I’m going insane. I am honest-to-God hearing voices in my head, voices that aren’t real. When I round that bend, Sam isn’t there.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I googled him a while ago. Facetime and Skype doesn’t cut it, you know? The only photos that I found were old, as in six-years-ago old. Sam was on some kind of community swim team, which means that in the photos he’s wet, shirtless, and totally fucking ripped. And I mean ripped. Dark torso, chiseled muscles, bathing suit hanging low on his hips… and he’s easily the tallest one in all the pictures. Most stalking expeditions do not end as well, I must say. Point is, I know what he looks like. I came to the museum prepared.
Instead of Sam, I see Geoffrey in the room.
“Hey,” I tell him.
“Hello,” he says. “What do you think of that?”
What he’s pointing to is titled ‘Self-portrait of the Artists Family.’ It’s a fuzzy portrait of the artist, his wife and three children, sitting atop what looks like piles of laundry, all without clothing. What is it with artists and nudity?
“Now, this one is disturbing,” Geoffrey says.
I look at him. And I realize that he is always wherever I expect a certain someone to be. Coincidence much?
“Your grandson wouldn’t happen to be named Sam, would he?” I ask, and I watch the old man grow uncomfortable, and reach for a tissue to blow his nose.
I feel the blood rush to my face, I feel my lips twist in anger, but after a moment all I can feel is a sadness that hurts.
“I would fix everything, if I could,” Geoffrey says gently. “But that isn’t my place.”
I can only smile weakly at him. In my head, I’m calculating if I can get out of here fast enough to catch the next metro at the station down the street.
“I met her online,” I say, and suddenly I can’t say enough, but Grandpa doesn’t want to listen. He storms down the cavernous hall, past the paper maché statue and the giant windows, the museum brochure clutched furiously in his fist. I trail after him across the checked floor, like a sorry puppy that wants a second chance.
“A few months ago,” I add. I don’t care if he’s listening; it feels good to say it. “She’s really sweet. It’s not that I don’t want to see her, it’s-”
“I don’t care what it is!” Grandpa turns around suddenly. His face is red. “All I know is that I raised my children to have better manners then that, and I expect my grandchildren to have them as well.” He pits a band of my armrest. “Sammy, you can’t treat a girl like that, stringing her around- I mean, that’s just unacceptable!”
I reverse, and his hand slips away. “What’s unacceptable is you treating me like I’m five,” I say coldly. “Just because I can’t take care of myself, doesn’t mean I can’t manage my own life.”
“And just because you’re in wheelchair, doesn’t mean you get off the hook,” Grandpa says. He starts to walk again at a brisk pace.
I shake my head, powering along after him. “I… I hadn’t planned on avoiding her forever. I just need time.”
We’ve reached a dead end. Windows cover all three walls, and some tables are set out around us.
Grandpa looks outside, as the midday traffic rushes by. “How much time do you think you’re going to get, Sam?”
And then he points a gnarly finger up, up towards the soaring ceiling, and I se that there’s a balcony on the upper floor, overlooking us. Gail skims her hand against the railing, walking slowly and texting quickly.
She knows I’m here. Although she’s an entire floor above me, I can picture her smile, her bright and excited eyes. More than that, I can hear her voice. I think back to all the time we’ve invested in each other, all the times I made her laugh. She’s the best thing that’s happened since my accident.
And suddenly I know that even if I lose her, it will as a fighter, not as a coward.
I take a deep breath, and Grandpa takes a step back.
“Hey, Gail!” I yell. She doesn’t hear me, though if seems as though everyone else has. Some people stop in their tracks, on this floor and the next. Everyone waits to see what the crazy quadriplegic will do next.
Another breath. “GAIL!”
She sees me, and almost drops her phone. Gail stares at me from up there, for the first time, and she sees me here in my wheelchair, sees the strap across my sagging chest and my bony-thin arms.
“It’s Sam,” I call out. “Wait right there.”
She stares, her mouth pressed in a tight line, and then her face disappears behind the crowds.
I swivel around to face Grandpa. “You too. Wait here. I’ll be back soon.”
I can see him struggle. He doesn’t want to let me go. He knows he shouldn’t leaved his severely disabled grandchild alone in a strange city, a public place. But he smiles and says, “I’ll wait, and then I’m coming to get you.”
I don’t ever remember wishing I could walk- no, run-as much as I do now. The elevator is vacant when I reach it, and I have to wait for someone to press the button for me.
When I get upstairs, I go right. This floor houses the Quebec history part of the museum, and there’s a book signing happening right near me. The author is the famous journalist, Dustin Hoffman, guessing from posters I’ve seen around. I can’t see the man himself, surrounded as he is by a thick layer of fans.
I hurry over to where I saw Gail last. It may be crowded up here, but people part quickly when they see me. I’m kind of like Moses at the dead sea.
The space near the railing is empty. She’s gone.
“You know why you’re the best guy ever?”
“Let’s see… I’m handsome, charming, artistic to boot-”
“Okay, okay. Tell me.”
“You haven’t sent me dick pics yet. That takes some major self-control.”
“Wait- I thought girls like receiving dick pics.”
“Not right away! Most guys have no tact. The day after you meet them, they’re already unzipping their pants for the camera.”
“Well, yeah. Because they want the girl to reciprocate with a picture of her boobs.”
“Uch. Men. Such animals.”
“Thanks. So… are you saying that you want to see a picture of my penis?”
“No, no, that’s not what I meant! I mean, not that I don’t- Oh, God, I’m so embarrassed now. All I wanted to say is that you have tact.”
(laughs) “Thank you, Gail.”
“And I hope we can meet one day.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
I can’t do this. I don’t want to deal with what I’ve just learnt and what it means. So I leave.
I’m on my way out when the chains catch my eye. An entire doorway, covered with rows and rows of heavy silver chains. At least, I guess that they’re heavy, because an attendant stands nearby, lifting them for the people passing through.
I can’t resist. I mean, they’re shimmering at me, and they make a satisfying clinking sound when the attendant lets them fall back into place.
I approach the door shyly. There is actually a line to get in, because of the amount of time it takes for people to duck beneath the swept-aside chains. I hear strange noises from inside, and now I’m really intrigued.
The attendant smiles widely as he makes an opening for me. “Et, voilà,” he says, and reminds me not to take photos inside the exhibit.
“Merci,” I answer back.
And suddenly I’m in a world of wonder.
The room is about the size of my elementary school gymnasium, or maybe a bit smaller. It’s lined with pathways, which are intersected with blocks of sand-littered ground. Chunky black amplifiers crowd the corners of the room, and outward-facing bowls of birdseed cover the walls.
On the blocks of sand, there are electric guitars mounted on stands. Tiny, tiny birds cheep and peck at the guitars, creating music that is startling, whimsical, that is the sound of strumming and sudden riffs all piled on one another.
I don’t even know what to call this- this, this purposeful setup of accidental music. The sounds have no rhythm, no melody, and they’re layered with the shy peeping of the birds, but still, they’re breathtaking.
I lean against a wall, between two canister-like bird feeders, and I pull out my sketchbook. The next time I look up, I see a man in a wheelchair rolling carefully toward me.
I turn back to my scribbles. My heart starts to beat fast and all I can do is sketch the sand, making tiny pricks over and over as my palms grows sweaty and I feel a pressure in my stomach. The tip of my pencil cracks.
Sam brings his wheelchair right next to me. He’s driving it with a joystick, though it looks like he can’t move his arms very much. He’s awfully cute, with his eyes caught in a perpetual smirk, like he knows something important, and his messy hair that he should push off his forehead but oh yeah, he can’t.
Come to think of it, how did he make all those paintings? I’ve heard that paralyzed people learn to hold a pen in their mouth, but come on. What Sam creates are masterpieces.
“Hi, Sam,” I say, as if I’m greeting the mailman. I’ve turned back to my sketchbook. All I’m really doing now is rubbing my blunt pencil over the sand I made earlier. It’s creating a nice texture, actually.
“So what do think about this place?” he asks. Damn, he’s honestly not moving at all. He’s kinda slouching over, even with that ugly strap around his chest. I think his neck and shoulders are okay, but that seems to be pretty much it. And he’s driving his wheelchair with his hand, so maybe he can move that, too.
“I can relate to these birds, you know?” he says, watching a tiny blue one peck at a nearby guitar with frenzied movements. “Everyone thinks they're really cool. But that’s only within the context of this room. If one of them got out-”
“I’m really not in the mood for philosophical musings, Sam. If you want to say something, say it.”
He looks at me- he looks up at me- and there’s this defeated look in his eyes. “My art. That’s what I’m good for. I’m a quadriplegic who paints, and I’m fucking awesome at it. But-” he takes a deep breath. “I’m like the birds. They’re only useful in here, in this room. If one flew out into the hall, people would get nervous, because they don’t belong there.”
He's trying to defend himself. Trying to explain why he kept his secret a secret. I'm so not buying this.
I slap my sketchbook shut, scaring some nearby birds into a fluttering, flapping mess. “Don’t give me that, Sam. I told you I liked guys with physical disabilities. Don’t give me shit about how you didn’t want to tell me you’re paralysed because you think you’re unlovable.”
He’s quiet. He watches a black bird with red wings alight on the closest guitar, setting off a fast string of chords from the amplifier.
“That was my biggest secret,” I say. My voice starts to get shaky, so I backtrack and flip open my sketchbook. “I told you, a handsome guy that I was crushing on, that I have a secret fetish. Do you know how long I regretted that? Do you know how long I agonized over it?” The catch in my voice is creeping back in again.
“I’m glad I fit into your fantasy,” he says, and for some reason every word bites at my heart. “Did you ever think for a second, though, that maybe I don’t fit into mine?”
I’m caught off guard. “Wait- you don’t fit into your-”
He raises his eyes up at me, and I’m hit with the realization that this man is Sam, my Sam, who knows my darkest fears and stupidest dreams. He knows what my favourite food is and what I like to do on Sunday night.
And I know what his fantasy relationship is.
“Walking on the beach,” I say quietly. “Carrying the girl off into the sunset.”
“I was selfish,” he says, eyes cast downward. “I kept it a secret for me, not you. I couldn’t- I- I would imagine us like it would have been before. In my dreams it was you and me, the old me. Not this version of myself. The wheelchair never fit into the picture, honestly.”
Oh. Didn’t think of it like that. He backs up slightly and hits the wall, setting off tremors in his legs.
“I’m sorry,” I say, because what else is there to do? I suddenly feel awkward, standing here beside him. Then: “I need time,” I say.
And I leave him there with the birds and the guitars.
Gail: I know I’ve said it a million times, but your portraits are amazing. How do you do it?
Sam: practise, honestly. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true.
Gail: my favourite is the one of the chariot flying over the burning planet. You must have spent hours on it.
Sam: thank you. You know, it’s so nice when people complement my hard work, as opposed to saying ‘wow you’re so talented!’
Gail: ohmygod so true! The talent isn’t the amazing part. It’s how you cultivate the talent.
Sam: you get me…
Gail: I’d love if you could give me art lessons one time, maybe over Skype. That way I could cultivate my talent. :)
Sam: my computer’s camera isn’t working so well. Maybe another time?
I find Gail back in the modern art gallery. She’s standing alone, in one of the individual exhibits. This one is a dark room, cool over my face and empty except for a chandelier that casts sharp patterns on the floor.
“Can we start over?” I say. The chandelier splits up Gail’s face into sections of dark and light. A shadow slices neatly across her lips, even as she speaks.
“I think it’s too late for that,” she says. “But you could start by saying hello. You didn’t do that yet.”
I wheel toward her. “Hello,” I say. “Can you do me a favor? Can you lean down a little bit?”
She bends over, eyeing me quizzically. “Why?”
“More,” I say, until our noses are touching, and then I tilt my chin forward and mesh my lips with hers, feeling her soft skin against mine. My tongue searches her mouth, hoping to find every inch of it, and she comes closer, sucking against my lower lip. Gail holds my head and kisses me hard, and my head bangs back against my headrest. I writhe and reach up as much as I can, and we struggle for balance, and I wish I could just pull her into my lap and hold her. My eyes are closed but I can feel her palms on my cheeks, and I know this is all I’ve ever dreamed of.
When we break apart, we’re gasping, breathing hard. My left arm is dangling over the side of my chair, and Gail sees it, watches me for a second, then lifts it back onto my armrest. She sizes me up, as if she’s really looking at me for the first time.
“I’m not what you expected, huh?” I say quietly. The wider gallery outside is bustling, but we have this room to ourselves. Gail looks at me with sad eyes.
“No,” she says. “I have to say, I was surprised.”
I nod. “Again, I can’t say how sorry I am. I… it was really nice meeting you.” Words are coming out of my mouth, polite words, and I say them not because I want to but because they have to be said. “I think I should go. But we’ll keep in touch.”
I swivel my wheelchair around slowly. Its whirring engine is loud in the silence.
“So,” Gail says from behind me. “You think you can kiss me like that and just walk- well, roll- away?”
I turn back around, and her face is serious.
“If you want me to stay, I’m not rolling anywhere,” I say, but as she comes toward me I stop her by moving back an inch. “Think about it first, okay? There’s a lot to consider.”
“I’ve been thinking about you for months,” she says. “I’m tired of thinking.” She ducks under the chandelier, and suddenly we’re kissing again.
Sam: you know what I’d love to do? I’d love draw you.
Gail: I could send you a picture, if you’d like.
Sam: That wouldn’t cut it. I want to draw you, actual you, not a photo. You can’t compare a live model to a flat screen.
Gail: aw, I’m sure there are plenty of pretty girls in Chicago.
Sam: I used to think so. But since I’ve seen what you look like, how could I draw anyone else?
It’s three weeks later, and Sam and I are on the maroon couch in my apartment. It’s dark except for the black and white flickering of the TV screen. A chill comes through the window, and I pull the blanket up to my chin and up to Sam’s.
“Are you comfortable?” I whisper, as the couple on screen lean in for an embrace.
“Very,” he whispers back, “Just like I was ten minutes ago, when you last asked me.”
I smile and squeeze his hand under the blanket. Tonight is exciting, because although Sam’s been in my apartment and on my bed plenty of times, he’s never been on my couch. I don't know why, but it's my favourite place to be intimate. My couch is special.
We have his PCA to thank for this. It took me a few days to come to grips that Charlie, Sam’s carer, is going to be around quite often. At first Sam would come to my apartment and we’d spend time together and kiss a little, but we were never able to go beyond that. It would be ridiculous for me to try lifting Sam, since I don’t know how to properly, and I’m not even sure if I’m strong enough. So for now, we have Charlie. After he transferred Sam he told us to call him for anything else. He left the apartment, and told us he’s staying in the area.
I shift my body to tuck my legs in. My couch is old, a donation from a friend when she moved to Vermont. It sags in the middle, so we pretty much have no choice but to press against each other. I know Sam can’t feel everything, but I hope he enjoys this as much as I do, this simple pleasure of having our bodies touching. I’ve imagined this for months, and while Sam isn’t what I expected, I’m slowly coming to terms.
I rest my head on his shoulder, and I hear him breath out, the kind of content, comfortable sigh people do. I nip at his neck, teasing him, and he tilts his head down to smile at me.
We’ve watching an old French classic, one of my favourites, with English subtitles for Sam. The music crescendos, drops, and then the credits start to roll. Yawning, I raise my arms to stretch, and reach over to turn on the lamp.
“Wait,” Sam says, his voice soft and low in my ear. “Let’s stay like this.”
I lower my hand. I can barely see his face now, as the screen lists the last names and winks to black. It’s quiet aside for the rush of late night traffic, three floors down on the busy street below. The shades flap erratically.
This time Sam initiates the kiss, first pressing his lips to my forehead, where he can reach, then travelling down to my mouth when I raise my face to his. I climb on top of him, straddling him, and we make out in the dark. My vagina throbs, and I run my hands through his hair and under his shirt. The couch creaks as I squirm, Sam beneath me, and I take his hand and slip it under my shirt, letting him press against my breasts and cup them. That becomes inconvenient so I just pull my t-shirt off, and then his, after he gives me permission. Sam’s bare chest is smooth and soft against mine.
He gasps between kisses. I reach into his diaper and grab his penis, and my exposed nipples goosebump. Sam’s kisses grow more insistent, and I have a feeling that he’ll be staying the night tonight.
Although he extended his visit to Montreal for me, there still just isn’t enough time. There’s been an urgency between us, and we’ve been doing things quicker than I’d imagined we would. After all, our time together is limited, and soon Sam’s going back to Chicago. Meanwhile, we’ve been having sex like rabbits.
Once Charlie has Sam on the bed, Sam is good from there. He explained to me that he’d had sex post-accident once before, with his high school sweetheart.
“We broke up after the accident,” he told me over breakfast one morning. “She suddenly reappeared a few years ago, eager to try again and make up for lost time.”
“So what happened?” I asked, pouring maple syrup over his pancakes.
“It didn’t work out,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “I mean, it didn’t take long to figure out that that she was just having sex with me because she felt guilty for breaking up with me.” He looked at his lap, hesitating, before raising his eyes to me. “She didn’t even orgasm. I don’t think she was turned on at all.”
I wasn’t sure what to say, so I just smirked and said how this girl was obviously a lesbian. But it became painfully obvious how self-conscious Sam is of his body, as much as he tries to deny it.
Now, we’ve just about exhausted ourselves, making out. I collapse beside him, panting. We don’t know what’s going to happen next, what’s going to happen next week or next month after Sam goes home. We only have now, and we intend to use the time we have.
“I want to draw you,” Sam says abruptly.
“Oh,” I say, “Really?”
I’m about to agree. I think back to that scene in Titanic, where Jack sketches Rose. It’s always like that- the guy drawing the girl, her lying demurely on the chaise in all her feminine beauty.
Sam's shown me how he draws. It’s the most amazing thing. He has such control over his pencil, stylus, or brush, but it’s still hard to believe that he made all his masterpieces with his mouth. I know I’d never be able to do what he does.
I sit forward, getting ready to fetch my easel, when I stop.
“No,” I say. I turn toward him, slouched on the couch beside me, with his earnest eyes, smooth skin, smile that I just can’t resist. He’s most beautiful man I’ve ever known.
“No,” I repeat. “I want to draw you.”
This obviously throws him off, because for a second just stares at me, dumbfounded. Then he laughs. He laughs so hard that I have to grab his shoulders, worried he’ll fall over. Sam laughs until there are tears in his eyes, until he’s gasping for breath.
I wipe the tears and kiss him deeply.
“You’re always the artist,” I say. “The one behind the canvas. That’s not what I see.”
He cranes his head forward, and I help him sit up. “That’s what I am,” Sam says, his gaze lingering on my arms, which are wrapped around him, holding him up. “It’s okay, Gail. I’ve accepted it. My body… it isn’t what it was.”
“I want to draw you,” I say. “You. I love you, and your body. I know you wish things were different, but… I love you like this all the same.”
Sam raises his eyebrows at me, as if I’m hopeless and insufferable, and there’s a glimmer of a smile on his lips. “Well. How shall I pose, then?”
It takes a while until I have my sketchbook and supplies, and the lighting and Sam’s pose all set up. I ask him what he feels most comfortable wearing. We go from there.
“Should I make a face or something?” he says from the couch. He isn’t used to being the model. His legs are stretched out, folded neatly beneath him on the carpet, and his hands rest at his side. Aside from the blanket draped over his lap, concealing his catheter and undergarments, he’s completely naked. His dark skin is soft and appealing, his legs are thin and bony and he has a small protruding belly. His collarbone juts out sharply, leading to a firm neck and an attractive face. Sam’s body isn’t new to me, but I’ve never seen it from this perspective.
“No,” I say, flipping to a fresh page. “You’re perfect the way you are.”
“I love you too,” he says. “I really do.”
My smile grows, and I pick up my pencil and begin to sketch.