I spend just a little too long trying to figure out what I’m going to wear for the big date with Allison. This is my first date in a long fucking time. This isn’t going to be like in college when I’d just throw on whatever T-shirt and jeans were least dirty. (Yeah, who am I kidding? I was never casual about girls. I always obsessed too much.)
It’s a no brainer that I’m going to wear long sleeves. A T-shirt is far easier to put on so it’s what I always wear around my house, but when I venture out into the real world with other human beings, I don’t want them gawking at my bony forearms. I put on a black dress shirt, and luckily, Maddie is around cleaning, so she helps me out with the buttons on the sleeves.
“You look cute, Johnny,” she tells me. “Where are you headed out to?”
“Just going out with some friends,” I mumble. I know if I tell her I’m meeting a girl, she’ll get excited and embarrass the shit out of me. And probably get me more nervous than I already am.
I check out my face in the vanity mirror over my sink. I look okay. I don’t have a particularly spectacular face in one direction or the other. I’m really average. My eyes are slightly slanted and darker than they look like they should be thanks to my father’s Chinese ethnicity, but most people think I’m just a regular white guy.
I don’t have a full length mirror in my apartment. I don’t want one. The last thing I want is a daily reminder of how I look. After a period of time, being in a wheelchair seems almost normal and you genuinely kind of forget the way other people see you. Mirrors are a brutal reminder that I’m not just a normal guy sitting in a chair. I look disabled—and not just a little bit.
And those aren’t the sort of thoughts I need to have in my head just before my first date in a long fucking time.
Allison and I are meeting at a bar that I’ve been to before, so I know it’s accessible. I know what she looks like, so when I wheel in the door, I keep my eyes pinned for a woman with ash-blond hair and a heart-shaped face. When I see her, my heart drops. Not because she looks about ten years older than she did in her photo, but because she’s seated herself all the way in the back.
I make my way back there, battling chairs and tables and barstools. I’m halfway across the room when my wheel hooks on something, and I can’t figure out what it is. It’s too goddamn dark in here. All I know is that I’m stuck.
I’ve caused enough commotion that Allison finally spots me. I can see the way her eyes widen at my appearance—and that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I don’t have a full length mirror at home. She stands up, and I’m only relieved that she walks toward me and not right out the door.
It turns out what snagged me was some girl’s long purse strap. It’s wrapped itself around my wheel. Her boyfriend tries to work it loose. What a mess. “Could you get up for just a minute?” he asks me.
Allison arrives just in time to hear my response: “No, I can’t. Sorry.”
She stands in front of me, smiling slightly awkwardly as the guy keeps trying to free me. I dare to look up at her, and even in the dim light of the bar, it’s obvious she’s at least forty, even though she claimed to be in her early thirties like me. The bar is no-smoking, but I can smell the smoke fumes wafting off her slim body. She clutches her own purse and flashes her teeth at me. “John?”
I nod. “Yeah.” I glance over at the guy who is still working at my wheel. What the hell is taking him so long? He’s untangling a purse strap from my wheel, not solving a Rubik’s cube. “Sorry.”
“We can sit over here.” Allison nods at the next table over. Right next to the purse that trapped me. Wonderful.
I do eventually get free and I’m able to join my date, who doesn’t look all that thrilled to be here with me. But to her credit, she could have easily taken off while I was entangled in the purse and couldn’t chase her down. She didn’t. So I’ve got to give her props for that.
“You’re not really what I thought,” Allison finally tells me.
I almost shoot back that she’s no thirty year old, but I’ve still got some distant hope that this could work out, so I keep my fool mouth shut. “Yeah,” is all I say.
She squints at me thoughtfully. “It’s kind of sneaky that you misrepresented yourself that way.”
“I told you I use a wheelchair,” I mutter.
“You said sometimes.”
She’s got a point—what can I say? I was a shit. I lied to her by “misrepresenting” myself. “Sorry.” I watch her playing with the strap of her own purse and I can tell she’s thinking about taking off. I don’t want her to go—the thought of her walking out on me at this point makes me feel awful.
“Please don’t go,” I blurt out, feeling like a tool as I say it. “Just… stay and have a drink with me. Okay?”
Allison blinks a few times in surprise, as if she can’t believe I guessed she was trying to make an exit. She frowns thoughtfully. “Okay, I’ll stay and have dinner with you,” she says. Then, before I can celebrate, she adds, “If you give me fifty bucks.”
Jesus. I thought I couldn’t feel any worse than I did a minute ago, but there it is. Wow.
“But that’s just for dinner,” she says. “No touching or kissing. Got it?”
It just keeps getting better and better.
I may be out on an internet date on Valentine’s Day with a woman who wants fifty bucks just to be seen with me, but I do have a little dignity left.
“Fuck you,” I say. “I’m not giving you fifty bucks. What the fuck?”
Allison shrugs as she rises from her seat. “Hey, I could use some extra cash and you look like you could use some company. But that’s fine.”
As I watch her walk out of the bar, I feel sick. I can’t believe this just happened. Yeah, my dating life has sucked lately. But I didn’t think it had gotten to the point where I’d have to pay a woman just to spend time with me.
No touching or kissing.
Fuck. She didn’t even want to touch me. The thought of it repulsed her.
That’s it. After I get home, I’m deleting all my remaining dating profiles. I’m done with this shit. I’d rather be single.
I sit there, thinking about what happened, and my stupid eyes start tearing up. The worst part is that it’s Valentine’s Day, which really shouldn’t matter because it’s just a stupid day, but somehow it does. I can’t believe Allison wanted money to stay here. I can’t believe it. Fuck.
Then my phone starts to buzz. I pull it out, lay it down on the circular table, and see Kirby’s number on the screen. I frown and hit the green button with my knuckle.
“John?” Her voice is slightly breathless. “Listen, I really need your help…”
There’s a bridal outlet down in Jackson that one of my friends raved about, and I decided that the Sunday of Valentine’s Day was the perfect day to check it out. It’s over an hour away from me, so it wasn’t a quick drive, but the fact that it was Valentine’s Day meant that the shop was nearly empty. After all, anyone getting married in the near future probably would have plans for Valentine’s Day.
I looked at a few possibilities for bridesmaids dresses, and then I… drumroll please… bought a wedding gown. It’s a beautiful sleeveless, scoop neck gown that had just the right amount of lace to not be overwhelming, and it was so reasonably priced that I couldn’t leave the store without it.
There’s something really surreal about buying your wedding dress. I kept looking at it in amazement, thinking to myself, “This is the dress I’m going to get married in.” I almost cried, if I’m being totally honest.
While I was driving home, I was on top of the world. I finally had a wedding dress! And even though Ted told me that I should spend whatever I wanted on it and he’d pay the bill, I was pleased that I found something that fit into my assistant baker budget. I’ve been living frugally for so long, it’s hard to break the habit.
And then my engine died.
I was at a red light just before reaching the highway. And all of a sudden, I saw smoke pouring out of my hood. And the engine light was on. (A little late, thank you very much. The smoke was a big enough alert.)
So that’s why instead of being halfway home with my wedding dress, I am sitting at a service station just outside of Jackson, New Jersey, being told that it’s going to take at least a day to repair my engine. And oh yeah, the wait to get a taxi is two hours.
“Two hours?” I scream at the taxi dispatcher on the phone.
“Maybe three,” he says. “Definitely no more than four hours.”
“How is that possible?!”
“It’s Valentine’s Day, lady,” he explains in his thick Jersey accent. “What do you expect?”
“So what am I supposed to do?” I say, clutching my white dress so hard, it might very well rip.
“Dunno, wait two hours?” he suggests. “Or you get a friend to pick you up.”
Great. Because I’ve got dozens of friends willing to drive an hour out to Jackson on Valentine’s Day to rescue me.
The truth is, I don’t even want to think about how much it would cost to take a taxi back to Jersey City. Probably a lot.
So I start making calls. There’s a short list of people who would be willing to drive out to rescue me, and every single one of them isn’t picking up. This is when having a local boyfriend would really come in handy.
I notice John’s phone number in my history. He might do it. There’s some small chance, at least. But then again, I don’t want him to hate me more than he already does by asking a ginormous favor of him.
Eh, screw it, I’m calling.
“Kirby?” John sounds shocked to hear from me. I guess he didn’t think we were ever going to see each other again either.
“Hi, John,” I say in my most friendly, peppy voice. “Listen, I really need your help…”
“So my car broke down,” I say. “And I can’t get a taxi because it’s Valentine’s Day, and I don’t have a way to get home.”
“So you assumed I was free to pick you up,” John concludes. He doesn’t sound pissed off about it—more just sort of sad.
“You weren’t my first choice,” I say, because I’m not quite sure what else to say.
“Well, gee, thanks,” he says. “What about the light rail?”
“I’m actually sort of far away.”
He sighs. “Okay, where are you?”
“No, Jackson, New Jersey,” I say. What the hell would I be doing in Missouri? Sheesh.
“That’s still really far,” he points out.
“I know,” I say. “I realize it’s a huge favor. And if you pick me up, I will owe you big time. Like, anything you want. Seriously.”
John is quiet for a minute and that’s when I notice how much background noise there is on the other line. Where is he? Maybe he’s on a date. Oh crap, am I bothering him during a date? It is Valentine’s Day, after all. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll come pick you up. On the way over, I’m going to think about how you’re going to pay me back for this.”
That sounds a little ominous, but I don’t even care anymore. I’m just relieved I’m not going to be sitting here for the next four hours, clutching my wedding dress.
John arrives in less than an hour, which is really impressive, taking into account V-day traffic. He’s driving that gray Toyota I saw during our dinner together, and when I get inside, I see that his wheelchair is partially dismantled and in the back seat.
As I climb into the passenger seat, he looks at the dress I’ve been protecting with my life. It’s covered in plastic, which makes it hard to tell what it is. “What’s that?” he asks.
“My wedding dress,” I say. I can’t suppress a smile. “I just bought it.”
“Wow,” he murmurs, looking a little glassy eyed for a moment.
“Do you want to see it?” I ask.
His almond brown eyes meet mine. “Remember how I said you were going to pay me back for this?”
“Well,” he says, “the first thing I want you to do for me is to not make me look at your wedding dress and pretend to be excited about it.”
My cheeks burn slightly. “I just thought you might like to see it.”
“I’m a straight male,” he says. “So no. I wouldn’t. Sorry.”
I had been curious about how John drives. He moves the steering wheel with his left hand, mostly hooking it into the spokes in the wheel. His right hand rests on a joystick-like device that seems to control how fast the car is moving. That’s about as much as I can figure out just from watching him.
“I’m sorry I interrupted you,” I say to him. “Were you, um, doing anything important?”
“It sounded like you were out somewhere.” I glance at him. “Like, on a date?”
John shoots daggers at me with his eyes. “No.”
Hmm. Maybe I’ll just drop this. Whatever John was doing, it’s none of my business.
As we drive back home, I figure out how John made it to Jackson in only an hour. He drives like a freaking maniac. He weaves in and out of lanes like the worst Jersey driver there is. At one point, I’m clutching my seat until my fingernails turn white.
“I’m not in any rush,” I tell him as he changes lanes abruptly.
“You have to be aggressive,” he says. “On Valentine’s Day, we could be sitting on the highway for three hours.”
“It’s not worth an accident.”
“I’ve never gotten in an accident,” he says. He hesitates. “Well, one. But it wasn’t my fault.”
John hits the brakes just before we rear end a white SUV. There’s literally nowhere for him to fling his van right now. The highway is a parking lot.
“Is that how you got hurt?” I ask him in a quiet voice. I’m sure he’ll be pissed at me for asking, but considering we’re stuck here for the duration, I may as well make things as awkward as possible.
John raises his eyebrows at me. “You mean Ted didn’t tell you?”
I shake my head.
John glances up at the rows of cars surrounding us. “Fine,” he says. “Looks like we have some time to kill. Basically, I was on this narrow road late at night, minding my own business. I didn’t know it at the time, but the guy in the opposite lane had a heart attack and passed out. I saw his car speeding toward me on the line between the two lanes, and there was just nowhere to go. I knew he was going to hit me, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. I thought for sure I was going to die.”
“Oh my God,” I murmur. John rolls his eyes at me.
“Anyway, when I woke up in the hospital, I was alive but I couldn’t move,” he says. “Not anything aside from, like, my eyeballs. I couldn’t move my head because I had a halo brace screwed into my skull. I couldn’t even talk because I had a trach. They told me I broke my neck and that I was paralyzed from the neck down. For three months, I was on a ventilator and all I could do was shrug my shoulders. They thought there was a decent chance I’d be on the vent forever and I’d be completely dependent for all my care.”
I look at the collar of John’s shirt and see a scar that must have been from where his trach was.
“I got some movement back in my shoulders, elbows, and wrists, but nothing in my hands,” he says. “It may sound impossible to you, but I’ve trained myself to do… well, a lot. More than I would have thought possible.” He raises his eyebrows at me. “Anyway, that’s the story. Questions? Comments?”
I have a million questions, but I can’t think of the right way to phrase any of them. “That’s okay. And since you’ve been so honest with me, I think I owe you telling you my story.”
He narrows his eyes at me. “What story?”
“Of how I got the ridiculous name Kirby.” I poke him in the arm. “Don’t tell me you weren’t curious.”
“No, I was definitely curious,” John admits. “To be honest, when Ted told me he was dating a Kirby, I thought maybe he’d finally come to terms with his lust for dogs.”
I give him a dirty look, but he doesn’t seem to notice because his eyes are back on the road. “Anyway, Kirby is my mother’s maiden name. Her parents had three daughters and her father was always sad he never got to pass his name on to a son. So she stuck me with it.”
“Actually,” John says, “it suits you.”
I’m not sure what it means that he thinks such a dumb name suits me, but at least he’s not insulting me anymore, so I’ll take it.
I hear the radio get a little louder. I think John turned it up, which I’m guessing means that he’s done talking to me. At least he was subtle about it. I don’t mind listening to some Fallout Boy instead of an awkward conversation.
“So I figured it out,” John says, in the middle of that song about Uma Thurman. “What you’re going to do to pay me back, that is.”
I look at him with interest. “What?”
“You’re going to go with me to a strip club.”
“You want me to take you to a strip club?”
I don’t know what to think about this. I guess John has needs like everyone else.
“No.” John shakes his head. “I want you to accompany me. I need to check out a place to take Ted for his bachelor party.”
“You’re taking Ted to a strip club for his bachelor party?” I ask, horrified.
“Why not?” John shrugs. “It isn’t my first choice, that’s for sure. But that’s what Ted and the other guys wanted. And it’s, like, traditional, I guess.”
That’s what Ted wanted?
“Anyway,” John says, “are you in, Kirby?”
I hesitate. There’s some part of me that feels like it would be really cool to go to a strip club. Then there’s another part of me that feels like the whole thing would be really disgusting. I don’t know if I want to watch a bunch of half-naked women throwing themselves at a bunch of creeps.
“Might I remind you,” John adds, “that I have now dedicated about three hours of my Saturday to rescuing you from Jackson, New Jersey on Valentine’s Day. And even though I might not have a girlfriend, this isn’t exactly how I’d want to spend this day.”
“You’re right,” I agree. “Okay, I’m totally down with the strip club.”
That actually gets a smile out of John. “Awesome. This might actually be fun.”
You know what? It actually might.
To be continued...