“So what did you think of Johnny?”
Ted and I are doing our nightly Facetime. I’m cozy in my bed, under the covers, and Ted is cozy in his bed. So it’s sort of like we’re in bed together. Except not really.
I miss my fiancé.
“How come you never told me that he uses a wheelchair?” I ask, trying not to sound as irritated as I feel. “I mean, you told me all those stories about camping and rock climbing and… you know, athletic stuff.”
“Sorry,” Ted says, knitting his brows together in this cute way that makes it really hard to be angry at him. “John got injured about ten years ago, at the end of our last year of college, and I’ve lived on the west coast for a lot of that time. So most of the stories about him are from before. It just… seemed weird to mention it.”
“Well, it definitely would have been good to know,” I say. “You know, in advance.”
“Sorry,” he says again. “But other than that?”
“Um,” I say carefully. “To be perfectly honest, I don’t think we hit it off.”
Ted frowns. “Really? How come?”
You know what? We’re going to be married and there’s no point in keep secrets. “John is a complete asshole, that’s how come.”
Ted laughs. “Are you kidding me? John is like the nicest guy in the world.”
“Not to me,” I say. “Seriously, he was rude to me from the second we met.”
“John is really nice,” Ted insists. “In fact, the only time John acts like an asshole is when…”
He trails off for a minute, looking thoughtful.
“What?” I say.
He shakes his head. “Never mind. Anyway, trust me, John is a good guy. Do you think you might be willing to give him another chance?”
I sigh. I don’t want to see John ever again for the rest of my life. But considering he’s Ted’s best friend, and he lives nearby, that’s not really realistic. “Maybe,” I say. “But he’d have to extend a pretty big olive branch.”
“Okay,” Ted says, “got it. I’ll talk to you later, Kirby.”
Before I can say another word, Ted disconnects, and I’m left staring at a blank iPad. I swear, sometimes Ted seems to have the emotional intelligence of an eight-year-old.
I stand up and stretch, tugging on the old baggy Spiderman shorts that I wear to bed when Ted isn’t visiting. On a whim, I stand in front of the full length mirror in my bedroom, and stare at myself. I’m definitely not skinny and blond, that’s for sure—not in this lifetime. My hair is brown, wavy, and short, and I’ve got a few too many freckles on my nose and cheeks, but I’ve been told I have pretty blue eyes, so I’ve got that going for me.
Skinny—definitely not. I’m on the side of chubby, if we’re being real here. I’m about ten pounds away from a bona fide double chin. I need to lose some weight for the wedding, that’s for sure. Especially with all the stress eating I’ve been doing lately.
My phone rings with the generic ringtone reserved for numbers the phone doesn’t recognize. I pick it up, although I have a feeling I know who’s going to be on the other line.
“John, what the fuck?”
I’ve muted The Daily Show so that Ted can yell at me. Trevor Noah is cracking jokes on the screen that I can’t hear. I’m not in the mood for this conversation. I’m not in the mood for Ted. But I know him well enough to know he won’t give up, so I picked up the phone to get it over with.
“What?” I say. I’m playing dumb.
“Kirby said you were a total asshat when you guys got together.”
“No. I was just being myself. I guess I’m just naturally an asshat.”
I can hear Ted sigh on the other line. I’d like to point out to him that he’s the asshat who failed to warn his girlfriend that I’m in a wheelchair. What’s up with that shit?
“Come on, John,” he says. “You’re my best friend. I want you and Kirby to get along.”
Yeah. Once, a long time ago, Ted and I were best buddies. Then I got hurt and he moved across the country. I don’t know if I’ve got a “best friend” anymore, but if I had to pick, it wouldn’t be him. Probably somebody from work. I barely know Ted anymore.
“Listen,” Ted says, “why don’t you call Kirby and offer to take her to dinner?”
Why not? Because I’m incredibly attracted to her. And all I’ll be able to think about will be the fact that I’ll never get a girl like Kirby. I wasn’t able to get a girl like her before. Maybe if I hadn’t gotten hurt, I’d have gained confidence and some degree of charisma. But that hasn’t happened—just the opposite. Whenever I see an attractive woman, I immediately lose all my confidence and assume there’s no way she could be attracted to someone who looks like me.
“Please, Johnny,” he says. “I’ll pay for the meal. Okay?”
Yeah, that’s not happening. “No, it’s fine. I’ll call her.”
“Thanks, buddy.” Ted’s voice breaks slightly. “Kirby’s a great girl—the love of my life. I know you’re going to like her.”
That’s exactly what I’m worried about.
I yawn. I’m tired and I don’t feel like trying to coax a woman who hates me into dinner. And then after that, I have to do my goddamn bedtime routine. I miss the days when I could just crash on the couch if I was too tired to get up. That’s not a possibility anymore. I need my pressure-relief mattress and I also need to swap out my comparatively small legbag for a larger Foley bag that I hang off the side of my bed. Hell, just getting undressed is a big production.
But it’s better than when I first got hurt and was living with my parents. When I still didn’t feel confident doing my own transfers and handling my bedtime routine. As soon as it hit nine o’clock, my mom would say to me, “Come on, Johnny, let’s get ready for bed.” If I felt like staying up a little longer, it was too damn bad. My parents were early risers, so nine o’clock was bedtime.
Living my life on someone else’s schedule? Sucked.
Having your mom help you in the shower when you’re 22 years old? Sucked big time.
It takes five rings for Kirby to pick up, to the point where I’m hopeful she might not answer. I wouldn’t leave a message. I never leave messages—I always sound like a moron when I do. I especially never know what to say at the end of the message. What do you say after you leave a voicemail? “Bye”? “Call me back”? “Have a nice day”? It never sounds right.
But then I hear her voice on the other line and a knot tightens in my belly.
“Hi,” I say weakly. “It’s John. John Yang.” When she doesn’t say anything, I add, “You know, Ted’s friend?”
“I know who you are,” Kirby says irritably.
“Right.” I bite my tongue to keep from making a smart remark and instead say, “So I thought maybe we could go to dinner one night next week.”
She hesitates. “Did Ted just tell you to call me?”
“Yeah,” I say. Why lie? It’s painfully obvious what happened.
“I don’t know,” Kirby says. “I’m pretty busy next week.”
Fantastic. She’s busy. I’m off the hook.
Except somehow I find myself saying, “I’ll pay.”
“Like, it’ll be my treat,” I say. “And we can go wherever you want to go.”
Wherever she wants to go? Why did I say that? I’m giving her way too much power to fuck up my evening. She’ll probably pick a place with half a dozen stairs leading to the front door.
I wait for an entire sixty seconds where Kirby decides if I’m too objectionable to ever see again. “Okay,” she finally says. “Let’s do dinner.”
I end up letting John pick the restaurant, because the idea of possibly choosing a location that isn’t wheelchair accessible and causing even more embarrassment is far too stressful. He selects an Italian restaurant in Hoboken, and I show up ten minutes late accidentally on purpose. On purpose because I’m still pissed off at him for last time. And accidentally because I’m really bad at being on time. Late is kind of my default.
As I’m walking toward the restaurant, I see a gray Toyota with blue plates parked in one of the handicapped spots right by the entrance. I wonder if that’s John’s car. The one he assured me that he could drive.
When I get into the restaurant, John is sitting in his chair by the hostess. He’s dressed nicer than he was at the bookstore, in a plaid button-down shirt and khaki slacks. The long sleeved shirt masks the thinness of his forearms, but can’t entirely hide his gut. Still, he’s very cute with those brown almond eyes. From the neck up, he’s actually much better looking than Ted. Any woman in her right mind would think so.
“You didn’t stand me up,” John notes, looking some combination of surprised and relieved.
“I considered it.” (I didn’t really.)
“That’s her,” John tells the hostess, nodding in my direction. “She’s here.”
“Wonderful!” the young, blond hostess says in this annoyingly chipper voice. “Let me escort you to your table.”
Our table is near the entrance, which is a good thing because John’s chair doesn’t navigate easily between tables. Although he does better than I would have thought, which makes sense considering Ted said he’s been wheeling himself around for a decade.
When we get to the table, the hostess makes a ridiculous fuss over us, fawning over John and asking him a million times if there’s anything she can do to make his “dining experience more comfortable.” John keeps telling her he’s fine with decreasing amounts of patience in his voice until she takes the hint and leaves.
“Why are you so dressed up?” John asks when I pull off my coat.
I look down at the black dress I’m wearing. Am I dressed up? Well, maybe a little. The truth is that after John made that comment about Ted’s other girlfriends being hotter than me, I felt a need to prove myself to him.
“I didn’t know I was supposed to dress sloppy like you,” I retort, even though he’s not actually dressed sloppily. It does make me wonder if he picked out those clothes himself. Does he dress himself? If so, how? I can’t even begin to imagine how he’d manage the buttons on that shirt.
In any case, he ignores my comment.
I order chicken parmesan and John asks for a steak cooked rare. “Bloody,” he says to our cute, skinny, blond waitress, who is probably much more physically suited for Ted than I am. “Still mooing, if possible.”
“You got it, honey,” she says.
“Also,” John adds, “do you think you could have the steak sliced for me?”
The waitress looks down at John’s hands. She gets it.
“Sure, sweetie,” she says. I can’t help but notice a patronizing edge to her voice. “No problem. And would your girlfriend like her food cut up too?”
Wow, this is just awkward on so many levels. Does she think I’m disabled too? God. I want to tell her I’m not, but that would sound wrong. And the girlfriend part irks me even more.
“No,” John replies. “That’s okay.”
“Okay then,” our waitress chirps.
“I’m not his girlfriend,” I speak up.
John and the waitress both turn to stare at me.
“I mean,” I say quickly. “We’re just friends. Well, not friends exactly. I’m dating his best friend. Actually, we just got engaged. Me and his best friend. Not me and him. Engaged, that is.”
The waitress nods vacantly at me, then dashes off with my order before I can crawl into a hole and die. When I finally get up the nerve to made eye contact with John again, he’s smiling that crooked smile.
“Thanks for clarifying that,” he says. “I’m sure she appreciated it.”
“Oh, shut-up,” I mutter.
That actually gets a laugh out of John. Believe it or not, he has a really nice, friendly laugh. It makes me like him just a teensy bit more. Like, one percent more.
“So,” I say, folding and unfolding my napkin in front of me. It’s a nervous habit I have. “You’re a programmer like Ted.”
“Yep,” John says. He doesn’t seem to have much to add. He seems a little distracted by the list of specials posted on the wall, even though we’ve already ordered.
“Oh,” I say.
Ted owes me for allowing myself to go on this dinner from hell.
“So you work in some kind of bakery or something?” John asks. He could not possibly sound less interested in my answer. Literally.
“Yeah,” I say. When he doesn’t ask any follow up questions, I say, “I’m the cupcake specialist.”
When I started working in my aunt’s bakery about five years ago (putting my college education to good use), the baked goods I immediately gravitated towards was cupcakes. Minnie really encouraged me to the point where she has an entire section of the bakery dedicated to Kirby’s Kupcakes. (It was her idea to spell “cupcakes” with a K. I swear.)
He raises his eyebrows. “The cupcake specialist? They need a specialist to make cupcakes? Cupcakes are just small cakes.”
“That’s not entirely true,” I say. “With cupcakes, you need to be a lot more careful about the proportions and the baking time, because even small differences can completely ruin them.”
“And that would be tragic,” he comments.
I feel my face burn. Despite everything, part of me is tempted to walk out on John Yang. I’ve been nothing but pleasant to him, and he’s been a total jerk. It’s obvious that he doesn’t like me for whatever reason. Is it that he doesn’t think I’m good enough to marry his best friend? Is he still pissed off by my reaction to his disability?
Or maybe, just maybe, he’s a bitter, lonely guy who doesn’t want to see anyone else find happiness. I probably shouldn’t say that though.
Although I’m really tempted.
“Where are you going married again?” John asks. “Was it Excaliber?”
“No, Bellagio,” I say regretfully.
“I thought Ted said Excaliber?”
I shake my head. “No. It’s all booked.”
“Man, that’s too bad,” John says. “I like Excaliber a lot. They do that whole Medieval Times deal, right? I love that.”
“Me too,” I say. And because I can’t help myself, I add, “Because they didn’t have utensils in medieval times, we don’t have utensils at Medieval Times.”
“Would you like a refill on that Pepsi?” John retorts.
“You don’t have utensils but you have Pepsi?”
“Dude, I got a lot of tables.”
We both look at each other in amazement.
“I can’t believe you were just quoting The Cable Guy,” John says, now full on smiling.
“I can’t believe you quoted it back!”
He shakes his head. “That is literally my favorite movie, ever since I was a kid.”
“Me too!” I cry. I add, “Ted thinks it’s the dumbest movie he’s ever seen.”
“I know,” John groans. “He just doesn’t get it. It’s a classic on so many levels. I wrote my college senior thesis on that movie.”
“I did,” he insists. “It was called The Portrayal of the Trickster Archetype in The Cable Guy.”
“Wow,” I say. “You know what? You’re much cooler than you look.”
“Gosh, that means a lot coming from a girl whose job is to bake tiny cakes all day,” John replies, although he’s grinning now.
The waitress arrives with our piping hot plates of food. She addresses John alone when she asks if there’s anything else we need, and he politely declines. Then I watch as he slides his fork to the edge of the table and seems to be lacing it into a slit in his hand splint. Or at least attempting to do so.
“Do you need any help?” I ask, before I can stop myself.
John looks up at me with his almond eyes. At first I’m certain he’s going to say something snarky to me, but then he just shakes his head. “Nah. I got it.”
And that’s how he eats. With a fork attached to the splint on his hand. And considering everything, he does a decent job of it. I try not to stare, but it’s hard not to. I notice that several people at tables surrounding us are watching him when they think he’s not looking.
“You know what?” I say suddenly. “We should watch it.”
“Huh?” John asks around a mouthful of mashed potatoes.
“The Cable Guy,” I say. “I’ve got it on DVD. We should watch it together.”
A tiny smile forms on John’s lips, and I feel a spark of triumph. He doesn’t smile much, which makes it a small victory whenever he does. “Watch it?”
“Like, tonight,” I add. “Right after dinner. Come on, it’ll be fun. Spontaneous, you know?”
John’s smile slips slightly. “Yeah, I just… I can’t tonight.”
I raise my eyebrows at him. “Why? You got a hot date after this?”
“No,” he says quickly. “It’s just… it’s already pretty late, so…”
“You go to bed this early, old man?” I tease him. “You can’t stay out late for a change? Live dangerously?”
John looks down at his plate of half-eaten steak and mashed potatoes. Finally, he says, “I just can’t.”
I remember how earlier I wondered how he was able to dress himself with his arms being so limited. Now it occurs to me that maybe he can’t. Maybe he’s got someone who comes to help him at night, and it isn’t reasonable for him to stay out late. In which case, I probably shouldn’t make this more awkward than it already is.
“Okay,” I say. “How about you come over this weekend then? I’m free Saturday afternoon.”
John gives me a wary look. “I’m busy Saturday.”
“I’m free Sunday afternoon too.”
“Wow, you’re popular.” He squints at me. “I don’t know. I’m guessing your house isn’t accessible. In fact, I’d bet a million dollars it’s not.”
“Then you’d be out a million dollars.” I smile triumphantly. “The woman who owned it before me was like a million years old. There’s a ramp to the back door. And… I’ll bake cupcakes.”
John hesitates another moment, then nods. “All right, what the hell. Let’s do it.”
Okay, he could definitely seem more excited about the whole thing, but you know what? I’m excited enough for the both of us. It’s pretty hard to hate a guy who loves my favorite movie.
A misnomer about being paralyzed is that my legs don’t move. They do. Just not when I want them to.
It’s called muscle spasms. My legs will jump and bounce, sometimes for extended periods of time. I have to reposition them and lean on them, and eventually it stops. But I hate it. I hate the way it looks and sometimes when the spasms are really bad, it feels like they might almost throw me out of my chair. I’m on meds for it, which have helped immensely. But I’ll never get rid of them entirely.
As I get to the end of my dinner with Kirby, I notice that the spasms in my legs have kicked up. I can tell she doesn’t notice since my legs are under the table. It probably means that I need to empty my legbag, which is why I turn down her movie invitation. I don’t want to have to find the bathroom in this stupid restaurant—I just want to go home and take care of it there.
But as the spasms get worse, I can tell that’s not a possibility. And if I wait long enough, there’s a decent possibility of leakage.
“I think we’re going to have a lot of fun,” Kirby is saying to me.
I nod, wishing I could share her excitement. “Listen, I’m going to go use the bathroom.”
“Sure,” she says. “It’s in the back.”
Yeah. Of course.
So the hostess was nice enough to seat us in the front of this giant restaurant, and that fact is completely fucking me over right now. I’m trying to get around tables and booths, and I nearly slam into a waitress with a huge tray of food. By the time I make it to the back, I’m tempted to stay here for the night.
My spasms have gotten really bad. So bad. I can actually see my leg bag bulging slightly under my pants—I just hope Kirby didn’t see it. The door to the men’s room looks like it weighs a hundred pounds, but at least there’s no knob. My upper arms are pretty strong, and I use them to keep the door open as I push inside.
It’s a bathroom with two urinals and a single large stall. The stall would easily accommodate my wheelchair, but it’s occupied. I wait a minute, but the guy inside doesn’t seem to be budging. It seems like maybe he’s in there for the duration. Probably taking a dump.
I look at the urinals, trying to decide how desperate I am…
The answer is: very.
On thing that sucks immensely about having a spinal cord injury is the lack of control I have over my bowel and bladder. After my injury, I had zero sensation to tell me when I had to go, so I was basically just having accidents. Worse, I’d have accidents but they’d still have to put a catheter in because my body wasn’t able to completely drain my bladder anymore. A lot of guys with good hand function will catheterize themselves every few hours, but because it’s hard for me to do that, we decided the best thing to do was to insert a suprapubic catheter.
So my suprapubic catheter. Not my favorite. Think about what it’s like to be getting undressed for sexy time with a girl and then having to show her the tube sticking out of your lower belly. Not very sexy. And it’s not like I can take the tube out for sex. All I can do is clamp it and tape it to my abdomen, so it doesn’t flop around. I remember when I had the damn thing placed, I asked the urologist if I could have it out if I ever recovered my normal bladder function. He said yes, but looked at me like I had asked a really dumb question. I guess he was right.
I position myself in front of one of the urinals and pull up my baggy pants leg to get to my legbag. It’s really full, to the point where I know I’ve got to empty it now. I only have to empty it a few times a day, but I can’t let it get too full. First of all, if the pee can’t go in the bag, some of it might come out through my dick and wet my pants—always the subject of great dinner conversation.
Worst, if my bladder doesn’t drain, I could get something called autonomic dysreflexia, where my blood pressure shoots up and I get a pounding headache. It could cause a stroke. The last thing I need is a big fucking stroke.
Another guy comes in to the bathroom to use the urinal beside me. Obviously, the unspoken rule in the men’s room is that you don’t look at the guy next to you, but this guy is staring at me like my hair is on fire. This is super shitty bathroom etiquette. I try not to pay attention as I release the clamp on the legbag and let the catheter drain into the urinal.
“Do you need any help?” the guy next to me asks.
Is he fucking kidding me? Is he actually offering to help me with my catheter?
“That’s okay,” I mumble.
I feel better almost instantly. The spasms recede and I feel the tension in my neck ease up. But I’ve got a slight throbbing headache from the whole thing and all I can think about is wanting this night to be over.