I make every turn the GPS tells me to make, eventually turning into Lorna’s condo community.
Which is a set of older, nondescript red-brick buildings that look like they used to make up your typical middle-grade apartment complex before a smart landlord realized it was more profitable to sell the units than it was to rent them. Hopefully the interiors are more impressive than their outward appearances, although from what I can see of the grounds everything’s neat and cared for. No doubt Lorna and her fellow tenants foot that bill with their homeowner association fees. In my building these fees also pay for a concierge, covered parking, a pool, and a gym. But there is a kind of charm to Lorna’s community. It’s nice, I guess, that the whole world is not modern and new.
I park in front of Lorna’s building and call her house phone via the Blue Tooth function in my car.
She picks up on the first ring, and I’m immediately buoyed by her melodious voice. What’s this hold she’s got on me?
“Hi,” I say, looking up at the concrete steps to her building through the windshield, “I’m downstairs.”
A real man would meet her at her door. Cyborgs are not real men.
“Okay,” she says. “I’ll be right down.”
If I ever believed in anything akin to God or destiny, I have certainly ceased believing in the benevolence of those concepts. There is no great Reason for things. Fate is random. Chance encounters, be they on a dark street or in an airport, can change your life forever. And you never see any of it coming. Lorna emerges and turns to lock her door. I’m falling for her. A woman who does believe in those concepts. For God’s sake, literally, she sings in a church choir. She’s a good girl who I suspect is too good for me.
By the landing light I can see she’s wearing a dark blue skirt and a light blue blouse, and carrying what else—a cardigan sweater. Since I haven’t made up my mind, I haven’t told her where we’re going tonight, but my clever girl is suitably dressed for just about anywhere that isn’t black tie. I wonder if she owns anything formal. I’m not much of a prince, but I wouldn’t mind taking her to a ball.
Wearing another pair of low-heel pumps, Lorna trots down the stairs, her full breasts bouncing a little with each step. She’s athletic-looking, wholesome. A girl next door if ever there was one. In high school and college, I knew girls like Lorna, they were the sidekicks, the brainy best friends of the pretty popular girls. They got the good grades but rarely got the boys. I’d notice them and then look passed them. Nancy used to try to set me up on a dates with them. Tiffany’s great, Eli, she’d say. Nita has the biggest crush on you. Please take Melinda to the dance. Sometimes I’d go on those dates, for Nancy’s sake, and even have a good time, but always I moved on. Maybe I can do that again.
Before Lorna gets to the car, I press the button to unlock it. She opens the door and gets in. I catch the scent of vanilla.
“Hi!” she says again, giving me a smile that is practically effervescent in car-cabin’s light.
Nancy’s going to like Lorna.
“Hi,” I also say again, enticed by her cinnamon-colored lips.
I badly want to kiss her, feeling the tightness in my belly again, but I hesitate despite seeing that she’s expecting me to. The last time I kissed her my fucking leg went wild. I don’t want that to happen again. It will I know, but I resist risking it. It’s enough that the cabin light also reflects off the metal of my chair that’s in pieces on the backseat.
“How was your day?” she inquires, her lovely face before me.
Sidekicks are terribly underrated. I finally see this now. Not wanting to let either of us down, I kiss Lorna quickly, leaning across for just a brief touch of my lips to hers, and the act leaves behind a smile on both our faces. When I sit back, she reaches for the passenger shoulder seatbelt, pulling it across her breasts, buckling herself in.
“You look nice,” I say, because she does.
“So do you,” she returns the compliment. “And boy, this is some kind of car,” she adds gingerly touching the dash. “I think this is my first time riding in a BMW.”
I almost ask how can that be. It’s just a sedan. I also feel a bit compelled to explain to her that my father instilled in his children a loyalty to German engineering when it comes to automobiles. It’s not pretention with us, it’s merely practical. Both my parents drive Mercedes, and Nancy’s minivan is a Volkswagen. But I don’t explain my family’s car choices, and just say, “Thanks.”
Besides the seats are pretty scuffed-up from stowing my wheelchair. There was a time when such marks would have driven me crazy. Like a lot of men, I fretted over my car. But with my new circumstances, and necessarily different priorities, I’ve been forced to relinquish a number of my former vanities.
“Where are we going?” Lorna asks.
“I thought maybe you could recommend a place,” I say.
And I marvel a little at my willingness to put my half-man-half-wheels body in such inexperienced hands. The able-bodied inevitably misunderstand accessibility. What if Lorna chooses badly? Oh well. Cards on the table.
“Do you like German food?” she asks.
“Why because I like German cars?” I ask back a bit snippily.
I suppose I’m still a little defensive about the BMW.
“Well,” she says oblivious to the attitude. “Maybe. But since we had French last time, I don’t want to bore you with plain old American.”
“American’s fine,” I reply in a corrected tone. “But German’s good.”
“Great! Everybody calls it the Village Bakery, but it’s a restaurant too, and they have a bar. It’s very good. Even German expats say so.”
“Okay,” I say shifting the car into reverse. “The Village Bakery it is.”
With the car in reverse, the rearview camera sends its image to the dash screen, and it kind of embarrasses me, although it’s really just another helpful tool.
Lorna becomes fully engaged with giving directions to the restaurant, using her hands to point out the turns as we go. She never seems to be curious about how I drive, which usually intrigues my passengers. When we arrive at the restaurant I can see there is adequate handicap parking and an easily navigable ramp. We both release our seatbelts.
“It’s probably better for you to get out first,” I advise, “before I get my chair.”
“Oh sure,” she replies.
Once out she comes around to my side of the car to wait. And watch. My imperfections are on full display now, and this is just a preliminary round. I try not to think about it as I go through the motions that I’ve now done maybe a million times too many. Not until I’m resettled in the chair do I let myself look at Lorna, and when I do I find her face wearing a warm smile for me.
“I always have the sausage plate,” she tells me on our way to the beginning of the ramp. “Mustard’s my favorite condiment. And you know the Germans make the best.”
“Agreed,” I say.
She walks ahead of me up the ramp and waits at the entrance for me to open the door for her. Maybe I’m not her first crippled cowboy.
The Village Bakery is indeed that, and the first thing you see inside is the bakery display case filled with all manner of confections plain and elaborate. On one side of the establishment there’s a pub with a T.V. broadcasting some kind of game, giving the place a sports bar feel. The restaurant is on the opposite side, and softly lit. A friendly hostess greets us and leads us to a table for two. Laying the paper menus on the table, she quickly removes one of the chairs before I ask her to. “Your server will be right with you,” she tells us and leaves, returning soon after with two glasses of ice water and cutlery rolled up in paper napkins. I take off my gloves and pick-up one of the menus to read.
“So is this okay?” Lorna asks.
“Yeah,” I say nodding honestly. “The food looks good.”
“Have you been to Germany?”
“Yeah, when I was kid. My dad was on assignment there.”
“Really? What does he do? Is he a journalist too?”
“Too? I’m not a journalist.”
“True. You’re not a reporter, but your op-eds are really good.”
“You’ve read them?”
“Some. I googled you,” she confesses with a smile.
I wonder what she’s seen and am tempted to ask her, but I don’t want to sound like a narcissist. Besides, she’s here, isn’t she? Whatever it was hasn’t worked against me.
“So what does your dad do?” she returns to her earlier question.
“He’s retired now, but he was Foreign Service.”
“An ambassador?” she asks setting aside her menu.
“No,” I say. “Just a Service Officer.”
I’m down-playing my father’s accomplishments. The fact is before retiring he had risen to the rank of Senior Foreign Service Officer, and he still does consultant work internationally.
“Oh,” says Lorna. “My dad was a high school principal. Mother didn’t work.”
Hers is a traditional family, I’m sure. From Red River Parish. It’s now my turn, and I tell her, “My mother teaches French Lit.” Then I bring us back to the menu and ask, “So what are you having?”
“The sausage plate,” replies Lorna.
“Creature of habit, are you?”
“Maybe. But it’s my favorite. Why not have it?”
I like her.
“You’re right,” I say. “Why not.”
It’s late when I bring her back home. Parking the car, I shut off the engine and stare up at the insurmountable—for me—concrete steps that lead to her door.
“So you’re flying out tomorrow morning,” Lorna says attempting to fill what is suddenly an awkward silence.
“Yeah,” I reply, not helping very much.
“You must be platinum or something.”
More like titanium, I think.
“Not quite,” I say. “I don’t fly the same airlines every time, and sometimes I drive.”
“Thus this beautiful thing,” she says patting the dash.
“It does come in handy,” I concur.
I wish I could drive it up those goddamn steps. I want to see the inside of her home. How does she decorate? Is her cat friendly? But she might as well live on the moon.
I sigh. She notices.
“I’m glad you like the restaurant,” she says. “It’s one of my favorite places. I go there after church sometimes for their brunch.”
I nod, gazing at the way her short haircut tapers at the back of her neck. Without permission or forethought, I gently run my fingertips along the soft dark hair. She smiles at me. My belly contracts. The fact that I like long hair is suddenly more like a memory, because I like Lorna’s hair. She leans towards me and I kiss her, this time venturing deeper into her mouth, stroking her tongue with mine, tugging at it hungrily. I feel her hand on my arm. Twisting my back as much as I can I slip this arm around her, drawing her to me. The weak lower back muscles protest the strain but I want her too much and more. Her breasts are now against my chest, and the sweet low moan she makes diminishes the pain. Her arm around me provides support, compensation. I can hold on, rely on her.
Until we both have to catch our breath. Collapsing against the seat back, while my back angrily has its say, I hope that the darkness covers my legs as they spasm. But Lorna reaches over and strokes my right thigh, massaging it. I look at her.
“I can’t feel that, Lorna,” I say, the words nearly choking me.
“I can,” she says. “You feel good.”
I look down at her hand again, the way it touches me, caressing and squeezing the wasted, useless twitching flesh clothed in black gabardine.
“Eli?” she says bringing my eyes back to hers. “I wish you could come up.”
Her voice is soft and breathy in that way that tells me she means it.
“Me too,” I say, loss punching me in the gut as it does time after time.
“Maybe next time we can go…you know…to your place.”
Her gaze is straight forward, unashamed. Her suggestion draws from me an ironic smile. Church ladies have definitely evolved in the modern era. Denomination notwithstanding Lorna Eaton is not my father’s mother. Her temperament reminds me of Cindy’s. Coy is not her style. I take her hand from my leg and raise it to my lips.
“I would like that, Lorna,” I say, my fingers now threaded through hers. “When I get back from Phoenix, you can come over. We’ll order in.”
“Sounds like a plan,” she says happily.
Then with a soft kiss on my cheek, she pulls away from me to get out of the car; only I don’t let go of her. She waits.
“Lorna,” I begin. “You…you realize…I mean you get that it’s different with me, right?”
“It’s different with everybody, Eli,” she says.
Which is a nice thing to say, but it doesn’t make it any easier for me to explain what I need to explain.
“I’m a T-10 T-11, incomplete,” I continue. “There’s some sensation in my legs below my injury. Nothing really useful. No movement. Well—no voluntary movement anyway. What I’m saying is…is that I can’t…function like other men.”
It occurs to me that I’m still holding her hand, as if I’m trying to keep her from running away. I’ve told this story before, lots of times, but never while I was holding a woman’s hand. Am I pathetic or what? Yet I can’t let go. Lorna leans across the console again, surrendering her mouth to mine with an insistence that dissolves my hesitation. My abdominal muscle fiercely contracts again, and my arm goes around her and I hold her to me once more. The lingering scent of vanilla seduces me. After a time, Lorna speaks softly in my ear, “I don’t want other men, Eli. I want you.”